I got yer spirit week right here

This time last year, I was trying and completely failing to make a breathable tortoise beak out of duct tape. 

My daughter wanted to dress up as a tortoise for the 100th day of school, because . . . I don’t know, tortoises sometimes live to be 100 years old, and it made sense to her. I was just so thrilled the kids were actually back in school in person, I was willing go along with any stupid project. 

My other child decided nothing would do but to wear a shirt to which someone (“someone”) had sewn 100 little bells, so I did that, too. (Yes, I packed an extra shirt on the off-chance that one of the long-suffering adults in her classroom somehow grows weary of the sound of 100 bells on  a child who could not sit still if it meant the difference between life and death.) 

If you’re thinking to yourself that the 100th day of school does not sound like a real holiday, you are so right. Some say it originated to encourage and celebrate teachers and students who have made it about halfway through the school year. Some say it’s just a great chance to sneak in some fun math lessons. Still others say that some school districts decided they would allot per-student funding based on how many kids were present on one particular day, and they chose day 100, so the school decided to plump up their budgets by luring in as many of the little scamps as possible with the promise of parties and fun; and that’s already sketchy enough, but then then Pinterest got wind of it, and now the day has taken on a horrible life of its own, completely unmoored from even its shaky origins.

It’s sort of like how Christmas has become entirely secularized and is now all about commercialism, except that 100 Day started out being about money, and now it’s just about making parents stay up until midnight sewing bells on a shirt, and whimpering, “Tell me this looks like a turtle shell.” 

Either way, now that I’ve gotten the requisite snarking out of the way, I have a terrible confession to make: I love stuff like this. I love special days, and I love spirit week.

I live to twist fruit rolls into sticky little rosettes and jam them on top of dozens of mini cupcakes for Valentine’s Day parties. I adore hot glueing bits of cardboard to other bits of cardboard to make elaborate armor for a kid who has decided she must be a glow-in-the-dark ostrich pirate for Halloween.  I’m totally in my element bashing hard candies with a hammer to make stained glass Christmas cookies for the bake sale. I don’t know if it’s because I can remember so clearly how thrilling it was to be a kid and to show up to school on A Day That Was Special, or if it’s just that my own adult life is just so dull that hot glue is enough to spice it up, but I truly enjoy making these dumb little crafts and projects and costumes.

I’m sorry. I know people like me are making life harder for people like you. I am what I am. 

That being said, even crafty people like me have our down days. There are weeks when I open my calendar and my spirit groans to discover that it’s spirit week. There are plenty of mornings when crazy hair day isn’t something to plan with giggles and anticipation; it’s simply completely unavoidable, and I’m less concerned about sharing it to Pinterest and more concerned that someone will share it with child protective services. And I know I’m not alone.

So for the parents who have no natural creative impulse, or who are just too dang busy to consider dealing with yet another special thing in the morning, I’m presenting this list of alternative, more humane special activities that most parents can manage, and I hope their schools will consider them:

Favorite Shirt Day Child must show up wearing his favorite shirt. Bonus points if his mother has no idea where this shirt came from, and it features a trashy, ghastly, tasteless design that makes her wither up inside like a little bug on a very hot day, but she lets him wear it all the time because it is the delight of his heart, and she loves him even more than she loves her reputation. Bonus points if it has jelly on it because he also wore it yesterday, because  . . . it’s his favorite shirt. 

Twin Day Dress up exactly the same as someone else in the world, probably. I mean, there are a lot of people in the world. Chances are pretty high someone else is wearing that same outfit. See? Twins. Fun. For academic enrichment, look up the word “doppelgänger.” Spend the day staring out the window in case he happens to walk by. 

Favorite Character Day Dress up as your favorite potential character, assuming somebody someday writes a book about a kid whose parents are TRYING, okay? Everybody has PANTS ON, okay? It’s not like we just dropped you off in a CORN FIELD or something. 

Thing Day Child must show up with a thing. Just any thing, as long as it’s something the child made completely on his own, using materials found on the floor of the car or bus, or on the ground outside the school door. Must be so weird and wretched that it’s manifestly clear that it was made without help or intervention from an adult. Kid loses points if an adult even has to know about it. Or, if the kid forgets to make a thing, it can be an invisible thing. Or it can be a stick or something. It’s fine. It’s whatever. Call it “child-led” if that helps you sleep at night. 

Name Day At some point during Spirit Week, when you pick your child up, you will be asked to state your child’s name. If you can’t immediately come up with it, you will be given a hint. If that doesn’t work, you will be given a cocktail and some warm socks and sent to bed. 

And there it is. Hey, we’re all 100 days closer to the grave, anyway. Some of us will be there with bells on.

