Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Does spanking deserve jail time?

A foster mother in Connecticut is facing 100 days in jail after she admitted spanking a four year old with a wooden spoon according to a report.

The women told officials that she had spanked the child because the child had hit the woman’s granddaughter, spat at her, and used a racial slur toward her. The biological mother noticed bruises on her daughter during a supervised visit.

Let me tell you, if my mother had to spend 100 days in jail for every time she spanked me with a wooden spoon, she would have easily been serving 20 to life.

You see, the wooden spoon was my mother’s spanking instrument of choice. She brandished that kitchen utensil like a magician wields his wand. And it had the power to work its magic, too. The mere mention of the wooden spoon could stave off defiant acts such as deliberately disobeying, sassing back, “borrowing” your older brother’s pocket change, or singeing your own eyebrow off while playing with your father’s matches.

On more than one occasion, my mother would ask the utterly ridiculous rhetorical question: “Do I need to get the wooden spoon?”

She would even take the instrument of discipline and cookery on road trips. Even when concealed, its presence was felt. I remember one time we were on a day trip to place my father had to go for an hour’s worth of business. While my dad was in some office, my brother and I played in an adjacent field. At one point I found the wooden spoon tucked up near the front seat of the car. I pulled it out and starting pretending it was a sword. As I swashbuckled toward a patch of woods, the wooden spoon leapt out of my hand and flew deep into a patch of briers beyond reach.

Although I had repeatedly insisted that it was only an accident, but my mom wasn’t buying any of it. I had to spend the rest of the time in the backseat, perseverating over what would happen when my dad got back. When nothing did, I had to sweat it out the long ride home, wondering how bad my punishment would be, regretting I had ever touched something that wasn’t mine.

If I had done anything bad, I was lucky to only get the wooden spoon. For serious offences, it was Dad and the belt. Those castigatory moments happened after my mom would utter the oft cited albeit clichĂ© phrase, “What ‘till your father gets home.”

After the arduous wait, the grip of fear as he walked in, the dead-man-walking moment hearing the mumbling that was mom telling dad all that I had done, Dad would call me into his room.

There he would ask me what I had done. I would tell him all. There was no point of lying at this point. He already knew. In fact, as I would later find out, he knew a lot more than I had realized. We lived in a pretty small town where no one person was separated by more than one or two degrees from each other. Dad would then talk to me, very calmly, about what I had done, why it was wrong and such. Then came the consequence out from around his waist punctuating a lesson that would be soon learned and long remembered.

Whether with a wooden spoon, belt, or bare hand, spanking was a part of my childhood, of my friends’ childhoods. It’s what our parents did. It’s how we learned. When we got it, we deserved it. We didn’t like it at the time, but, let me tell you something, we did learn.

While I would never think of using an object to spank my kids, I don’t hold it against my parents at all. They were good, dedicated parents. Perhaps if they had spared the wooden spoon, I might not be who I am today.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Even if you don't watch, second hand television can still get you

