The Children Are Watching

He was about eighteen years old, confident and brimming with a raucous if not unsettling laughter that seemed to emanate from his being.  He garnered attention, even from a distance; and he seemed to hold a certain court with the peers who surrounded him.  That he thought he was very funny was clear.  Whispers, then eruptions of more laughter, he held his young audience rapt.  Perhaps picking up on a theme he had hitherto established only verbally, he removed his sweatshirt and positioned it under his t-shirt and in an instant molded it into the shape of a sophomoric caricature of two breasts.  His cackling escalated.  He stood up and proceeded to parade himself around reminding everyone within earshot that “hey, honey,” his “eyes were up here.”

I looked at my two children, who were blissfully unaware of his antics only twenty feet away, and was grateful they were so engrossed in their latest playground project.  But then I looked at the twenty-plus six- to seven-year-olds who surrounded him, who were in this young man’s care and thought, “Where are we?”

You see, this 18-year-old man is a camp counselor, in charge of and a role model to more than two dozen young people–girls who must have looked at his display and wondered what his parody says about their bodies, boys who contemplated what it means to be a young man.

emersonSome might argue that among older children and adults these sorts of shenanigans are while admittedly bawdy ultimately harmless fun.  And while I fiercely disagree that these displays are not only poor excuses for a sense of humor but also anything but harmless, I think most of us can agree that they belong nowhere near children.   Children see adults–even the youngest and least mature of the adults–as worthy of emulation, as guides to the world they will one day inherit.  And a fifteen-second shtick such as this has the power to wreak havoc with a young girl’s self-esteem not to mention perpetuate misguided notions to young boys about what it means to be a man precisely because it comes from one they see as a role model.

As a parent, of course, this is more than disconcerting.  Who are the adults–young and old alike–who are influencing our children?  Who is helping to form our sons’ and daughters’ senses of self?   Because we know we cannot raise our children in the proverbial bubble, we send them off with other adults–to school, to camp, to workshops, on play dates and sleepovers–and we have to trust.  And most of the time it’s fine.  But then there are the times it’s not.

What happens next for this young man, this camp counselor who may not even realize the impact he has, who has been trusted by parents and employers and the community to be appropriate, I cannot say.   What I can say is while I know he’s not the first and he won’t be the last to say or do something in this vein in front of the children for whom he is charged with caring, I hope he learns from this.  He’s somebody’s son and may someday be somebody’s father–not to mention your child’s teacher or coach.

We can’t eradicate all the ills, but I believe we can make difference–perhaps it’s the only way we can make a difference–by observing, speaking up, and tackling one at a time.

A Boy and a Dog

Today I watched my eight-year-old son prepare for his last day of his first job.  Oscar has been a dog-walker–and a proud one at that.  His charge was Lauri, an adorable if not older dachshund mix who was personable and sweet and seemed oh-so-happy to see Oscar each afternoon for the last two-and-a-half weeks.  And Oscar was happy to see her.  We have two dogs, and Oscar helps walk them as well; but he and Lauri formed a special bond.  He knew her owners were away and that she must be missing them, so he did his best to make his time with her fun.  He took her to the beach, let her dip her paws, walked her through the park for a little meet and greet, had the patience to let her sniff every shrub she needed to check, and he did a little run with her on the way back–just a little one–because, as he said, “She likes it.  It makes her laugh.”

When he got back to the house, he put ice cubes in her water, patted her head, and looked at her the way so many dogs have been looked at by so many little boys.

This afternoon he watched the clock.  He knew he had to walk her at a specific time today, his last day, so he wanted to make sure he was on time.  But as the hour drew nearer, his face became despondent.  I knew what was bubbling beneath the surface of this growing boy who was trying very hard to house the vast feelings he was experiencing.

I suggested he draw a picture for Lauri, something she could remember him by.

And so he did.

And then he handed it to me.

IMG_1817

And then he cried.

And then I cried.

Because what else is there to do when you experience such beauty?

Not Bad Problems to Have

IMG_1211Recently in our little corner of New England the weather has been very, well, New England—days of desperate quests for air-conditioning followed by my tearing the house upside down to find my fleece-lined slippers.  In other words, it has been perfect movie weather.

Except that since we made a concerted effort to reduce our children’s screen time, they seem to have lost their interest in said screens—almost completely.

This is not necessarily a bad problem to have, of course.  That they prefer playing or reading to watching television is the stuff of dreams.  But there are those days—those days that are too hot or too wet to be outside—that a movie is just what the mother (or father or caregiver) ordered.   There are countless films that have much to offer, and everyone deserves and is a little better after downtime.

However, there is no longer any downtime in our house—despite my ardent suggestions:

“Hey, guys, since it’s so hot and you haven’t watched any television in, what, the last five days, what do you think about a DVD this afternoon?”

They think not and disappear upstairs or to the porch or the backyard to play.

Our house is messier, noisier, and I am without a doubt more tired than I have ever been.  But I think in the long run these, too, will not be bad problems to have.

He Has His Back

At a place that shall remain nameless on a day and at a time that shall remain shrouded, a young man, slightly older and much larger than Oscar, took it upon himself to share his thoughts on my oldest son’s name:

Ha, ha.  Oscar?!  Do you eat garbage?  Like Oscar in the trashcan?  Ha, ha, ha.