The long game of Advent parenting

I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s almost Christmas. Advent — what’s left of it — is a time of preparation, but unless you live a very unusual life, you probably need some time to prepare for this season of preparation.

We have done various things over the years to try to make Advent a season of anticipation that leads up to a day of Christ-centered joy, rather than a month-long wallow in decorations and cookies that leads to a volcano of presents. We fail every single year.

But we do always try. The nice thing about Christmas is that it’s a birth, and that means it’s a beginning, not a culmination. Call me hopeful or call me delusional, but I always feel like as long as we TRY, then we’re getting Advent and Christmas right.

So this is how we try: We set aside the day after Thanksgiving as Jesse Tree Day. And that is about all we do the day after Thanksgiving. The kids are home from school, nobody expects me to cook anything elaborate, and God has granted me the gift of a profound unwillingness to rush out and shop for amazing Black Friday deals at Target. So Friday is the day of getting ready to get ready.

The first step is to choose a list of Jesse Tree readings. The idea is to find one that more or less matches up with the actual calendar. Advent begins Dec. 3 this year, but if we end up with one that starts on Dec. 1, it doesn’t matter that much, because we know we’re going to miss some days anyway, so it all evens out. Then I print it out, round up the kids, and read off the symbols, and they dibs the ones they want to do.

Some years, I get fancy and buy special paint markers and a bunch of blank capiz shell discs with holes drilled in them, so we end up with a set of more or less uniform ornaments. Other years, I just open the infamous craft cabinet and pull out everything that looks like it won’t cry if you put glue on it. (This is my first act of Christmas Generosity: I renounce my claim on anything I put out on the table. If you’re not going to use the good stuff for getting ready for Jesus, then what in the world are you saving it for?)

Then I start some music going. In this house, we do not listen to Christmas music before the day after Thanksgiving; and the very first one we listen to is “A Medieval Christmas” by The Boston Camerata. The kids groan and complain, but I’m a big believer in building unwilling fondness through repetition. I choose my battles with music, but I insist on this one at least once a year. This is my first act of Christmas Bullying, which is also an essential part of the season, if you’re in charge of other people.

So then I toss the list with names into the middle of the craft heap, and I leave the room. The kids are going to be incredibly mean to each other while they work, which is just how they show affection; and they are going to make an insane mess, which is something I don’t need to see happening. This is my first act of Christmas Surrender. Some things are beyond my control, and it’s very good to keep this in mind and not waste emotional energy getting upset about it.

Read the rest of my latest monthly column for Our Sunday Visitor.

It will be so much easier if they make their own lunches

Our kids pack their own school lunches

There are several reasons for this. First, it fosters self-sufficiency and independent thinking. It also gives them some awareness and appreciation of how much work goes into planning and preparing a meal. More importantly, a child who’s chosen his own food is much more likely to actually eat those foods than a child who is surprised and disgusted by the choices someone else has made for him. No food is nutritious if it goes uneaten!

Best of all, it’s so much easier for the parents. Packing lunches is a lot of work, and this way, I get to just put my feet up and relax.

Of course, first I have to remind the kids to make their lunches. I have the choice of doing this as soon as they get home, when they are exhausted and cranky, or later, when they are cranky and exhausted. Either way, there is occasionally a bit of resistance; but this can easily be overcome with some firm, cheerful reminders. Here is a sample dialogue:

Parent: [Child’s name], please make your lunch now.
Kid: [No answer.]
Parent: [Child’s name], will you please make your lunch now. [Child’s name.]
Kid: [No answer.]
Parent: [Child’s name], please make your lunch now [Child’s name.] [Child’s name.] Make your lunch.
Kid: [No answer.]
Parent: LUNCH. LUNCH. LUNCH.
Kid: What???
Parent: Please make your lunch.
Kid: Okay. Sheesh! You can’t just say “Lunch!” and expect me to know what you want!
 
The child will now need to locate his or her lunch box. If by some miracle the child has not left the lunch box at school, on the bus, or in the Dunkin’ Donuts bathroom where you stopped for an emergency poo, you will be able to easily locate the lunch box by the cloud of fruit flies hovering overhead.
 
Your child may notice that their lunch box “smells funny for some reason” but may need some assistance in identifying that reason as last week’s tangerine peel collection that it seemed like too much work to throw away, so they brought it home because surely their mother needs some elderly tangerine peels.
 
No matter, you can easily wipe down today’s modern wipeable lunch box with a damp cloth, perhaps give it a once-over with some baking soda to ameliorate the stench, possibly douse it with kerosene, pat it dry, and you’re ready to pack the lunch. I mean your child is ready to pack his lunch all by himself, while you put your feet up.
 
