I Said What?…What’s Cute Got To Do With It?

“To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” – HRC

During one of Bubbe’s sports clinics, I pulled out my writing notebook while Skootch was distracted by a fidget spinner. Two mothers, with their young daughters playing underfoot chatted nearby.

Mom 1 took out her phone.

Mom 2 leaned in. “Is that a picture of your babysitter? Wow. She’s cute. You don’t want to hire cute girls. They won’t be available to babysit on a Saturday night.”

I stopped mid-doodle and glared. Oh no she didn’t.

But she did. This woman, my peer, implied with conviction in front of her young daughter that the “cute” girl’s time, however she defined the adjective, was more valuable. A “cute” girl has more friends and a full social calendar. It is she who is considered successful and worthy. The less “cute” ones are not as good.

Skootch flicked at his spinner. “You okay, Mom?”

I lied. “Yes, sweetie. I’m fine.”

Growing up, I saw myself as the less cute and therefore less worthy girl in the photograph. Like many females, I was the recipient of direct and indirect messages equating physical appearance with societal and individual value.

The matriarchs in my family dipped their toes in feminist ideology. My mother was first in her family to pursue a college degree and worked throughout my childhood. My grandmother managed the household finances. But what overshadowed their progress, and what I remember more were the comments from adults about boys liking girls with long hair, quips highlighting my big bones and feet and being called belligerent whenever I voiced a passionate opinion.

A worthy woman was thin, pretty and pleasing; her role was to find a husband, care for him and raise his family. Anything beyond such convention made for trouble.

I was a trouble maker.

A women’s value being tied to and limited by her appearance as defined by tradition or opinion made zero sense from the outset. Still, it took me decades to apply the theory to myself. Even now, during the “this is who I am” phase of life, I will default to a negative personal narrative especially at first glance in a mirror or of a photograph.

The self-deprecation reflex feels unsettling because I know it’s wrong. It also reminds that the unhealthy messages and experiences we absorb as children leave a perpetual stain on one’s spirit. No matter how hard we scrub, they never fully disappear.

Today, countless organizations, authors, artists, public figures, communities and families are taking deliberate steps to reframe the conversation and encourage a generation of girls to equate worth and beauty with strength, curiosity, passion and personality.

The young ladies with whom I interact in my community are proof the shift is taking hold. There’s the middle schooler who competes as an Olympic weightlifter, the high school junior who uses food as fuel to build strength and endurance and the 18 year-old who responded, “It’s not about how I look, it’s about how I feel” after I told her she looked great.

Their sense of self is rooted in power, emotion and idea. Such wisdom at an early age will only nourish their confidence and embolden them to demand future employers, colleagues, friends and lovers to judge females based on human, not physical qualities.

Kudos to the mothers and fathers who are raising these women. And shame on those who didn’t get or care to read the Smart Girl  Like a Girl  Strong is the New Pretty memo.

While I can’t control what garbage spews from a random mom on a sideline, I can learn from inspirational young ladies and curtail personal comments rooted in insecurity. And I can use language around boys and girls that emphasize character over cute.

We adults have many things to be mindful of these days. Being careful not to perpetuate the “cute girl” cycle is no less significant.

Update: TODAY Parent’s Choice Award

As some of you know, Red said what? was a finalist for the TODAY Parent’s Choice Award. Thank you so much to those who took the time to vote. While I didn’t win, I feel lucky and humbled to be included on the ballot. If you like parenting reads, the winner was Mom Babble Blog. My favorite finalist was Tara Wood. Enjoy!

To The Domestic Violence Survivors I Work With: About Your Children

I volunteer for the domestic violence organization you are brave enough to seek safety and assistance from.

We are acquaintances at best. Perhaps we’ve exchanged pleasantries in the common area after a session, but I don’t like to chat or linger too long out of respect for your privacy. When I visit the shelter, you often leave before I arrive.

