On Quilting Circles and Cross Stitch: What Our Hands Remember

These quilts and crossed stitches will be more than just things. They will be the hymn, the song of praise for the women that have gone before us.

I have a theory. The things we now make with our hands are more ethereal than they once were. We text and send ecards into the universe along with our good vibes. Because of that our thoughts skitter in a way they once did not. Like our hands, they are less grounded. Our fingers are not smudged in the morning from creasing the newspaper just so over breakfast.
We read on our phones and order espressos with the app. I have lost the callus I once had on my index finger from writing with a #2 pencil. There’s not a thing wrong with that. Different is not bad. It’s just… different. If you handed me a typewriter and told me to get to work, I’d drop it on your foot.
But certain things, things that span the divide between my generation and the last, I do miss. I miss sleeping under one particular yellow quilt covered in girls wearing bonnets and flowered dresses, each dress a series of triangles pieced together by my grandmother on the floor of her sewing room one hot summer thirty-something years ago.
I miss the way the trapezoidal blue and red and peach and green bonnets slanted just so to hide each girl’s face. I miss the cheery yellow backing that I have never been able to match in all the subsequent trips to craft stores. I still have the quilt. It is folded, zipped in plastic, and waiting in a hope chest carved by my grandfather for the day when my daughter is old enough to use it and understand its path to her.
 
seeking freelance writers to submit work about families, parenting and kids
 
I wish I still had my grandmother to show me again how to smooth out the lumps from middle to edge on each square before pinning. She would need to remind me now how to load a spool of thread in the sewing machine and how to backpedal out of a bad stitch. I wish I could watch her hands thread a needle.
It was my mother who taught me how to cross stitch. My first project – a ladybug, clamped down on two square inches of frame. Those black dots just about killed me. I had grown up sitting next to my mother in her high-backed chair as she bent over a wooden frame as big and wide as the tv trays we used to use so we could watch basketball games during dinner.
She would angle her freestanding magnifying glass,  just so, so that it lit up the pattern with a fluorescent glow. In and out, in and out the needle flew until it looked and felt like breathing. It was my mother’s method of meditation. With her small hands, just like mine and just like her mother’s, she created alphabet wall hangings for my nursery and smocked dresses with my name in candy canes for Christmas and intricate garden scenes for the dining room.
I sewed penguins and strawberries and bees, leaving trails of thread and unfinished squares all over the house until one day, I stopped. I had become too big or too busy to sit with needle and thread.
Along with the days of elocution classes and home economics, quilting and cross stitch have gone by the wayside. Antiquated, we would now say. The older generations still perpetuate their craft. When we had our twins an elderly neighbor came bearing two tiny quilts, one pink and one blue, hand-stitched, of course.
We had to help her up the steps, but those baby throws she’d made by hand. My husband, not long ago, was gifted with a quilt made of his childhood t-shirts. It sits at the foot of our oldest son’s bed.  
When my daughter gets old enough, I will pull out my grandmother’s quilt and paint her a word picture of my grandmother in her madras shirt and capris and slip-on shoes kneeling on the shag carpet with pins in her mouth and sleeve.
When she gets old enough, I will give her my smocked dresses and let her own grandmother tell her how she made them for me one winter long ago. If she likes, I will sit down with her and we will form our own quilting circle.
Together we will pick a pattern and trace shapes and cut material she has carefully chosen. We will measure and stretch and pin. Then we will thread the sewing machine and pump the pedal to create something to remember.
We will use our hands to make a thing to hold on to. These quilts and crossed stitches will be more than just things. They will be the hymn, the song of praise for the women that have gone before us. We will ask them to guide our hands, ghosts of their own, and together we will make something from the past for the future.

What We Recall Through Scents of Our Past

By searching out the scents of our past, we may recapture connections to places and people who have been lost to time.

Goodbye

The last time I saw my grandmother, she was settled into her rocking chair after a long day of church and family. 
“Baby girl,” she said. “Help me with my socks.”
I was in my 30s, but would ever be her Baby Girl. As I pulled the thick, soft socks over her small feet, she smiled.
“I used to be the one putting your socks on. The tables have turned,” she said.
“No! I never needed help with anything!” I teased her. I wasn’t comfortable, on that day, with contemplating my long-past youth and her advanced age. I knew it was our last visit.
I got up to leave the room, knowing it would be the last time I saw, spoke to, hugged my grandmother before she died. This visit had to end at some point, and I wouldn’t linger. From the doorway, I wished she would say that thing she always said one more time…the thing she said every day of my childhood when I left through her squeaky back door to walk the short path back to my own house…
“See you later alligator.”
“I love you, Grandmother.”
We all knew she was fading, and that’s why my husband and I had driven 12 hours for a weekend visit and a last chance to see her while she was still lucid. 
I would speak to her again the night she died, through a phone held up to her ear. She spent her last days in my childhood bedroom, being looked after by my parents, my aunt and nurses. I was selfish and glad to not see it.
“I love you, Grandmother,” I told the phone. “We are all going to be OK, so you can go when you’re ready.”

Proust and the Madeleine 

In the study of memory, French novelist Marcel Proust’s description of eating a Madeleine with a cup of tea is the oft-cited connection between remembrance and scent in literature. Proust’s narrator smells the combination of tea and cookie and is suddenly overcome with the memory of his childhood. This case of autobiographical memory evoked by the sense of smell is known by cognitive scientists as the Proust phenomenon. These odor-evoked memories are typically vivid, emotional, and old. 
Cognitive scientists say memories evoked by scent are a conscious process, both involuntary and voluntary. As Proust’s character first registers the scent of the cookie and tea, he has an involuntary flash of a moment from childhood. It is then a conscious effort for him to pursue that flash to form a full narrative of the remembered scene. By searching out the scents of our past, we may recapture connections to places and people who have been lost to time.