He will accomplish this by packing one snack pack of chocolate pudding and then going to lie down under the table. Why is he lying down under the table? Because there isn’t any food in this house.
 
You will point out to him — possibly waving your arms a bit, as you point it out — that there is so much food, in such vast quantities, and in such an array of varieties, it would have rendered Mansa Musa instantly insane as his brain tried to comprehend the sheer opulent luxury of it all.
 
But no dice. All you ever buy, it seems, is dumb boring things that are barely even food, like fruit and meat and cheese and yogurt and crackers and trail mix and cookies and pudding and hummus and chips and vegetables and fruit snacks and pumpkin seeds and bagels, and meanwhile all the other moms are buying Flamin’ Hot Sharkleberry Pop Tarts with Limited Edition Rockin’ Sockin’ Tropical Holographic S’mores Drizzle Pods, because other moms love their children.
 
At this point, you may be tempted to remind your children that, when you were in elementary school, you used to bring in a baloney sandwich, an apple, and a couple of store brand graham crackers with jelly on them, and you considered it a special treat if the jelly had seeds in it. And there certainly weren’t any insulated bags or adorable mermaid-shaped mini ice packs to go in those lunches! We got salmonella and we were grateful for it! We considered it an honor!
 
But this approach is an error. Your child will consider the fact that you ate graham crackers just further evidence that you are some kind of defective moron who is incapable of judging right eating, and he will make fun of you on TikTok. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. 
 
Eventually, with some persistent reasoning and bargaining and a little bit of screaming, your child can be coaxed to continue adding food items to his lunch box, until finally he discovers that it is nearly full. He will have achieved this all by himself, with only a little bit of help from you, who will by this time have spent the last forty minutes standing there with your head deep inside the cabinet, mumbling, “How about Triscuits? okay, then how about Ritz crackers?okay, then how about Goldfish crackers? okay, then how about Wheat Thins? okay, then how about Saltines?” and all the while you can actually feel your bones wearing down and turning into dust inside you. How about Wheat Thins with the bone dust of your mother on them? How about that? 
 

But your untimely demise aside, the good news is, your child will finally have a hearty, nutritious lunch. Well, a hearty lunch. Well, it is mainly chocolate pudding, but at least you know the little creep is going to eat it. And best of all, he made it all by himself, and saved you so much work. Looks like this generation is off to a fine start, and you can go put your feet–
-Oh no, wait. This pudding was produced on machinery that also processes nuts. I guess junior needs some help after all. 

 

_________

PBJ Image: JefferyGoldman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Microdosing catechism

When I was growing up, we had catechism classes at the church, occasionally at school when one of us was going to Catholic school, and also at home—and those were real, formal lessons. Sitting on the couch in the evening, we would go over the reading and do a question-and-answer section, true and false and multiple choice, and sometimes my mother would even set up little games to reinforce what we had learned—bingo and catechism baseball.

We had memory work and little practice sessions and occasionally prizes for good work. My mother was an incredibly organized person, and dedicated one or two days a week to catechism.

This is not my style. My style is more to be in a constant state of freaking out over how much my kids don’t know about their faith. But my life is very different from my mother’s, my family is different, and I am different. So I do things differently. Sometimes I’m even able to convince myself that it’s not a bad system.

Of course we avail ourselves of the faith formation classes offered by the parish when we can. Sometimes we can’t, for various reasons, and sometimes it’s just not what our kids need right now. But there is a method we’ve found that consistently yields some kind of good fruit. I’ll call it “microdosing theology.”

Silly name, simple method: You just do a tiny bit almost every day, and you don’t stop. Or if you do, you start again as soon as you can. That’s it. That’s the method. The theory is that it doesn’t overwhelm anybody, because it’s just a tiny bit. You can keep it up because it just takes a few minutes; and the kids can hardly complain, because it’s just a few minutes.

And even if they do complain? Well, it’s just a few minutes.

When you keep a constant, steady stream of words and ideas about theology in the family conversation, it no longer feels like some kind of uncomfortable, rarified activity that it would be weird to introduce. This way, even if the topics you’re introducing are not what they’re interested in, it’s not such a big leap to begin talking about the things they do want to talk about.

It works the best if you already have an established routine. We do have a pretty firmly entrenched habit of evening prayers (and that, too, follows the “just a little bit every day” model, because someone once told me to pray as you can, not as you can’t, and how we can pray is a little bit), and after prayers, we read a little bit.

Two books we recently used for microdosing, that have worked very well:

Saints Around the World by Meg Hunter Kilmer. We had the kids take turns reading aloud the short, punchy biographies of saints, one a day. I had never heard of most of them, and have been fascinated and occasionally incredibly moved to learn about the vast variety of saints, from ancient to modern times, all finding a way to follow God’s will in circumstances that could not vary more widely.

