Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mom to Dad and Back Again - Easing the Transition

Divorced parents are not the same as single parents.

Single parents are those who have either chosen to have their child without a partner OR those who have been left widowed. Single parents have their own set of issues and to deal with, but they are not burdened with co-parenting dilemmas.

Like it or not, divorced parents are CO-parents-particularly if they share custody of the children. What happens at dad's house does not disappear when the kids are at mom's. Rules, routines, discipline, even FOOD are different at each home. It might be difficult for a four year old to remember that it's ok to eat on the sofa a daddy's but not a mommy's... And with a schedule that has meant a shift every other day, MY children are really having a hard time of it.

Yes. Due to their dad's new teaching schedule, and our commitment to 50/50 custody, the children are sleeping Monday & Wednesday at Dad's and Tuesday and Thursday here. Still switching off Fri/Sat/Sun. It's not working.

Changing this schedule will mean that the kids will be with me a bit more than with their dad, but I believe it will end up being better for them. Making the transition is hard enough without having to do it every single day.

OH - the transition ... it's not just a changing of the guards, a handing off of responsibility.... It's bigger. Remember the KIDS. They have to adjust their entire being to live in a different home with an entirely different set of rules.

Over the last year I've learned some techniques to help ease transition days. Listed here are five that I find particularly helpful:

1. Be waiting for their arrival with a big smile and open arms.

2. Do not take it personally if they are grumpy or whiny or angry upon arrival. They (especially older kids) are pissed that you guys separated in first place and put him into this position of having to switch houses every day. Additionally, they could have been up all night, or doing errands all day ... you need time to gauge their moods and adjust accordingly.

3. Give them an hour to just chill out in their room or play with their toys. They need time to make the place their own again - they've been gone for many many hours. Sometimes days. They must make sure things stayed the same while they were gone. Consistency, when available, is vital.

4. Do not have guests on the transition days. The kids, even if they don't say it, really just want to spend time with you alone. To be with the parent they've been missing and to have that parent all to themselves.

5. Be prepared for the worst (overtired, grumpy, unhappy child). If the child comes home well-rested and happy, it's a bonus.

What do you do to help ease this kind of transition for your kids? What can you add to the list?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Free to Roam

When I was young, I'd walk myself to and from school. Sometimes I'd go with friends, other times alone. I remember doing it as early as kindergarten. After school I was sent out to play. Everyone was. All the neighborhood kids would be out--tossing a ball, having snowball fights, jumping in leaves ... each season brought new games. We were never bored.

When the street lights came on, or parents called out from doorsteps, it was time to go home. Simple.

Here it is 30 years later. I live on the west coast (no seasons) in an urban environment with two children of my own. And times have changed.

Would I consider letting my kindergarten-age child walk to school alone (never mind that school is 5 miles across town)? No. No way. How about playing outside? I allow them to chalk up the sidewalk in front of our house, or ride down the block on a skateboard or trike... but I'm RIGHT there. Either outside with them, or watching, perched at the window, at the ready to tackle anyone who dares mess with my kids.

At the same time, I'm loath to instill this fear in them.

The New York Times recently took this topic on and opinions on what is “right” run deep. The article reminds us of Julie Pat who, 3 decades ago, let her six year old son walk to the bus stop himself. He was never seen again. However, Lenore Skenay, author of “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry,” argues that our fears and anxieties are negating the joys of walking to school and the discernment of self care. Independence.

So when my son, almost nine, said to me one day, "mom, I want a kaiser roll. Liam and I will walk to the bread store to get it." Oh, really? I looked at the boys, thought about the 2 block walk to the bakery and heard myself saying, "let me get you some money," and I sent them on their merry way. From what I gather from our conversation afterwards, they ran to and fro, were followed by "a crazy dude" and were faced with a major dilemma upon discovering the shop was out of kaiser rolls. You know what though? The DID it. And they felt proud. They also had something to talk about for the rest of the afternoon and at school the next day. It was an adventure.

Since then, on Wednesdays, when I volunteer at Joe's school and stop to get a coffee, Joe asks if he can walk to class rather than wait with Maia (age 4) and me for my drink. I let him. It's an active two blocks with lots of parents and kids on their way to school. I feel comfortable with it. Furthermore, those few moments that my son is alone, independent, free -- add significantly to his confidence and self esteem. He can do something by himself! Which means that he can do OTHER THINGS by himself. I'm also seeing a greatly increased effort on his part to make his own breakfast or read to his sister.

A lot of people may thing what I'm doing is wrong: turning my son free on the streets of Berkeley ... It's ok. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. I'm not sure mine is the right one. But it certainly is the one that seems best for my child.

