Latest Chart: Enough

December 13, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

We’re in that time of year when people talk about goodwill. Goodwill toward the less fortunate; goodwill toward those who hold opinions in direct opposition to one’s own. Dozens of holiday movies through the years have offered audiences a wide of range of emotions when estranged family members show one another goodwill and reunite.

I suppose it’s going to sound a little strange, then, that this week I encouraged one of my children to hold back her goodwill.

On Monday morning, I looked Eleven straight in the eye and said, “If [that classmate] tries to talk to you, just walk away.”

“Just walk away?” she repeated, eyes widening a little.

“Yes,” I said. “If you have a disagreement with someone once or twice, then it makes sense to try to stay and work it out. But sometimes, when you’ve tried everything you can and it’s not working, you have permission to leave the situation.”

“I don’t want to be rude.”

“I’m not telling you to be rude,” I said. “I’m not giving you permission to be mean or act out against [that classmate]. Just walk away. Don’t let anyone have the power to force you to stay and listen to things you don’t want to.”

She seemed fascinated and challenged—and a little relieved—that I gave her that advice.

*****

Here’s what led up to this.

The classmate in the conversation above has been with Eleven since kindergarten. In their first two years of school together, the kids were great pals. Eleven often cited this classmate as a “best friend.”

In second grade, this classmate’s personality began to change. Eleven started coming home with stories of how the classmate would say rude things or exclude Eleven from playing with others. S/he would ignore Eleven for a few days at a stretch and then suddenly want to be friends again.

I know my daughter isn’t perfect. She’s got a deep sense of compassion for her friends and is always trying to sort out problems for them. She also has a temper like quicksilver, and while we’ve worked actively with her to think before she reacts there are still days she barks first and asks questions later.

With this classmate, however, the teachers confirmed that almost every single time the child in question had no cause to treat Eleven the way s/he did. Eleven did all she could to extend goodwill to the classmate. The classmate accepted it on some days and rebuffed it with force on others.

The classmate’s behavior with other kids changed as well, but somehow s/he singled out Eleven. Eleven became frustrated, unable to process why her friend changed and wondered what she could do about it. We spent many hours through fourth and fifth grade coaching Eleven. At one point last year, we even told her to keep social interactions to a minimum. Cordial but not so involved.

The estrangement, the mixed messages, the passive aggressive actions continued. Eleven’s frustration mounted. She started to say she didn’t look forward to school anymore. My husband and I questioned Eleven repeatedly and in a variety of ways to make sure that altercations didn’t go beyond verbal ones, and they didn’t, but they upset Eleven anyway.

Thirteen and Eleven go to a small school, and the size has its perks. The camaraderie most of the students and teachers share reassures families, and it makes the school an attractive educational institution in town. Of course, the downside is that if you want to get away from someone it’s much harder.

At the end of summer, Eleven’s droopy demeanor toward the subject of school baffled us. When we asked her about it, she said she loved her school and couldn’t wait to see the teachers and start middle school. She just didn’t want to have to deal with this classmate anymore.

We reiterated the approach from last year: keep social interactions to a minimum. Don’t sit with the classmate at lunch. If s/he approaches Eleven at lunchtime or recess, find a reason to get out of the situation as fast as possible.

The classmate began to “lean on” Eleven at the start of the school year for “emotional support,” but the passive aggression continued. Some days the classmate was happy-go-lucky with Eleven, calling her by cute nicknames and trying to chit-chat. Other days s/he ordered Eleven to leave—as in, “I need to talk to N., go away.”

“What did you do?” I asked Eleven when this happened two weeks ago.

“What could I do?” Eleven said wearily. “I didn’t want to be rude, so I left.”

Then we discovered that the classmate and Eleven were exchanging emails. Eleven, it seemed, still held out hope that the classmate would go back to being his/her old self. The best friend she remembered from kindergarten and first grade. That’s why she began responding to the messages.

It didn’t work, of course. The emails left Eleven upset, confused, and emotionally drained. When we discovered them, we told Eleven to delete the classmate’s phone number, because the classmate was responding from a cell phone.

The function of technology in this case was a blessing. Because the classmate was using a phone instead of emailing in the traditional way, Eleven was required to download each message. After we told her to delete the emails and not to respond to the classmate ever again, she pointed out that in the event the classmate did send a message she wouldn’t have to read it. She could just delete it.

