How a Positive Relationship With Grandparents Can Shift Views of Aging

This recent study shows that the benefits extend beyond your child when they have a positive relationship with their grandparents.

Watching my children with their grandparents is one of my favorite parts of parenting. It was something I decided early on to foster because I could see that the grandparents felt almost as much love for my children as I did. They looked at them with a love and interest no other adults did. I wanted my children to have as many people in their life to look at them with adoration.
This recent study shows that the benefits extend beyond your child when they have a positive relationship with their grandparents. Published in the journal Child Development, the study investigated the relationship between grandparent contact and ageism. Children as young as three have been found to have prejudiced beliefs about older people. The current study wanted to investigate what, if any impact, grandparent relationship had on ageist views in children.
The study found that ageist stereotypes in children generally decrease around ages 10 to 12, and that children who say they have very good contact with their grandparents have the lowest levels of ageism. “The most important factor associated with ageist stereotypes was poor quality of contact with grandparents,” says lead researcher Allison Flamion. “We asked children to describe how they felt about seeing their grandparents. Those who felt unhappy were designated as having poor quality of contact. When it came to ageist views, we found that quality of contact mattered much more than frequency.”
1,151 children and adolescents ages seven to 16 from a range of socioeconomic statuses participated in the study. The researchers obtained children views’ about the elderly and getting old via questionnaires. Information about the health of the youths’ grandparents, how often the two generations met, and how the young people felt about their relationships with their grandparents was also collected.
The study found that opinions about ageing expressed by the children were mostly neutral or positive. Girls held less ageist views and had a more favorable view of their own ageing. The most prejudice was found in seven- to nine-year-olds and the least by 10- to 12-year-olds. This outcome is consistent with cognitive developmental theories. At the age of 10 perspectives taking skills build and this reduces prejudice in general. However, prejudice was also high in the 13- to 16-year-old age group.
Quality contact with grandparents was found to be the most important factor influencing youths’ views of the elderly. If children rated the contact as good or very good, defined in the study as feeling happy or very happy when they saw and shared with their grandparents, the children tended to have more favorable feelings toward the elderly than those who described the contact less positively. Meaningful contact with grandparents resulted in the most positive views and the most negative views of ageing.
Quality of contact mattered more than frequency of contact but frequency did have an effect. 10- to 12-year-olds who saw their grandparents at least once a week had the most favorable views toward the elderly. This is likely due to the multiplying effect of frequency with quality according to the researchers. Grandparent health also impacted on ageist views. Children with grandparents in poor health were more likely to hold ageist views than children with grandparents in better health.
“For many children, grandparents are their first and most frequent contact with older adults,” notes Stephane Adam, professor of psychology and co-author of the study. “Our findings point to the potential of grandparents to be part of intergenerational programs designed to prevent ageism. Next, we hope to explore what makes contacts with grandparents more rewarding for their grandchildren as well as the effects on children of living with or caring for their grandparents.”
When grandparents offer grandchildren a safe, loving and quality relationship, it seems the benefits extend beyond the child and the family relationship. Seeing grandparents more often can also help, but only when the relationship offered is a quality one. These important relationships can help shift views of ageing which is important in our society as people live and work longer.

The Sting of Being the Uninvited 

Doesn’t everyone know what that feels like, some personal version of Annie and the birthday non-invitation heard round the world?