My job is to care for your young sons and daughters so you may have a few uninterrupted hours to do what you need to do to move forward.

Since little ones aren’t armed with the emotional maturity and language to understand, let alone navigate trauma, I brace myself before each appointment. As an unknown adult in a position of authority, I show up expected to be tested with tantrums, outbursts and physical displays of anger.

Like you, I’m a parent. A mom who wonders how my boys conduct themselves and interact with others anytime I release them into the world. With this in mind, here are 5 observations I’ve made about your children.

Each one is remarkably capable. A preschool aged boy insists on opening his own snack wrapper. Another wants to search for parts to build a Lego tower without guidance from a grown up. A third takes the initiative to find and put on his own jacket, zip and bundle up. The phrase, “I can do it by myself” is prevalent.

They take care of one another, especially the siblings. A toddler with few words makes sure his older sister has a hat before going out to play. A big brother unties a knot in his younger brother’s necklace string. Their instinct is to help and protect.

The children are kind. A brother encourages his sister to ride the tunnel slide for the first time and waits so they can go together. A school-aged girl teaches a cranky toddler how to fold a paper airplane to distract him from his tired mood. A little brother lets his older sibling try out his new rubber snake. They lean toward what is positive and good.

They are loving. A young girl reaches out to hold my hand as we walk to the lunch table and asks me to rest beside her on a bench to watch the clouds. They talk about you with adoration and beam the moment they know you’re close enough to accept a knee high squeeze.

And filled with joy with every pump “to the moon” on the swings, every giggle as they cook up an invisible order of hamburger and fries, bounce and roll of a deflated basketball and stomp in a dwindling mound of crunchy snow. Amid the pain, your children’s default emotion is happiness.

Motherhood is challenging enough under less strenuous and terrifying circumstances. I respect your strength, determination and resilience. You are a survivor. Your children are survivors.

As you all continue to regain power and heal, please know I am here. Consider me part the village.

PLAYFUL LEARNING SAID WHAT?…5 Great Reasons To Read Graphic Novels

I like to keep my tween reading, but helping him find a welcomed book or series has its challenges. Because my son is a visual learner who also struggles with focusing, the traditional novel format can intimidate and confuse him.

Fortunately, he’s found graphic and illustrated novels.

The proprietor of our local bookstore often finds me perusing his inventory for options. During my most recent visit to his check-out counter, the owner shared an observation; some parents discourage children from buying such novels.

He wished they felt otherwise. The storytelling in graphic novels is often superb, he explained. The ability to marry words and art takes talent and might inspire readers to try it themselves. The format also builds a reluctant reader’s confidence. Enjoying a graphic novel version of a classic tale today might encourage a child to pick up the original in the future.

Unfortunately, the owner has been hesitant to speak up; he doesn’t want to tell customers how to parent.

Playful learning outlines 5 great reasons to read graphic novels for anyone who might like to learn more about the benefit of illustrated books for older children or is just shopping for new suggestions.

And here’s a link to the Red said what? Pinterest page, which highlights Bubbe’s recent, favorite graphic and illustrated novels: Children’s Books: Thumbs up from a Tween Boy.

Happy Reading!

America the Beautiful – The Women’s March on Washington

Bleary eyed passengers boarded a 3am bus
Smiling, as some passed out buttons and treats.

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By half-past six, the carrier greeted dozens more at a highway rest stop.
Together we drove south, through the morning fog.
Bus drivers helped navigate the parking lot labyrinth.
Multi-generational volunteers pointed the way.

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Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words lined front yards, rainbows draped from poles and Stevie Wonder blared from a window
As seniors, families and pets came outside to wave “hello.”

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One neighbor gave out water bottles.
A guest thanked national guardsmen with a handshake and a candy bar.
When a commuter stopped at a light and called, “I’m with you in spirit!”
Strangers shouted back, “We’re here for you!”
Schools and places of worship opened doors offering coffee, bathrooms and a place to rest.
Faded chalk drawings left by little ones brightened the park’s cement:
Hearts, “kindness” and “love.”