At the outset, Eleven was upset about our interference with the emailing. There were tears and loud words. Then, as we continued to talk and sort through why she was doing what she was, she started to see the sense of what we were telling her.

Enough is enough, I thought.

Eleven’s dad and I agreed that this time there wouldn’t be polite words. Eleven wouldn’t go to school and offer the classmate a congenial nod or listen semi-patiently to another story or outburst. This time there would be a marked difference.

*****

We live in a world where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell one another what we think. Thanks to social media, everyone’s sense of entitlement on the right to their own opinions has increased a thousand-fold. So instead of coming right to the point and saying that a person’s words are hurtful—or that a child is doing badly in school, or that an employee is underperforming, or that a patient’s medical condition is largely due to the bad choices that person is making—instead of saying any of these things, we duck our heads and tolerate each other’s opinions.

The trouble with this kind of tolerance, I believe, is that it leads to another type tolerance: the kind where we implicitly give people permission to say and do whatever they want and not suffer consequences.

*****

I don’t like confrontation any more than the next person. I want my children to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted, kind people. But if they compromise on the first two traits, will they ever truly exhibit the third? If they’re willing to let people say whatever they want and tolerate it, when all the while their own hearts and minds are crumpling in pain, how do they develop true kindness? If people treat them horribly, how will Thirteen and Eleven maintain any hope and optimism for themselves or the people in their lives who love them and wish them well?

*****

“Just walk away?” Eleven asked. “Don’t say anything?”

“Don’t say anything,” I told her. “When you’ve reached that limit, it’s really okay to just leave.”

I saw something small in her eyes then: the spark of her self-confidence flickered a little brighter. She straightened her back. That relief, as I said before, appeared in her face and demeanor.

I hope that by encouraging her to be kind to herself, she’ll be able to dole it out to the people who will receive it and return it in spades.

 

Latest Chart: Words that hurt

October 18, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Every phase of parenting, I’m discovering, has its deepest joys.

When they’re newborns, you just want to hold them all day (well, when they’re not spitting up on you or screaming at 3 a.m.), and they’re content to be held. In the midst of the Terrible Twos, there are the adorable pronunciations of words and the innocuous questions that make a parent shake her head. Kindergarten brings the wide-eyed wonder phase; every day allows for a new discovery, a new breakthrough, and those all-important steps toward independent thinking and behavior.

I’m currently the mom of two middle schoolers, and the biggest perk of this phase is the conversation. The girls are smart and funny. They’ve often made me break into laughter so hard, tears spill from my eyes and I can’t draw a steady breath. They’ve also challenged me with questions that leave me stuttering for a moment as my carefully-laid plans start to hydroplane and I need to gain traction again.

My husband and I encourage the girls to talk, about everything, and at times it’s truly a pleasure. Other times, it can turn into a little bit of a hurtful conversation. At times like that, I can’t help but wonder whether that’s a weakness in my child that I have to help turn into a strength or whether it’s a weakness in my parenting that I need to fix.

Last weekend we went to Chicago for a little getaway. My husband, the girls, and I shared a hotel room, which means one bathroom between the four of us. Eleven had already showered and dressed; Thirteen was in the bathroom, and I was on deck to go next.

To pass the time, my husband pulled up soccer videos. He and Eleven watched a video of world-class Brazilian player Ronaldinho (now retired). After watching for a little bit, my husband handed me his tablet and said, “You have to see this guy!”

I’m not an athlete, but Eleven plays soccer for the park district so I do take an avid interest in the game. This also stems from my own days as captain of the cheerleaders in high school. The first sport of the season for our school used to be boys’ soccer, and our team was strong. Add that to the fact that I was buddies with many of the guys on the team, and all that creates an equation where I really do enjoy watching the sport when I can.

I’d never seen Ronaldinho play, and his handling of the ball blew me away. The no-look passes combined with the way he kept faking out his opponents made him a legend in the sport. As I watched, my husband explained how, because the Brazilians are so good at samba dancing, Ronaldinho used many of the same moves in the way he played. He was so quick—as all Latin dancing requires a person to be—that other players had trouble tracking the ball.

I may no longer cheer with a squad, but I still get excited about amazing sports. Every time Ronaldinho did something I thought really cool, I would let out a, “Oh, wow!” or a “Beautiful! That was incredible!”

“Okay, Mamma, that’s enough,” Eleven said, sarcasm tinging her voice.