The tone and reading level is aimed at maybe grade 3, but the material is more than interesting enough to capture the attention of all ages; and although it doesn’t go into gory detail, it doesn’t sugarcoat the facts of martyrdom or persecution. It is thought-provoking and frequently made me want to learn more about the saints we met in these pages. Really good for a child preparing for confirmation, and it just provides a good, natural overview of what holiness looks like in action, in real life, which is the entire point of studying theology.

The illustrator has gone to a lot of trouble to include historically and culturally accurate and meaningful details in the pictures, which are briefly explained in the captions.

When we finished the saint book, we switched gears and began Michael Dubruiel’s The How-To Book of the Mass. This is less entertaining, but it’s an intensely practical book, written by someone who really understands the obstacles and temptations that beset the typical Catholic, and offers actionable advice about how to deepen your relationship with Christ and to enter more deeply into worship at Mass.

It is systematic and thorough and extremely clear. It is probably aimed at teens and older, but some parts of it are extremely simple and easy to understand, so I’m comfortable with the “take what you can manage, leave what you can’t” approach. Did I mention, it’s short? It’s broken up into very short sections, just a page or two, so you can easily read for just a minute or two per day and work your way through the Mass that way.

When we’re done with that, I’ll probably return to a book we read some time ago: Peter Kreeft’s Your Questions, God’s Answers. I recall that it did answer many of their questions, answered questions they already knew the answers for (which counts as review, which is fine), and opened up discussions about things they didn’t realize they had questions about.

And here is one of my important rules, vital to the whole microdosing operation: Always let the discussion happen! Doesn’t matter if it sticks to the original topic or not. If they ask a question about God, then right now is the right time to answer it, period.

The segments are short enough to read in five minutes or less. It’s intended for teenagers and is slightly goofy but not pandering. It’s theologically meaty and profusely studded with scriptural references, but written in a clear and chatty style that is easy to understand. Some sections are better than others, but some are very good indeed.

In general, I try to remember what several people told me when I signed up to teach faith formation one year: No matter what else I did, I must remember that it is not about me. It is about being there and letting the Holy Spirit do what he wants to do with the hearts of the children in that room. Yes, I had to do my best, and I have to put the effort in. But my efforts, my performance, are not what will make the difference. I have to remember to stand aside and make a place for the Holy Spirit.

That is harder than it sounds. Sometimes—most of the time, even—you really don’t know how good of a job you are doing when you teach your kids. All I can tell you is to keep going. Just a little bit at a time is good. And if you stop, start again.

___

A version of this essay originally appeared in The Catholic Weekly in May of 2023.
Image sources: eyedropper ; Bible (Creative Commons)

Some thoughts on the dreams of children

One day, a child came snuffling and sobbing down the stairs in the morning, and when I asked what was the matter, she said, “Mama, I dreamed that you were dead.”

Oh, poor thing. I tried to wrap my arms around her and give her comfort, but she wasn’t done.

“And . . .and I had a REALLY HARD TIME GETTING MY BREAKFAST,” she wept.

Ah. My first impulse was to be offended. Is that all I am to you? A pourer of juice? The one who knows how to work a toaster? My death makes you weep because the most important meal of the day is now compromised?

But then I considered. This is a very young child. She has barely emerged from the age when food and mother are all one thing, not to mention the age when mother and she are one thing. To such a little one, a cold, empty breakfast table really is a terrible thing, a dreadful loss.

It’s very much like the song “ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” You wouldn’t scoff at that man and say, “Oh, I guess you don’t really love that woman; you just care about getting your vitamin D!” To him, she is the very sunshine. To my daughter, I was breakfast. That’s how much I meant to her, in her dreams. When I thought it over, I was very moved (and I made her a nice breakfast right away).

I do love hearing about my kids’ dreams. They’re sometimes fascinating, and often very funny. And some of my kids are usually fairly tight-lipped, especially when they hit the teen years, and I am openly hungry to know what is going on in their heads, and dreams are where it’s at.

But I do have to brace myself when I turn up in their dreams.

Dream parents, when they’re not dead, behave abominably, at least at our house. We are just the worst. We are constantly missing their birthdays, telling our bewildered children they get no Christmas this year, driving them off cliffs, refusing to look out the window when they’re trying to warn us there’s a tornado made of tigers outside, and so on. Sometimes we spread a giant feast on a table and then tell them they can’t have any; sometimes we just throw away their favorite shoes.

I don’t think I’ve ever behaved decently in their dreams. I don’t take it personally anymore. I know I’m a pretty okay mother in real life, and I know the kids more or less know I love them. I also know that dreams are where people work out our feelings about things, and the emotional content of a dream is much more significant than the actual plot and characters.

