This past week has been about differentiating what is real from the unreal to my children. I explained to my daughter that mermaids are not real, but dolphins are. I then explained to my other daughter that squids are real but giant squids taken over by animated characters are not. Then, I explained to my son that kings and roundtables are real, King Arthur may or may not have been real, but Merlin’s magic is definitely not real. I thought about how much of their world has yet to be sorted in terms of reality and fantasy. I’m not sure if that process ever really ends; in fact, it only gets more complicated.
In my teaching, I’ve been focusing on laws and regulations vs. self-censorship and which has more influence over the restrictions of free speech. I also have discussed ideologies of motherhood and how they shape perceptions of what “real” mothers are to different cultures. Our perceptions of what is real based on assumptions (both individual and cultural) can be skewed from the facts on the ground.
Thanksgiving is one of those liminal spaces. While it might be easier to explain to a child that mermaids are not real, it’s more difficult to explain the history and construction of Thanksgiving. Do I explain Thanksgiving as a national holiday? Where does Black Friday fall? I choose to use this time to talk about thanks- that seems a valuable topic where consensus can be reached.
So, as Thanksgiving is about to start I should say I’m thankful to be surrounded by people who force me to question the real in my life and for the comments on this blog from those of you who wrestle with, question, and challenge ideas I’ve put forth.
My 7-year-old daughter wants a pair of UGGs boots, which cost $110.00. Where does she get the idea that this level of spending is even possible in our household? Certainly, she has not inherited her fashion gene from me. My only consent to fashion is not leaving the house wearing sweatpants, and I frequently break that rule for school drop-offs and pickups. I’ve been wearing the same pair of shoes for five years. They have a small hole (which is unnoticeable) and are only slightly cold on a wintry day. In other words, I prioritize utility over fashion in clothing.
I carefully explained to Maya my concerns about her desire for these boots. I borrowed from a lesson I use in my class on ideology, where I always use shoes as an example. How many pairs of shoes does anyone need, I ask my students. After they add up dress shoes, casual heels, sneakers, sandals, and slippers, they come up with a number between three and several dozen. I then give them the correct answer: one. I tried to make my daughter understand the difference between need vs. want and described how consumer businesses thrive on convincing people that they need things they don’t. However, she continued to insist that she needed these boots.
I figured the path of least resistance was to find a similar boot for less money. I discovered the Bear Paws, which at $40 seemed like quite a deal in comparison. They look like the same shoe to me (compare them by clicking on the links here and here). Of course, my daughter quickly pointed out what were unnoticeable differences to me but deal-breakers for her: the buttons do not look the same, and they have different brand names.
Ever the patient professor, I decided to try a different approach and explored the difference in cost. We went over what was $60 worth (two Lego sets for my son, or half of a week’s groceries for our family). “What would you spend $60 on, Maya?” I asked. Without a beat, she quickly responded, “On the Uggs.”
I called a close friend and expected her to side with me immediately, but she surprised me. If my daughter were asking for a non-fashion-related item, she argued, I would most likely give in, as evidenced by a previous purchase I made (I know she was thinking about the American Girl Twin double stroller. I admit it was a weak moment for me, but I’ve been able to catch up on so many emails while my girls played with that thing). My friend thinks my contempt for the fashion industry is fine for me but wrong to enforce on my fashionista daughter. How do you teach a 7-year-old about consumerism? Is it wrong to impose my fashion values (or lack of them) onto her? Am I dooming her to never fitting in, or providing her with an independence from consumerism?
I’ve decided to take my daughters to see the Berenstain Bears in NYC. They’ve always liked those country bears, and it seems like good times (to be clear, I’m also aware that the franchise has recently launched a new faith-based series -- not my cup of tea -- but this live show seems secular in nature).
Anyway, I expected that I would have to decide how much I was willing to pay to sit closer to the stage. I have always been a “rear mezzanine” theatergoer myself, but we all want better for our kids, so I was willing to consider something in the side-orchestra range. What I didn’t expect was the option to partake in the “grassy knoll” seats. Apparently, those who purchase VIB (Very Important Bear) tickets grant their kids the privilege to sit on astroturf grass and wear special bunny ears.