I ignored her. She’s a soccer player and can appreciate, with first-hand experience, the difficulty of what Ronaldinho was doing, but, as I said, I’ve spent some time with the sport myself. In high school, I took time out to understand how it was played so that I could lead the other girls to cheer for the guys at the right times. Plus, what Ronaldinho did just looked so freaky cool (seriously, Google this guy.)

I kept cheering him on over cyberspace during matches that were years old, and she kept exclaiming about my exclamations.

“Jeez, get excited much?” Eleven said a few times, this time in a snarky manner. “We get it, Mamma. You think he’s cool.”

My cheeks got warm, and I stopped talking. For a moment, I considered shutting the tablet off together, but I didn’t want to look like I was throwing a tantrum. And I really did like the highlights.

Thirteen came out of the bathroom, and I put the tablet on the bed, gathered my clothes, and went in for my own shower. As I stood there, I considered several responses to Eleven. They ranged from the mundane—It’s not nice to make fun of your parents—to the profound—a philosophical treatise on what it means to be able to participate in a sport without actually being on a team.

More than anything, I tried to soothe away my hurt with a good shampoo and rinse. Because it did hurt. Yes, I’m Thirteen and Eleven’s mother, but I’m also a person. I have likes and dislikes as much as anyone else. I have thoughts and opinions, hobbies and interests.

I have feelings.

When I came out of the bathroom, I still hadn’t decided on what to say. Fortunately, I didn’t have to say anything at all. My husband had done the talking for me.

“Go talk to her,” he told Eleven in a stern voice.

She came to my shoulder as I put my items back in the suitcase.

“Sorry for being all sarcastic and snarky,” she said in a flat tone.

I drew a quiet breath.

“I know I’m not an athlete,” I said, “but I still do enjoy soccer. When I was in school, I knew I wasn’t good enough to play so I became a cheerleader. That was my way to support the team and the school. It was my way to enjoy the game.”

She just stared at me with a neutral expression.

I didn’t go into lecture mode. My husband had already played “bad cop” and done that for me, so I took a different tack. While in the shower, I’d spent a little time thinking of my cheerleading days and remembered something.

“You know,” I told Eleven, evening out my tone to let her know the conversation would ease away from her getting into trouble, “when I was a cheerleader, I kept little journals about my experiences. Our team went to state, but we lost. It might be interesting for you to read those journals so you can get a sense for how it felt for me to cheer on the boys.”

I turned to Thirteen who had, no doubt, witnessed the whole lecture Eleven received. “You might get a kick out of reading them too. Next time we go to [South Carolina], I’ll show them to you.”

Eleven didn’t say yea or nay to reading my cheerleading journals, and I didn’t push the issue. Instead, I started talking about something else, giving Eleven the out she needed at the moment to nurse her wounded ego. I know it probably hurt to get lectured, to get into trouble for being impulsive with her words.

It’s a habit of hers, and I’m trying to teach her to think about what comes out of her mouth before it actually does so. She has improved, but at times like these, it reminds me we still have work to do. She definitely has a ways to go. Does that mean I have a ways to go as a parent?

I don’t know, but maybe being aware of all this is a good start.

Latest Chart: Annoying your kids and finding Dinah

August 16, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

I stared from the dock at the lake. The placid green-blue water reminded me of the Caribbean, but no Caribbean country featured a collection of tall peaks circling the water. The sweeping mountain range gazed down, offering a vista of a glacier the color of a summer morning peering over the top of the range as if it wanted to play hide-and-seek.

With a little help, some gentle coaxing, and minimal instructions from the friendly (and I’d definitely say optimistic) gentleman running the dock, I climbed into a canoe with a paddle. He seemed to have no trouble whatsoever believing that I could not only paddle the small boat but also make it to a destination and back to the dock. On purpose.

Maybe it was the scenery around me that defined “picture-postcard perfect.” Since arriving in Norway, I’d had trouble holding on to the stresses of my life back home. How could I, when the mountains invited me to take a seat by their side and just let myself be? Everywhere we looked, everywhere we walked, the scenery and the people greeted us with a benevolence that seemed to come from a storybook. How would it feel to uncurl my fist and let all my worries slip through my fingers?

“We’re not making any progress.”

I suppressed a sigh. Maybe it wasn’t so hard to find an ounce of that stress. Especially with a tween and a teen in the same boat as me.

After the nice man at the dock pushed us off, we all started to paddle. The first few attempts took us in literal circles. We’d done some mild white water rafting earlier in the week during the first part of our tour, so I tried to remember what the rafting guide told us to do and paddle according to those instructions.

