What’s better than an Elf on the Shelf? Traditions from the heart.

Elf on shelf closeupWhen the hugely popular Elf on the Shelf hit the, er, shelves all those years ago, my kids started bugging me to get one for our house. I was — and have remained — firm in my refusal. Hey, I have no problem with YOU having one. Go for it! It’s just…well, the rosy-cheeked critter isn’t for me.

First of all, I was slightly irritated with having this fabricated tradition thrust upon me just because a bunch of people sat around a conference table and decided one mom’s fun idea was the New Christmas must-have. I like my traditions to be, you know, traditions. (I know, I know, all traditions start somewhere, but remember I’m just talking about how I feel. You are free to have different feelings.) I also get really tired of having these fads sweep through my house that my kids demand I spend money on. (And I don’t buy into those, either. Except the Rainbow Loom. I like the Loom. It reminds me of the thousands of hours I spent in my youth weaving friendship bracelets from embroidery floss. Good times.) I am really irritated by the have to. Well, I don’t want to.

Scary Elf on the Shelf

Another reason I’ve refused the Elf entry to my house, let alone any shelf on it, is the thing kind of freaks me out. It’s some kind of weird mashup between Chuckie and that clown from Poltergeist. I see an Elf on someone’s shelf and know that at any moment it’s going to POUNCE! With a meat cleaver! (This is why I never use the bathroom at a house with an Elf.)

Elf on the shelf

That’s right. You just go to bed now…

But more than anything else, I know myself and what I can handle as a parent. I knew that I would just drop the ball when it came to clever elving after the first few days of December. I mean, the Tooth Fairy has been known to not show up until a kid has eaten his breakfast. Or not at all. Not only am I not a Pinterest mom, I can barely get permission slips signed on time, never mind moving some doll hither and yon to entertain my kids and shame them into behaving well during the holiday season. This time of year is so busy and stressful, why create more by throwing the Elf into the mix? Christmas is supposed to be fun, not a pain.

The kids were okay with it after a while. “My Mom doesn’t like the Elf,” they’d say and I’d nod. Nope, not for me.

Then last year, this weird thing happened. I have this goofy Santa decoration that I think I picked up at CVS during a January half-price sale about 12 years ago. (It’s a nice IMG_5486decoration because it’s kid-friendly — meaning, when kid knocks it on the floor, Santa won’t break. I have a lot of that kind of thing.) I put the Santa in the upstairs bathroom because the room is very small and crowded and there’s not much you can do to decorate it for Christmas. And Santa wouldn’t break on the tile floor.

One night, we had another of our Elf discussions, and the little girls were a little bummed I wasn’t giving in. (Had they spent time trying to butter me up before they asked? I think they had.) After I tucked them in, I checked on the older two, reminding them to brush their teeth before getting into bed to read. There was much whispering and giggling between them and some sort of agreement was reached. Then they ran off to the bathroom.

The next day, Ellie came running downstairs, squealing with delight. “SANTA MOVED! HE’S IN OUR ROOM!” We all had to go and see. Sure enough, goofy Santa had relocated to the little girls’ dresser.

“We have a…a…SANTA ON THE SHELF!!!!”

And there was much rejoicing. Especially by the older two, who exchange half-smiles and a subtle fist-bump.

And I spent the rest of December moving that danged thing around the house. Every. Single. Night.

And now he’s back for more. Ellie couldn’t wait to get Santa out of the box. She writes him notes every day and he writes back. (Le sigh.) She loves Santa. Except — the other night she made me take him out of her room because “he’s giving me the creeps, Mommy.” This morning, she wanted to go downstairs to see where he’d moved to, but wouldn’t go by herself. ‘Cause of the creeps. (Can’t say I blame her.)


So, Santa on the Shelf is here to stay, I guess. He’s kind of a pain, a little demanding, mildly creepy. But he’s a tradition now — our tradition.  Which is what makes it better than any store-bought Elf.

The things we do to keep the magic alive for our kids.

That’s what I remind myself when helping Santa write his daily letter to my daughter, with his special handwriting, using his special pen.

At 5:30 a.m., because Santa forgot the night before.



An Open Letter to My Children

At least a few times a day, my kids accuse me of being the worst, meanest mother on Earth. Though I know they don’t read my blog, once and for all, here is my response:


I am mean.  Embarrassingly so.  I know I am, I really do, and I am not sorry.

I am mean and awful because I make you do things like clean up your toys and hang your coat in the closet.  I am mean because I serve you vegetables.  I am awful because I make you eat your age in bites of some dinner that you hate so much you’d rather vomit uncontrollably than force it down your throat.  I am unfair because I blame you when you hit your brother or sister and then make you apologize before sending you to your room.  I am uncaring because I demand you treat others with kindness, and that keep your elbows off the table when you eat.