Still once again, it’s TV’s fault – and now you don’t even have to be watching it!
Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that television is not only dangerous to early child development, but by merely having the TV turned on could result in problems.
Some experts are calling it “secondhand television.”  Likened to the hazards of secondhand cigarette smoke, when a TV is turned on when a child is playing nearby, his or her language development is affected, they say.  A child won’t develop a working vocabulary necessary for school because the television will keep children and parents from interacting.
But think about it.  Isn’t that the whole idea of putting the TV on in the first place?  Try getting anything done with a toddler nipping at your ankles!  You have to wonder if the members of the American Academy of Pediatrics have ever really spent an extended amount of time around the preschool set. Next time they want to release a study, let’s release Happy Hoppers Kiddie Care on them and see how much studying they get done.
And just try listening to the intricate, intellectual dialogue between sports casters with a toddler talking your ear off.  If I had a dime for every “Daddy can’t hear, darling,” I’ve uttered, I’d have me a 57 inch widescreen LCD digital TV in the bathroom.
Televisions, like computers, smart phones, hand-held video game devices – screen technology – have become essential childrearing tools.  Why else would Barney DVDs have the wonderful option of continuous play?  Or why are there these delightfully mesmerizing, parent soothing cable stations like PBSKids Sprout or Noggin-Nick Jr. that run nonstop kid fare?  And how else can a bone-weary mommy or debilitated dad tune their little prodigy into a Baby Einstein than the use of a DVD and the glorious TV? 
Let’s be honest, older generations, the only reason the TV was shut off when we were kids is that there was nothing really good on.  We had three major network channels and one blurry public service station.  If it wasn’t primetime or Saturday morning, it just wasn’t worth it.
Today television not only aids parents in raising their children, but it also plays an important role in the social, behavioral, and intellectual development of our kids.  A recent study by Common Sense Media found that kids under 8 spend twice as much time in front of screen media than they do books, either reading themselves or being read to.  The study further found that 40% or two to four year olds and over 50% or five to eight year olds use smart phones, iPads, and the like. 
If today’s technology is changing the way we process information they way experts contend it is, what parent would want his children still thumbing pages of antiquated books when they could be touching screens of tablets like the other kids?  What respectable parent says to a child, “If you have one good friend in your life, that’s a lot,” when they kid swinging next to him on the playground will have no less than 65,800 friends of social media sites?  What parent wants his kid to think of apples and blackberries and ice cream sandwiches as something to eat? 
Whether we like it or not, technological advances are going to change the way we process information, they way we parent, and it will mandate greater screen time for us and our kids.  We must remember, though, that technology is essentially neutral.  We are the ones who put it in gear.  Let’s focus on teaching and modeling constructive use of screen technology so.  Remember, if it wasn’t for TV, you would never remember where you were the moment Fonzie jumped the shark.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Life's Meaning is in the Margins

Everybody's busy.

Everybody's page is full lists and notes and additions and deletions with smudged erasures and dark cross-outs and scribbles and doodles in cursive and print and symbols and numbers with so many annotations that if you tried to take in all at once, you wouldn't be able to read a single word.

But it's not just the words on the paper that are important, much of the meaning lies in the pages margins.  These often overlooked annotations are what life is really about.

It's those small, common, everyday notations that we take for granted and do not recognize the value and the astonishing greatness in such small things.

Try washing the dishes deliberately.  Focus on each caress of each plate or bowl or platter or spoon or for or pan.  Feel the fine smoothness of the plastic; feel the dragging studder of the clean wet glass.  Realize that these are the tools of the meal, the mainstay of the family unit which is all too often marginalized by our busy schedules.

Life is in the margins.

Everybody's busy.

Happy Mother’s Day to a mom who never stopping mothering

I had spoken to my mother on the phone the morning of the day she died nearly 21 years ago.
She was in end-stage lung cancer and tumor fever had her back in the hospital for the umpteenth time in two years. Tumor fever is when the body says, “That’s it! I’m going to take on this insolent cancer myself,” and turns up the heat to fry the intruder while scorching the landscape along the way. They’ll treat the fever, the doctors said. Palliative measures.

When I had called Mom that morning, she picked up the phone and told me she had just taken a shower and was about to get back into bed. She sounded like she had just run from the shower to the phone to the shower to the phone about a hundred times before she picked up. She was out of breath. I told her my wife, my then four-month-old son, Zachary, and I would be there in about an hour.
Mom was in the same hospital where my dad had died of bladder cancer only seventeen months earlier, two doors down to be exact. She knew what tumor fever was. She knew what it meant. She had seen it as I had seen it before.

When we arrived at the hospital, Mom was in bed. Her breathing looked like a fish out of water. She had an oxygen tube that looped around the top of one ear, to her nostrils, and disappeared around the top of her other ear, but it didn’t seem to be doing much good.

“I -- breath -- breath -- breath – can’t -- breath -- breath -- seem -- breath -- breath -- breath -- to -- breath -- breath -- breath -- catch -- breath -- breath -- breath -- my -- breath -- breath -- breath -- breath.”

That’s alright, I told her in a forced nonplussed tone, we’d do all the talking. My wife and I made as much banal banter as we could to fill the quiet spaces to prevent too much thought while Zachary played in the walker we had brought with us.

“This is – breath – breath – breath – my grand – breath – breath – son,” Mom said proudly to the woman in the bed next to hers. My mom asked my wife to bring the baby closer to her. Then, although Mom struggled for breath, she began to sing.

“The itsy -- breath -- breath -- breath -- bitsy spider -- breath -- breath -- breath -- climbed up the -- breath -- breath -- water -- breath -- spout -- breath – breath – breath…”

She held her hand up high, raising up with it the tube that ran from the bruised bend in her arm up to the plastic sack half-filled with clear liquid. Zachary’s eyes were glued to her hand.