My oldest daughter, 11 now, was waiting for me when I walked in the door from work. Before I had set my bag down, she was sobbing, her face crumpled under the stress of crying out whatever she had been holding in.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, a ticker tape of terrible images flashing through my head as I waited for her to catch her breath enough to be able to manage speech.
“A party,” she started, pausing to wipe her nose on her sleeve. “I’m not invited.”
And just like that, all the parenting badges and medals I had earned, all the honors of having birthed four children (and the last one on the bathroom floor), all the wisdom of more than a decade’s worth of dealing with every flavor of crisis that could come along and reduce one of the six of us to a messy pile of tears flew out of me in one long exhale.
Because right then, I was eight again, still convinced that a girl we’ll call Annie was my best friend. I knew it had to be truth because I’d proclaimed it as many times as anyone would indulge me to listen, and then I’d sealed the deal with those chunky best friend necklaces that together formed one heart.
I was awkward and unpopular and a little jacked up, but the weight of that half a heart against my chest comforted me. No matter what the world took from me, I always had Annie.
That is, of course, until I didn’t. Until I realized I never actually had had Annie at all. Come to think of it, she’d never worn her half of the interlocking heart necklace, and I’m certain I’d never heard her mention me as her best friend. Hell, I’m not sure I’d ever heard her mention me at all.
And she definitely forgot to mention me when she gave her mother the list of people she wanted to invite to her extra super special mega blowout birthday bash at the skate n’ place roller rink, because out of our entire third grade class, I was the only one not invited.
You can imagine the heartbreak.
So I stood there in my foyer, 30 years later and very much an adult, still in my adult heels and my adult coat, and trying my adult best to summon words to make everything better for the little love of my life who stood before me as brokenhearted as my sad unrequited necklace. But I couldn’t.
The ticker tape was back, except this time, it flashed ideas of what I should say here to fix it. “People are terrible” seemed harsh. “Never trust anyone” was likely a little too bleak. I had nothing, I realized.
Except that wasn’t exactly true either.
What I had was the sadness of a 30-year-old heartbreak that I could still feel if I closed my eyes, even though I had grown up to feel wholly loved. I knew there had to be a lesson in this, a teachable moment maybe, but I hadn’t found it yet. What I found was my compassion.
So I stepped out of my heels and the shadow of my past. I shed my coat and the weight of the grudge I might have still been carrying against Annie – not a bad one, like I was going to boil her bunny or send her a horse’s head, but more the kind where if I saw her in the grocery store and her hands were full and she needed to reach the good ice cream on the top shelf of the freezer, I would reach in for her and grab it and then run away cackling with it tucked under my arm.
I got down to where I could be eye level with my bleary-eyed girl. I wrapped her in my arms and rocked slow and said the two words I did know to be true: “I know. I know I know I know I know.”
Because didn’t I? Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone know what that feels like, some personal version of Annie and the birthday non-invitation heard round the world? Who would ever wish such pain on their kid?
It was later, after the sting of both our wounds had settled into a dull ache in the background and we had words again, when I asked her what she thought she could do to make things better. And I saw the lesson had been there all along.
“What can I do? Maybe nothing,” my daughter said, “at least not about the party. But I could try really hard to make sure I don’t ever make anyone else feel like that.”
That’s when Annie rushed right out of my heart once and for all. There just wasn’t any room left for her, what with all the love and gratitude swelling up in there.

The House-To-House Holiday Shuffle: a Chaotic Tradition We’re Lucky to Have

Is it a challenge to cart around children, canines, presents, diaper bags, and baked goods to multiple houses? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

“So, I was thinking we could try to put Emma down for a nap early, and when she wakes up we’ll head over to your mom’s for the dinner – since we did my mom’s for dinner last year. Then, we’ll head over to my mom’s for dessert. Jakey’s just gonna have to wing it with the naps. We can’t worry about his schedule today. How does that sound?”
My wife sounds a bit frantic as she says this. She’s more stressed than usual about our Christmas schedule this year. For the first time, we’ll be lugging two children around with us – two children under two.
Every year since we’ve been together, we’ve split Christmas Day evenly between our immediate families. Our moms only live 10 minutes from one another so rotating holidays was never an option.
First, my wife and I did the Christmas tour as a duo. Then we added a Boston Terrier to the family. For years – enough years for our moms to worry about the likelihood of grandchildren – we were a trio. Last year, our daughter enjoyed her inaugural dual-grandmom Christmas. And this year, thanks to an arrogant disregard for birth control, we have another new baby making his Christmas debut.
When my wife got pregnant the second time, I was sure we’d start doing everything at our house. But the closer we got to the holidays, the more ridiculous the idea of hosting Christmas became. Of course, our moms would keep their long-standing traditions alive. And why shouldn’t they? They both work so hard at making the holidays special. For my mom, this hasn’t been easy. After her divorce, I thought Christmas would always be something she dreaded. Now, some of my mom’s friends leave their own holiday gatherings just to end the night at the amaretto-sipping, Left-Right-Center-playing, Italian-dessert-filled after-hours party at my mom’s.
Is it a challenge to cart around children, canines, presents, diaper bags, and baked goods to multiple houses without the kids getting their proper naps? Absolutely. But here’s why it’s well worth the chaos:

It’s nostalgic

Nostalgia isn’t quite the right word for what happens when I turn onto my mom’s street and see everything looks just as it did 10, 15, or even 20 Christmases ago. Going to my mom’s for the holidays is part longing for a childhood gone by, sure, but it’s also something much stronger.
The standard rules of time and space don’t apply to 1712 Kendrick Lane on Christmas. On that day, in that house, I experience everything both as a 36-year-old father of two and as the obnoxious 16-year-old prick with frosted-tip “Sugar Ray” hair who had just gotten arrested for something called “turfing,” i.e., joyriding on the lawns (back and front) of suburban homeowners.
As an adult, when you return to the place you spent your childhood Christmases, it’s only natural to revert to how you were as a kid. We all do it. My mom becomes the concerned parent who subconsciously needles my sister with a string of passive-aggressive jabs. My sister once again becomes the teenage daughter who won’t hesitate to go for the emotional jugular in response to those jabs. (It’s all because you smoked during your entire pregnancy with me!) And I devolve into the attention whore who spends the entire day seeking out the line of good taste and then leaping headfirst over it. Just two years ago, my mom yelled at me in earnest for making a prank phone call at the dinner table. I was 34.
My wife’s family does the same thing. Every Christmas, my mother-in-law and her siblings – or “The Louds” as we affectionately refer to them – scream at one another for hours on end. If I wasn’t accustomed to it, it would be terrifying. But there’s no anger in The Louds’ yelling – they’re simply reverting to the communication methods they relied on growing up in a home with six kids. The regression is so strong they even refer to their own mom as “mommy” when they retell the old stories at Christmas.

