My Quest to Break the Mom Circles

A few years back I was sharing a glass of wine with some moms from my daughters’ school. We were chatting about how busy it was with school starting and the fall schedules ramping up when I overheard a woman say: “I just want to hang out with the people I know already like. I mean, I have my family and my close friends…is it wrong that I don’t want to spend what little free time I have with people I don’t even know if I’ll like?”

As I watched a few heads bob up and down I was stunned — mainly because we just spent 30 minutes before that talking about mean girls.

Can you say ironic much?

Unfortunately this is not the first time I have seen this sort of  isolationist attitude. As the new girl in town, I’ve spent a lot of time this year on the outside of the Mom circle…at my kids’ schools, team practices, at the pool. People may give you a nod and a smile, but they don’t always invite you in if they’re in their circle. I’m not sure if it’s because they are clueless, feel awkward, or just don’t want to be bothered, but it does seem to be common. Don’t get me wrong, I have met some fabulous people in my latest hometown, but there are also times when I feel like the last kid picked for dodgeball.

Earlier this summer I was attending an event with one of my daughters. As she took off with her new friends, the mom who organized it warmly welcomed me, handed me a slip of paper then turned around and joined a group of seven women — in a circle — leaving me standing there by myself. For ten agonizing minutes I stood there feeling like the village idiot while I listened to their conversations about Boy Scouts, vacations and pilates. Not one person came up to me or even looked my way.

Of course I did the obvious. I subtly smelled my pits to make sure I used deodorant that day. I checked the zipper on my shorts because my good friends can attest I’ve left the barn door open on more than one occasion. I even coughed in my hand and did the breath test. As far as I could tell I had no serious bodily offenses going on. What was even worse was I left my iPhone in the car, so I had to stand there practically naked.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I could have gone over to the group myself, but when someone comes to you, then turns and joins a group….it’s a little awkward. I made up for it the next day when I purposefully went up and introduced myself to each and every parent with sunshine and unicorns sprouting out of my butt, and each woman was kind and talkative and is now my friend in return. I don’t hold grudges — in fact I’m pretty sure they were not even aware of what happened — but I won’t forget how I felt either. And I could imagine how it must feel for someone who is more shy and introverted than myself.

Now I’m not the new girl as much, and I get to hang out with the parents I’ve met over the past year. Recently I was chatting with two sweet moms and asked one if she could tell me who a woman was that was standing by herself underneath a tree. I said: “I see her all over town whenever I’m out so I feel like I have to go introduce myself.”

Her response: “That’s so and so’s mom. I don’t know her very well.”

And that’s when it dawned on me. I circled myself and didn’t even realize it.  We could not be more un-inviting. One mom had her head in her phone, another was looking at her watch and I was just standing there yapping.

As I watched that mom walk away with her son, I knew what I had to do. I needed to start circle-breaking. I mean, I have super human powers: I will talk to anyone who will listen, I like to think I know a little about everything, and I’ve broken into mom circles in four states. I even have little circle-breaking children.redshirt

I attempted my powers with my daughter’s new soccer team. I could have stood off to the side while the other moms and dads who have known each other for years talked about bar-b-ques, jobs and their summer breaks, but I took a deep breath and broke right in. I even brought another new mom with me. And guess what? That circle just disintegrated.

And I found out that you can bust circles even easier from the inside, just by being the one to let someone in. In fact, most of these circles are toilet-paper quality and rip pretty easily. I particularly like to show these powers off in front of my children. It seems to make their force even stronger.

Now I’m not saying every time you’re chatting with your friends you have to invite someone in; BUT be aware. When you see someone hanging off to the side nervously checking their phone, think about breaking it open. Give them the opportunity to join your circle for a few minutes.

I hope more moms start becoming circle breakers and using their powers for good and not evil. Be an example for your child on how to build relationships, build a community, build a positive life. And don’t make someone feel like a loser because they’re on the outside looking in.