The Morning Princess Dilemma

When he was 4, my son, Joe, and I would spend a half hour in front of his closet every morning choosing the day's tshirt -- which usually included some form of superman, batman or spiderman emblazoned across the chest. A character that might have been acceptable last week would be villainous (and unwearable) the next. I'll never forget my frustration.

Here it is five years later and, just as Joe decides he could care less about what he wears, my daughter becomes obsessed with clothes. Super heroes aren't Maia's thing though; she likes princesses. Bonus points if it's a Barbie® princess.

Getting ready each morning was becoming a nightmare. Maia's in preschool. She should be wearing jeans but was insisting on dresses. And not just any dress... she likes the big fluffy ones with velvet and tuel. Too cold out for a sundress? -- no problem! She'll wear a long sleeve shirt and pants under it! Adorning herself with a tiara and assorted jewels (including plastic clip-on earrings) she comes to me with a comb and direction to do her hair so it "swoops" across her forehead, "like Barbie." She finishes her outfit with mismatched socks (on principal) and sparkly sneakers.

Never mind the obvious question (which is "HOW did this happen?"), we'll jump right to the "what do we do?" part. The answer: (almost) nothing.

One thing I've learned as a parent is that I MUST choose my battles with care. Some things are worth fighting for, others are not. As long as she's dressed appropriately for the weather, I say go for it! So what if it's the dress she wore to her aunt's wedding? Maia will be too big for it when the next formal opportunity arises. Why NOT get some use out of it?

The caveat: choose tomorrow's clothes the night before. Maia lays the outfit on the bed to admire and then crawls under the covers, looking forward to dressing the next day. No more wasting precious morning minutes arguing in front of the closet or searching through laundry for the "pink velvet" skirt she must have. Now we have time for breakfast and giggles before leaving for school. A much better start to the day than screaming and whining.

Learning to express oneself is a huge part of growing up. If Maia wants to pretend to be a princess, I'm not going to jump in and stifle her creativity (though I admit to being a bit disappointed that she hasn't embraced super heroes or fire fighters... a subject for another post, another time). I'm just happy we've learned how to make the morning hour relatively peaceful and calm. It makes getting to school so much easier.

Originally published in SchooGo/ParentsTown February 4, 2010

School Participation

Before my child started public school I had all sorts of grand ideas of what I would do with the PTA. I would organize fundraisers, facilitate conversation between parents and staff, help out in the classroom… But when it came time to put my son Joe in kindergarten I found myself struggling financially, working 60 hours a week, and caring for a second baby. I didn’t have time for the PTA.

Here it is 4 years later. Joe is in third grade and Maia will start kindergarten in the fall. I’ve yet to go to one PTA meeting. I am a member ($10) - which is helpful to them because of National PTA funding – but I can’t commit to being part of its core group of volunteers (president, vp, secretary, communications liaison, etc) because I lack the time and energy.

Does this mean that I’m entirely absent from the school? Not at all; but rather than going to meetings and making fundraising phone calls, I’ve chosen to spend my time on three carefully chosen activities.

  1. One shift (about an hour) at the school book fair which happens twice a year. The kids love the book fair and the PTA offers them one free book each session. It’s a great opportunity to meet other parents and see a bunch of happy kiddies getting their “PTA presents.”
  2. Design the poster for the yearly fundraising Carnival. I’m a graphic designer so pulling together this poster is piece of cake. Additionally I get to express some creativity and see it taped up in all the shops around town. I’ve actually gotten one or two paying gigs from this project.
  3. Stuffing the blue folders. Let me explain. On Wednesdays the kids come home with a blue folder filled with flyers, permission slips and completed homework. Someone needs to sort out all the papers and fill the folders and for Joe’s class, every year, that someone has been me. Being in the classroom EVERY week at the same time (first thing in the morning before taking Maia to preschool) affords me a chance to see Joe’s teacher in action, learn about the classroom dynamics, and get to know the other students. It is the most valued of my volunteering activities. The teacher is pleased to have this task taken off her hands, Joe enjoys seeing me in class, Maia adores drawing pictures and pretending to be a “big girl”, and I like listening to the lessons. It’s a win win win win.

Bottom line: I value (highly) the folks who make up the core volunteers of our school’s PTA, but I don’t feel guilty for not being part of it. I’m satisfied with my contributions to the school and love the activities in which I’ve chosen to partake - isn’t that the most important thing? To make the best effort within your means while taking advantage of the opportunity to be part of your child’s classroom experience.

How do you participate?