It’s good for the kids

My mom’s mom died when I was very young, and I don’t have many memories of her. But I do have a few. Each of those memories takes place at my grandmother’s house … in her kitchen. It makes sense that my limited memories of my grandmother would take place in her kitchen. That was her domain, and it’s the domain of my mom and my mother-in-law, too.
I want my own kids to have the same type of memories of their grandmoms, I mean of their Nonnie and MomMom. And to fully experience Angela and Susan in their element, you have to see them bipping and bopping around their kitchens on Christmas Morning. The sheer amount of food these manic Italian women can create in such a small space is a wonder to behold, a Christmas miracle in and of itself.

It won’t last forever

The things I complain most about tend to also be the ones I miss the most when they’re gone. I might bitch about how hectic it is to rush from house to house, worrying that everybody’s getting a fair split of time with the grandkids. But deep down, I love it and I don’t want it to ever change. Because I know when these remarkable women finally do relinquish their holiday hosting duties, it’ll be because they can’t handle it any longer. And I don’t want to think about what it looks like when that day comes.

Santa and His Magic – in Full Effect for as Long as Possible

When it’s all said and done, if my children have joyful memories, then I have given them a great gift.

The magic of Christmas is always alive for those who believe. While this may be my life’s eternal motto, I’m certainly not a crazy Christmas lady.
I do know that, for every Christmas light lit before Thanksgiving, one of Santa’s baby reindeer die, so I would never take that risk. But once the official Christmas season begins, I am all in, and dragging my entire family along with me. Santa and all of his magic is in full effect.
Before you roll your eyes right out of your head, hear me out.
I heard an interview recently in which someone described Christmas as a dream – the one time in our lives when we suspend reality in exchange for fantasy. It’s the one day of the year when dreams come true, the one time when magic is real. Really real, not just sleight of hand.
It’s also the one time of year when I have the opportunity to make this magic happen for my family.
I’m 43, and while I acknowledge how beautiful and wonderful life can be, I also know that it can be cold, hard, and relentless. There are times when people don’t care. There are times when your dreams truly don’t matter at all. There are times when you are alone, or worse, lonely. The realization that life isn’t always fair or pleasant comes quickly – far too quickly, in my opinion.
We spend the vast majority of our adult lives, well…being adults, which is exactly why I choose to give my children the chance to experience pure, dream-making magic. While they’re children, I feel that they deserve it.
I get it. Maintaining the Santa illusion hard. But for me, hard isn’t a reason to abandon ship. Last year, we pulled off a live animal Christmas, and it required more logistical arrangements than when I gave birth to my second child. It was also, hands down, the most stressful Christmas Eve on record.
My husband and I fought and bickered while trying to establish the best plan for Santa’s gifts to spend the night. I forgot to remove several labels and tags – clearly, a rookie mistake induced by an adrenaline-fueled combination of stress and excitement.
Boy, was I excited. I was so incredibly excited. I knew how much they wanted this. It never crossed my mind that Santa couldn’t make their Christmas dreams come true. No matter how many favors I had to call in or arrangements I had to make with neighbors, their dreams were coming true.
On that moderately cool, rather balmy southern morning, when my kids saw their dreams materialized at the foot of the Christmas tree, adorned with a freezing cold letter from the North Pole, every minute, every argument, every request, every switch, every exchange was totally and completely worth it. I watched magic happen right before my eyes, and it was worth it.
I admit I’m selfish. I love every minute of watching the holidays through the eyes of my children. In some ways, it’s even better now than when I was a kid. I wish this time of our life would last forever. The magic of Christmas experienced by my children directly improves my holidays, too. Their excitement, joy, and awe make it exponentially better.
While I may be selfish, I’m also a realist. I remember vividly when I found out that my reality wasn’t exactly reality. It was a pretty difficult blow. I remember feeling a palpable sense of loss. Over time, however, I was able to channel the energy and excitement of receiving into the joy of giving.
I’m prepared for my children to experience this loss. I am aware of the sadness that will likely affect them – hopefully, not any time soon. (Truthfully, I’m more prepared for the sex talk than the Santa talk.) But I believe that my kids’ excitement and energy will grow from the magic and joy of receiving into the magic and joy of giving.
When it’s all said and done, if my children have joyful memories – feelings they can return to when the world is not such a friendly place – then I have given them a great gift. So, for now, the magic remains real, and I am forever joyful and grateful for it.
Within my joy, though, a slight sadness tugs at my heart because I know this time is fleeting. Only for a very short time can we capture this excitement. Letters to Santa and personalized cards for our elf, Cookie, will make way for doubt and questions.
I am ready, though. I am ready to block doubt and reassure fears by holding on to my life motto. I am ready to remind my children that, as long as you hold on to the spirit in your heart, the magic will always follow.

