How Going Back To Middle School Helped Me Grow Up

You walk into a lunchroom all by yourself. The tables are mostly filled with people who have already found friends, talking and laughing in the comfort that comes with having found their place. You see an empty seat at the very front of the room, right where you’ll have to walk past everyone else to get there. You squeeze between tables, hoping you don’t trip and dump your tray on someone’s head. The successful journey gives you confidence and you ask your potential tablemates if the seat is open. They nod and smile politely, then turn back to each other, and that’s how quickly you become insignificant. The spotlight you felt while you made the journey turns off, and suddenly, you’d like for it to come back so you’ll be noticed. You want very badly to be part of the group.

Did your stomach clench and your heart race? Mine did two days ago when this happened to me! I’m almost 40 years old, and I’m starting to think that we never entirely escape middle school. But let me tell you what happened next. I was at a writing conference. Writers can either be the most generous and welcoming people, or the most grandiose and boorish, and you often can’t predict which by looking at them. My tablemates were magnificent. There was a young girl, about 20, and her mom. It’s easy to assume that a 20 year old hasn’t experienced enough life to write about it, but this young lady has encountered tragedy that most people never will in their lifetime. More stunning, though, is her courage and conviction that she can use her pain to educate and support others. Her mom is equally remarkable in supporting her daughter without fighting the battle for her, and in letting her daughter speak for herself. Now, I understand why I need to say no to my toddlers. Why I do them a disservice if I protect them from disappointment. Three small children all clamoring with their wants can be overwhelming and it’s tempting to give in when I know I shouldn’t. But Life will not be so lenient and may deal them a crushing blow someday when I’m not there to protect them. How much better prepared will they be if they’re already acquainted with disappointment, fear, failure, and loss? I hope my kids will grow up to be as courageous as that young lady, as able to confront their anger and pain, and as able to use the pain to become stronger than their loss.

Another tablemate was an older lady, an angel on earth, who helped save a woman destined for deportation to the Congo, where she had been tortured and was certainly facing death if she returned. This dear lady’s book (“Rescuing Regina: The Battle to Save a Friend from Deportation and Death” by Josephe Marie Flynn SSND: about the event was just published last year, and while I knew her story, this was my first chance to talk to her. She’s a quiet, gentle person, not someone who seeks conflict, yet she revealed her iron strength when someone needed to be defended. Although the beginning of that lunch felt like middle school, that beginning became completely insignificant in light of The Stories at the table. And maybe that’s what maturity is all about: We learn that there are so many more things in the world bigger than us, yet just one person can be big enough to make those things change for good.

Everyone has A Story to tell.  Some write it; some use other artistic forms, like music or painting; some are genealogists; some might use quilting to join several stories into one. Find your Story and your way of telling it, and then tell it to your children. Don’t be afraid to include the pain and fear, because those make us human, and often joy and strength can’t be fully understood without them. If your kid rolls his eyes every day when you ask, “How was school?” try this instead. Ask, “What kinds of stories happened today?” Everyone loves a story, and your child just might like to tell one too!

You Might Have To Make A Mess To Make A Masterpiece

By: Abby Plambeck

Miss Toddler started helping me in the kitchen when she was 2. Sure, we made some grand messes, but the fun and resulting cookies far outweighed the cleanup afterward. When she turned 3, she asked if she could crack the eggs. My first reaction of “No!” turned into a shrug and a “Why not?” I got the paper towel ready and showed her how. She was a quick learner, and we only had to pick out a little bit of shell and wipe up a drip on the counter. Really? A 3 year old cracking eggs? Who knew?! 

When she turned 4, I left the kitchen for a couple minutes and came back to find her with the refrigerator egg tray on the kitchen table, calmly showing the 2-year-old twins how to crack eggs. My shriek turned into a “Wow.” No shell in the bowl, no drips on the table. Really? A 4 year old cracking eggs better than me? I had a little slice of humble pie.