For those moms who build their circles out of steel, well I don’t have your kryptonite….yet;  but I do believe in karma. Sometimes life happens and you become unhinged from your circle. I just hope someone lets you in.

And for that mom I see hanging out underneath the tree. I’m coming for you.

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So You Caught Your Kid Looking at Porn

Since my post “My 12 Year Old Was Blackmailed for Nude Photos” came out, I have had a lot of people comment and get in touch with me about issues their children — or children they know — have encountered online. For example, a friend got in touch about her nephew that was playing with another child that had a hand-me-down phone with the Wi-Fi code still on it and used it to access porn. They were six and eight.

And the woman who e-mailed me after reading the article to tell me that her 13-year-old daughter had been communicating with a sex offender for four months and was just about to meet with him when the mom found out. How did this happen when the child didn’t own a phone? Her daughter’s friend was kind enough to let her have access to SnapChat on her iPad, which her parents never monitored.

And the parent that contacted me telling me that her two sons had figured out how to connect their Xbox to the Internet and were innocently chatting with people all over the world. Based on the communication and the questions they were asking, she was convinced that these gaming players were certainly not the eleven-year-old boys they were pretending to be.

And the mother who told me the article prompted her to check out her daughter’s photo gallery where she found dozens of inappropriate pictures she had been sexting to some boys in her class. She had already blocked access to apps, but did not regularly monitor her phone.

And the grandmother who installed monitoring software — but did not set it up correctly — so her grandchildren were having unfettered access to the Internet. In her words: “Thank God I did not have a heart attack when I walked in and saw what that bull was doing to that goat.” Yes, I giggled at that one a little bit because I think I saw that video too, and I’m thankful that’s all that it was.

In today’s digital world where kids are often more savvy than the adults — and Internet access is everywhere — parents must use a combination of technology tools, conversations and education to protect our children.  If nothing else, the examples above underscored one thing to me: the Internet is a battlefield and it is taking good parents down.

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Our kids are on to us too. It’s not enough to just monitor, spy or control access. Don’t be fooled into thinking it won’t happen to your child.

According to McAfee’s 2014 study about Teens and The Screen, youth use social networking sites they believe their parents are not members of or are trolling. YouTube is the most frequented site, with 97% of respondents visiting the site or app on a weekly basis. YouTube was closely followed by Instagram, with 92% of respondents visiting the site or app on a weekly basis. That’s not counting that awful anonymous Ask.FM site or the Web-based messengers SnapChat and Kik.

So what should you do it you catch your child doing something inappropriate online?