Morning

I dip a Madeleine in a cup of Earl Grey with milk, inhaling for a revelation. The only memory to arise is of studying Proust.
My first memory of coffee came from a whiff of freeze dried Taster’s Choice crystals hitting steaming water in my grandmother’s kitchen. Sometimes she’d give me a sip, and sometimes my brother and I would instead dip strips of white bread in glasses of cold milk, sucking at them like kittens.
I forgot the pleasure of instant coffee until I was an adult. Fresh ground coffee beans can give off their own pleasing scents, but different roasts are too varied to attach to particular memories. However, peel the seal off a jar of instant coffee and the light brown pebbles will smell just like they did 30 years before.
When I realized the jar of instant coffee could take me back 30 years to my grandmother’s kitchen, I started drinking it every day. The memory is academic now, worn too thin to be emotional.

Memory trigger

One theory about the connection between olfaction and memory is based on the anatomy of the brain. The olfactory bulb is connected to the amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus – parts of the brain which are also involved in emotion and memory. A psychologist specializing in the study of smell, Rachel Herz, believes sensations of smell and taste are especially “sentimental” because their ruling structures are connected to the hippocampus, where long-term memory is centered. The amygdala is also a converging point for smell, memory and emotion. Literary scholar Evelyn Ender suggests emotion is an essential component of memory retention. She wrote, “A memory image exists by virtue of an emotion. If it were just a flat picture, devoid of emotional vibration, this image would probably not have been retained.”

Bedtime

She was averse to scents, allergic to flowers, an opponent of perfumes; a migraineur on guard against olfactory attacks, but at bedtime, exceptions were made.
After a bath, she would emerge in perfect pink pajamas and a robe, glowing and dewy. She never went a day without coating her face in Oil of Olay and her body with Jergens lotion, each with their own potent scent. Pink Oil of Olay beauty fluid from a glass bottle smells chemical and vaguely floral. Jergens’ original scent is a cherry-almond blend. 
Not a vain woman, still she made choices which protected her pale, soft skin. I never saw her in direct sunlight and heard stories of her bathing in milk as a child. After a childhood of tucking my hand inside her perfectly smooth palm, I could sketch her hands from memory. Her nails perfectly filed, her rings loose, soft blue veins across the top of her hands. Her hands were cold, her heart warm, as they say.
I keep her nail file next to my bed. I wear her ring on special occasions. I don’t use Oil of Olay or Jergens because I’m afraid the potency of their scents will fade from overuse.
My daughter was born five years after my grandmother died. I imagined the two convening in some way, hoping my two beloved spirits could connect in the ether, even if they never would in life. When my baby stirred in the middle of the night and settled again, I imagined her Great Gran checking in on her.
It was a comfort in the addled postpartum months to believe my grandmother lives inside my daughter in a way that is not precisely reincarnation, but more like a thinning of the veil. I find evidence in the way she looks at me, like she has known me for ages. She asks to smell my instant coffee. I apply her bedtime lotion and then breathe her in.
For the first few years after Grandmother died, I did not want to remember her too acutely. I did not want to see her house remodeled for a new occupant or read her handwriting on old papers.
I accepted her visits in dreams; we never talked, just sat and held hands. I accepted her visits to my daughter, comforted by the stories I told myself, that Mamie and Grandmother would love each other immensely.
By remembering Grandmother as clearly as possible, I can bring the two together deliberately. I can let Mamie smell my coffee, and I can look for recognition in her eyes.

The Grandparent Effect: How to Encourage Your Kids to Hang Out with Their Elders

In the name of intergenerational unity, here are a few ideas to help your kids connect with their elders.

Everybody knows Mr. Miyagi is the real star of “The Karate Kid”. Unless you were an adolescent boy when it debuted, then that award goes to Elisabeth Shue. Mr. Miyagi, however, is the wise one. He’s tough, he’s disciplined and he’s principled. Where would Daniel-san be without his mentor? Lost in a sea of 80s bullies, no doubt. Kids need to spend time with the older generation for a multitude of reasons and they aren’t the only ones to benefit. Mr. Miyagi got something out of it too.
We could all stand to view life from another perspective. It’s not exactly Freaky Friday, but spending time with someone from another generation reminds you that there are other vantage points than your own. Grandma remembers a time when no woman dared to wear pants while her granddaughter introduces her to the iPad and FaceTime. It’s a fair exchange of concepts. So in the name of intergenerational unity, here are a few ideas to help your kids connect with their elders:

Pen pals

Where email and texts offer convenience, snail mail brings charm. Camp was never more fun than when the counselors came around with the mail call. The physical act of writing a letter, sealing the envelope, and applying postage takes time. Nothing teaches patience like waiting for a letter in the mail.
Nothing feels quite as victorious as checking that slot and finding something addressed to you. There’s just something about seeing your name and recognizing the handwriting that feels bigger and better than an email marked “read.” These letters also have a knack for turning into treasured mementos in years to come.

The family tree

History, particularly family history, can be both entertaining and surprising. It’s fun to watch your son’s face when he realizes that he inherited his red hair from his great great grandfather who immigrated from Ireland or to see your daughter connect the dots from her middle name back to her grandma. Printable family trees are easy to find and free and provide a puzzle that’s perfect for grandparent and grandchild to solve together.

Volunteer

Not everyone has a grandparent still living, but volunteer opportunities abound in senior citizen centers, especially around the holidays. This can provide the perfect chance for your child to get comfortable around and invest in the older generation. Encourage your son or daughter to volunteer to read with a buddy or play checkers or work in the community garden. You can do it as a family. It’s amazing what one hour can do for both the one visiting and the one being visited.