How to Survive Mom-Shaming When Home for the Holidays

Mom-shaming seems to be a pervasive problem; however, a different interpretation may help young parents through the holidays.

The holidays are a time for togetherness – and with all that togetherness, mom-shaming.

That’s the finding of a poll released earlier this year by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The poll of 475 mothers with children aged up to five years old found that 61 percent of mothers have been criticized about their parenting.

Discipline was the most frequent topic of criticism, reported by over two-thirds of mothers. The poll’s authors suggest that this criticism may result from a combination of modern research and shifting attitudes toward corporal punishment.

Other common topics of criticism were diet and/or nutrition (52 percent), sleep (46 percent), and breast or bottle feeding (39 percent).

Despite so many viral posts about public mom-shamings, strangers in public were the least likely to criticize new moms (12 percent). Friends were also an unlikely source of criticism (14 percent). The majority of criticism new moms experienced came from spouses (37 percent), parents (36 percent), and in-laws (31 percent).

Given the number of women reporting criticism and the types of criticism they received, mom-shaming seems to be a pervasive problem; however, one additional finding from the poll suggests a different interpretation that may help young parents through the holidays.

There’s no doubt huge amounts of mom-shaming going on, but the study presupposes shame by asking respondents to answer “yes” or “no” questions like, “Have you been criticized about your parenting choices by your in-laws?”

Because of the way the questions were phrased, it may be more appropriate to say that the mothers polled felt criticized. Without specific examples from the respondents, and perhaps without the experiences of everyone else in the room at the time the criticism was delivered, it’s hard to know whether any criticism or shame was intended.

With that said, here are some tips on how to make the most of all this togetherness.

1 | Keep your criticism to yourself

Half of the respondents in the Mott poll said that they avoid people who are critical of their parenting. The poll’s authors offer one piece of advice for family members with strong opinions: “Those who wish to spend time with a young child may want to present their advice in a positive tone, or risk having that time abbreviated.”

The poll also shows that receiving criticism helped change parents’ own behavior. Over half of the study respondents reported that they stopped criticizing other parents after receiving criticism themselves. If you are the object of unsolicited advice or criticism, take comfort in knowing it’s helping you be kinder to other moms.

2 | Treat your family members as experts

The poll reports that new parents receive the most criticism from their families, suggesting that everyone might benefit if all family members kept a few more opinions to themselves. But the study’s authors also suggest that “criticism” and “shame” are in the eye of the beholder.

The increased rate of criticism and shame coming from family members may simply result from spending more time with them than with strangers and health professionals. Alternatively, the study’s authors suggest, “it is plausible that statements from professionals are perceived as expert advice, not criticism.” In other words, if your healthcare provider suggests you switch to skim milk, you might view that as a medical advice. When your mom makes the same suggestion, you might interpret it as criticism of your parenting.

In the holiday spirit, parents might want to extend the same generosity to family members that they offer to their health care providers. Assume that the advice, welcome or not, is well-intentioned.

3 | Discuss expectations, and consider changing yours

The poll’s authors suggest that mismatched expectations are a frequent catalyst for parenting criticism. Family members might hold “unrealistic expectations for a toddler or preschooler,” while the parent “feels she has a better understanding of her own child’s abilities.” Those mismatched expectations could be seen as a natural consequence of a mother spending more time with her children than anyone else.

Then again, all those hours spent with your child might actually be making it hard for you to see where your expectations need to change. Because they spend less time with your child, your family members may have an easier time noticing significant shifts in your child’s behavior. Perhaps your extended family members can help you raise or lower expectations that aren’t working well for your family.

Do you have tips as to how your family ensures the holidays are merry and bright? Share in the comments section below!

Does Being a Twin Impact Your Future Relationships?

Twins are born into the world with a cosmic connection to another person. What does that mean for everyone else that comes into their lives?