  • Don’t freak out. When our kids get deep into trouble, they often make poor decisions because of the fear they have of facing the wrath of their parents. So, most kids don’t confide in their parents about cyberbullying, Internet stalking, sexting or seeing inappropriate content online for fear of losing Web access or worse yet, their phones. Treat using a cell phone or the Internet like you would approach drinking and driving – there is no instance about social media where they should be scared to tell you what they have done or contact you to help get them out of trouble. If you do find out that your daughter is communicating with someone they shouldn’t, or your son is watching something inappropriate, it’s not the best time to go bat crazy, because you don’t want them to be fearful of coming to you again — when it could be really important. Take the access or device away, take a deep breath, and think about it.
  • Make sure the punishment fits the crime. There is a difference between a nine-year old accessing porn and a young girl sending nude photos to a stranger. In the first example you may merely restrict access to the Net (or only allow access to Web-enabled devices when you are present) and the second obviously is much more serious with potential legal consequences. In any case, don’t overreact and say something like: “You aren’t allowed to go online until your 16!” We all know that’s never going to happen, so take your time to come up with a punishment that gets the message across. And remember, restricting access or taking a device away is not the only punishment option either. Treat it as any other broken trust issue. Regardless,I encourage you to sleep on it. Nothing makes a kid sweat like waiting to be punished.
  • Continue the conversations. You may think that your kid just broke the rules and didn’t listen to you, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes kids get themselves into trouble online without even realizing it, particularly when they are younger. It’s important to continue having the discussions about online safety even after you have restricted access and hopefully solved the issue. And keep the tone open and concerned, not shocked and angry.
  • Consider the overspill into “real life.” In the case of the young boy who was accessing porn, I think we can all agree that most kids are curious about sexuality and the body parts of the opposite sex. This is really no different from when a son finds his dad’s Playboy magazine hidden in a drawer. However, although we can’t quash their curiosity, we should channel it in more appropriate ways. When you catch your child doing something like this, use it as an opportunity to open a conversation, and more importantly communicate your opinions on the subject and values. “Do you have any questions you want to ask me about what you saw” or “I know you are curious, but I don’t believe that those sites treat women with respect.” In the case of finding out your child is sexting or communicating with a stranger, find out if she is trying to fill a void in her life or having problems socially. Predators often lure in kids who may be feeling insecure about something, such as their looks, social status or relationships.
  • Consider a third-party. It’s often a tough pill for us parents — especially those of us who think we have solid relationships with our children — to swallow, but sometimes our kids cannot believe that we understand what they are going through in today’s world. It’s often helpful to have someone other than you or your parenting partner discuss issues related to online safety with your son or daughter. It can be a younger teacher, aunt, cousin, clergy, neighbor or even a family therapist, should you need to go that route, but the most important thing to remember is to get the message through to your child.
  • Remember the point. There has to be a line between protecting our kids and teaching them to be responsible. It is irrational to think that restricting all access to the Internet will teach your kids how to be responsible digital citizens. Instead, we need to teach them how to be safe, demonstrate the dangers, communicate the rules and encourage responsibility. But these things do not have to be completed all at once. If your child runs into a problem online, consider going back a few steps. Allow them access to a cell phone that can only be used for phone communication (yes, they are still out there), put the computer in a central location, block access to apps and tell them you will be using monitoring tools until they earn your trust back.

Have you ever caught your child doing something inappropriate online? What advice can you give other parents?

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I’m sorry (not sorry) — How to help kids learn how to apologize

“Tell your sister you’re sorry!”

I’ve uttered those words what feels like millions of times. Say you are sorry for saying that mean thing, you’re sorry for hitting, you’re sorry for losing her headband, you’re sorry for killing your sister’s herd of sheep when you weren’t supposed to be in her world in Minecraft (tell me I’m not the only one?)

“Say it like you mean it,” I often say in my most stern voice after watching the eye-rolling, head-down, muttered apology my girls offer.

But do they mean it? Do those simple words that are supposed to mean so much really mean anything at all? Is apologizing a lost art?

As a writer, I think words really matter and can convey exactly what I want in the manner I wish the reader to receive it. As a harried mom, however, I often find myself trying to do the right thing without making every squabble a “teaching moment.” This means breaking up a quick argument with a forced apology and then moving on to the next task.

But what happens when we teach our kids that empty apologies get you by in life? What happens when we don’t teach our children to have empathy or develop the integrity to admit they were wrong. What happens when our sons and daughters think three words — eight letters — can erase their behavior?

The struggle for us as parents is it is difficult to make our kids “feel” a certain way, so we go through the routine of an apology in hope that one day they will just “get it.” But that’s a pretty big risk to take.

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So what’s a parent to do? Here’s a few tips:

+ Don’t tell them what to say. How can we expect our kids to be sincere if  we are spoon-feeding them the words? Instead, ask questions to provoke them to understand their actions. For example, “Why did you tell Mary she couldn’t sit with you?” Or “Why did you chop all the hair off of your sister’s American Girl doll?” Find out what your child was thinking before forcing them to apologize, and acknowledge their feelings.  It’s quite possible their behavior is motivated by an emotion they don’t know how to control yet. Additionally, this ensures they are processing what they did,  not just how they can get out of getting in trouble.

