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The All-Time BEST Dinnertime Conversation Starter

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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As any parent knows, getting your kids to tell you about their day is about as easy as threading a pine tree through a sewing needle. “Good,” “Fine,” and “Boring,” are the usual responses from my tweens. Ask them for details and they can’t seem to think of anything at all; it’s as if their entire day were wiped from their memory the moment they stepped through the front door.

But a few years ago we started a new dinnertime tradition that changed everything. It’s the simplest way to spark a robust dinnertime conversation that I’ve ever come across, neatly packaged in one powerful little question:

“What was the best and worst part of your day today?”

Similar to Pat Brill’s “round robin mealtime”, this is a question that can be passed around the table from one to the next, until it comes back around to the first person who asked. Each person gets a chance to share, each has a moment to reflect on their day, and busy parents receive the yearned-for glimpse into their child’s day away from home.

At my table, we’ve used this conversation starter as a way to problem-solve friend issues at school, celebrate each others’ accomplishments, and even resolve the occasional family spat. The key to keeping this conversation productive and respectful is to make sure that each family member’s response is listened to without interruption or judgement. Consider the dinner table a “safe zone” where all feelings are allowed, and each perspective is honored. As long as the speaker is as respectful as the listeners, difficult topics can be aired and personal experiences can be shared. You’ll learn things about your kids that you never knew, and they’ll, in turn, learn things about you.

Family mealtimes are sacred in my busy, crazy little household. Since the kids eat dinner at their dad’s house half the time, our dinnertime conversations have become the glue that helps us feel connected and loved, even when we’re sleeping on opposite sides of town. And it works just as well with strangers, too. Tell me, I’m listening:

What was the best and worst part of your day today?

Things My Kids Say That Make Me Feel Old

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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“What’s a pager?”

“I heard that in the olden days, moms used to wash kids’ mouths out with soap when they were bad.”

“What’s a pay phone?”

“Mom, were cars invented yet when you were a kid?”

“Mom, can you skip to the next song? Why not? What’s a deejay?’”

“What’s a cassette tape?”

“This is boring, I don’t want to watch it with you anymore. The Fraggles don’t even look real.”

“I love Napoleon Dynamite’s boots, they’re so old-fashioned.”

“Why would anyone want a Tickle Me Elmo?”

“Can I have electronics time now? I want to read my book.”

“I already turned in my homework; I just shared the document with my teacher.”

“How did you watch movies when you were a kid if you didn’t have the Internet?”

“Tupperware? What kind of party is that?”

“You had chalkboards in your classroom?”

“What’s a ‘dial-up?’”

“What’s a Polaroid?”

“Did they have Justin Bieber when you were a kid? MMMBop? That’s a dumb name for a song.”

Summertime, and the living is very scheduled

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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Some of my happiest childhood memories come from those long, languid summer days spent hunting for tiny shells along the beach or planting marigolds in my grandmother’s garden. My sister and I would run wild, our hair tangled and gritty, our filthy bare feet toughened by gravel driveways and the rough bark of the cherry tree. We’d sway side by side on the backyard swings, one hand gripping the sun-warmed metal chains and the other holding a gooey tunafish and pickle sandwich. I love these memories almost as much as I loved the days themselves. They were such a relief from the constant structure and social pressure of the school year. During the summer, I was free to explore and read and daydream as much as I wanted. I could just be me.

I was reminded of those precious summer days as I emailed back and forth with my ex-husband last week, planning our daughters’ summer schedule. Every moment is accounted for. Every day has an elaborate plan attached with transportation, childcare and even meals already figured out. Although living in two households certainly complicates the matter somewhat, the fact is times are just different. When I was little, neither one of my grandmothers worked. My summers were split between their two nearby houses. All of the grandparent figures in my children’s lives (meaning their actual grandparents or the parents of our new partners) either work full time or live out of state. We don’t have the luxury of dropping the girls off at a relative’s house while we work during the summer, so the girls go to camps. They’ve never had a summer like the ones their dad and I knew growing up, and they most likely never will.

This, I think, is very sad. I find myself compensating for this lack of a carefree summer by inserting chunks of “free time” into our weekend schedules, days where we have nothing planned and nowhere to be. I firmly believe they need this time desperately. I just wish I could give them more of it. How do other mothers do this? Is a summer without schedules simply the luxury of the married, non-working housewife? If so, what does this mean for the millions of children whose parents and, increasingly, all members of extended family, must work full time in order to stay afloat? What will this do to their imaginations, their creativity? What will happen to our artists and dancers and explorers and scientists?

I fear that in trying to make sure my kids are safe and cared for while the grown-ups in their lives work, we’re effectively scheduling them right out of a childhood. Tell me it isn’t so. Tell me there is hope. Tell me there’s a TED talk out there for working mothers whose relatives can’t step in to help.

There must be a different way to do this.