So, the twin thing really is a thing. It starts in the womb. When I first found out I was having twins, I felt them ganging up almost immediately. They kicked and slept and hiccupped in tandem. When they made their debut, I am fairly sure they negotiated a crying cycle that shouldered out even a minute of silence.
I gave thanks that they were not identical, that I had a boy and a girl to create some separation, some individuality in the twin world. We did not name them cutesy twin names, no Aiden and Adelaide, no Mason and Madison. Anything to prevent them from turning into Disney characters.
And they do have their own proclivities. We’ve got a lefty and a righty. A builder of blocks and an artist. A perfectionist and a tornado. Perhaps because of these differences and the fact that they have had to live together for each of the 24 hours of every day since conception, they can both initiate and negotiate conflict better than most.
After all, they have no choice.
Patricia Malmstrom, in her book, “The Art of Parenting Twins”, writes, “They fight, but they love each other. They know that they have to live together.” It’s the greatest truth my twins have had to learn – that they can’t escape the relationship.
You would think this would be a good thing, this early prescience about the nature of successful relationships, and it would be…if everyone else in the world was a twin. But how many of us have dated someone with the emotional intelligence of an amoeba and wondered how we were ever going to reach a level of equanimity? To be more aware than your partner of the long-term consequences of your actions and of your own psyche is not an advantage. It takes two to keep that relationship rolling.
Twins have to fight for autonomy from the very beginning. They are forever proving that they are separate, capable entities. Most of us do not have to figure out how to assert our own independence until later in life, when we are knee-deep in a relationship that encroaches on our previously free-wheeling self. It is a tricky thing that takes practice – something twins have had a great deal of.
Imagine, if you will, your most unbalanced relationship, when you felt like you were unknown and unknowable to your partner, always pushing at the edges of understanding and ultimately feeling alone.
Now imagine having someone in your life who has always been intimately in tune with your wants and needs and emotional fluctuations. They might be your polar opposite, they might make you crazy, but they have always been able to read the seismographic printout of you – because they are your twin. That knowledge hovers between you and every relationship…that out in the world, there is someone who knows without even having to try.
It seems like a cosmic set up for relationship trauma.
But there is also potential for greatness. One study on the twin relationship found that “individuation and connectedness may complement rather than compete with one another.”
Twins have the potential to find even more success in romantic relationships because of all the hours clocked practicing empathy and the emotional give-and-take necessary for effective communication. All that time spent in conflict and negotiation might finally pay off.
So, despite the lifelong connection, the genetic chain that links them to one another, twins can use that emotional intelligence to their advantage later in life. There need not be a line in the sand that separates them from the rest of the world.
Or at least that’s what I hope as I overhear my twins talking in their own secret twin code, plotting to overthrow the family and then the world.

Whether They Meet Them Or Not, Our Relatives Shape Our Kids

Even if the stories aren’t happy, love-conquers-all stories, they’re important. These were real people’s stories – people we have ties with.

Last summer, I was watering my neighbor’s plants and discovered that they’d planted a bunch of marigolds. I thought, “They must really want a marigold bed because they reseed themselves every year.” This is a fact that I learned in my childhood.

When I was a child, my parents ran a small motel in Southern Utah. My grandfather had built it and, when they retired, my parents took over running it. In the front, there was a flower box built into the cement sidewalk and every year it would be overflowing with marigolds.

My grandmother loved marigolds. She’d planted them everywhere. My mother, however, did not love them so much. While marigolds are bright and cheery, they don’t smell very good. For years, my mother put up with them despite hating them and their smell as she didn’t want to offend my grandmother, until finally she pulled them all up and planted other flowers.

While it’s a short memory, it’s something that sticks out whenever I run across marigolds. Although it’s not a particularly special memory, it does make me sad to think that my youngest siblings (I’m the oldest of 11) would never know how much Grandma loved marigolds or what a bane they were to my mother.

Memories, stories, and families are important. They’re the touchstones to those who came before us. They provide clues to who we are and why we are. In his article in the NY Times, Bruce Feiler regards how important it is to develop a “strong family narrative.” His research found that families who had a strong sense of their family history were better able to function and face challenges than those who didn’t. This finding crossed cultures, learning abilities, and social status. It was found to be the best predictor of a child’s emotional health and happiness.

I’ve always loved history. Sharing my unique family history with the people who share the same DNA brings us closer together. Enabling my children to have good emotional health and happiness is priceless. Even if the stories aren’t happy, love-conquers-all stories, they’re important. These were real people’s stories – people we have ties with.

Last Christmas, my mother-in-law gave me a hummingbird bracelet and necklace. I’m sure she thought they were pretty. When I opened the present and saw them, I thought immediately of this same Grandma. She loved her hummingbirds. There were always several hummingbird feeders hanging in her yard so she could watch them. Some of my favorite memories were sitting on her front porch, watching them feed on her homemade apricot nectar while she told me facts about them.

These are the stories I will tell my children. My children only met Grandma once, but they will likely never remember it as they were so young. All they will have of her is my memories – memories that I will pass on in the hope that she will come alive for my children through them. Then I will tell them about a great-grandfather I was lucky enough to know.