“Down came the -- breath -- breath -- rain and -- breath -- breath -- wash the spi -- breath -- breath -- der out…”

It was as breathless as it was breathtaking. The effort this newly crowned grandmother put into a simple song for her child’s first child was paramount to pyramids. Every note so delicate, so deliberate.
Soon after the song ended, a nurse appeared. My mother explained her breathing difficulty, and the nurse, smiling, asked if she was ready for the morphine shot now. It seemed she had held off the palliative measure so she could be awake and alert for our visit, putting her struggles aside. Yet another heroic act.

Mom said yes she was ready for the shot now. The nurse smiled at her and then left the room. Mom motioned that she wanted Zachary up on the bed. My wife propped him up between her feet. The nurse came in with the needle. She walked around to Mom’s IV and proceeded to inject the medicine in an opening high up on the tube.

“What will that do,” I asked the nurse.

“It will relax her so she doesn’t have to work so hard to breathe,” the nurse said. She finished then left the room.

I smiled at my mom; she smiled back and closed her eyes. Later that afternoon, as my son lay happily by her feet, my mother died. She was 56 years old.

That was my mom…being a mom…even to her last breath.

Thanks, Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

When daughter's "Daddy" has a certain ring

“I love you, Daddy,” my five year old daughter said for no apparent reason. I smiled. It was nice to hear – genuine, heartfelt, and with no other intention than a spontaneous burst of love. But I knew from experience it wouldn’t be that way for long.

When my now 18 year old daughter was 14, she and I were sitting on the couch watching a sitcom where a man and a woman were whispering sweet innuendos to each other throughout the entire show. I sat there nervously hoping my daughter wasn’t getting half of it while fearing the other half she was.

In my peripheral vision, I could see her fiddling with her left hand. “What’s wrong with your hand,” I asked.
She held up her left hand. Her third finger was red and the swelling was overtaking a ring. “It’s stuck, Daddy,” she whined. Her use of the loaded word “Daddy” immediately disarmed me – a perfected signature move on her part – turning my readied reprimand into sympathetic understanding. No such buzzword works on my wife, however, who, from practically the other side of the house knew there was a problem.

“What did you do to your finger,” my wife yelled as she walked into the living room. “Why would you even try to put that thing on? It’s clearly too small for you.”

My daughter then regaled us with a tale of a ring given to her by a best friend in elementary school. She had always loved this ring, she continued. In fact, according to my daughter, this ring could be considered one of the greatest rings in the world.

“But it went on so easily,” she insisted.

My first instinct was to just forcefully yank the bugger off, but tears began to flow and that was that.
Now there are many homeopathic methods to get a stuck ring off of a finger: hold hand up high above heart; apply ice or soak in ice water; apply generous amounts of lubricants including, but certainly not limited to soap, hand lotion, petroleum jelly, olive oil. I’ve heard of people spraying the finger with window cleaner, wrapping the finger in masking tape, or even using hemorrhoid cream.

When the raised hand and ice did not work, we decided to move on to soaps and salves. So my daughter, her mother, and I made our way up to the bathroom where the light was better and where it is more fitting to deal with issues of health, wellness, and stuck things.

Unfortunately, no amount of unguents helped the ring give way. I began to rummage through the medicine cabinet hoping for an idea when I came across a pair of fingernail clippers. Sure, we could cut it off. I began snipping away at the metal. This would work, but it was going to take a long time.

“Wait here,” I said and jetted down the stairs to my little space underneath the basement steps where I keep my tools.

The first thing I reached for was my hacksaw. But I wasn’t sure exactly how I would be able to maneuver it without some collateral damage. I thought of carrying up my power circular saw, just as a joke of course, but I figured she was already experiencing enough stress, why add to it. I finally decided on a couple of pliers and a pair of sheet metal cutting shears.

As I was coming up the steps, I could hear my daughter begging my wife to hurry with the fingernail clippers before “Daddy gets back.” Now the word “Daddy” rang like a profanity.

By the time I made it back to the bathroom, my wife had clipped her way about three quarters of the way through the ring. “Just let Mommy finish,” my daughter pleaded. Oh, now it’s “Mommy,” is it?

I pulled out the sheet metal shears, took her trembling hand in mine, and quickly snipped thought the rest of the ring. I tossed my wife a pair of pliers and together with a second pair I had, we pried open the ring and it was off.