One mom’s reason for keeping an Oscar-free home

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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I’ve never been a huge fan of awards shows. When I was a kid I found them excruciatingly lengthy and boring (the same reaction I have always had to televised parades), and as an adult I’m usually lost after the first five minutes. I recognize only a small number of the actors, directors and other industry professionals, and have usually seen only a handful of the films that will be honored during the show. The combination of this awards-show aversion, plus our family’s Roku-only lifestyle, meant that there were no Oscars in my living room last night. But I’ve found myself wondering, as I read some of the post-Oscar reactions and commentary today, how my girls would have reacted to the awards, and what they would have learned about the way our culture reveres beauty over almost everything else.

Are awards shows inherently bad for kids to watch? Probably not. But I think the danger with the entertainment industry is that these types of events perfectly illustrate the value our society places on beauty, and how it blatantly outweighs, almost without exception, the value we place on skill, natural talent, and effort.

This being said, I do acknowledge that my lack of experience with awards shows such as the Oscars doesn’t put me in the best position to judge their merits. So I invite you, fellow moms, to share your thoughts on the subject. Did you watch the Oscars with your children? If so, I’m curious: What values, if any, do you feel your children learned from the awards? How did you discuss these values with your kids?

If you did not watch the Oscars with your children, why not?

I look forward to your comments!

Empathy in 3 steps (or less)

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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A dear friend of mine stopped by last night for dinner, his vibrant two year old daughter in tow. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a toddler in the house, and I cannot get enough of this little one’s stubbornness and enthusiasm and spontaneous, full-body hugs. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when a child bounds across a room and throws herself into your arms. Perfection.

As his little one bounced around the living room, he and I discussed a question he had recently posed on his Facebook page: How can you teach empathy to your kids?

Empathy seems to be the new buzz word these days, and for good reason. Recent studies show a dramatic decrease in young people who identify themselves as empathic, and the rash of bully-related suicides in the last several years has many parents wringing their hands with worry. None of us want our child to be the target of another’s cruelty, and none of us want our child to become the one who is cruel. But do we really have control over how much our children care about, and with, others? Maia Szalavitz, co-author of Born For Love, thinks so.

We all have the natural capacity (in the absence of some brain disorders) for empathy,” Szalavitz says. “However, like language, empathy requires particular experiences to promote learning.”

The trick? Practice. Similar to language, children come predisposed for the capacity to empathize with other humans. And just like language, empathy can be quickly learned and strengthened when it is modeled and practiced at home with the child’s very first teachers- her parents.

Here are the ways I practice empathy at home with my children.

1. Feel out loud
One of the most important skills I can give my children is the vocabulary to discuss their own, and others’, feelings and experiences. I do this by giving voice to my own emotions on a regular basis. “I was so sad when I found out my friend is moving to another city.” “I’m having trouble figuring something out for work and I feel really frustrated.” “I missed you while you were at Dad’s. I am so happy to see you again.”

These sentences may seem bland- and out of context, even a little contrived- but when our day-to-day conversation is peppered with statements like these my children learn how to understand the feelings that bubble up during the day. And they learn that our home is a safe and welcoming environment for talking about how we feel.

2. Never judge an emotion
We make it a rule in our house never to judge or punish an emotion. If my daughter tells me she’s feeling upset, she gets to have that. It’s hers, and I respect that feeling. What matters to me is how she treats others when she feels that way. When they were little I would say things like, “You feel angry, and that’s OK. It’s not OK to hit your sister.”

3. Practice perspective-taking
Being able to put oneself in another person’s shoes is the most important building block for empathy. Sympathy is feeling for another person. Empathy is feeling with. Understanding what someone is experiencing helps turn sympathy into empathy.

We practice this in a number of ways. The most common is through discussion (”What do you think that was like for her?”), but it can also be a game (”Imagine you are the bus driver and all of the kids on the bus are yelling and bouncing in their seats. How would you feel? What would you do?”). They are used to these questions by now, and are ready to jump right in with an answer. Every time they think about what another person is experiencing, their ability to empathize becomes stronger.

The most important thing to remember is that even if you do nothing more than demonstrate your own empathy, your children will benefit. As Roots of Empathy founder Mary Gordon says, “Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.”

Skinny is a four-letter word

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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“Mom, how do you spell ’skinnier?’” she asks me, holding a notebook close to her chest, pencil poised and ready. My heart falls into my gut and lodges itself somewhere underneath my kidneys. I fight the urge to double over in pain. These conversations threaten to break me in half.

In the most casual tone I can muster, I quickly rattle off the letters and then say, “Why do you ask?”

“I just wanted to know!” she says and writes something down on her paper.

“What are you writing, honey?” I ask.

“Just something!” she says and then she is gone, out of the kitchen and up into her room. I hear the door at the bottom of the stairs bang shut behind her.

Fear washes over me and I feel suddenly crazy and helpless. Unlike the inspiring mother who danced naked with her seven-year old, I am not overqualified when it comes to talking about female body image with my daughters. I am still working diligently to love my own imperfect mess of hair and skin and bones. I still wince imperceptibly when I am told that I am beautiful, a tiny alarm bell going off somewhere in the back of my mind that reminds me to quickly, quickly find out what this person wants from me.