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Congressional aides bore witness from the balcony.
Cutters and cranks steered clear of snaking bathroom lines.
Waves of cheers cued the masses when the stage was nowhere in sight.
“Excuse me.”
“Please.”
“Thank you.”
“No problem.”

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A lady shared her box of Krispy Kremes.
A lanky fellow stood at a traffic light’s base to lift those in need of a boost.
A boy climbed the street lamp with his sign held high.

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The teen with the spiral curls led droves in “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Savoring each note, we sang to a flying flag.

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Ladies held their liberty torches high.
My voice rose above, “Run for office!”

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A grandma patted my friend’s back when she leaned over to stretch.
Hoards cleared a path for a man in a wheelchair
And moved aside for an ambulance too.
A napping infant snuggled against his father’s chest.
A pooch nuzzled close to her human.
Husbands showed off pink knitted hats.
Toddlers in strollers never seemed to fuss.

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The police officer who answered endless questions suggested a shortcut so we could catch our ride.
The crossing guard who directed crowds that morning, accepted hugs come evening.
The minister who took notice. “You’ve been sitting on our steps a while. Can I help you inside?”
And the millennials who collected metro cards for the local homeless shelter.

Sore feet, hungry bellies and uplifted spirits hustled, shuffled and climbed aboard their bus home.
New friends exchanged photos until the cabin lights dimmed.
This rider, filled with hope and touched by humanity closed her eyes.

E pluribus unum
We the people
America the beautiful

“There is no sound more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Feminist Rising

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My husband, Mac tells a story about his late father, a tough guy raised during the post-Depression era on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that ends with his dad referring to women as “broads.”

I unfortunately never had the chance to meet my father-in-law, but from what I gather such terms of endearment about the opposite sex were part of his everyday vocabulary.

Now anytime Mac’s sister or mom were privy to one of these tales, they chuckled but shook their heads. And whenever my husband tried to get away with using broad or even so much as said “girl” when referring to an adult female, they made sure promptly to correct him.

Not one to get my knickers in a knot about the occasional cat call or reference from a stranger as sweetie or hon, I couldn’t understood their issue. Why so sensitive? What’s the harm in benign synonyms or generational slang? Mac’s intention wasn’t to make me or his female relatives feel objectified, demeaned or less than.

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law would argue in favor of selective word choice. Had I pushed back, I’m pretty sure they would remind me words are powerful; slang and synonyms perpetuate the idea that women are subordinate to men. They’d then likely ask, “Aren’t you a feminist?”

My likely response? “Meh.”

A feminist, according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary is one who supports feminism or “the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities.”

Whenever I hear feminist, my mind is quick to gloss over the definition and hone in on a visceral image of a man-hating, braless lady in bell bottoms with unshaved pits marching in protest. For me, associating with this label feels passé and a wee embarrassing mostly because as a Generation Xer, I’ve spent a lifetime reaping the benefits of rights and opportunities. By 21st century standards, feminist ideals seem like bygone liberal gibberish that only widen any existing divide between women and men.

Then I woke up on November 9, 2016; my progressive, purple haze engulfed by a thick, hazardous fog in a land where those who brag about taking advantage of woman and dismiss sexual assault as boy talk are rewarded, where no doesn’t necessarily mean no, abortions are potential grounds for punishment, the notion of having it all is a men’s only club, equal pay in the workplace is not a priority, skinny women with pretty faces and big tits define feminine worth and where an exceptionally qualified woman got passed over for a job by a man with no related experience.

And I was horrified.

In a blink, the liberties I’d taken for granted were in jeopardy. As I trudged through the holiday season grappling with this alternative reality, I thought about those who poured decades of themselves into advocating for women’s voting, health, reproductive, education and gender equality rights in the workplace.