That day marked the beginning of the twins’ interest in cooking, so I now line up three chairs along the kitchen counter and put everyone to work measuring, pouring, and stirring. The electric mixer is a highlight, though we tend to get more flour all over us than in the bowl when three children fight over who holds it. I feel more like a referree than a chef, helping them count and take turns. I’ve also learned that one mess-maker is cute, whereas three tend to make me hyperventilate!  But when I can remain calm enough to teach, I think the kitchen is a fabulous place to learn life skills. We use the measuring spoons and cups to learn about fractions, we can identify spices by their scent, we know that brown sugar is brown because it has molasses in it. We’re learning why water turns to steam when it’s boiled and what all the gadgets in the kitchen drawer are for. The kids see it as an opportunity to make a mess and sample chocolate chips, but I see math and science. Miss Big Sister  might not remember what a fraction is, but she knows that 1/2 cup  plus 1/2 cup = 1 cup, and that’s a start.

Have you noticed how easy it is to say “No” to our kids? That’s my first reaction when my kids ask to help with an “adult” job. But why? If it’s not dangerous, why not let them try? Knives and the stove are out of bounds in my kitchen, but if a mess is the only consequence, then I try to take a deep breath and let them have at it. Quite often, they surprise me. And I still get to eat cookies!

Until Death Do Us Part

We had a rough past week, with both a death and another severe health crisis in our extended family on the same day. Our phone rang off the hook for two days, and it was hard to explain to our kids why we were so distracted. The 2 year olds had no clue, of course, but 4-year-old Big Sister understood quite a bit. She needed reminding occasionally, since she doesn’t yet understand the permanence of death, but she was capable of more empathy and understanding than I expected. And she asked questions. Some I answered easily, especially since we pass a cemetery on the way to preschool and it’s been a topic of conversation in the car for months. Other times, I found the best answer was, “I don’t know,” and was surprised at how easily she accepted it.

Ironically, death has been on my blogging agenda anyway because we listen to an awful song in the car. You may know it. “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die.” The song ends with the old lady swallowing a horse, so “she’s dead, of course.” I hadn’t heard it before and couldn’t believe it was on a kid’s collection CD! Turns out the song has been a children’s song for years, and a popular version was recorded by Burl Ives in 1953 (

Despite missing that song, I took part in plenty of other morbid rhymes during my childhood, like the dandelion game where we flicked the flower off the stem and recited, “Mama had a baby and its head popped off.” It was just silly from my child perspective, but my adult mind is a little horrified! And almost every fairy tale and Disney movie has death and horror as main themes. Big Sister and I started watching Snow White recently, but we didn’t make it past the first 10 minutes, when the huntsman takes Snow White into the forest to kill her. It’s well known that Grimm’s Fairy Tales have been toned down for modern sensibilities, but the original folktales the brothers collected are the stuff of horror stories. The Hansel and Gretel story published in 1812 would be an R-rated movie today. The children are deliberately walked into the woods and abandoned by their parents, who can’t afford to feed them, and then they stumble into the enticing gingerbread cottage of a cannabalistic witch. And we worry about what our children are exposed to in the media in 2011!

All this confirms something I’ve long suspected: That children can handle more than adults give them credit for. They have their own coping mechanisms and belief systems to help do this, but those are no less effective than adult methods. Maybe they’re sometimes more effective. Adults tend to deny and rationalize the realities of illness and death because of discomfort in confronting it head on. Children seem to do better at accepting both as part of life, and meanwhile living life to the fullest every day that they can. Halloween is just 2 weeks away, and my kids aren’t fazed by the neighborhood displays of skulls, tombstones, and creepy undead creatures. I wonder if all that is a grownup attempt to thumb our noses at The Grim Reaper and make a joke of the reality. But kids accept it and walk right past it to get the candy and enjoy life.

I think it’s interesting that modern fairy tales and mythology, like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson (and I’m sure you could name many more), are categorized as young adult books, but they’ve attracted an enormous adult following. Neither of those series are childish, but instead prove young people’s courage in confronting suffering, sacrifice, and death. Maybe grownups can learn something from them, as well as from our own children.