Focus on empathy. Empathy is something that often is cultivated throughout your life. Some people are born with it, but most others must be shown (and encouraged) to be empathetic. Before you tell your child to apologize, make sure they understand why they need to be giving it. Help them understand how they made the other person feel. “How would you react if your sister cut your favorite board games?”  or “How would you feel if  Mary didn’t let you sit at her table?” Then help your child create an empathetic apology that acknowledges she understands how the other person feels. “I’m sorry I made you feel left out. I was just saving that seat for my other friend. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.” Or if you live in my house, “I’m sorry I cut off your doll’s hair. I know you love doing their hair and she was your favorite. I was just mad that you wouldn’t play with me.”

No apologies under duress. Don’t threaten your child if he is hesitating on apologizing. There is no real lesson in forcing an “I’m sorry.” Once my daughter refused to apologize to a little girl at the park for dumping all the sand out of her buckets. I made a big deal about it and all the other kids were looking at her so she shut down and burst into tears causing the other mom to tell me not to worry about it. But I was relentless. No child of mine was going to be “the mean kid.” What started out as good-intentioned parenting turned into an embarrassing situation for all involved. Eventually my daughter uttered a barely intelligible “I’m sorry” that didn’t really mean anything. We should encourage our kids but not insist on an apology until we know it will be sincere. When you are in that type of situation — especially if you have younger kids — sometimes it’s okay if the parent offers the apology.

What to do next time. While it’s important to offer an apology, it’s even more important to give our children the tools to behave differently. Ask her how she could handle her emotions the next time or how she could change her behavior. For example, “The next time your sister doesn’t play with you (because you know there will be a next time), and you get angry, what could you do?” or “what could you say to someone who wants to sit with you but you’re saving the seat so it doesn’t sound so mean?”

Focus on forgiveness. Think of all the times you have received a passive aggressive, insincere apology from someone either in your work or personal life. Think of the damage it does to your relationship and the bitterness it creates. Now think of your child giving one of those apologies. Learning to give an effective apology — one that can restore a relationship — can have a tremendous impact on a child’s life. When your child does offer the apology, also encourage them to ask for forgiveness. Help them focus on a positive attribute of the other child, a reason to keep the relationship in tact. “I hope you will forgive me, as I really like having you in my class.” Or “I hope you will forgive me for cutting off your doll’s hair. I know she was your favorite. Mom says I can do chores to help pay for her to get some new hair.”

 + Model a sincere apology. No parent wants to admit they are wrong, but showing your son or daughter how to apologize can make a difference when the shoe is on the other foot. Make sure to stop what you are doing, look them in the eye, swallow your pride and let it rip. You can then use your apology as an example for when you need it.

What do you think about kids and apologizing?

 

 

 

 

What You Won’t Hear at Meet the Teacher Night

It’s back to school time. Right now the excitement and energy is high, routines are new, and (most) kids and parents are happy. And then Meet the Teacher Night rolls around, and we get our first impressions of the person who will spend their days with our precious babies. He/She will talk about homework, grading, communications, snack policies, schedules, and hopefully about what the goals are for the year. And if you are really lucky, you will acquire insight into what type of vibe the teacher will have in the classroom for that year. You may even get all teary and pretend you have allergies when an amazing teacher reads a poem about making her classroom a family for the year — hypothetically speaking, of course.

But as these educators put their best feet forward, I always wondered what things do they really want to say when they get all the parents in the same room. I mean, if they could say whatever they wanted, without fear of administration fall out, what advice would they give?

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So, I asked. I asked my friends who are teachers what things they wish they could say to parents, and so many of them spoke up. Twenty-two in fact and it was eery how similar a lot of their answers were. Here’s what I found out:

Please don’t be a bully. It is amazing how for most parents our number one fear is our kids being bullied at school, yet so many of us do this exact thing to teachers. For the most part, the teachers I spoke to want to be respected and not addressed with threats and condescending comments. They want to remind parents that they are also mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, and when parents come to them, most teachers would like to work together to fix whatever the issue is. Most parents seem to think of teachers as glorified nannies, instead of professionals with many years of higher education. Said one: “I am the first to admit that I make mistakes, and yes, there are times when a parent meeting is appropriate and/or necessary, but I am an adult that really loves teaching her students. Please don’t begin a discussion about your child’s education with something like: Let me tell you what’s going to happen here or I will speak to the principal if I have to. It’s not productive for anyone.”