This option struck me as a bit divisive. It’s one thing to explain to my child that we can’t afford a good view of the show. It’s altogether another to have them watch other kids receiving such blatant perks. Sure, adult audiences can survive the envy they experience from seeing a fortunate few sitting in the box seats, but should we subject our 3-year olds to that feeling? Is there no longer a short but sacred time for children to believe that they all have an equal opportunity?
I realize that these are first-world problems: many families cannot afford to attend a show like this in the first place. Sure, the American dream may have always been a myth, but at least we had that myth. I remember a time when, once you paid the price for admission, everyone had the same experience. Now, preferred/VIP packages have become standard fare. At the circus, only kids in the premium-priced ringside seats get invited in the ring. Once, everyone waited in line at amusement parks. Now, front-of-the-line passes allow some children to legally cut in front of others who cannot afford that privilege. The implicit message seems to be: yes, money can buy anything.
Part of me wonders whether this early lesson can be a teaching moment. Life isn’t fair, but we can work together to make it just a bit fairer. I have a nagging suspicion, however, that my children will learn something else. Money buys access and opportunity, and without it, you will be kicked off the grassy knoll.
I feel that I’m overdue explaining to my children (at least to my nine year-old) where babies come from. I’ve been delaying and delaying. They already have a vague sense of pregnancy and birth (my recent book is on pregnancy and media so certainly those words are talking about often in my house), but I’ve yet to do the big reveal.
This is not, as many may guess, because I’m embarrassed or feel awkward about having the first of “the talks.” Instead, it’s because of all those years being trained as a research scholar. I feel I’m still in the proposal phase of my project, and I’m not ready to commit to the dissertation. I’ve certainly done my review of literature. After I botched the whole what-happens-to-people-when-they-die question (which resulted in months of my son obsessed with cemeteries and near-death experiences), I decided I had to be better prepared for the next big question. I have read pretty much all the books on the subject. I now own “It’s Not the Stork,” “Where Do I Come From” and “It’s So Amazing,” and they sit up on my shelf right next to Foucault and Butler (it seemed to be the best place for them). I read article after article on talking to your children about sex and babies, and I conducted extensive ethnographic interviews with every parent I knew.
This is where things became muddled. Most sources advise that you should only offer a little information and not give the children more than they are asking for. I’m not sure that is the best method. As a professor, I have learned that half of my job is getting the students to ask the right questions; that doesn’t always happen by just sitting around and waiting. And, in contrast to the group of books I’ve mentioned above, too many other books indicate only how men and women make babies. What if my child never asks about how two men or two women get a baby? Am I supposed to just wait until that question comes up before I offer that information? Wouldn’t I be complicit in constructing the having-babies narrative in a heteronormative way? Or, am I over-professorizing a talk people have been giving for ages?
Either way, I’m ready to begin because, as I’ve told so many of my students, sometimes you need to move past the proposal stage, ready or not.
Above is a note that I wrote to my daughter’s teacher this week. It’s not the first of these types of notes that I’ve written. A couple of years ago, I wrote one for my older daughter requesting that the teacher reassure her that she will not get sent to the principal’s office for asking to go to the bathroom during the day. Apparently, an earlier announcement from the teacher about kids who were taking too many of these “bathroom” breaks (my daughter was not among these offenders) prompted my child to be scared a bit too straight. I also had to reassure my daughter that she did not have to finish her lunch if she was full (she was getting upset stomachs because she overreacted to a teacher telling another child to finish her lunch).
I feel the need to re-evaluate my parenting approach. What am I doing to raise children that are such strict observers of rules that they follow them even when they no longer make sense? Am I raising future bureaucrats? And, why are my daughters this way and not my son?
Recently, I was with my son at a hotel’s breakfast buffet. He was insisting on putting a bagel into the toaster without first cutting it in half. He kept resisting my warning to split the bagel, until I finally said, “That’s just not the way people toast bagels!” He calmly replied, “Mom, I don’t like to do things just because other people do.” I was both frustrated by and proud of his statement. I love that he can be his own person, and I think that trait will serve him well in life, but sometimes he needs to listen to advice from those with experience, who can tell you the bagel is going to get stuck. My daughters, on the other hand, listen to authority to the point where it is nonsensical. Instinct, it seems to me, should lead you take off your coat when you are hot.