I do not want this for my daughters.

Absolutely nothing frightens me more than the thought of my girls, my smart, compassionate, gorgeous, healthy girls, believing that their bodies are anything less than spectacular. Which makes me wonder: Can a mother with demons of her own raise strong, confident daughters? The answer, of course, is yes, if I can be careful not to let the fear take over. If the girls come to me and say, “Mom, I wish I was skinnier,” I must try not to not to bulldoze the moment with well-meaning platitudes (”WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU ARE PERFECT EXACTLY THE WAY YOU ARE, EVERYTHING IS OKAY.”)

Instead, I will say: ”Tell me more about that.”

And then, when I’ve listened to what they have to say, and given them a safe space to air their worries, thoughts and fears, I can remind them, gently, that they are smart, compassionate, gorgeous and healthy. That their value doesn’t come from looking like a toothpick, it comes from their innate, indestructible goodness. That there will be times when they don’t believe this about themselves, and that’s ok. Because my job is to believe it all the time, no matter what. And I will always be there to remind them.

I spend a few moments gathering my thoughts, and then follow my daughter upstairs. There, abandoned on the top step, is her notebook. Before I can stop myself I flip the cover open and skim the page she has filled with notes about her day.

Mom is making dinner. My homework is hard. I think the answer is E but Mom says no. I am very tired. Olive is getting skinnier.

I am weak with relief- she has written about our old cat, whose new wet food diet is agreeing with her.

I walk over to her bed and sit down beside her. She’s playing with her stuffed animals, and I pick up her favorite little tiger and kiss the top of its fuzzy head, and then I kiss her. The time will come when I will sit with her and listen to her worries and thoughts and fears about her body, but I’m glad it isn’t tonight. Even so, I say to her, “You know what I think?”

“What?” she says.

“I think you are smart and compassionate and gorgeous and healthy.”

“Okay,” she says. “I’m hungry.”

Farewell, my dears

Categories: Best Practices, Fighting the Stereotype

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I’ve been a lucky lady to write here at Work It, Mom for the past few years. I’ve loved swapping stories with you and hearing from you in the comments as well as in emails. Thank you for being such wonderful readers and companions in the tricky-to-navigate waters of single parenthood.

I’ll keep this short and sweet: I’m moving on from Single Mom at Work to tackle some Life Beasties that sorely need my attention, like, stat.

I’ll sure miss you. But I believe our wonderful editors here at Work It, Mom are concocting new plans for this space, so do stay tuned.

I’ll still be over at the new bot- and bug-free incarnation (yay! yay! yay!) of my longtime blog, Breed ‘Em and Weep, and I’d love to see you over there. So don’t be a stranger. Pop on by, and I’ll whip up some hot cocoa and plug in the faux woodstove.

Have a gloriously peaceful holiday season, and a divine 2013. Thank you for all of the kindness, laughter and well wishes. I’m so very grateful for you.

Jenn

The politics of this single mama

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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Oh, the hell with it. Let’s talk politics, and why I don’t feel like talking politics anymore.

I watched the Presidential debate for all of three and a half minutes. That’s all I needed to see. Mitt was going hard, and Obama was doing his low-key thing—death in a debate.

Got it. Click.

Of course I’ll vote. But it’s increasingly hard to care.


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Coffee in the car on a rainy morning

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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I drop the girls at school. I pop through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru for a small hot coffee (cream and two Splenda) and a ham and cheese breakfast sandwich. The rain won’t quit. If anything, it’s coming down harder now. When I get home and park in front of my house, I can’t quite bring myself to get out of the car.

Inside: twelve impossible bills, medicine to take, paperwork wanting my official “remarks” on my longtime depression and anxiety, two dogs who don’t want to go out into the rain to pee or poo, a new program to learn, emails to write, columns to write, a neglected blog to attend to, a six-foot high mound of laundry, a broken toilet, a busted vacuum, dishes in the sink, piles of clothing and toys to transfer to the car for a trip to Goodwill, food that needs cooking, a refrigerator that needs cleaning, a phone number for fuel assistance and low-cost weatherization, a bottle of whiskey to ignore.
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Swimming across synapses

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype, Sleepless in the Board Room, Tentative Steps

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I have a new part-time gig, doing some editing from home, for some lovely colleagues. It’s not full-time, but I am grateful for the work. The girls and I are always desperate for warm clothes and groceries and oil to heat the house as the weather grows chilly. Every fall, I wonder how we will squeak by, make it through another New England winter. Every dollar helps. Mucho.

But I am freaking out, certain I will somehow blow this good thing. I don’t feel lucky, as a rule. Grateful, yes, but rarely lucky anymore. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the next handbasket to hell to come trucking by with my name on it in blinking neon.

Be good, brain, I keep saying to myself. BE GOOD. LEARN THINGS. YOU CAN STILL DO IT.

Can I? it replies, concerned. You may have me confused with another brain.

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