Hidden skills

You know that secret recipe for the best oatmeal cookies in the universe that your mother will not share with you? I bet she’ll give it to her grandkids. You know that coin collection that you’ve successfully managed to avoid having your father explain to you? I bet your kid might think it’s worth a listen.
The Baby Boomers and those before them hold a series of skills and interests that might just have skipped a generation or two. Let them share their knowledge. Let them explain the names of birds and flowers and what cooking looked like before microwaves. You never know what it might spark in your own child.

Family grandparents’ day

Schools across the country typically celebrate grandparents in late summer/early fall. There’s usually a program with singing and refreshments to follow. What if your family set your own day? What if you decided April 30th or October 15th was the perfect time to honor those grandparents and special friends? Bake a cake, send more mail, buy flowers and sing songs. It’s the reason we decide half birthday parties are fun. It’s the power to make one more day and one more person feel special.  
You’d be amazed what happens when you help your kids look back, slow down and connect with generations of times gone by. So, mail a letter, make a garden, chart a history and visit someone who saw the world before it went into cyberspace.

Debate Club: Is the Role of Grandparents to Spoil Their Grandchildren?

Two Parent Co. writers face off on the topic of grandparental spoiling.

Go Ahead and Spoil!

Fiona Tapp

Some rules are non-negotiable, the kind of rules that keep children safe and well, the kind of rules that keep our home clean and tidy, and the kind that ensure children are polite, considerate, and kind.

As long as my child’s well being is being promoted, and he is happy and healthy, I am pretty flexible with anything that goes down at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

My reasoning for being lax about his weekends away are varied, but include my honest assessment that I should be grateful when someone else cares for my child. We all need time away from our children from time to time, whether it’s for some much needed head space or simply because you need to work. Having a reliable person to watch your child is a luxury, and if it’s free of charge as well, you really have hit the jackpot.

To complain and whine about small infractions of your usual household rules when you’re being given a gift that many parents without extended family would kill to have is really very petty.

Parents that demand their rules are followed when their children stay with other adults often claim that they don’t want to confuse their child by having different rules for different households. But this reasoning is completely invalid.

I worked as a teacher for over a decade and can tell you with certainty that my child and yours are easily able to differentiate between varying expectations of their behavior and conduct in different settings. Just as there may be one rule for home and one for school, children are able to expertly navigate between different sets of rules and parenting styles.

When your child is with another trusted adult, you need to acquiesce control to them and allow them to make their own decisions. So many moms try to micromanage every aspect of their child’s life, which can be quite damaging to their relationship with their grandparents. As long as your child is cared for and healthy, does it really matter if they eat a little junk food or watch a little TV?

Staying with the grandparents is often a rare treat. A short break from the usual rules can’t really do any harm. Rather, it helps to develop loving family bonds and memories of enjoying time with their grandparents.

Part of being a grandparent is not having all the day-to-day parenting worries of raising children and instead focusing on the fun bits, which is precisely why many grandparents claim to enjoy being a grandparent more than they enjoyed being a parent. Grand-parenting is, in essence, the very best bits of parenting with all the daily slog and responsibility removed.

So why not just let them enjoy it?

I can’t help but think that by supplying your parents or in laws with a list of rules and regulations they must follow when they watch your child is hugely insulting. After all, they did successfully manage to raise children of their own.

So I say let them be spoiled. That’s what grandparents are for.

When Grandparents Spoil it Undermines the Parents

Kathryn Trudeau

As the car pulled into the pet store, I felt that I’d already won half the victory. To this day, I’m not sure how I convinced my Grandma to take me to the pet store, but I feel like it probably had more to do with my Grandma wanting to make me happy and less to do with my excellent skills of persuasion.

I started the begging requests for a white kitten, but my pet mission was nonetheless successful as I walked out of the store with Cookie, an olive green parakeet. I couldn’t have been happier. My mother, on the hand, was not so pleased by this addition to the family. At the time, I didn’t realize how something as sweet as my little bird could be such a source of contention, but now with the experience of being a parent myself, I get it.  

Grandparents, as awesome and special as they are, need limits on their spoiling.

I absolutely believe that children need their grandparents in their lives, if possible. I’m merely discussing the limitations of a grandparents’ role. Here’s the bottom line: While close relationships with grandparents yield many positive benefits, the relationship becomes less beneficial when the grandparents have an “anything-goes” mindset and/or free reign power.

In fact, there are many benefits for a grandparent who grandparents without free reign spoiling abilities.

Prevent sabotage

Okay, Jenny. Your mama is gone. You can watch TV now. Even though you’re grounded, you can watch a little at my house. It’ll be okay.

Nothing sabotages parental authority quicker than a grandparent who completely overrules a parent’s rules or wishes. It might seem so innocent to indulge in an extra TV show or dessert, but deliberately disobeying parents teaches Jenny that, not only can she disobey a parent’s rule, but she can also be sneaky about it. This often sends conflicting messages to children.

When grandparents spoil children within parameters (i.e. parents’ rules), they cannot sabotage the parents’ authority.

Weakening the family value system 

Once Jenny learns that it’s okay to be sneaky to get around the rules, the whole value system of the family becomes compromised. Whether or not the grandparent intended to, Jenny is taught that it’s okay to sneak, lie, and disobey parents. With habits like that, the sturdy value system of a family is at risk.

On the other hand, when grandparents reinforce the rules of parents, it helps to fortify the value system of the child. Supporting the parents instills a sense of integrity and honesty within the child.

Safety

Rules (all rules, from house rules to rules of the road) are designed with one thing in mind: safety. When grandparents spoil children with reckless abandon, the child’s safety can be threatened. I have witnessed this on three occasions.