Just as the very young child was unable to tell the difference between the death of her mother and the loss of breakfast, and older child may not be able to discern (in their dreams, at least) the difference between “something bad is happening to me” and “my parents are monsters.” At different stages of development, the lines between me and thee, inside and outside, are blurry and shifting, and that’s doubly true when we’re dreaming.

So when a kid dreams about parents doing unfair, outrageous things to the kid, it may very well not be a dream about the parent at all. It’s pretty likely actually a dream about the kid and how he is feeling about his life. The parent gets to be the aggressor in the dream because parents are the main doer-of-things-to-kids, so parents are the most obvious choice to act the part as the one who does something unpleasant to the kid.

Parents loom large in real life, so when kids need a way to express to themselves that they feel impinged upon in some way, it’s probably going to be the parent acting that part. But what the dream is really about is how that kid feels and responds to the unpleasant thing.

Do they feel powerless? Do they feel angry? Do they feel afraid? Do they feel energized and motivated to save the day? This is the important part. That’s what the dream is about. Kids, especially, are very self-centered (in a healthy, developmentally appropriate way, I mean), so when they dream, they dream about themselves.

It’s very common, especially as they hit pre-teen and teen years, for kids to feel that life is unfair, or that they’re the only one who understands something and no one will listen to them, or that things have gone out of control –maybe someone who is supposed to be in charge has disappeared — and they have to struggle desperately to get back in control.

And so these overwhelming feelings turn up in dreams, and the larger machinery that produces those feelings is likely to be parents. If a child is having a lot of dreams of being hunted and persecuted and tormented, and if they are disrupting sleep regularly, then it might be time to take a closer look and see if something bad is going on with the kid; but some dreams like this seem to be a normal part of growing up. Unless there is some very obvious catastrophe or betrayal or injustice in the child’s life, these are probably not actually dreams about the adult doing anything wrong. They are probably typical dreams that signify a child slowly coming into his own identity as separate from his parents and from his family, and facing very normal mixed emotions as they come of age.

Sometimes a kid will even dream that there are zombies or some other scary monster pretending to be their parents. I used to think this signified that my kids thought I was a hypocrite, and that they could tell that my patience and dedication were just a mask that could slip at any time.

But this was me massively projecting my own fears about my adequacy as a parent onto them. Dreams about something scary pretending to be your parent are most likely about things in general not being what they seem — about a child not being as secure or in control as he once thought he was when he was younger, for instance.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Probably the significance of dreams varies as much as individual psyches themselves vary, which is quite a bit. But I do think that parents shouldn’t put too much stock in the dreams of their children, or at least remember that dream rules are different from waking rules.

What do you think? As usual, my training and expertise in this matter are absolutely zero; it’s just something I’m interested in! 

***
Image: Wallpaperflare.com

The thing about having kids

If you are wondering what things are like at our house, here is what you need to know: We have FOUR teenagers. Wasn’t that good planning? Aren’t we smart? It also smells wonderful here, believe me. And whatever the levels of snark and sarcasm you’re imagining, multiply it by 10. The four of them tend to gang up on us and act together like some kind of unholy army of scoffing and scorn.

Sometimes my husband will fuss at them, because they need to be fussed at. I recently learned that, after he leaves the room, one of my daughters will turn to the others and say, with a look of mild astonishment on her face, “I never did catch that man’s name.”

Pandemonium. She has very good comedic timing, just like her father, and she gets away with way too much just because she’s so funny. Just exactly like her father (whatever his name is).

And that’s what it’s like at our house.

I set this essay up like I was complaining, but this is actually one of the greatest parts of having children — or two of the greatest parts, I should say.

One is that they are so entertaining. They start out that way when they are first born (all babies are beautiful, and all babies are incredibly ugly, which is hilarious), and they keep it up as they trundle through one developmental stage after another, gracefully or clumsily blossoming into life as if they’re the first ones that ever thought of trying it. These comic firsts — first goofy laugh, first words, first joke, first completely insane knock-knock joke, first pun — they don’t get old when you have a lot of kids. If anything, they get better and better, because you’re relaxed enough to enjoy it.

It’s possible that I’m predisposed to enjoy my kids’ humor because I love them, but I have also heard so many people say that they had kids for various reasons — for duty, or because their wives wanted it, or by accident — and were amazed to discover how entertaining the little buggers turned out to be. I remember seeing a post on Facebook where some hapless young man loaded down with a stroller and diaper bags smiled goofily and told the cameraman, “I never thought I’d be so proud of someone for rolling over.” He knew the kid wasn’t some kind of genius for hitting a basic milestone, and yet that’s what milestones are like: They feel huge. They feel historic, even though trillions of people have done them before.