My son handled it with more aplomb than I ever would have expected, and, to be honest, more aplomb than I.  So, this post is not about his reaction to the unfortunate but all-to-prevalent teasing that is the bane of childhood.

It’s also not about bullying or teasing in general.

Or about how in an instant a typically reasonable adult human being can be reduced to a very unreasonable shell of her former self.

IMG_1212It’s about a brother’s reaction.

Edgar, when he had my ear and was away from Oscar’s, asked:  “Mom, that boy wasn’t being nice to my brother, was he?”

I said no, that he was making fun of his brother’s name and that that was unnecessary and unkind.

Edgar thought for a minute, and then–in a moment of sibling solidarity–said, “I’m going to have to beat that kid up.  I can make fun of Oscar, but that kid can’t.”

Edgar walked off and left me thinking.  Of course, we don’t encourage or accept violence as a way to solve problems or deal with issues.  But despite his stated method, which I can correct, Edgar’s pitch-perfect reaction was precisely that–perfect.  He loves his brother, does not want to see anyone hurt him, and stands ready to defend him.

Oscar may or may not want Edgar’s–or anyone else’s–defense as he negotiates life’s challenges; but it has to be an extreme comfort to know his brother is there, in his corner and ready to metaphorically beat away the bullies.

Oscar is the oldest, incredibly responsible and reasonable, and isn’t plagued by epilepsy or ADHD; so, I have always assumed that in their relationship Oscar would be the only one doing the protecting.

What a relief to know I was wrong.

Questions and Answers

IMG_0947He’s known the word “uterus” since he was probably three years old–not because he was particularly precocious, though he is that, but because of a book about adoption he loved to hear again and again that featured a birthmother who had “a baby growing in her uterus.”  He always seemed to be as intrigued by the language of the book as he was by the concepts.  And for the last five years, this is where Oscar’s questions hovered–about what happens in said uterus, how the baby comes out, and what happens next.  I answered each question without embarrassment as it came up and simply waited for the next.

However, recently the question I knew was coming but caught me off-guard nonetheless arrived:  How does the baby get in there in the first place?

Every parent has to field this one, and every parent does it differently.  However, when your family is formed through adoption, these questions require, beyond the science, a different approach.  In adoptive families, biology is not even in the background–it’s nonexistent.  We don’t talk about how Edgar looks just like his paternal aunt or how August must have inherited a particular propensity from his maternal uncle.  We don’t have stories about pregnancy cravings and corresponding food preferences in our children.  The phrase “mini-me” is not ours.  Adoptive families have their own stories and their own phrases–just not the same ones as biological families.

And all of this is okay–more than okay, in fact.  It’s just that when it’s time for this talk, there are added complexities that reside in questions that render the biological ones simple:  How did my birthparents meet?  Did they decide to have me?  Did they love each other?

I have always believed that if children are able to articulate a question, it deserves an honest albeit age-appropriate response.  And I’ve never been uncomfortable with telling my children I don’t know something.

What does trouble me is when I do . . .

By Hand and From the Heart

My entrepreneurial eight-year-old expressed a desire to fashion his own business cards today.  He has been a dog-walker for a week now and feels that getting his name out there will help him to move on his dream to buy a little $800,000 home he’s had his eye on for a couple of months.

We did what most everyone does when they need to find something, anything, and started by entering “business card templates” into Google.  Then we typed “business card templates free” (because who doesn’t like free?).  Then “business cards dog-walking.”

It reminded me of my general experience with wallpaper books—too many options and I become easily overwhelmed if not lost.  I longed for someone to give me just three choices.

Interestingly, my son seemed underwhelmed with my approach and asked, “Couldn’t I just make them myself?”

I quickly grabbed a piece of paper, lest he change his mind, gave him a pen, and let his soon-to-be-fourth-grade penmanship go to work.  He then asked if he could include a visual, maybe a small picture of him walking his first dog.

IMG_1472As he crafted his card, we talked about some of the claims he wanted to include: Yes to the word “professional” since he’s been paid for his services; No to saying he has been in business since 1800.

When he was finished, he proudly brought his finished card to me.  I looked at it, smiled, and thought to myself,  “There is nothing better to be found in all the search engines in the world.”  I told him we could make copies on cardstock at the store and he’d be ready to give them out.

He asked if I thought they would help attract new customers.  And as I looked at his earnest face then at his sweet drawing accompanied by his best, his neatest printing, I thought, “How could they not?”

A Man of Means

IMG_1387Oscar earned his first paycheck this week.

He is a dog-walker, and a dedicated one at that.  And watching his emerging work ethic has been nothing short of inspiring.

He thinks about his work all the time, attends to the details necessary to ensure he’s doing a good job, and has his eye on garnering a good recommendation so he can perhaps be offered additional jobs.

And he likes earning his own money.  He said it feels good.  He said he’s proud.

We allowed him to use this, his first paycheck, in any way he chose; but he understands future paychecks will involve less spending at Toys R Us and more saving and contributions to our local animal shelter.

He is learning the value of money and the value of work–and the fact that $50 does not go nearly as far as he might like.

We could explain all this to him, even model it, but nothing takes the place of experience.

The check he’s holding is worth so much more than the dollar amount it represents.  To us, his parents, it’s his first step toward financial independence.