I find the same challenge balancing a respect for authority in the classroom. I encourage my students to question readings and reassure them that I won’t judge them for not agreeing with me. However, they also need to respect the rules of the classroom and the authority of the teacher. The longer I teach, the less I have to invoke this authority, as it seems to naturally emerge. At home, though, I haven’t found the balance yet. How do you strike the balance between teaching your students (or children, or both) a respect for authority and rules while also instilling in them a sense of individualism and the confidence to challenge ideas that don’t make sense?
I’m reading lately the press for the about-to-be-released book by Deborah Spar, Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. I must first issue a disclaimer that I have not yet read the book (it will be out next week), but the articles and interviews highlight Spar’s assertion that women should strive to be second best. She appropriates from economics the term “satisficing.”
I have to say that, while I’m not sure how I feel about this from a feminist perspective, on a personal level, I think I’ve already been following her advice, except I call it “good enough,” and I’ve written about it here before. I think it is why I love September.
In September I’m really at my best. I still come to class with well thought out lesson plans. I’m even ahead of the students in the readings. I’m still cheery at the beginning of a meeting, and I work tirelessly on my assessment reports. I’m also a pro on the mom front. I’m a crazy perfectionist for the school supply list. I buy everything on that list down to the Magic Eraser (which I don’t even use in my own home) and the fancy headphones. I even make sure to find the pump version of hand sanitizer and the Crayola brand of crayons (again, exceeding my own home standards).
Last week, while I was gathering my hundreds of dollars worth of supplies and my husband was asking me why I was fretting over the fact that the required orange folder didn’t seem orange enough to me, I explained it to him. This is my chance to be my vision of the perfect mom. I have met every teacher demand. And --it’s the only time I really can during the year. I never have the energy to put together Halloween candy packets. Our version of the “Drug Free Campaign” poster misspelled the title “Durg Free.” By the end of the year, I am packing the most ridiculous school lunches. For most of the academic year, I have to settle for “good enough.”
I also have instilled this philosophy into my children. My son just told me he’s going to run for treasurer instead of president of the student council because he feels the race for president is too competitive (plus, he likes math). I applaud his strategic style of not overreaching.
So, if Spar thinks being good enough should be a life philosophy, I’m okay with that, but I’m not sure that everyone should be. There are some professions where good enough simply isn’t. I don’t want a just-good-enough surgeon. And, this shouldn’t be framed as a problem only for women. Everyone has work-life balance concerns that need to be better acknowledged so that we can excel where we must. Where do you adopt second-best behaviors? Is it enough?
I’ve spent the last week constructing babysitting ads. We are losing our beloved sitter to a full-time graduate program and, while we only wish her the best, we are sad to see her go. She was the Mary Poppins of babysitters. She didn’t believe in screen time except on rare occasions and organized complicated scavenger hunts that would keep my children busy for hours. She embraced their quirks and thought about them even when she wasn’t sitting. Plus, she was a former EMT! It’s hard to find someone to live up to those standards.
We found our last sitter through “word of mouth,” which doesn’t seem to be working this time. We have sent pleading emails to everyone we know and others whom we have identified as hubs of the community. My husband’s latest idea was to head over to the local bagel shop (his reasoning being that the bagels are so good there, that only those with the most discriminating senses would frequent the shop).
Realizing my options were dwindling, I decided to head into the online babysitter matchmaking world. Writing up an ad for the caregiver of your children has become quite complicated for me.
Years ago, a mother advertised on Craigslist for a babysitter, describing exactly whom she didn’t want. She was both admired and ridiculed for her demands and opinionated tone. In my Motherhood courses, we have deconstructed her ad and the reaction to it, discussing how people judge and label her motherhood and what she defines as caregiver. For the first time, though, I see the mother’s desire to write a “real” ad from a new perspective. My ad is rather simple. It says, “Looking for babysitter for Mondays and Wednesdays from 2pm-7pm (sometimes later) for 3 children (9 yr old boy, 7 yr old girl, and 4 yr old girl). Must pick up from bus and start afternoon routines (snack, HW, dinner, etc). Requirements are own transportation, a love of children, and be a non-smoker.”