I suspect this is a large part of why people answered as they did in a recent Pew study…  Read the rest of my latest for Our Sunday Visitor

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

Christmas morning: Are you doing it right?

One of the great mercies of being the mother of a large family is you know one thing for sure: This can’t all be your fault. How could it be? You have raised at least some of your children more or less the same way, at the same time, using the same parenting techniques and the same amount of money in the same house, being the same person the whole time, and yet they all turn out so very different.

If ever I feel sorry for parents of one child, it’s because they might think all their child’s virtues and flaws are the result of their parenting. They’re not. Some are, to be sure, but some is pure witless genetics, and some is environment beyond family, and some of it is luck, some is miscellaneous, and a lot of it is meaningful but completely mysterious, known only to God himself, and he’s not telling.

Let’s take a look at my own kids. Let’s take a look at them on Christmas morning after Midnight Mass, when they’re opening presents, and the secrets that lurk in the hearts of Fishers are revealed. I have tried to teach all my children generosity and gratitude, thrift and any number of other salutary virtues that I think will serve them well in life. How’s that worked out?

Well, one of them will be sitting in a pile of wrapping paper and random things her siblings grabbed off the rack at the dollar store, every single time she opens a present, she will shout, “It’s just what I wanted!” and she will mean it, too.

What a grateful and generous heart, you will think! Yes, up to a point. But that same kid will have carefully wrapped either a 50-cent Walmart cake or a 50-cent Walmart pie for everyone she knows, because it was the cheapest thing she could think of. She figured out long ago that this method allowed her to pocket a good half of her allowance, while the rest of those suckers were blowing the whole thing. But also, she is so extremely delighted with her cleverness, and that delight is so contagious, that everyone who opens a present from her is delighted, too, and we eventually all begin chanting, “Cake or pie? Cake or pie?” as each person opens up yet another tiny, squashy box from her, only to cheer uproariously when it turns out to be either a cake or a pie. And so it became a tradition. The “cake or pie” chant is now my favorite part of Christmas morning.

One of my less favorite parts is when one kid invariably manages to convince themselves that all their carefully curated presents are disappointing, not anywhere near what they wanted, and probably a sign that nobody really knows them or loves them, and then retreats guiltily to their room with their stocking to sulk, and also feel embarrassed about sulking. It’s not the same kid every year, mind you, just to keep us on our toes. Next year, that same kid will spend November earnestly begging us to donate their present budget to the food pantry, because they already have everything they need…Read the rest of my latest for Our Sunday Visitor

 

How to clean every room of the house, according to my kids

We have a small house, by American standards. It’s about 1500 square feet, and 11 people live and move and have their being, and all their stuff, inside those walls. The trick to surviving and thriving in such limited quarters is to clean and organize assiduously. Assiduously, I tell you! This will require all family members to pitch in and do their fair share.

Does this happen? Well, I’ll tell you.

I’ll tell you.

My children care deeply about cleanliness. Or, at least, they have some very deep feelings about cleaning. I’ve been watching them in action, and I’d like to share with you some of the ways they manage their responsibility.

How to wash the dishes

If you’re overwhelmed by the massive heap of miscellaneous pots, pans, bowls, plates, and utensils, it will become easier to tackle the job if you stop and organize things first.

This is the last thing you want. Your goal, as with all cleaning projects, is not to end up with a tidy space, but to assemble legal evidence for the cosmos that you’ve been grievously wronged; so it’s best to make the job as unmanageable as possible.

Turn up your worst music, angrily tear open the dishwasher and begin cramming dirty dishes into it in this order: A single butter knife, a giant mixing bowl with onion skins clinging to it, a set of measuring cups still on the ring, the last remaining special blue glass from Mexico that your mother got from her sister for a wedding present; an iron frying pan, a novelty plastic souvenir cup in the shape of an ear of corn that always flips over and fills up with soapy water, and another butter knife. I guess this basting brush with glitter glue on it. Maybe a whisk, but sideways.

And that’s it. If you can find a pot with eggs burned onto the bottom, cram this down over everything else to seal in the doom and prevent the spray arm from spinning. If you’re out of dish soap, squirt some shampoo in there. It’s probably fine. How are you supposed to know, sheesh? Close the door, press ‘start’, and remind yourself that the reason the counter top is still crowded with dirty dishes is because you never asked to be born anyway, so how is this possibly your responsibility?