A sense of responsibility to our history and for future generations began to stoke the embers that lay tucked between ambivalence and pride, labels and perception. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled in, I was done with setting frivolous resolutions. Primed for a revolution, a feminist was rising.

After some reading and much Googling, I’ve learned that how one interprets or brands feminism varies and who feels included in the movement is still scrutinized. My understanding is simple and grounded in intersectionality and humanism. As then First Lady Hillary Clinton said in 1995, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

My personal goals are also simple; take action in my community and be mindful of words.

In order to stand up for women’s rights, one first needs to believe she has the right to do so. During the final weeks of 2016, I had the privilege of supporting those on the road to empowerment by providing childcare at a local domestic abuse shelter and outreach program. I look forward to doing my small part to help these families as they find their voice.

I will also do my best to pay attention to my own voice as well as those closest to me.

On a New Year’s Day hike with Mac and the boys, Bubbe navigated us over rocks, through mud and moss. When we came to a clearing, he challenged me to a race. “C’mon Mom,” he said with a smirk, “Be a man.”

A few months ago, I would have laughed off his comment. Like his father and grandfather, I know my son’s intent wasn’t to make me feel inferior. But this time, I took a page out of his grandmother and aunt’s book and kindly corrected him. As we journey through the fog, it won’t be enough for the feminist in me to rise; I need to be the woman who raises my sons to be one too.

RED’S WRAP SAID WHAT?…It’s More Than a Safety Pin

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Although I like to vary guest posts, Jan Wilberg’s blog, Red’s Wrap hit home for me again. Although my blog avoids politics like the plague, this time I’m making an exception.

I respect the office of the presidency. I respect our democratic process. I know and cherish the story of how the United States came to be. I have re-enacted the Revolutionary War. I have taught children about the 13 colonies, branches of government, our constitution and The Bill of Rights. I have voted in elections for 2 decades. I am a proud American.

I am also a woman. I am a mother raising Jewish children. I am a survivor. And I am a friend to enough who are scared of being hurt in the name of our future president.

Yes, I know. Mr. Trump went on television and told supporters who are discriminating against minorities to “Stop it.” I also heard him say during the interview he “was surprised to hear” about the incidents and believed they were “built up by the press.” Minimizing attacks and blaming journalists only makes me question more and trust less.

As a New Yorker who’s watched her fair share of reality television, I’m used to Mr. Trump’s word dance. So I’m watching the actions. Right now, what I see are ideologues, alt-right white nationalists and alleged anti-Semites being appointed to positions of power.

While I won’t pass judgement on the people in my life who are excited about his presidency, I refuse to shut my mouth or blindly accept that if I give Mr. Trump a chance everything will turn out fine for all Americans.

So I will continue to wear my safety pin. Not to make myself feel better, but like Jan explains in her piece, to remind myself of what I need to do every day to help my children, loved ones and neighbors.

It’s easier for me to snuggle up in my bubble, play it safe and hope for the best. To be honest, I feel uncomfortable even writing these words. But I’ve come to learn discomfort is not only good; sometimes it’s necessary.

Going forward, I will use my voice. I will march for human rights. I will find time to help. I will do my part to preserve our democracy and uphold the values upon which our country was founded. Because as an American, I am free to do so.

Red's Wrap

I’m not an ally. I’m a fellow citizen. It’s not a safety pin. It’s something bigger than that.

The “Dear White People” messages that tell me that my pledge to stand up for American values is flimsy and theatrical are condescending and unkind. Those scoldings are dripping with assumption and disdain about my motivation as an American citizen.

Oh, you’re going to wear a safety pin. Aren’t you precious? 

Don’t you understand how meaningless that is? It’s just something to soothe your white conscience.

As an older feminist, I finally learned not to discount support coming from men. Sometimes, I have been in disbelief that a man actually, genuinely, shared the view that men and women are equal, and more disbelieving when that man actually showed through his actions – small and large – that the belief was real. You don’t find men who are feminists on every street corner…

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Negative Norton And My Family’s Road To A Growth Mindset

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Meet Negative Norton.