The F Word: a Discussion on the Power of Language With My 9-Year-Old

The consequence for the use of this language will depend upon the context, the cultural norms, and, let’s face it, the potential for parental embarrassment.

WARNING: the following essay contains graphic and explicit language as used graphically and explicitly by children.
When I was nine, I swore like a sailor. I had never actually met a sailor at that stage of my life, and to this day, I think a better simile might be: to swear like a nine-year-old. I had forgotten about this stage in my own linguistic development until I was reminded by my son just how foul mouthed a young lad can be.
The moment has already become canonized in family lore, sure to be remembered and retold for decades. Indeed, I already can’t wait for the opportunity to tell his own children someday around the Thanksgiving table – should he choose to go down that path.
As it was, the day was beautiful. My wife’s brother, sister, and mom had come up to visit us at our new home. It was peak foliage season, a little later than usual, and warm for an October day. We had decided to take a family walk, exploring some land with which I had recently become familiar.
I love my in-laws. They are real down-to-earth types, not a lot of hang-ups or stress about many things. My wife is the youngest of six, and therefore my three boys are the youngest of the 13 grandkids on that side of the family. There are some similarities in that diverse group of kids, but there are many more differences.
My kids are Vermonters. We come from the wild northern woods, and my boys are definitely more feral than their Connecticut and Virginia relatives. Their hair is longer, their dress less curated, but they are polite, well-mannered boys…well, most of the time.
Aunt Cynthia, Uncle Robert, Granny, my wife, my three boys, and I all set out for a walk in the woods. After politely enduring the usual gamut of questions about school and sports and etcetera, the two older boys, 15 and 13, ran up ahead, trailed by their nine-year-old brother, who, we joke, is a 16-year-old stuck in a nine-year-old’s body. It is not surprising, considering his role models, that his self expression is considerably influenced by these two.
As we walked, we adults discussed the things that adults discuss. Occasionally, we’d consider whether to turn back and head home or keep going, and, enjoying the day, we opted to keep going.
It wasn’t long before the two older boys abandoned us entirely and found their way back home on their own. The younger one, unfortunately for him, was stuck with the grown-ups. He asked time and again to turn around, each time a little more imploring than the last, and each time, he was met with a “not yet.”
After many twists and turns in the path and a good 20 minutes after my exasperated son had determined that this walk was way too long with no end in sight, he asked one last time, “Can we go back NOW?!!!”
“Just a little farther,” I said, enjoying the weather and the conversation with my mother-in-law.
Now, here is where you get into murky territory as a parent. Some parents, no doubt, would be mortified. An entire array of responses might have been appropriate, falling somewhere on the spectrum between spanking/scolding/grounding all the way through to ignoring/doing nothing.
In our case, all five of us burst out laughing.
Then, a really good conversation with my in-laws ensued about the range of possible responses. The outburst itself was treated as insignificant. His mother and I have no illusions about where he might have heard this particular phrase, so rather than indulge in the hypocrisy of pretending to be offended for the sake of our in-laws, we acknowledged his frustration, turned around, and started the walk home through the woods.
Most of us remember the scene in the movie “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie loses the lug nuts to the car and exclaims, “Oh Fudge… Although, I didn’t say fudge.” The movie mom washes his mouth out with soap, and we find humor in his musings on whether he prefers the flavor of Ivory or Life Buoy soap. Even at the time the movie was made, this was a cultural commentary on a time of the past. Today, a parent might be arrested for abuse by forcing a child to ingest a potentially toxic substance.
The consequence for the use of this language will depend upon the context, the cultural norms, and, let’s face it, the potential for parental embarrassment. I am a writer, a former English teacher, and a lifelong lover of language. I am a regular user of – as we refer to it in my house – “the Fuck word.” I love that certain words have the power to shock. And that, to me, is the lesson: Language is powerful.
Words have meaning(s), and the meaning of words can change according to their context. This understanding is subtle and nuanced and also vital for a young person to learn. The problem with being nine is that there aren’t really many contexts in which the word ‘fuck’ is a viable choice. Thus the conundrum of many nine-year-olds: How does one learn to employ this ubiquitous gem of a word without getting into trouble?
A belated side note: I assume that no nine-year-olds will read this article in a magazine directed at parents, so I will avoid using euphemisms, like “The ‘F’ word” or an obscurative version of the word like F#%@ (except in the title because the bots don’t like it). When have you ever read those symbols and not automatically supplied the missing letters? If you say it in your head, why sanitize it?
And that, my friends, is precisely the point. Why sanitize it? Aren’t we learning all the time that overly sanitized things are actually creating problems for us? The parent who picks up the dropped pacifier, pops it in her mouth to clean it off, and gives it back to the baby is doing her child a great service, much more so than the parent who disinfects it or throws it away. The germs she shares are a kind of ‘culture’ that provides an inoculation against infectious agents.
Language is the same way. Ideas can be harmful, and words can infect our thinking. If everything we allow our children to be exposed to is sanitized to the point of being devoid of culture, then we are setting them up to be very confused people when the world eventually comes crashing in.
Better, in my thinking, to be upfront, not only with the words and their meanings, but with contextual information on when and where and with whom certain things are appropriate to say. It is better that children exercise their curiosity, ask questions about, and experiment with words and ideas in the context of their family where they know they won’t get “in trouble.”
Should some things not be said? Of course. Yet things are said all the time that are better left unsaid. If you’re not afraid to sit down with your child and discuss the context, the power of the words, and why something might be better to not say, then that child is bound to cross invisible cultural boundaries without realizing it. He will find himself hurting others or embarrassing himself as he muddles his way through the complexities of what is okay to say, when to say it, and to whom.
The best reason I have been given to choose not to say something is this: Something, once said, can never be unsaid.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from the Upanishads, in the final part of the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scriptures composed between 1500 and 1000 BCE (that’s a long time ago): Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your character. Your character becomes your destiny.
What’s the lesson here? You don’t have to believe what you think – now literally a bumper sticker (at least here in Vermont). Be careful what thoughts you attach to. Somewhere between thought and action lies a vast reservoir of power called language. Learning how to use it, and when not to, is a vital life skill. It’s important for parents to embrace the teaching of this skill the same way we teach our kids about cleaning and dressing our bodies, or how to cross a road. I don’t think it’s something to be squeamish about.
Back to our walk in the woods. Once we had turned around and started heading home, my son became more animated, less anxious, even cheerful. The adults discussed the use of choice language openly and without judgment.
He and I have talked about how he shouldn’t use that word at school or outside of the family context, and he has full knowledge of what it means, in its many iterations – although he hasn’t inquired further about what sex is. That conversation still lies in our future.
My son’s most pertinent question, so far: Why is it appropriate for adults to use this language while kids can’t, and how come his brothers, who are not that much older than he is, get to be considered adults in regard to that kind of language? The best answer I have for him is that maybe it isn’t appropriate for adults to use it either. Another answer may be that sometimes it’s okay to be a little inappropriate.
Ultimately, it comes down to being responsible for the consequences of saying things that can’t be unsaid – my consequence being that I have to sit down and try to explain to a nine-year-old the Operator’s Manual for “the Fuck word.”
Man, I need to watch my language.