  • A grandma who allowed her grandson to have root beer floats for breakfast, which seemed like an innocent-enough treat. But the excess sugar caused problems with the boy’s medication.
  • A grandmother who felt inspired to take extra care of her grandson by giving him a daily vitamin. Because she had taken this matter into her own hands without talking to the boy’s mother, the child received double the dose.
  • A grandfather repeatedly gave almond milk to a baby despite the parents’ requests not to, insisting it was a treat and better for the baby. Not only is almond milk not recommended as baby formula, but the parents quickly lost trust due to this form of “spoiling.”

How to spoil within the limits of parents’ rules

Before I have every grandparent knocking on my door, I want to reiterate that I do believe grandparents are incredibly valuable. Grandchildren who are close to their grandparents benefit from their wisdom, stories, and relaxed demeanor. Grandparents are role models and a source of tremendous, unconditional love.

But the truth is, grandparents do not need to raise grandchildren. They can take excellent care of grandchildren without stepping on the toes of the parents.

Spend more time than money

When grandparents consistently arrive for a visit with a toy, it increases expectation for the future. Pretty soon, the child is going to answer the door saying, “Hi Grandma, what did you bring me?” Limiting toys and treats will keep them special and not expected.

Follow parents’ rules

A grandparent who supports a parent teaches a child just how important it is to obey parents. This lesson will continue to be especially important as the child grows up and is tempted to break even more rules.

Love abundantly

A grandparent cannot say “I love you” too much. In fact, there’s no limit on how much a grandparent can love a grandchild. Having another source of unconditional love in a child’s life improves his or her mental and emotional wellbeing.
Children who grow up feeling loved are more likely to handle stress better as adults, engage in more close, healthy relationships, and be more well-adjusted.

A little goes a long way

Like all things in life, moderation is key. A treat here or there is a special way to surprise a child.

Parents of young children have a lot on their plates, from being new at parenting to learning how to discipline children with love. It can be frustrating when grandparents’ spoiling overrides their rules or wishes.

But if grandparents spoil within the parents’ rules, life is not only easier for the parents, but the message sent to their children is loud and clear: Both parents and grandparents offer abundant, unconditional love, are all part of a strong family unit, and everyone has a place in that family structure.

Mom, Stop Trashing My Appearance – It’s Bad for the Grandkids

I don’t want to make criticism and cutting comments about appearance a family tradition.

“Oh, now you have a pooch in the back AND in the front,” laughed my mother, as we stood on her front lawn chatting with my younger sister, my 6-year-old daughter, and my 12-year-old niece.

She looked me up and down appraisingly, from black yoga pants to teal hoodie. 

She said it again, just in case I hadn’t heard it the first time. “Oh, now you have a pooch in the back AND in the front.”

Nobody laughed.

Her barb reminded me of some of Donald Trump’s recent comments that have been in the news, such as, “She has a fat ass.” They emphasize the chasm between how men and women are viewed and treated.

You haven’t heard Hillary Clinton comment about Trump’s lamentable combover, have you?

My mother has commented on my looks hundreds of times since I was a child, and I thought it would stop when I grew up. It hasn’t. I get praise when I meet her definition of what’s attractive and criticism when I don’t.

Recently she came across a picture of me taken in my early 20s and showed it to me. “You were so hot!” she said.

I’m 49.

Nothing effectively curbs her commentary, but I tried a different tack anyway: “You know what they’d call that at Lily’s elementary school? They’d say that was unkind.”

And then I took my daughter and we drove away. I started writing her a mental note in the car.

Dear Grandma,

It stops here. I mean that in the most respectful way. There’s no disputing that you’ve earned the right to speak your mind at 74. And there can even be something cute about grannies who act like rebellious teenagers. You’ve worked hard and raised four children. You had a husband who abused you. You’ve earned the right to lead the life you want.

But that life can’t include cutting down the women in your own family.

If you had lobbed your hatred of my weight at me during a time when my daughter wasn’t there, it would have had a different impact. But here’s something for you to think about. Is this really what you want the next generation of our family’s women to learn? That it’s okay to cut down a female family member based on her appearance? Is this what you want to perpetuate?

Is this how you want to be remembered?

We can analyze your behavior all we want. Maybe you never liked how you looked. Maybe you compared yourself unfavorably to your sisters growing up. You always described yourself as “the homely one,” and I’m sorry you felt that way about yourself. Maybe your comments to me are a projection of your hatred of your own body.

I’ve learned that I am more than how I look. It took a long time, but I feel good about myself. I accept myself. I have something to offer the world, and it can’t be captured by the numbers on the bathroom scale or the tags on my clothing.

Love,

Your Daughter

I’m not perfect. Occasionally, I’ll resort to behaving the way my mother does. That night, my daughter and I talked a little about the incident. “Miss Piggy!” she laughed as she curled up with me. A bossy coworker had been on my nerves at a job, and at home, I vented my ire by calling her Miss Piggy within my daughter’s hearing.

“Mom has to work on being kind about her coworker,” I told her, as she lay her head on my comfy stomach. “We have to help grandma be more kind. Life is about your heart and your soul, and your compassion, not about how you look.”

“And Donald Trump should be more kind!” finished my daughter, who had picked up on the presidential buzz from the radio and the TV and from her parents’ discussions at dinner.

“Yes, Donald Trump should be kinder, too.”

The message was somewhat lost on my husband, who hovered nearby as my daughter and I spoke. He played Rod Stewart’s “You’re in My Heart” on his iPhone and started to dance around, unable to handle the gravity of the situation. (His looks don’t come under the same scrutiny from his mother, although she’s often told me I should attend Weight Watchers.)

As women, we have enough men like Trump attacking us for how we look. Doing it to each other as females – and female family members – is not only hurtful. It sets a bad example for the next generation.

I’m not proud of creating an unflattering nickname for my coworker. But I am proud that I became aware of my behavior, took responsibility for it, and took steps to change it. So now it’s time to ask my mother – and every body-shaming grandma out there – to do the same.

