To My Son: What I Found On Your Flickr Page

You posed the question after a sleep over with an old friend who has one. “Mom, can I open a Flickr account?”

Knowing Snap, Instagram and the like were out of the question, you settled on a place to store and show off your photographs.

My instinct was to say, “No.” I can’t help it but my brain works as such – Education first. Activities second. Apps later.

School wasn’t back in session a week, and I’d already joked with Dad about moving out until June. To confess, I’d been stewing and strategizing about how to help this year’s middle school experience be a good one since about mid-summer. The thought of you changing classes, managing assignments from multiple teachers, racing the bell, schlepping materials, decoding directions, and staying organized, focused and moderately positive for 180 days straight had me stressed out.

Dead set on prioritizing real experience over the virtual, we settled, Dad and me with enthusiasm and you with a grunt on a new plan to limit device use to the weekend. This wasn’t because we were trying to make you hate us, but rather to encourage you to find escapes other than Minecraft, keep life simple and not have electronics compete with other stuff. Text, email and music were still on the table, just not YouTube and video games.

So when you first inquired about Flickr, the last thing I wanted was to stoke the coals with even the most benign of social media. I was afraid if I let the string out, even a smidge, you’d unravel; sneak the iPad, choose Flickr over after school clubs, resent homework more and avoid opportunities to hang out with real people.

My mind was pretty much made up.

Then I quizzed you on your foreign language flashcards. As I read off the word and waited to hear the translation, you starred at the wall, fiddled with a bracelet, smiled, but said nothing. I observed the nothingness. As you well know, this was unusual. In the past, I would’ve said your name a thousand times. Not this time. I’m sure I was too tired to bother.

After 45 seconds you turned to me. “Huh?”

“I said the word,” I replied.

“You did? Sorry I was thinking about something.”

Dreaming. Fantasizing. Creating. I wondered, What goes on in that brain of yours?

Before going to bed, I stopped to charge your iPad and peeked at the camera’s photo album. I thought about your love of art, my tendency to hover and two speeches we heard when our neighbor’s son became a Bar Mitzvah a few months back.

During the service, the boy’s mom stood on the bimah and spoke to her son about the decision to stop forcing sports down his throat and let him pursue his interest in computers and video production even though she felt hesitant at first. “I had to trust you,” she told him.

The mom was followed by an aunt, a rabbi. She shared wisdom from ancient Jewish mystics, explaining how they believed a parent’s job was to help their children grow into who they were meant to be.

Trust.

Grow into who you were meant to be.

The mother’s and rabbi’s advice probably seems so simple to you. But believe me, it’s hard. At least for me, anyway. To heed their advice means I need to peel back my anxiety and let go of my parental instinct to protect, smother and steer.

The next day, as expected, you persisted about the Flickr. This time, I set up an account.

Right off, you and the iPad disappeared into the neighborhood shooting the landscape, buildings, everyday objects and our cat. I know very little about photography, but I knew one thing. This new freedom turned your wheels and left you charged up, focused and happy.

My proud moment didn’t last. Unfortunately, your mom was programmed to err on the side of control and mistrust long ago. I soon fell back into a familiar frame of mind after wrangling with you at the end of a long day of classes, first day religious school, a couple hours of homework and a late lights out.

Given the level of angst in our house after just one busy day, I figured there was no chance either one of us would be able to handle you having any amount of social media. To prove myself right, I logged onto Flickr to see what you posted, who followed your page, read comments and re-check safety features.

But all was quiet in photography land. I saw there were a few views, a couple of follows and even a “Like.” As I sifted through the slideshow, I also noticed something else in the pictures; something in hindsight, I should have known would be there.

You always find the light.

Discover inspiration in overlooked places.

And capture images from your heart.

“Sky during 9/11. May their spirit always be with us.”

Your Flickr page was filled with hope, perspective and love.

We’ve reached a new stage, you and I. You’re finding your way. I’m learning to let you go. You’re beginning to trust yourself. I’m practicing how to trust in you.

Over the next several months, no doubt you’ll complain, I’ll nag, you’ll forget and I’ll worry. I’ll hear my voice on repeat, you’ll lose your mind.

So let’s make a deal.

When work gets hard, the hallway’s too noisy, friends disappoint and the days are long. When I scream, pontificate or feel like we’re stuck, I say we make a date with Flickr. You can delve into your art. I’ll delight in your discoveries. And together, we’ll enjoy a welcomed escape.

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I Was Skeptical About Childhood BFFs – Then My Son Made One

George & Harold-Captain Underpants

Skootch met his best friend at town camp the summer before kindergarten over a bagged lunch and some arts and crafts.