“Thank you, Daddy,” she said in the tone I had now become accustomed to hear mostly before the phrase, “can I have…”

I looked at my five year old daughter, appreciating the moment all the more because I know just how fleeting it will be. I then gave her a great big hug. “Daddy loves you, too.”

Friday, February 15, 2013

A frugal husband makes for a fun dad on Valentine’s Day

As a parent of five children and an owner of one aging house, Valentine’s is that mid-winter rainy day for which I find myself soaking wet because my fiduciary reality has always been less meteorological and more astronomical.

I suppose I should be thankful that things seem to breakdown whenever I get a little ahead. Take for example last year’s tax refund – TV, washer, and refrigerator – all kaput within days of each other.
It seems any budget surplus I’ve ever experienced has been liquidated faster than a barfly on St. Patrick’s Day.

To keep our head above the flood waters, we focus on the unavoidable capital outlays throughout the fiscal year: insurance, utilities, taxes, mortgage, and the most demanding of them all: kids.
Then there are those other “unavoidables” where return must be weighed heavily against investment.

Valentine’s Day is one of those debits in the spreadsheet of life.

So, in these times of recession, I proclaimed to my adoring wife, we all must make sacrifices. Frivolous expenditures need to be, if not cut entirely, certainly timed back or deferred. But frivolous may have not been the right word, I said in response to the charming glare I received as she left the room.

Although I consider myself quite a romantic guy, I realize our current economy forces a working guy to consider his investment options very carefully when it comes to the lovers holiday.

Current economic conditions inhibit the acquisition of gifts that are consumable. These include going out to dinner and surprising her with the predictable heart of chocolate. Yes, these things contain lofty direct profits, but they are short term and what we’re looking for here is durable assets.
The flower du jour for this “holiday” is the expensive rose. I ask why not milkweed or dandelion. And what’s worse, roses are sold by the dozen. Sure, I could be one long-stem rose. That was fine when I was just out of college struggling to make ends meet. Now that I’m in my 40’s struggling to make ends meet, a single rose is just pathetic.

Diamonds are the raison d’ĂȘtre, the big kahuna of Valentine’s Day gifts and they offer significant returns. However, it is a hefty out-of-pocket venture with one big caveat emptor: size matters.
There are the lesser stones, your sapphires, emeralds, satin gypsums, but they are more like generic cereal at the breakfast table of jewelry. Just see what happens when you slam a box of Capt. Munch in front of your brand savvy kids.

Gold is generally a safe commodity. Its immediate value is quite high with a rapid return of investment, but that value can fade into the oblivion of the jewelry box as fashion dictates that next best gift. Then the initial venture depreciates into sentimental value which may spike periodically when cleaning out the jewelry box. It’s true that gold will always have its market value, but even the suggestion of liquidating unworn jewelry will surely cause a melt-down of another sort all together.

While there are many other choices to take stock in for us romantic but thrifty types – coffee mugs, gift baskets, books of poetry, bath salts, beer-of-the-month club – investor beware: A bear in the bull market of Valentine’s Day must advance cautiously in hopes his acquisition compounds a great deal of interest for his beneficiary lest your tear sheets bring about sheets of tears.

So to ease the undue pressures of Valentine’s Day, my wife and I have decided that it is all about the kids. We’ll run to the dollar store for some decorations and candy hearts with little sayings. We’ll make some pancakes in the shape of hearts, and maybe even a cake with pink icing and red and white sprinkles.
And there will be a little surprise for my wife, too, because I am not a complete idiot.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Winter storm names may be catchy on TV, but may leave lasting stigma

As winter storm Iago grazed New Jersey’s lower reaches, I couldn't help but think about Shakespeare’s immortal pondering, “What is in a name?”

This winter season the Weather Channel has begun naming winter storms they deem “noteworthy” in order to “raise the awareness of the public, which will lead to more pro-active efforts to plan ahead, resulting in less impact and inconvenience overall.”

And while “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” names tainted by a disagreeable experience tend to stink to high heaven.

My wife and I had such trouble naming our first child. Whenever she would propose a name, I inevitably dismissed her suggestion because all too often I related that name to a former student. Fred? Oh, he never turned in homework on time. Craig? Talk, talk, talk. Alexander? Always fidgeting.