I placed the ad on Sitter City after much debate over whether I should choose that site or the newer Care.com. I based my decision on an article that explores whether Care.com inappropriately cribbed its business plan from its rivals. Ultimately, they are both legitimate businesses in my eyes, but since I was on the fence, I relied on the playground rule: go with whoever was first.
I posted my ad and was advised by the computer (I get lots of emails from their computer -- way more than I get from any potential babysitters) that I needed to show my family’s personality. I added two lines: “Willing to play Candyland (over and over again) and can convince children to shut off Sponge Bob and play outside.” I had some concerns (too snarky?) but they said to show my personality, no? However, the ad doesn’t reveal my true desires and misgivings about finding a babysitter. Basically, I’m really looking for someone to replace me for the hours when I can’t be there. This is my honest ad:
“Looking for babysitter for three children. I need someone to love them when I am not there and treat them as if they were your own children. Except, you have to remember that they aren’t your children, and you must completely follow all my rules. You need to be able to negotiate the fact that you have two masters. You work for me, but you also have to earn the respect and love of my children (although they can be bribed pretty easily with ice cream). The babysitter needs to be completely able to deal with medical or other emergencies but also have fun. You need to be authoritative but not so much so that the kids don’t look forward to your arrival. You need to let me leave for work while a child is screaming for me and reassure
me via text that said child stopped crying 30 seconds later. You need to know when to text me, but also understand there will be times I’m stuck in a meeting and you’ll need to deal with the crisis at hand. You can’t ever really call in sick (‘cause I can’t) but not spread any germs to the kids. You need to respect that their grandmother will stop by anytime she wants, and you will have to endure the sugar crash from a post-Nana visit. You need to be able to do 4th grade math (it’s really hard), help construct a book report on Egyptian periods, and discourage overly perfectionist writing samples from my 7 year old. And, most important, you have to have the perfect balance of doing a great enough job that I feel okay that the kids are with you but not so absolutely fabulous that they ask for you too often when I’m with them.”
My honest ad reveals my own insecurities as a mother and my conflicts about being a working mom. It acknowledges the complicated relationship that I know caregivers experience. It reflects my desire for my children to build long-lasting relationships with others while hoping I still have a primary influence in their lives. Or, maybe I should just let my husband go get his sesame bagel with cream cheese.
I have just returned from my “vacation.” It’s in quotes because I don’t think that one could ever truly call traveling across the country with three children under 10 an actual rest. Still, I wasn’t rewriting my attendance policy for my syllabus. It was what I had been craving – uninterrupted time to focus on just being a mom.
I had time to reflect on my parenting style. This was particularly evident to me at Legoland near San Diego. It seems to me, whether intentionally or not, the park has promoted a philosophy of parent/kid independence. Some of their rides are designed so that the child must go on by herself, so you are forced to observe your child from a distance. In other spots, the parents wait in line for rides while kids play in a space, sometimes briefly out of view from adults.
Despite some terrorizing moments watching my 7 year old navigate (or I should say not navigate) a boat and backing up the ride for a good 25 minutes, I can see the appeal of this philosophy. It has made me consider how physical layout and architectural design contributes to parenting philosophy. Do open floor plans in homes encourage more independence since you can keep an eye on kids without having to be in the same room, or are kids fostering more independence in their basement playrooms? It seems interesting to me that childhood independence, fostered so naturally when I was a child (I played kickball in the evening on the street!) has to be consciously constructed by this generation. I see it in my college students still tethered to their parents by text, and sometimes I receive phone calls from parents checking in on junior.
When should we protect, and when should we encourage wandering? When do we handhold students through assignments, and when to we leave them to struggle their way out of the mess of writing? How have these questions been answered differently over the years? In addition to helicopter parenting, does helicopter “professoring” exist? My youngest is starting kindergarten next month, so I will be fully immersed in the phase of parenting that is more about letting go than holding on. I wonder how this new phase will shift my thoughts in teaching.