Why the Grandparents Can Exercise Their Spoiling-Rights This Christmas

Grandparents love to spoil. It is as part of the job description – especially around the holidays.

Red and green wrapping paper covers family rooms of spoiled children on Christmas Eve and morning. The parents get out the screwdrivers to open the backs of new toys and insert the over-priced batteries. Toy bins overflow with My Little Ponies and closet doors can no longer shut. After the holidays, toys are the new bosses of the home. The parents are left with overindulged children who have too many toys to play with. It’s overwhelming for their little minds and they often act out as a result.
But grandparents love to spoil. It is as part of the job description – especially around the holidays. It reads: GRANDPARENT QUALIFICATIONS: Must possess the ability to provide sugar to his or her grandchild. Upon special occasions, or no occasion at all, the grandparent must give an obscene amount of gifts to the grandchildren in efforts to drive his or her own child into an insane asylum.
It gets out of control. And fast.
I get all of the posts that encourage giving the gift of experiences, only three gifts, or other ideas to prevent the spoiling of kids. But yet, I let my parents and in-laws give my kids as many presents as they damn well please. No, I don’t let them give any lavish items to prevent entitlement. However, they give them more presents than I know what to do with. And I’ll admit, it does get on my nerves.
But my parents are alive. My mom, or Yia-Yia as the kids call her, survived advanced cancer. My dad, or Papou, is 82. He didn’t hold his first grandchild until the wise age of 77. If my mom wants to buy my son seven Star Wars figurines and my daughter all of the mermaid dolls she can find, I let her. A couple Christmases ago, I didn’t know if my mom would feel the joy of another holiday. And as for my dad, I never know if this will be his last Christmas. Although the quantity of gifts is aggravating, I don’t stop them.
It’s true, giving experiences is definitely more practical, but it’s just not the same as watching a child tear through that snowman wrapping paper to discover what loud Minion is underneath. When my kids receive a gift from their grandparent, it’s the grandparents I watch – not my kids. When the presents produce squeals from the kids’ mouths, I can’t escape the glint in my parents’ eyes. Who am I to stop that?
I just won’t.
Instead of complaining about it, I rotate toys, take them to a consignment shop, or donate them. I have my kids pick out toys they don’t play with anymore or have outgrown and we give them away. They can start learning a little humility and charity while they’re young. When I start grumbling about the over excess of toys, I try to think less about the toys and more about the joy that it brings the grandparents. To them, gift giving at Christmas doesn’t mean batteries and wrapping paper serving as the new carpet. It means watching the magic of Christmas unfold and sharing that with their grandchild. And I just won’t stop that.