My 4 year old understood that I had to go to a funeral this week, and at least once a day since then, she has spontaneously said, “Remember your uncle? “ I smile at the memory of a wonderful man and reflect. Isn’t that what we all hope someone will say about us?

Let The Show Begin! (Part 2)

Did you know that there are more than 80 scheduled TV shows  for your toddler or preschooler to choose from everyday? That doesn’t count on-demand choices and videos. No wonder it’s hard to get kids away from the tube! Last week, I mentioned a few of our favorites. Here are a few more good ones, as well as some that cause Daddy and me to flee from the room!

Bubble Guppies

Parent Annoyance Rating: Moderate to Severe

I really liked this show when it started earlier this year, but after six months of the same 10 episodes, annoyance is rising. (However, they must have found out I was writing this, because just this week, there were three new episodes in a row!) It’s about mermaid/mermen children, and the graphics and music are cute the first five times you see it. Now, I’d rather just listen to Miss Twin say the name over and over again: “Pubble Buppies.”


Parenting Annoyance Rating: Minimal

We’ve just started watching Olivia, and I admit that I’m impressed! I often intend to walk past the TV, but stop and get caught watching it. Olivia is a little girl pig who lives with her parents and two little brothers, which sounds horrendous, but is really well done. She’s precocious, creative, and demanding, and grownups can’t help but smile at her antics. There’s some adult humor on the part of her parents too, always a plus. In addition, the show is based on a series of books by Ian Falconer, which means library outings can be part of the Olivia experience.


Parenting Annoyance Rating: Absolutely none.

I realize this is just one parent’s opinion, but I love this show. It’s about a 3-year-old boy and his friends (Elly the Elephant, Pato the Duck, Loula the Dog, and Sleepy Bird). Best of all, it’s narrated by Stephen Fry. The graphics and music are adorable, and it just makes you smile. I sit down and watch the whole show with my kids with as much anticipation as they have. My only complaint is that it’s not on more often to break up some of the Dora and Caillou marathons.


Parent Annoyance Rating: Minimal, though it might put you to sleep

Oswald is a great show to put on when your kid wakes you up at 5 am. It’s so calm and quiet, you both might go back to sleep! It’s about Oswald the Octopus (voiced by Fred Savage), his dachshund, Weenie, and their friends. (And a favorite in our house since we have a dachshund.) The friends and city buildings often challenge reality and make grownups say “Huh?” but maybe that’s because we’ve lost some of our childlike imagination.

Yo Gabba Gabba!

Parent Annoyance Rating: Moderate to Severe, depending on the guest

If my children ever tell me that they’re going to try drugs, I’ll sit them down to watch an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba! and say, “There. That’s what it would be like.” This is a strange show, hosted by DJ Lance Rock, with people dressed up in costumes. There’s Plex the Robot, Muno the Cyclops, Foofa the Flower/Bubble, Brobee the Monster, and Toodee the Cat/Dragon. Despite the show’s oddities, the guests are pretty cool and have included Jack Black, Elijah Wood, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Sugarland, Sarah Silverman, They Might Be Giants, and Smash Mouth. The music does have a way of sticking in grownup brains!


Parent Annoyance Rating: Severely Severe

Oobi is absolutely the worst show in the world, which is why it’s only shown at 1 am and isn’t available on DVD. It’s about hand puppets, which are made by filming real people’s hands with eyeballs stuck on them. The dialogue is worse. It sounds like this in slow motion: “Oobi. Oobi sad. Oobi, Granpu, go home.” As long as your DVR isn’t turned on at 1 am, or you accidentally order it from Netflix (as I did), there’s no reason your child should ever know this show exists. Unfortunately, my children do know and they like it. We’re trying avoidance therapy to see if they forget.

I’d love to hear about the worst show you’ve seen at your house.  As for us, we’re turning off the TV and going outside to play!