One retired educator told me she wished more parents would back up teacher decisions or teach their kids how to respectfully disagree. “The last five years were the worst of my thirty year career, and mainly because of the parents. When I tried to discuss behavior problems with them, they immediately became defensive and questioned my motives. My motives? My word as a teacher, an educator with two Master’s degrees and thirty year’s experience, was no longer good enough apparently to convince a parent that her son was repeatedly disruptive in my classroom.”

Many also encouraged parents to not talk negatively about teachers in front of your child. Seriously. If you don’t give the teacher any respect, what are the odds your child will?

Interestingly enough, several teachers said often when there is a conflict between a parent and a teacher, administrators want to pacify the parents just to keep the peace — and avoid escalating the issue farther or worse yet, receiving threats of litigation (which apparently is now commonplace.) What happens then is parents feel victorious and empowered, and continue to act the same way whenever there is a problem. Leading me to my next point.

Yes, there is a black list. Like any organization, employees talk at the water cooler, and for teachers, it’s often about us parents. If you continue to be a bully, disruptive or annoying, you’ll most likely get marked as “one of those parents.”  This means that the best teachers may not want your kid in their class….because of you. “Sometimes the sweetest kids come from the most nightmarish parents to deal with at school. One time I spent an entire school year e-mailing a mom several times a day to assure her that another girl was not giving a mean look to her daughter. She had belittled me several times telling me I did not have control of my classroom. It was exhausting and made it difficult to focus on what was important. When this sweet girl’s sister came the next year, I requested that she not be in my class only because I did not think it would be a productive year for either of us.”

Privacy is also a concern. Parents often want to volunteer in the classroom or at school, and then will gossip about other kids’ reading levels, behaviors, etc. You may see things or hear things that are surprising but be respectful of the child and their parents.

That being said, several teachers told me that they do encourage parent communication, as long as it is constructive. Academics, socialization, problems with homework, etc. should be discussed frequently and in detail with no worries of being “labeled.”

Let us teach academics, you teach life skills. Several elementary school teachers said that so many parents want their kids to be reading chapter books by kindergarten, yet most kids do not know how to tie their shoes, follow two- or three-step directions, or express their feelings appropriately.  According to one seasoned elementary educator: “Our school day could be more productive if more kids knew how to manage themselves better. I am happy to help any child that needs it, but the more self-sufficient a child is at school, the more learning we can achieve!”

This also includes teaching your child to be accountable. Make them responsible for getting a note to a teacher instead of doing it yourself, starting their homework or remembering to wear school colors on Fridays. The more responsibility you give them in regards to their school life, the better.

Don’t be a Monday morning quarterback (or parent.) As your child progresses through school, teachers accordingly put more of the responsibilities associated with school work on the student. This means by middle school, you won’t get a note every time little Billy misses an assignment. According to the educators I spoke with, there are now more ways than ever before to track your child’s progress at school, so they encourage us to use them; but not just at report card time.  “Parents that come in and ask me to change their child’s grade — particularly for a student who missed several assignments — really put teachers in a difficult spot. Of course there are always exceptions, but there has to be some integrity in the grading process. If you have certain expectations for your child’s academic performance, please stay on top of it throughout the quarter.”

Avoid the Mommy Olympics. So many of us use our kids as a benchmark to our own self-worth. As the mother of a child with some special needs, I discovered early on that we would not always be on the same timeline as other kids….and it was somewhat of a relief not to have to compete.