How to vacuum

A vacuum cleaner is a handy time saver, but like all tools, it has its limits. For instance, you can use it to suck up dirt, dust, dog hair, cat hair, sister hair, glitter, sister glitter, and sister dirt, but do not attempt to use the vacuum cleaner to suck up hair that is still attached to your sister. Why? Because girls are always screaming about something, who knows why.

Other than that, just sort of push the machine around the middle part of the floor until it starts making whining, gasping noises, and that’s the sound of being done. Shove it toward the corner of the room and leave it plugged in, with the cord flopping all over the place, as a courtesy to the next person. Man, that is some courtesy. You are awesome.

How to clean your bedroom

Spend all of Saturday morning begging and pleading to watch cartoons because you never get a chance to watch TV anymore because you work so hard. Watch cartoons for three hours, turn it off, think about cleaning your room, and announce that you never got to have breakfast. Eat breakfast for three hours. Turn on the TV again. When your parents notice you are still watching cartoons and demand you turn it off, shriek that it is a two-parter and it’s unfair to turn it off now, and anyway, your room isn’t even that bad because you just cleaned it.

Turn the TV off. Slither up the stairs like you were born with some kind of abnormal tendons, and announce that it’s impossible to clean such a messy room in such a short amount of time. Lie down on the floor and start playing with dolls.

When your parents come in to see how you’re doing, explain that the whole entire mess isn’t even yours, because you keep everything on your bed anyway, and everything else isn’t even yours! Throw three socks down the stairs, because they are laundry. Ask if you can have a little break. Turn on cartoons. Suddenly announce you never had lunch, and it’s unfair.

How to clean the bathroom

Don’t even go in there. Seriously just lie about it.

How to clear the dining room table

A place for everything, and everything in its place! Mail goes on the kitchen counter. Books and papers can be placed on the counter in the kitchen. Jackets and hats, straight to their spot in the kitchen, and why not on the counter? Laundry, apple cores, dog toys, a single roller blade, a puppet covered with very loose glitter, a broken table fan, a small plate of chewed-up mushrooms, a large paper mache model of Machu Picchu, a fleece blanket of Our Lady of Guadalupe with oatmeal on it, someone’s job application, and a curling iron: counter, obviously, kitchen-style.

A coffee mug: UGH, there’s nowhere to put this. Who’s supposed to be cleaning the kitchen counters? DO YOUR JOB, LAZY.

How to wash windows

I can’t believe they let me have a spray bottle of ammonia. We’re all gonna die.

***

And that’s how we do it at our house. Hope this helps. We feel that training children in household cleaning chores not only teaches them responsibility, it gives them a sense of ownership and pride, which sounds great, and someday we hope to get started on this. But right now, we’re watching cartoons, and it’s a two-parter.

Image: Detail of The Galley by Arthur Young (public domain)
A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in 2021.

Childhood is a wild bird

The first time I took my kids out to hand feed wild birds, it didn’t go well.

I had hit upon the activity out of desperation at the beginning of spring vacation. The kids were so bored, but I had COVID and was much too tired and contagious for outings. We had long since exhausted the charms of reading books via FaceTime, with and without silly filters, and even the kids were tired of TV.

But maybe we could feed the birds together! We could sit in chairs, safely distanced, enjoying nature, being quiet, doing something wholesome and memorable, and did I mention being quiet?

It didn’t go so well. But that was okay. It was pleasant enough just being outside, and I’m a firm believer in the value of unstructured, unplugged time for kids. We thought we might get a nibble or two, but you really do have to be quiet to attract birds, and my youngest is made out of monkeys. The first few times she squirmed or chattered, I fondly and gently shushed her; but I recalled that our goal was to have a nice time together, so before long, I released her, and we dispersed without having fed or even seen a single bird.

We agreed it was fun, though, or at least potentially fun. Apparently you really can train birds to get to know you. I talked about our attempt on social media, and people shared photos and videos of their kids’ success in making friends with these wild creatures.

The idea began to take hold. I started to see hand feeding wild birds as the ideal summer activity. By the end of vacation, I thought, this is how we would greet every morning: We would step into the backyard with a handful of seed, and our feathered friends, who knew our gentle ways, would flock to us like a gang of modern day St. Francises.

A eager twittering grew in my heart. It was everything I wanted for my kids: A break from screen time, a memorable bonding experience, and a naturally contemplative pastime that would sweetly, easily open the gates for all kinds of other goods of the spirit.

The idea took flight. This could be about so much more than birds, I thought…

Read the rest of my essay for Catholic San Francisco here

The secret life of Barbie and other cartel wives

Remember the sweet pretend games we used to play when we were kids? Remember baby dolls, and house, and school, and When Will My Husband Return From The War, and Tie Those Ropes Up Tighter, She’s Trying To Get Away?

No? Well, maybe you don’t want to let your kids play with mine, then.