Do you have a mom who criticizes your looks in front of your children? How have you handled it?

Grandparenting in the Google Age

My grandchildren are being raised in a world far more advanced than the one we raised their parents in. But they turned out ok.

Once upon a time, I was a young, naïve, enthusiastic mom with two kids under the age of three. I look back on those days fondly, even though by today’s parenting standards, it was prehistoric.

When my kids were born, I had no concept of how backwards we were. We were abject failures. We didn’t have fancy car seats, expensive designer strollers, or ergonomically correct swings and bouncers that do everything but fold laundry and make dinner. My parents didn’t either, and neither did their parents. We didn’t know it, but we were living in the dark ages, and it’s a miracle that our girls made it to adolescence.

Times have changed. My house used to be somewhat neat and tidy. Now that I’m a grandma three times over (with a fourth on the way), my living room is a Babies-R-Us showroom.  Between the pack-and-play, the rocker, the swing, the kid’s picnic table, Battle Rovers and assorted “bags of fun” that only an Olympic weight lifter could successfully lift, our décor is best described as “shabby Grandparent chic” with most of the emphasis on shabby.

I watch the newborn swing in her hammock as a soft lullaby plays below the din of “Monsters University.” If this thing had arms, it could change her diaper. And it vibrates too. I wish I could lay in a vibrating hammock that sings to me. But, even if I had one, I don’t have the room to put it anywhere.

I marvel at the baby’s brand spanking new bassinet. It shifts and tilts. It even has a night-light.  Our kids’ bassinet was a wooden laundry basket on wheels with a tent, and it was as big as the Titanic. When my mom rolled it out at my baby shower, the women ooh-ed and aah-ed  as if it was a brand-spanking new Cadillac hot off the assembly line. 

We had one cheap umbrella stroller – we managed to make it work for all three of our kids  without any major mishaps – and a whale of a carriage that I only used once because we would have needed Einstein to come back to life and figure out how to put it in and out of a car. 

Parents today have a myriad of choices. My kids researched their baby’s “travel system” as if they were plotting a defense against a zombie invasion. What they ended up buying would have been, in their grandparents’ day, the equivalent of a mortgage payment. At least the baby will be protected against zombies, I’m not so certain about the rest of us.

Which brings me to another thing we didn’t have, and had no idea that we even needed: the Internet. I can’t believe all the things I was missing: lists on how to be a responsible parent (all I had was a thumb eared copy of Dr. Spock), how to make homemade baby food that could earn the Gordon Ramsay seal of approval (I simply mashed bananas and peas in a bowl), and how to turn my girls into fashionably correct divas-in-training with Baby Yeezys.

Also, thanks to the World Wide Web, I can go online 24/7 and convince myself that my baby is suffering from a multitude of illnesses and upsets. She’s not pooping enough, she must have a gastric obstruction. She’s pooping too much, that’s not good either, could be worms or an infection. And let’s not forget about peeing – too little, she’s dehydrated, too much, well, there has to be a reason for that too too. Let’s check WebMD again. Spitting up must mean a food allergy of some kind. Cold feet, her circulation is terrible. She’s too hot – oh dear, must have a fever. I get sick just thinking about it, let me look that up too.

It’s a wonder that any of us ever got any sleep. I realize now that we should’ve been checking them every minute of the night. And don’t talk about putting the baby to sleep on her stomach. I did that, and now I would be drawn and quartered for it.

My husband and I were quaint, I guess. We didn’t want to know the sex of our unborn children.  Knowing that our baby was healthy was enough for us. Today’s parents really want to know – they have gender reveal parties, baby showers, and decorations to plan. 

My gender reveal was in the delivery room. People gave us gifts in gender-neutral greens and yellows. I didn’t have a fancy designer nursery, just a basic crib and a changing table I picked out of a Sears catalogue. 

Apparently, my parenting fails weren’t enough to scar my kids for life because now I’m a full-time grandma. My kids trust me with their kids, and I love every minute of it.

I guess for everything I did wrong – for every piece of gear I lacked, for every child-rearing strategy I didn’t know about, for every gender reveal party I didn’t have – I must have done something right.

Dear Grandparents: The Complete Rules for Babysitting My Children

We really appreciate the help. But seriously, we’re going to have to get a few things straight before we leave the kids in your care, grandma and grandpa.

Well, YES, I love the babysitting, really I do. You’re wonderful! The kids love it. They love you. I need to get away from them, so please don’t stop. I really need you.

But.

1 | Please stop making me look so bad, OK? My kids already think I’m no fun and a total bummer because I make them do “important” things like homework and picking up their filthy inside-out socks and whatnot. Could you just be a smidge less fun? Like a hair lower on a sugary-and-shiny scale? Not enough so I can actually compete with you, you understand. Just enough so I don’t look quite as Voldemort-ish.

2 | Don’t discipline them too much, and don’t discipline them too little. Could you just discipline them exactly right in the middle? You know, maybe not force them to finish their plate but also actually put veggies on their plate. Pretty much, I want to you to read my mind and discipline them exactly how I would, minus my occasional yelling. So, be like me, except a little better, but not too much better. (See #1.)

(What? This isn’t about my control-freak parenting tendencies at all. Shut up.)

3 | Chill on the gifts. You’ve been to our house. You know what slovenly housekeepers we are. I know, I know. But the last thing we need is more crap to put away or to pull from a hoarding child’s death grip on donation day. Besides, you’ll make Santa look bad. Don’t you like Santa? If you won’t do it for us, do it for Santa.