It didn’t work very well. The girls continued to let loose their complaints into the air above us, and it baffled me for a minute whether the valley was the right place for them to do so. The serenity of the Norwegian landscape had muted my daily frustrations. Hadn’t they felt its magic too?

“This is hard.”

“Here, why don’t we paddle on opposite sides?” I suggested from the back of the canoe. “[Eleven], you and I will paddle on the same side, and, [Thirteen], you paddle on the opposite side from [Eleven]. And it’s your job to make sure you paddle in the same rhythm as her.”

The girls fell into a better cadence of paddling. After 10 or 12 strokes, though, they lost it again. Eleven couldn’t see this at all, of course, since she sat at the front. Thirteen either hadn’t seen it or was concentrating too hard on paddling to care.

Without warning, without saying another word, I started to sing.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day! I’ve been working on the railroad, just to pass the time away!”

“What is that?” Eleven asked as if she’d smelled something rotten.

“Where did you learn that song?” Thirteen asked, her tone expressing her eyeroll.

I stopped singing. “In school. It’s a really old song people used to sing for jobs like…well, working on the railroad. You know, when you needed to follow a certain rhythm to do your work. Can’t you hear the whistle blowing, to rise up so early in the morning? Can’t you hear the captain shouting…”

A rut opened in my memory for a moment. I knew the next few words involved a woman’s name, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. So I fumbled through that part and kept going.

The girls groaned, audibly, but I noticed that their paddling got a little better.

We made it to the miniscule beach about a half mile away from the dock and the boathouse—just far enough to admire our progress but not so far as to exhaust us. We explored the shore for a bit, ducking past a low-hanging tree, following the curve of the short shoreline around to where another member of our tour group had graciously pulled in our boat when we’d arrived. The beach was more like a mini island, explored in a couple of minutes, a small resting spot for anyone who had an inclination to paddle deeper into the valley later.

About 10 minutes after we arrived, one of the tour guides zipped close to us in a motorized boat to let us know that lunch would be served soon and we needed to head back. Once again the girls and I relied on our fellow travelers to push us into the water; they were from Florida and spent as much free time as they could engaging in aquatic outings, so the dad of the family there had no trouble giving the canoe a nudge after we’d all settled with our paddles.

We started paddling, and I started singing.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day! I’ve been working on the railroad…”

“Oh no,” Eleven said with a loud groan.

“Not this again,” her big sister echoed with chagrin. “You know people can hear you, right?”

I broke off my own singing. “So what? I don’t have a bad voice. I can sing in tune.”

My memory clicked into place just then, and the name came back to me.

“Dinah, blow your horn! Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow your ho-o-orn!”

“There’s more?” Eleven asked, incredulous at the tempo change.

“This is distracting!” Thirteen said in a loud voice over mine.

“Maybe that’s the point,” I replied in a speaking voice.

Neither of them had a response for that comment.

I started singing again. I kept singing, noticing that the paddling had fallen into sync much faster on our trip back. In fact, we had little trouble keeping ourselves in a fairly straight line as we worked to get back to shore.

I sang through “I’ll Be Working on the Railroad” another time or two just to annoy the kids—yes, I admit it, that was the bigger draw—before dropping my voice to a volume meant more for myself to sing through the title track of “The Sound of Music.” I couldn’t help it: in a moment like this, I understand what would inspire Maria Von Trapp to let loose on those hills. They did feel alive to me.

The glacier, the valley, that lake, and the Caribbean blue-green water made me grateful for music. For the opportunity to travel. And, yes, even for kids who get annoyed with their parents.

Latest Spurts: Nail polish in the dark and Apparition

October 26, 2018

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

Sometimes silliness can abound first thing on a Monday morning. When Ten finished her breakfast at the beginning of this week, she placed her cereal bowl in the sink and used her folded socks as a makeshift soccer ball, dribbling them to the mudroom to put on her shoes. I spotted her lunchbox still sitting on the counter.

“What about your lunch?” I called after her.

“Lunch is totally in!” she said in an exaggerated way, trotting back to the counter.

“That way of talking is out,” Twelve replied.

Good to know we’re all up to date on current slang.

*****

For years the middle school science teacher has assigned My Own Science (MOS) projects to students at Twelve and Ten’s school. The middle schoolers all agree that they share a love-hate relationship with MOS. The concept is engaging: the kids perform science experiments or do investigations and then report back on their findings. The actual work? Not as much.