My wife had especially liked the name Jared. Very gentlemanly and proper, just like our son would be, she had said. She told me she had always loved that name and thought about naming one of her children Jared since she was young. I could only shake my head and cringe. Surely an exception could be made, she pleaded. Yes, there could be exceptions – but not Jared. You see, I am able to build a decent rapport with most students. In fact, there have been very few students in my teaching career who had been a thorn in my side for an entire school year. There was one, however. And his name was...Jared.

The name still gives me shivers. Jared was in my class during my first or second year of teaching. He had the uncanny ability to frustrate, enrage, and utterly demoralize a novice teacher and all with a smile.
It took a trip to a diner and a kid in the next booth who was being yelled at by his father for us to overhear the name we would eventually agree on.

Just think of all the names that have been tainted throughout history. Adolf was once one of the most popular names in Germany. Is anyone ever again going to refer to his child as O.J.? The name Monica died out in the 1990s. And what about Judas?

Names tend to carry a great deal of baggage all on their own, so it doesn't help that we will now associate yet another name with miserable weather; horrible commutes; wet, cold and often ruined clothes; overly excited or disappointed children; canceled activities; and, as always, runs on eggs, milk, and bread.
We already have hurricanes that have tarnished good names. It will be interesting to see how many kids named Sandy there will be in the next decade or so.

Young parents will have a hard enough time settling on the perfect name without sensationalized weather forecasting getting in the way.

A mall's closing can mean more than just bottom-dollar bargains

A few weeks ago, I read that the Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County, was closing at the end of the month, and that the bulk of the building was slated for demolition. I realized that I couldn't just sit idly by; I was compelled to do something. So I loaded up the minivan with the family and took the hour or so drive for one last look.
The sense of place has a way of weaving itself into the fabric of one's being, and certainly, the Shore Mall is woven into mine like fine, majestic denim.
I took the “back way” to the mall, the same route my dad always took when I was a kid. My dad never like highways. He would go miles out of his way, along roads with no shoulders or curbs, just to avoid a little traffic. I was amazed by the many housing developments that now populated areas that were considered the middle of nowhere decades ago.
The vast back parking area of the mall looked pretty much the same except for the notable absence of parked cars. This was the place where for many years my parents would take my brothers and me to watch Santa Claus land in a helicopter.
We pulled up to my old go-to entrance. I was thrilled to get one of the best parking spaces I'd ever gotten there. Inside felt like Mad Max meets Mall Rats. Workers were carting out a Tetris of display fixtures. Many stores were dark, empty, and gated. Those that were still open appeared sparsely stocked and disheveled. There were a few people roaming about possibly looking for bargains or, like me, reminiscences.
I showed my kids where the old Sears catalog pick-up used to be. My mom did all our back-to-school shopping by catalog. Weeks later we'd go to the small catalog pick-up area, take a number, and wait an eternity.
“That's where I bought my first pair of Levi's,” I told my kids. Since all our back-to-school clothes were from the Sears catalog, all my jeans were Toughskins, a unique type of denim that did not resemble anything my friends were wearing, which they often reminded of.
I pointed out where the music store used to be. That was the place I bought the Grease soundtrack record that got me in so much trouble. My older brother and I had taken the bus to the mall. The last thing my dad had said to us was to make sure we keep enough money to get back on the bus. When I saw how much the Grease album was, I had a dilemma. Needless to say, my father was very angry and yelled at me through most of the back roads home.
There were so many places with their stories. Here was the shell of a department store I worked at when I was in high school. They assigned me to the linens department. It was very awkward at first. But, let me tell you, I can still fold a fitting sheet like nobody's business. There was the space where the t-shirt kiosk used to be where I once bought a Cheap Trick t-shirt that my aunt thought inappropriate for a boy to wear until I explained to her that they were a rock band. And where I got a John Lennon t-shirt a couple of days after he was killed.
While my wife took our five year old daughter to the bathroom, I stood with my two youngest boys, put my arms on their shoulders and told them that how this mall was one of the ruins of my life in progress, my Parthenon, a monument to what was that helped create in me what is, and in a few short months, it will be a flat empty space.
I told my kids to look around, but not just here. I told them to remember to look around in their own lives, to appreciate the places they go because it will all be woven into who they will be.
As we walked out the door by the old pizzeria, my daughter looked up to me thoughtfully and said, “You mean we're not even going to get anything!”