4 | Put them to bed on time. We’re so grateful that you’re babysitting, did I mention that? But, dear grandparents, have mercy on us. Have you ever seen these children the day after a grandparent-bender? No? It’s a toddler hangover, which means they cry and whine all day instead of just feeling sick and having a headache like a proper hangover. No, it’s us that has the headache. From the whining. Really, we appreciated that night out. Actually, can you come again? Like maybe right now?

5 | Chill on the junk food. Reports have it that there are “fun snacks” at the grandparents’ house. I like fun snacks as much as the next gal, but I don’t like transitioning children from an exclusive diet of fun snacks to – oh, what’s it called? – real food. It’s okay if you make a regular, well-rounded meal and they don’t want to eat some of it. Really. They won’t starve, and they won’t hate you. (I think. Kids, you don’t hate me, do you? Oh, crap. Maybe they do. Me and my lentils.)

6 | Keep the toy catalogs to yourself. I’ll give you one guess who introduced my children to the idea of American Girl dolls. You don’t have to tell children this stuff, you know. Look, my eldest is 11 and still none of my children know that the bakery at our grocery store gives out free cookies to children. (Grandparents, do NOT get any ideas. You are hereby forbidden to take our kids to our grocery store.) I digress.

The point is, American Girl dolls are just like cookies except that they cost $120 more than a cookie. And cookies don’t have “accessories sold separately” like $500 doll-sized French bakeries and juice bars. (No, the point was NOT that I’m a meanie who won’t even let her kids have a grocery store cookie. Stop changing the subject.)

7 | Ask me first, then ask the kids. “Hey, kids, how about we all go to Chuck E Cheese? Yes? Oh, let’s just go and ask your mom if it’s okay.” Um, do I have a choice? They’ve already interpreted your idle suggestion of loud, plasticky fun as an ironclad promise, you know. (But, wait, do I have to go? Because I’m thinking maybe you could take them, and this could actually work out well for me, too…)

8 | Don’t rock the baby to sleep. You know we take sleep very very seriously in our house, and we can’t stop yammering about the importance of sleep and bedtime routines – no, no, we’re not uptight, we’re just informed, of course. That’s why we’ve mentioned approximately 1,000 times that you must lay the baby down awake. DON’T ROCK THE BABY. Sure, now my kids are older and now I’m the indulgent auntie who rocked my little nephew to sleep just the other day, and ooooh he was so sweet and cuddly and squishy and…wait, what was I saying? Oh, never mind. Rock on, I suppose.

As long as you promise to keep babysitting.

Reality is an Optical Illusion: How to Teach Kids About Perception

We grown-ups sometimes forget that our kids’ perceptions and understandings of the world are often different from ours.

My mom was an incredible woman and a talented painter. Driven by a fierce and uncontrollable passion to create, she was the epitome of Susan Boyle’s song, “I am who I was born to be,” and she lived her life accordingly. Without a doubt she was loved dearly and respected by her many offspring.

In honor of her 85th birthday she held a one-woman exhibition to showcase her most recent work. Her colorful paintings, each of which she cherished the way a mother cherishes her children, were a genuine reflection of who she was: vibrant, vivacious, and vigorous.

And then, she fell.

Literally overnight she lost her stamina, her self-confidence, and her will to live. Downhill all the way, it was a slow, agonizing, and fearful process.

My brother and I share not only a deep love and respect for our parents and for one another, but also a lifetime of meaningful experiences and fond memories. And yet, the ways we dealt with my mom’s deteriorating health, emotional state of mind – and eventually her death – were radically different.

Being the son and living nearby, my brother was what my mom referred to as “her rock.” He was there. He took charge of whatever bureaucratic matters needed tending to. Being a scientist, he had a better understanding of her medical situation than the rest of us and was always there to speak with the doctors. Being a pragmatic doer, he got things done.

Being the daughter, I played a different role in my mom’s life. I was her confidante. Somehow over the years our mother-daughter roles reversed. Like a daughter, she talked; like a mom, I listened. She consulted and I gave advice, more often than not reiterating what she wanted to hear.

During the last few years of my mom’s life, my husband and I were working abroad. Every evening after work, we would call our moms back home. It was the one gift we could give them to compensate for the thousands of miles between us.

Some days my mom and my conversations were short and sweet. Other times they were prolonged, as she poured her heart out, sharing with me both past and present. “I never bother your brother with all this,” she used to say, as she rambled on. “He’s so busy! I’m lucky to have you. It’s cheaper than a psychologist!”

As her health worsened, our trips home became more frequent so that I could spend more time with her. And then, shortly before her death, my mom was hospitalized with serious kidney failure. We were a family in crisis and all hell broke loose.

During the first few days my brother and I exchanged fervent emails, in which we discussed my mom’s situation and explored different ways to help her, as she no longer could help herself. We both had good intentions and our hearts were definitely in the right place, but nonetheless our solutions differed drastically, causing much tension and conflict between us.

My brother’s understanding of what was best for my mom, did not gel with my interpretation of her wishes. No matter how hard I tried, there was no way I could persuade him without breaching my mom’s trust.

At one point, he wrote to me in despair, “You’re not here. You don’t understand the reality.”

That is when I began to question if there is such a thing as “reality.” What made my brother more of an authority about my mom’s reality than I? Did the fact that he was “on site” trump everything I knew about my mom and her situation from what she had shared with me alone?

I got on a plane and flew home.

One day in between visits with my mom, I was spending some quality time with my eight-year-old granddaughter. She was showing me the young girl/old woman optical illusion she had recently discovered on the Internet.

She was intrigued how people looking at the same picture could see two totally different images. “Just like Jasmine, Mrs. Cameron, and me,” she remarked. Jasmine was my granddaughter’s friend and Mrs. Cameron was her teacher.

“Meaning…?” I asked, hoping she would continue.