They instantly hit it off in a George and Harold from Captain Underpants sort of way, bonding over giggles, grand plans and hijinks.

When school started, the boys asked to play together – often. But play dates were scarce; sprinkled between grown up obligations and older siblings’ activities.

Undeterred, they made a point to hook up at recess.

According to Skootch, that’s where the magic happened. During their 45 minute daily ritual, imaginations ran wild, games were played, deals were struck, choices made and feelings validated or hurt.

Whenever conflict ensued, Skootch, who has a temper never held a grudge. For this particular compadre, he was always willing to apologize, forgive and forge ahead. “We’re good friends, Mom,” he explained. “Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves.”

In short, these little guys loved one another.

This year, we parents ushered in the summer with a family barbecue. The boys took it as an opportunity to collectively pepper us about a first sleepover. Wanting to enjoy the sun, drink our beer and eat fried cheese in peace, we quickly agreed.

With my tween away at camp, it made sense to host the event. Besides, as a person who grew up a  floater of sorts and as a mom of an older child who has yet to find his partner in crime, I was curious to know what this 7 year old BFF business was all about.

The sleepover commenced early evening on a Wednesday after camp. I took the boys out to dinner at a “fancy” restaurant. They bunked on an air mattress in our playroom.

From drop off to pick up, Skootch and company had little use for grown-ups. Engrossed in food, spy games, Legos and banter, my job was limited to paying the bill and managing logistics. No redirecting, mediating or negotiating allowed.

In return for my compliance, they let me observe their world.

By bedtime, I had been educated on the intricacies of nose picking, heard their opinion regarding ear wax and listened to commentary on the absurdity of Trump’s wall, the treatment of diabetes and the varying degrees in which amusement park rides give their stomachs’ the butterflies.

Come morning, Skootch rehashed how he had poured water on his sleeping friend’s head and expressed repeated concern for his buddy, who punched Skootch mid-sleep as he dreamt about an altercation with a class bucket dipper.

In the end, the boys couldn’t wait to schedule a second date.

Because of my personal and prior parental experience, I’ve always been skeptical of BFF bonds. It’s one of the reasons I’m lazy about setting up recurring playdates and sleepovers. To do so feels forced. I want my sons to find and build friendships exclusive of too much adult interference, meet new people whenever possible and avoid the comfort of cliques.

Skootch’s ongoing hesitation to open himself up to new people only validates my concern. Anytime I remind him to play with different children, I get push back. “No thanks. I like one friend at a time.” For Skootch, sticking by a loyal friend is less chaotic and offers a sense of security.

So I keep preaching inclusivity, the idea of having good over best friends, being proud of the ability to mix with different personalities, the value of independent thought and the importance of giving and having space.

But I must admit, watching a genuine connection between two children at a sleepover leaves me less jaded and grateful that Skootch has a chance to grow up alongside a peer with whom he can experience trust, patience, flexibility, empathy and fun. It’s a gift not ever young person gets.

For as long as Skootch’s BFF relationship lasts, I’ll be there to encourage, but not to engineer. After all, the future of their friendship is up to them – not me.

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!

MOTHERWELL SAID WHAT?…Motherhood and Waiting: From Boys to Men

Motherwell is a digital publication created by Lauren Apfel and Randi Olin “that tells all sides of the parenting story.”

Lisa Romeo, the author of this essay which is part of Motherwell’s series on Motherhood and Waiting “teaches writing to graduate students, and publishes a blog for writers. She is proud of her two young adult sons, boy number one and boy number two, and is committed to the never-ending practice of motherhood and waiting.”

God willing, I too will reap the benefits of waiting.

“From Boys to Men”

Here you are again. Waiting. It’s what parents do, or at least what you think most mothers do, or anyway, it’s what you do.

First, you wait to conceive, wait for the fertility tests to reveal what flaws and whose, wait for the drugs to work, wait for that positive pregnancy test. You try to, but can’t describe the fearful waiting through a high risk pregnancy, the anxious waiting of prenatal testing, the watchful waiting for boy number one to blossom. Wait for the right time to have the second baby, wait after the miscarriage to try again, wait for that strangle-throated boy number two to leave the NICU.

Wait. Hope. Pray. Wait.

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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!

2 Things We Thought About Before Redshirting Our Son

kindergarten


By the end of Bubbe’s second year in preschool, my husband Mac and I knew he wouldn’t be ready to start Kindergarten with the rest of his peers.

A sweet, quiet child with a sensitive disposition, our son struggled with skills that seemed to come naturally to many classmates.