Yes, You Can Grieve the Living

Over the years my mother and I have fallen apart and come back together plenty, but this time was different. I could feel it.

I hear my mother’s voice all the time. Sometimes it crumples me with shame for something I hate about myself, that she reminded me of all too often. But usually it’s when I fuck up terribly, or scream at my kids, or spill a just-baked cake all over the floor, layering insult onto injury as I then have to dig out crumbs from the tiny cracks in the floorboards and wipe chocolate frosting off of cabinets – creating an even bigger mess as I go.
In those moments, I hear her laugh – with me, not at me – saying, “It’s okay. Shit happens. We clean it up, we move on, we try again, and we heal.”
She had a way of making light of everything, turning heavy things into helium balloons to be released into the sky. Mostly it was comforting and helpful, a good reminder that things could always be worse. Her sturdy nature made me resilient and strong, even though part of me felt like I was pretending, because inside I’m not strong. I feel everything too deeply. I worry. I cry. I fall to pieces over small stuff, inside, because I hide it.
Over the years my mother and I have fallen apart and come back together plenty, but this time was different. I could feel it. Like thick concrete pouring through my chest and settling into my bones; once dried, I was numb. Our unfriending was a sledgehammer to my core. Cracked and broken beyond repair, we couldn’t be made light of or fixed. The damage between us, more substantial than helium, could not be released into the distance to become tinier and tinier.
It’s like a death, but not really. No one died, and yet we are ghosts. It feels like loss, and it feels like mourning. I’ve had a lot of practice with the real thing, and this does not hurt less.
Sometimes more.
People say when someone dies there are moments when you forget. I have those too. Such small moments, like a fraction of a tenth of a second. I almost reach for the phone or call over my shoulder, then like dying all over again, I remember she’s gone. You can grieve for the living.
You mourn them. I mourned her.
The heavy, secret shame of losing someone who’s still alive weighs you down, numbs you, and slows time. Friends don’t check in to see how the grieving is going because no one is dead. But parts of you are.
Your husband tries to understand and love you enough to make up for it, but he can’t, and that makes him die a little inside too. Your kids are a reminder of mothering, and by default a reminder of being motherless, and that is a reminder of your grief, so sometimes you look at your beautiful children through vacant eyes. It’s protective. You keep them at arm’s length, so you don’t break in front of your babies, but also, so you don’t break them.
And all the while you can’t feel what you need to feel.
Because she’s still here, but she’s also gone.
You can’t say, “I’m so sad to lose my mom. I can’t breathe sometimes it hurts so much.”
You can’t say it because people say things like:
“Just call her.”
“Say sorry.”
“Forgive each other.”
Only it’s not that easy, and you can’t explain to anyone why it’s not because the reasons are so big they suck the air out of your lungs and make all the words in the world fall short. So you stay quiet and don’t talk about it. You don’t say how it feels to lose a mother who’s still alive.
Because no one understands.
In time, surprisingly the numbing works: the silence, the concrete around your heart, the vacant eyes, the pictures taken down from walls, the jewelry tucked into little pouches in the bottom of drawers, and the holiday traditions changed.
All evidence erased.
Eventually over time, and too many glasses of wine, and too many words on a page, you do move on. But you’ll never really be whole. Sometimes, out of nowhere, when I’m moved on and healed, I realize I’m not.
Not really.
Like when I hear her voice as I clean up coffee grounds that spilled all over the counter because I was rushing to an early morning conference for my younger son, who I worry about because I fear life might be harder for him than it should be. But I can’t talk to her about it, and she doesn’t even know him anyway, so I rush out the door leaving coffee grounds to drip and soak into my cabinets, because there’s no time to spare for chaos.
Then later, when the house is quiet, and the kids are at school, I realize, while kneeling on my kitchen floor, how big the mess actually is. Opening drawers, I find the coffee has leaked through napkins and lunch bags, over cabinets and onto baseboards, leaving the grounds to settle between cracks in the hardwood floor. As I wipe it all up, I find layers of insult beneath injury as stubborn brown stains remain on the once white cabinets. No matter how hard I scrub, it’s useless. They’re here to stay.
A reminder of the big mess that I left.
For less than a fraction of a tenth of a second, I hear her voice, and I imagine telling her all about the coffee, and the stains, and the worries in my head. Then as quick as it comes, it leaves. Instead, I steel myself and walk into the garage in search of a can of paint and a brush, to hide the stains, and make everything look new again.