“When Mrs. Cameron looks at Jasmine and when I look at Jasmine we see two different girls! Mrs. Cameron thinks that Jasmine is stupid. No matter how hard Jasmine tries, Mrs. Cameron treats her like she’s dumb or something. If only Mrs. Cameron were a fly on the wall during recess,” she continued using a new expression she had recently learned. “She would hear all the smart things Jasmine says and how funny she is! Jasmine isn’t stupid, Grandma, just because Mrs. Cameron thinks so, right?”

“No, my lovely,” I reassured my granddaughter, “Jasmine isn’t stupid.”

And that’s when the penny dropped. While telling me about the optical illusions in her life, my eight-year-old granddaughter opened my eyes and taught me a profound truth: 

Reality is an optical illusion and we each have our own perceptions.

I’m an educator. My perceptions of the world are driven by my passion to teach and to delight. For me, life experiences – big ones like mom’s death as well as ordinary ones like chatting with my granddaughter – are learning opportunities meant to be shared.

We grown-ups sometimes forget that our kids’ perceptions and understandings of the world are often different from ours. Just like with optical illusions and Mrs. Cameron, we can be looking at the same thing and see two different images. It is not for us to judge which perceptions are right and which are wrong. From where our kids are standing, their perception is based on what they know.

As the responsible adults in our kids’ lives, it ‘s our job to provide them with tools that develop awareness that there is no absolute truth or unconditional reality, because people have different perceptions. We must help them expand their horizons and delve deeper, so that they can continually refine and redefine what they know.

The following family activity does just that.

Scribble Art 

  • Using a dark marker, one participant scribbles an abstract shape on a piece of paper.
  • Working together, brainstorm what the scribble could be.
  • Try to come up with as many different ideas as you can.
  • The scribble cannot remain an abstract design and must be turned into something “real” – a person, an animal, something from nature, or any other object.
  • Each player then traces the shape and transforms the scribble into one of the suggestions or anything else that comes to mind.
  • When done, share, compare, and discuss what you discovered from this activity in relation to how people looking at the same object see totally different things.

I recently conducted this activity with my husband and four grandchildren ages three to nine. It was fascinating to witness the different interpretations, as well as what they had to say about the differences.

Try this fun, eye-opening activity with your family and let us know how it goes!

How to be the Best Grandma (and Drive Your Adult Kids Crazy)

My mom is a grandma on steroids, blinded by adoration, paranoia, and utter subjectivity when it comes to the objects of her perfection – I meant, affection.

My mom is a grandma on steroids, blinded by adoration, paranoia, and utter subjectivity when it comes to the objects of her perfection – oops, I meant, affection.

She is wild about her grandchildren. So what exactly is the problem? Well, she does some things – lovingly, of course – that annoy the life out of her adult children.

Here are 7 of her nuttiest quirks:

1. She feeds the kids incessantly. 

My mom believes that it’s impossible to be “not hungry.”

“There’s always room,” she says. 

Sure Mom, if you want us to explode. Whenever I try to explain that we’ve already eaten, she acts as though she’s either hearing impaired or she’s hearing this concept for the first time. She flits about her kitchen opening and closing the refrigerator while covering every available surface with platters she prepared at 5 a.m., ignoring our protests.

By the way, she’s up that early because she’s worried about the grandchildren – anything could’ve happened overnight.

2. She thinks dessert is a food group to be consumed with every meal.

I beg my mother not to sneak brownies behind my back all day, but she insists that she only serves brownies once at most.

The other four desserts were just, “a little something.” A tiny cookie or two, a cupcake, chocolate and some candy. She’ll claim that last one doesn’t even count because she pulled it out of her purse on the way to the ice cream truck.

3. She’s forgotten all about the rule regarding wasting food. 

My mother has conveniently forgotten all about the starving kids in Africa we heard so much about growing up.

Her new motto is, “No one should eat what they don’t want to eat.”

If that had been her motto when I was kid, I would’ve subsisted on chocolate, bread, and French fries. But she didn’t allow that kind of nonsense back when she was a conventional person.

4. She is fiercely overprotective of her grandchildren. 

My siblings and I heavily monitor what we share with my mom regarding the grandchildren’s schooling. She’s not exactly what you’d expect from a well-respected, retired teacher who went on to get a PhD and become a full professor.

When she found out that a kid at school had picked on my niece, she launched into, “What? Someone picked on you at school? I’m calling that dumb-useless-no-good-principal of yours!” 

Um, Mom? No, you’re not. That’s not how we handle conflict. Please stop calling the principal names in front of the kids.

5. She calls her kids every day, at all hours of the day. 

The same woman who sent us off to college and trusted that we could take care of ourselves all week long until our weekly check-in, now calls ten times a day. I mean, after all, these are her grandchildren we’re raising.

The calling is lovely, but the start time, not so much. My mother is especially fond of pre-7 a.m. calls on her way to swimming laps with her early-riser friends. That way she can check in with us to verify that everyone is eating breakfast – how can you function on an empty stomach?

6. She is consumed with grandchild-related paranoia. 

On any given day my voicemail is filled with, “I’ve already called twice this morning on your home phone and three times on your cell, and you didn’t pick up. I left messages for the kids too. I’m wondering if I should just head over to the hospital.”  

For years I’ve explained that our mornings are nuts. I may be upstairs, outside, or just busy. My kids are not likely to pick up their phones during school and maybe – just maybe – I can’t get to the phone.

The likelihood of the grandchildren lying in a ditch at the crack of dawn when we just spoke the night before is slim-to-none, but that doesn’t mean the disaster scenarios in her head don’t take on an ugly life of their own.

7. She acts as though her grandchildren are perfect. 

My mother truly believes her grandchildren are perfect. As the mother of two of her grandchildren, I can assure you she’s wrong.

To help convince me, my mother offers, “I just saw photos of so-and-so’s grandchildren. Not so cute and not so smart, if you want to know the truth.”