On Tuesday I went to lunch with a few other school moms, and talk turned to MOS. That made me realize that Twelve hasn’t been assigned one yet for this year. At breakfast on Wednesday, I asked her about the projects.

“No, no,” she said, shaking her head as if I’d invoked the name of a goblin. “We don’t talk about MOS.”

“When I have to do MOS next year,” Ten said in a placid manner over her cereal, “I’m going to make my own black hole.”

I exchanged a look with Twelve. She wanted to roll her eyes, I could tell, but she didn’t. No sense in incurring her sister’s wrath first thing in the day.

“You know,” I said, “if you make your own black hole, you’ll need some gravity for that.”

“All the gravity on Earth,” she amended for me.

“Um, we kind of need that gravity,” I tell her.

“No, you don’t,” she said. “My black hole needs that gravity more than you.”

“Yeah,” Twelve quipped, “we’ll just float to school.”

She flapped her hands like little wings, and this time I shook my head.

*****

Ever since I let the kids read all the Harry Potter books, our house has turned into an extension of the Potterverse. Twelve, in particular, has become, in her own word, “obsessed.” Ten isn’t far behind, although she manages to keep her “obsession” in check.

“Mamma’s a Pureblood,” Twelve announced to the car on the way to school one day.

“And Daddy’s a Muggle,” Ten added.

“Which makes us half-bloods,” Twelve concluded.

“Even if Daddy’s a Muggle, we still like him,” I said.

A pause; we had a full 10 seconds of silence in the car.

“Yeah, he’s okay,” Ten replied.

In keeping with the Harry Potter invasion of our lives, Twelve expressed an ardent wish the other day.

“If only we could Apparate,” she said, as we discussed her schedule for Friday. “That would make things so much easier.”

“It could, yes,” I said.

“Except that [Ten] and I couldn’t Apparate by ourselves, since we’re just students, so we’d have to go with you in a Side-Along.”

Apparation, by the way, is the magical teleportation method used in the world of Harry Potter by adults to go from place to place. It has certain rules and regulations, one of them being that witches and wizards have to reach a certain age before they’re “licensed” to apparate. Adults can take younger witches and wizards with them in a Side-Along Apparition.

Sort of like driving them around in a car after school to places.

“So how is that different from what I do now?” I asked Twelve.

She thought about it for a minute. “I guess it’s not really. So maybe I could use a broomstick. See, you could take [Ten] to her cello lesson while I take my broomstick home…”

And she was off again. This time on a broomstick. I wonder if broomstick travel causes a lot of traffic jams.

*****

Today is the first middle school dance of the year. Before she gets to the dance, however, Twelve will come with Ten and me to Ten’s cello lesson after school, then get picked up by her father and brought home, get ready for her Irish dance lesson, go there, leave Irish early, go straight to a friend’s house for a pre-dance party, go to the dance, go out for frozen yogurt afterward, then finally end up at another friend’s house for a sleepover.

Yeah, tell me about it.

Last night the school held a showcase for all middle schoolers, a quarterly event to share with parents what the kids have been doing in their fine arts classes for the last eight weeks. We got home from the showcase around 8 p.m., and Twelve and I dove right into our dinners. Then I shooed her upstairs where she started putting together a couple of different bags with her supplies for her crazy day today.

When my husband came home after his violin lesson, I gave him his dinner and a rundown for what after school would look like for us. He agreed to pick up Twelve from Ten’s cello lesson and bring her home a little early. Just then Twelve came downstairs and headed for the basement.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To get a duffel bag for my stuff for the sleepover,” she said.

“Daddy said he can bring you home, so you can pack it then,” I said. “Why don’t you go on up and get into bed? You’ve had a long day.”

She nodded, grateful for the chance to put off one task at least, and went back up. As my husband and I chatted about our day, we both noticed Twelve’s light was still on. We called up to her from the kitchen a couple of times, and she reassured us she was going to bed soon.

After doing the dishes, when I went up to her room to kiss her good night, I discovered what she’d been doing. As soon as I walked into her room, the pungent scent of acetone greeted me. I grinned.

“I hope you don’t get any nail polish on your comforter,” I said as I leaned toward her head in the dark.

“How did you know?” she asked in astonishment.

“Good night,” I said, still smiling.

“But how did you know?”

“I love you!” I called over my shoulder as I walked out of her room.

My kids are incredibly smart, but it’s nice to know I still have a little bit of an advantage over them now and then.