According to one very wise teacher: “I find so many parents gauge their children’s success by the other children in their class. It is so unfair to the kids, especially in the early school years. I have been told on the first day of school by so many parents that there kid is gifted (sometimes true, but often not) and told by others that their child had learning problems (sometimes true, but most of the time kids just need time and room to develop). It is sad to see parents using their child’s strengths to one up each other. It is even sadder to see parents feel shame because their kid is not measuring up to an imaginary bar set by their play group. Kids in preschool and early elementary grades are growing and absorbing so much information. Just keep the focus on your child and celebrate the victories!”

Thanks so much to all the teachers who reached out to me for this article. Hope you have a great year!

Five Classes I Wish Were Taught in College

It’s back to school time, and each year I feel the same way: overwhelmed, excited and overwhelmed. There is always a new schedule to learn, additional rules to follow, and more stuff to do.

And the learning curve never seems to get any easier for me. Each year I spend hours trying to get registered on some school’s web site, accumulate supplies and clone myself so I can be on that conference call, at that school meeting and in the car pool — all at the same time.

After a decade of parenting experience, you’d think I’d have it down by now. But I don’t. Not even close.

And in my darkest hours of self-loathing for my parenting failures — like when I sent in blue index cards instead of yellow or when I can’t get the left eye to stay on for my daughter’s book report on Abraham Lincoln — I often think of all the wasted time I spent in college. The hours taking electives that I never used, such as Softball and Theater 101, and “required” classes that were supposed to make me well-rounded (beyond the freshman 15 I gained), such as anthropology, geology and what I refer to as “Kill-Me-Now Calculus.”

Seriously, if college educators really wanted us to be successful in life, they’d change their course offerings pronto. I’m even thinking of starting one of those new distance learning colleges…Playdates University anyone?

Why not teach the basics of the important parenting stuff when our brains are still fresh — before sleep deprivation and caffeine addictions take away our ability to focus on simple tasks? Before we consider a trip to the grocery store a date? Before our children suck our brains dry? Where were the classes that would help us out in real life, like at PTO meetings, parent-teacher conferences and baseball sign ups?

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If I could go back in time, here’s some classes I’d like to put on my academic roster:

+ Scheduling 101. Seriously, has there ever been anything more challenging than managing the schedule of our kids’ activities? Add in parents that travel, family obligations and a occasional night out, and the family schedule starts looking like something out of the Matrix.

Crafts for Beginners. My poor kids. I am craft-impaired, but maybe, just maybe if someone taught me the basics of how to use a glue-gun, fabric and glitter, I wouldn’t get eye rolls from my eight-year old on the rare occasions we sit down to craft. I might even want to help make a Valentine’s Day box one day.

+ Negotiating to Win. I have actually seen parents who aced negotiation classes at prestigious business schools brought to tears during a discussion with a three-year old about going to the potty before they got in the car. While I certainly don’t believe in negotiating with kid terrorists, let’s be honest, there are times when you just can’t get around it. I personally could have used the lectures: “How to Get Your Kid to Wear Her Coat during a Polar Vortex” or “How Much Bribery is Okay to Get Your Kid to Stop Being a Nose-Picker.” Hypothetically speaking of course.

Statistics for Parents.  I took statistics in college. I even got an A. What would be useful, however, is being able to calculate the probability of your child getting this stomach flu during the winter. Or better yet, based on the fact that 17 children in school have lice, and my daughter was in the classroom with eight of those children for 73 percent of the time, what is the likelihood I will have to wash everything in my house over the weekend. Those are skills I can use.

Meal Planning for Today, Tomorrow & Beyond. Can you even begin to rationalize how much time we have spent planning meals? Roughly speaking, I’m guessing I have to plan, shop and cook dinner about 300 times each year. That’s 3,000 meals the past decade (not counting lunch or breakfasts.) I can’t count the hours I’ve spent searching on websites, combing through cookbooks, and begging friends for their latest crock pot favorites; yet even having thousands of recipes right at our fingertips, when 5 p.m. rolls around I still say, “Hmmm, what should we have for dinner?” Meal planning would be an 8 a.m. class I wouldn’t have skipped.

What kind of classes do you wish they offered in college?

 

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