When I tell her that I’m sure she’s wrong, biased, and that no, I don’t really want to know “the truth,” she’s completely shocked. I ask her how she’d feel if someone said that about her grandchildren?

“Well, that wouldn’t happen because mine are perfect.”

My children have always worshipped their grandma, and I mean, why shouldn’t they? She adores them, dotes on them, protects them, and loves them with abandon.

When they were little, and the kids had spent a weekend with my mother, engage in a rewiring protocol designed to bring them back to reality. We worked over-time to correct, redirect, and drive home the point that our house rules were different from Grandma’s, and non-negotiable. Now that they’re teens, my kids understand the shtick and appreciate the eccentricity, without fully buying into it.

And even my mom has found a way to laugh at herself – but she’s not changing any time soon. 

How to Help Kids Connect With Older Generations

Kids are often uncomfortable around older people (even grandparents). Here are research-backed tips to help them connect, for the benefit of both parties.

My grandmother turned 90 last month. She is spunky, funny, and an incredibly talented crafter (we’re talking award winning quilts, hand-hooked rugs, and fabric art).

She raised five children who have gone out into the world and generated an extended family of about 40 people, including 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. A few weeks ago, we threw her a surprise party. It was a raucous affair with a series of toasts, lots of hugs, and multiple rounds of singing.

At 90, Grammie still lives alone. She has undoubtedly kept her mind sharp through her intricate crafting, but like anyone who is aging she can get confused or forgetful. She is amazingly self-sufficient in so many ways but also needs support from family, especially her kids, as she continues to navigate the ins and outs of daily life. 

Despite these natural effects of aging, I still see Grammie as the hilarious woman who laughs so hard she can’t tell her own jokes and has been known to belt out, “Come on baby light my fire!” while doing dishes.

great-grandmother

But I often wonder if my kids, who haven’t had the opportunity to know her for so many years, see her the same way. Sometimes they seem unsure how to act around her or shy away from contact. My son asks questions about great gram and her life as he seeks to understand how she is related to him and to all of the other kids his age. 

Not knowing who she was when she was younger, they are figuring out who she is at the age of 90. 

That’s what older people are to them – unknown.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that my children are less comfortable with the unknown. That’s what older people are to them – unknown. 

They have few older people in their lives, and even fewer who are at the stage of life where more visible physical changes are settling in.  This is the result of a modern lifestyle in which intergenerational living is less common. Many of us don’t live with, or extremely close to, our parents or grandparents (though, of course, some cultural traditions value these connections more than others). 

More than that, our lives are not always organized in a way that promotes intergenerational contact. 

Our children spend time at school and home where their adult caregivers are the age of their parents or grandparents, but not typically beyond their 60’s. And we spend less time with neighbors than previous generations might have. 

The result, not just in our family, but in research around intergenerational perceptions in general, is that children who do not spend time around older adults have less positive perceptions of them (Heyman et al, 2011; Davidson et al, 2008; Okoye, 2008; Osborne Hannon and Hall Gueldner, 2006). 

This means that both generations may be missing out on the potential benefits of interactions with each other.

I am looking for ways to help my kids feel more comfortable with older friends and family members and older folks they might meet in the future – to help them make connections that are valuable to them and to older generations. According to Page et al (1981), I’d better act soon; this research showed that children should be educated about aging before they are six years old if we are to foster more positive images of aging moving forward. 

So what can we do?  Here are three ideas I might try…

Increasing the frequency of positive interactions between children and elderly family and friends seems to be an important first step. 

We can be more conscious about visiting my grandmother every time we are “in her neighborhood” (a few hours away) and we can find ways to steer the conversation toward story-telling that might help my children to relate to her and appreciate what she can share with them. 

Likewise, we have an older neighbor whom we usually only see in passing; we can make an effort to check in on him more often or we can rekindle our friendship with an older neighbor who lived in our previous neighborhood. By doing so, we can demonstrate to our children that our elders are an important part of our family and our community.

Formal intergenerational programming also has been shown to have positive impacts on children’s perceptions of aging (Heyman et al, 2011). 

I actually remember doing a pen pal project with an elderly friend of my parents when I was young, and I remember my sister interviewing our great aunt to learn about her incredibly interesting life.  These experiences probably made us more comfortable with our older friends and family, but they were few and far between and didn’t happen until we were much older.

Joint child and eldercare programs look amazing, but probably aren’t an option for everyone right now. Instead, we can look for community-based programming that could help our children to engage with friendly older individuals. For example, there are programs that engage retired seniors as volunteers to read to children in local libraries or in school. The added benefit is that these programs are also beneficial for the adults who volunteer, enabling them to participate more fully in their communities and increase their sense of self-worth and connectedness (Skropeta et al, 2014).

Beyond in-person interactions we can also look at how older individuals are represented, if at all, in our children’s books and other media. 

Research has shown that introducing children to books with a variety of older characters can help them to develop “more nuanced thinking about age” (Larkin et al, 2013). Just how often do you see an older person in the books that you read to your children, and how are they represented? If there are elderly characters, what are they doing? A fascinating study by Sciplino et al (2010) showed that more than 50% of grandparents in books across three cultures were shown in “sedentary physical activities” (remember the four grandparents sharing a bed in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?). In addition, 59% of grandfathers had grey hair. The researchers argued that kids are being presented with a “homogeneous image of grandparents”. But there are alternatives. Check out your local library for books with interesting older characters doing interesting things.  For some ideas, browse these compiled lists from Reading Rockets, Generations United, or Pinterest.

There is so much potential for positive outcomes from intergenerational relationships. It’s worth paying attention to how these relationships play out in our families and communities; taking active steps to make these interactions a part of our lives, if they are missing, is an important part of raising kids.