I have been teaching now for 14 years, so it is not often that students ask me a question that I can’t answer. I remember the days when I’d be puzzled and confused by an off-the-wall question and, when I was particularly green, afraid of not having the answer. I finally figured out, thankfully, that I can admit not knowing an answer and promise to get back to them after I looked it up (or challenge them to find the answer). By now, I’ve heard the same questions so often that I can anticipate them, and I know that a class isn’t working quite well when the right questions aren’t being asked.
As I raise my children, I feel thrust back to the days when I was bombarded with unexpected questions that I’m not sure how to answer. At least with teaching, I knew to expect questions during that hour and twenty minutes I was standing in front of the room. With my kids, however, the questions come at any hour. I have found that the more preoccupied I am, the more likely the question will be one that could be formative.
Take this morning, for example. I was busy trying to get my three children off to camp and already thinking about the overdue recommendation letter for a student that I promised to write. I’m trying to locate the sunblock stick (without the stick, the girls will organize a sunblock strike). At that moment, my son says to me that he’s figured out that there are important jobs in this world and unimportant ones, and he thinks he’ll want an important job when he grows up.
I try to probe further while locating the towels and water bottles. “Offer me examples of unimportant jobs,” I ask him. He says working at a gas station or as a cashier at a clothing store is not important, but being a professor or a scientist is. I’m horrified by what I perceive as his judgment of the value of some work, but I try to quickly turn this into a teaching moment by reframing how all jobs are important but require different skills. I could tell he wasn’t convinced.
At this point we all have to leave the house or we will be late for camp, and my son has moved on. Since this morning, I’ve had some time to think how I will explain different types of skilled versus unskilled labor, have a discussion about perceptions of jobs as important or less important (and why we reach those conclusions), and maybe even throw in how we over-value actors and sports stars, but I also recognize that I lost the moment when he was most interested. It’s like when I had to go back to my class ten years ago and explain how I confused FM and AM radio transmission the day before. Then, I was embarrassed but knew I had to right a wrong. Now, I’m driven by the perception my 9 year-old listens to what I say (that time will soon be gone), and I have the power to frame how he sees the world. While I may have been doing that for 14 years for my 18-21 year-old students, an hour and twenty minutes twice a week is less scary than 24 hours every day. I’ll proceed after I buy some more sunblock sticks.
It’s been nice to watch so many people wait for the royal baby. Not because of any interest I have in the royal birth, but because it is one of the few times left in society where people have to wait. Typically, it’s just the expectant mom and dad and extended family as opposed to the world, but still, I think it is great practice for people. My children hardly know what waiting is like. They turn on the television and, if what is playing doesn’t interest them, they just press some buttons to get their show on demand or on our DVR. Car trips, once a staple of forced waiting, are now just a time to watch DVDs or play video games. Bank lines, store lines, even doctors offices all have video screens or other types of entertainment to keep their patrons occupied.
I’ve noticed that, when the kids are faced with the rare situation when they have to sit and wait, they are just not that good at it. We were at a Bar Mitzvah (not the party part but the prayer part) and I had to have my husband remove two of my children because they couldn’t sit still. I’ve noticed a similar parallel with my students in my class. They refuse to be bored -- not even for a minute. I try to make my classes interesting, at times even entertaining, but they need to learn that not everything is always fun and games. Sometimes boredom is a good thing.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman described a world in which people expect entertainment everywhere. What happens to a society where people are never allowed to be bored? I’ve generated some of my best ideas while bored. I love waiting in a line and just looking around. And--most importantly -- I’ve learned how to not look bored. I can listen to the most boring student presentation without my class ever knowing how bored I really was. I’ve come to realize that being able to get through down time is a skill.
This is why I am taking a stand this summer. I am creating “boredom time,” when I will teach my children how to be bored. No more electronic devices in the car. They need to learn to reflect, and if they are bored, keep it to themselves. I think I’m teaching them a life-long skill that will make them better adults, or at least more patient ones. Any suggestions on how to apply this lesson in my classroom?