Nort was born from a doodle sketched on our CrossFit gym’s white board by Coach Will who happens to be part Physical Education teacher, part aspiring Games Athlete and part Tarzan upon hearing the 9:30am crew kvetch about the workout of the day.

While the teaching coach warmed up the class, Will moseyed over to the board, picked up an Expo marker and outlined a chair frame.

“Looks like a rocking chair,” I said.

“It does? Good.” He addressed the group. “I’m hearing a lot of complaining this morning. Complaining is like a rocking chair; gives you something to do and gets you nowhere. There’s 2 workouts. Time to get ‘em done.”

Schooled by young Tarzan, we shut our middle-aged mouths and carried on. But Will’s rocking chair analogy stuck. I took a picture of his masterpiece and brought it home.

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Negative fumes fueled by complaints, self-doubt, whining, tantrums and profanity pollute my house. And the smog is thickening.

Bubbe often works himself up into a frenzy of I can’t, I’m stupid and There’s nothing I can do I’m just a negative person when challenged by school, home or relationship expectations.

Skootch, who prefers to grin through an existence void of conflict will lash out as a first line of defense when work gets hard or he feels wronged. While a 7 year-old hollering, “Shut the hell off you idiot!” can be comical, it doesn’t benefit anyone.

Mac who prefers to laugh and embrace a positive outlook still beats himself up when he makes a mistake.

I’m far from a stellar role model. Negativity was thrown at me as a child. Mix that with an upbringing tainted by mental illness and trauma and it’s no wonder self-deprecation and snark come easier than silver linings. While committed to breaking the cycle, chasing my children shouting “Rocking Chair” doesn’t encourage self-awareness or offer strategies to promote positive thinking.

Dr. Carol Dweck, author and developmental, social and personality psychologist coined the phrase growth mindset or “the belief you can develop your abilities.” With the understanding that the brain is a muscle we can train and in the spirit of Dr. Dweck’s work, I crafted Negative Norton.

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Each time any one of us exhibits the above behaviors, we must feed Norton a penny. I kept the rate to one cent to avoid going broke and for logistical ease, emptied the pennies from our piggy banks in advance and stored them next to our new house guest.

The reward is two-fold.

Bubbe came up with a tangible one. He suggested if Nort eats less than 20 pennies in the first week, our family would do something fun together. If our negative behavior declined over time, we would challenge ourselves by reducing the penny cap.

Mac loved the idea of Negative Norton but was skeptical. “How do we make it foolproof?”

“We can’t,” I said. But I think the visual and tactile element combined with a consequence and reward will trigger us to stop and think. Self-awareness is the intangible benefit and the first step to teaching the boys their mindset makes the difference.”

Within 90 minutes of Negative Norton’s activation, we fed him 4 times. Our family has been feeding Nort for 5 days now. There are 15 pennies in the jar. On average, he scarfs down 2 coins a day.

Mac and I like having Negative Norton around. The boys want him to move out.

Skootch equates “pennying up” with getting in trouble. “My friends don’t have a Negative Norton. Everybody has tantrums. Bad idea.” He wants Nort to smile and get the money anytime we do something good instead. He’s onto something. Still, our current system is making an impact. “I miss saying bad words,” he recently said.

Negative Norton has been hardest on Bubbe who’s realizing how much he complains. “I need to get them out so I can focus,” he told me. When I suggested positive self-talk, he pretended not to hear me and continued on. “Nope. Useless. Everything I say is negative.” But there’s hope. After making a nice golf putt, Bubbe told Mac, “Dad, I visualized the hole and believed in myself.”

Negative Norton will take up residence on our coffee table for now. There will always be pennies in his jar. The key is to feed him less.

More self-aware, our family is ready for phase two: strategy application. Time to get cracking on Nort’s roommate; smiling, penny loving Positive Pete.

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