Starting just shy of his 2nd birthday, for a few hours each week he worked with a helper teacher to learn how to play in an age-appropriate way during preschool and at home. He also strengthened his muscle tone, developed fine and gross motor skills and addressed sensitivity issues driven by sensory processing with a physical and occupational therapist as well as practiced communication pragmatics and articulation with a speech specialist.

Bubbe made fine progress over time, but mastery in one area was typically followed by a step back in another.

Even though he was tall for his age, had a birthday not particularly close to the school district’s cut off and knew his ABCs and 123s as well as he should, there were enough consistent inconsistencies in his development to explore the redshirting option.

Teachers and service providers agreed; giving our son time to “cook” for an additional school year, a total of 9 months was in his best interest long term.

For me, the decision to redshirt was a no brainer. Prior to becoming a parent, I had the good fortune of teaching elementary school. One professional lesson I learned was that regardless of knowledge, in order for a child to do the work, he first needed to be ready to learn.

Mac wrestled with the idea. He has a “late” birthday and went to Kindergarten on the younger side. Anytime we discussed Bubbe’s delays he’d say, “I hated school. Half the time I hardly knew what was going on. But life’s a struggle.”

“School’s hard enough,” I would argue. “Why make it worse for a child? If we push him through, what will his experience be like by the time he gets to middle school?”

After several iterations, Mac was able to take a step back and separate his experience from our son’s needs.

Since then, we have gone through the process of redshirting our younger son. I’ve also spent the last 10 of my 16 years in education working in early childhood programs. Whether I’m chatting with friends or sitting with parents of young children, the topic of Kindergarten readiness can elicit strong, mixed emotions particularly if the choice isn’t a no brainer.

With this in mind, here are the 2 things Mac and I considered during the process.

Question #1 – Is my child ready to learn?

Not, does Bubbe have the academic knowledge, but is he socially, emotionally AND cognitively ready to learn in a school setting?

At the time of our decision, our child needed consistent adult guidance to get in the mix with peers in both structured and non-structured environments. He didn’t understand how to play cooperatively. His low muscle tone and delayed motor skills made it tough for him to keep up on the playground; he often looked lost and preferred to be alone. Furthermore, Bubbe didn’t have the self-help skills for a child his age.  He couldn’t get dressed without assistance, put on his coat or use the potty.

While our son showed empathy and kindness toward others, his emotional sensitivity and shyness hindered his ability to advocate for himself, ask questions and navigate feelings. His discomfort in crowds as well as with noise and texture made it challenging for him to participate in groups scenarios like classroom station play and birthday celebrations.

We knew he was cognitively able. The “mechanisms of how one learns, remembers, problem-solves and pays attention” were present, but his struggle to move with the pack, manage time, attend long enough to listen to teacher directions and complete a task without help from a grown up emphasized the gap between his potential and performance.

Bubbe did have the academic knowledge. Testing showed he was “smart.” One helper teacher even suggested he might get bored once in elementary school if he waited the extra year.

But because Mac and I could not answer yes with confidence to all 3 components, we chose to wait.

Question #2 – What will happen as my child gets older?

The delay, albeit the right move was not a cure-all.

Despite his academic “smarts” going into Kindergarten, Bubbe didn’t learn to read with fluency until 2nd grade.

In 3rd grade, when the work became more sophisticated, some weaknesses he struggled with in preschool resurfaced. Bubbe ended up needing a little formal help from teachers again.

During our early debates, Mac and I wondered about middle school. How would Bubbe’s delays play out as a tween?

Well, the first year of middle school is half over and so far, the kid’s holding his own. Focus, organization, time management and interpreting complex situations continue to challenge and fuel anxiety. Fortunately, Bubbe is starting to understand his needs and take ownership of his learning thanks to consistent guidance from talented teachers, practice and maturity.

He’s told us being the oldest in the class is “kind of cool” especially to some of the girls. I’ve observed he is one of, but not the tallest boy in the grade as well as noticed some of the peers he started out with are still in his world through activities and family friendships.

Of course we get the occasional, “You left me back.”

When he digs in, the response is the same one Mac and I gave when we broke the news. “Some children start Kindergarten when they’re 4, some start when they’re 5 and some start when they’re 6 years old. Every child and family is different.”

The bottom line? School life would have been exponentially more difficult for our child had we not “left him back.” Bubbe is right where he belongs.

Redshirting isn’t for every child with a special need, late birthday or height difference. Our son has a grade level friend who’s 16 months younger. Even though the boy’s birthday is in the late fall, his mother felt his social, emotional and cognitive skills were on point. She sent him to elementary school when the district deemed him eligible. He too is thriving.

Kindergarten readiness is a stop on a long parenting journey. But I think if we keep perspective, stay objective, focus on learning readiness, advocate and most importantly, follow our gut, we’ll get the timing right.