Let me back up.

Maybe you remember when Barbie dolls were the toy that bad parents let their kids play with. I definitely do. Lipsticked, high-heeled Barbie, with her extreme bodily proportions and her cheap, trampy attire, was the wicked, modernist plaything that trained little girls in the ways of eating disorders and prostitution, according to the paranoid lore of the time.

I’m not really sure if my mother believed this, or if she only thought it might possibly be true; or possibly she just didn’t have the budget to buy us Barbies; but we definitely didn’t have any Barbies when I was growing up. And then when I grew up and had my own first several kids, who were all girls, I kept Barbies out of the house, because I was nervous about what would influence their ideas of the world and themselves.

The “Barbie is the devil” argument is extreme, but there’s some truth in it. Kids do internalize what they see, and if they’re constantly told that beauty looks like an impossibly tall, spindly waif who’s 90 percent hair and eyelashes, it certainly could contribute to feelings of inadequacy, and the desire to be thinner.

But it’s harder to make that argument against Barbie today, when today’s Barbies look downright wholesome compared to the vicious faces on so many of the other doll lines out there, which I can only describe as baby sex demons.

Barbie’s expression is a bit vacuous and her legs are still too damn long, but other than that, it’s hard to object. Even the clothes are made better than they used to be; and my kids would just as soon make their own doll gowns out of tissues and duct tape anyway. Anyway, one way or the other, we got worn down, and found less and less energy for worrying about certain things, and now we have eight daughters and something like 700 Barbies.

And this particular doll company really has been doing good things in the field of inclusiveness. Rather than denying the charge that kids are learning from their dolls, they’re embracing it, and a few years ago began producing a line of stylish dolls that sport prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, hearing aids, and braces, and have bald heads or uneven skin tone, or otherwise appear in ways that would have scared me off when I was a kid, whether I saw these things on a doll or on a person — largely because I just didn’t have much exposure to it.

Kids learn to emotionally manage ideas through play, and playing with dolls who look different from them helps them become comfortable with people who look different from them. At least that’s the idea.

But the Mattel company has larger claims than that. They funded a study that says that doll play in general (not just dolls with disabilities or body differences) builds empathy (or at least, more empathy than playing games on a tablet). And this, too, seems like common sense to me.

In the study, they found that, when children spend time playing with dolls, together and singly, it activates regions of the brain associated with social activity, with behavioral control, and processing rewarding events.

The researchers concluded that pretend play —  at least, more so than tablet play — supports social processing and empathic reasoning. Even when kids played with dolls solo, rather than with other children, it “allows the rehearsal of social interactions and social perspective taking [and] provides a unique outlet for practicing social and empathic skills.” In other words, playing with dolls teaches kids how to act with each other.

And I believe it. Really, I do. I just wonder where my particular kids fit in.

My kids never once, to my knowledge, acted out a happy domestic scene. If there was a mother with some children, she was always dashing around looking for someone to take the little brats off her hands so she could go out partying with her boyfriend, the crazed leader of a Mexican drug cartel.

Sometimes the father was involved, but he was usually a mute and grief-stricken warrior dealing with the affects of having been betrayed by his own men in the war. Or sometimes the children themselves would be wicked, and would invite each other over for picnics, only to lure their innocent playmates onto what turned out to be sacrificial altars, where they were quickly tied up and disemboweled, their squeaky cries rising up into the night air, their blood running in rivers as a libation for the hungry gods.

Who wants to come study my children? Who wants to figure out what, exactly they are learning with this rehearsal of social interactions? I’m having a hard time classifying it as “practicing empathetic skills” when the end result is that the Midge doll has been snatched bald after a particularly vicious cat fight with Anna of Arendelle, who is meaner than she looks, especially when someone gets between her and her man. And never mind that her man is Luke Skywalker, who is once again naked. Oh Luke.

I don’t know, maybe they really are learning empathy through this kind of play. Maybe if it weren’t for doll play, they’d be even less empathetic than they are now. Maybe the bitter feud that’s been raging between Ariel the mermaid and Princess Organa is all that’s been standing between my daughters and world domination. One never knows.

The moral of this story is, you can worry all you want about what’s going to happen to your kids; and you can do all the studies you like about what’s going to happen to your kids. But in the end, all children are a little bit insane, and many children are almost completely insane.

The things kids do when they’re in a lab and someone is listening in with a microphone and a clipboard is one thing; the things they do when they’re alone in their bedroom with a teeming host of plastic dolls, a head full of nonsense, and no rules whatsoever . . . well, that’s another story entirely. There’s probably nothing you can do about it, so you might as well enjoy the ride.

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on June 6, 2022.

Photo by form PxHere