I understand that you have a busy life.  You have to get up early and go to school and sit still (even when all your body wants to do is get up and move because you’re only a kid, for crying out loud).  I am so proud that, because you are kind and good and a do-gooder, you sit because sitting is expected.  I am proud of you for raising your hand and listening to your classmates and respecting your teacher, and for being smart and cooperative and enthusiastic about school.

And I know it’s an awful lot of work, that it’s all very busy and exhausting.

So I understand that, when the bus drops you off at 2:45 and you run up the steps, you let loose because you are home and you can.  I don’t mind that your first words to me, after hello, are can I have a snack, and can I call so-and-so for a playdate, and, because I know you have been quiet and behaved for the last 8 hours I say yes — but first.

But first.

But first, you must empty your backpack and hang up your coat and put away your shoes and show me your homework assignments.  Then we can snack and make phone calls, — unless you have religious ed or a sport, or unless we have to go to the library to return books and that Wii game that’s going to be overdue at $2 a day.  If we don’t have those other things, yes, of course you can play with your friend – but only for an hour, because there’s dinner and homework and bathing and bed by 7:30, and that takes a long time with the four of you.

You grumble about doing those things, and I get that, because I don’t always hang up my coat, and yes, that’s Daddy’s coat and umbrella and shoes by the front door, and if he doesn’t do it, why should you?

I understand that, by the time we are home once again, you are too exhausted to do homework.  There’s spelling and math and reading and handwriting and moon journals and multiplication tables and science books and enrichment word problems – and all you want to do is run to the basement and shoot mini-hoops or skip upstairs to play with your dolls or cover the kitchen table with nine million craft projects.  But I am Mean and I am Mommy, so you must do homework and I must cook dinner. 

And, no, it will not be your favorite meal because we can’t eat butter-and-cheese pasta or hot dogs or steak or grilled salmon with pesto every night because not only I am not a short-order cook, there is a budget. So I am mean and make you eat dinner, no matter what it is, and even though we laugh and talk about the day and tell jokes and make up stories, I am especially mean because tonight there is no dessert.

Then there’s washing up, and yes, you must use soap.  No, you can’t do laps around the bathtub while the water runs over you like rain.  I am annoying and awful because I make you brush your teeth and wear clean pajamas.

After some stories, you will have to go to bed.  No, you can’t have your DS or stay up late to read because in addition to being your mother, I also once took a cool science course in college where I learned that the human growth hormone is only secreted while you sleep.  If you don’t sleep, you won’t grow.   Plus, I have to wake you up early and don’t want a big crankypants at 6:45 a.m. grumping down to breakfast.

Also, I’m tired.  Yes, Mommies get tired. We’ve all been racing through the past 14 hours, and I need some quiet time.  I am therefore not only Mean, but also Selfish and Insensitive because I need a break from the chaos of my four kids and our schedules.  Just like you, I need to rest.

I am mean, demanding, and annoying, yes, but here’s what you don’t know.

An hour after bedtime, you are asleep.  Your hands are thrown over your head and your mouth is open slightly, and maybe you’re snoring a little, and though you are big now you look just like you did when you were a baby, cuddled in the bassinet by my bed.  You don’t know that I watch you breathe, sometimes just to reassure myself that you are still, in fact, breathing, and sometimes I want to climb in bed with you – but you are so big, when did that happen? – and I want to wrap myself around you, to remind you that I will do my best to keep you safe.  Every day — from monsters under the bed, and the ones that might come in the day with big knife-sharp smiles on their faces.  If someone bothers you at school or on the fields or around the playground, I will make sure it never happens again.

I know I can’t entirely protect you from the hurts of the world, but at night, I like to believe I can, just the same way as my cuddle or lullaby once protected you from the crawling things you were so afraid of in the middle of the night.

The funny thing is, you protect me too, a little.  Being your Mom makes me feel safe and full, and sometimes I worry that I’m screwing it all up, but you never seem to think I have.  The smiles and hugs and the quiet soft talk in the night-light darkness fill me with hope and comfort.  Sometimes I need you for much more than you needed me as Mommy the Monster Slayer.

You won’t know this, of course, until you are grown, and by then it won’t matter much.  Today, what you know is that I am a Mean Mommy. And yes, I will continue to be, because you really do need to learn to tidy your things and hang up your coat and be nice and use soap when you wash.  Until you leave this house, I will insist on these things.

But when you sleep or are scared or just feeling alone in the wind-swept world, know this: I will always be there for you.  Always.  I will always be Mommy.

Shame on the Boy Scouts of America.

There are few things in life that render me speechless. But I’m pretty much without words after hearing of the decision of the Boy Scouts of America to continue with its policy of denying membership to gay boys, and forbidding gay and lesbian parents to volunteer within the organization.

Really? REALLY?

I acknowledge that BSA is a private organization and, as such, they have the right to decide who’s allowed in. What bothers me is that the BSA is supposed to be all about raising future leaders.

Future leaders of what? Hate? Discrimination?

In its mission, the BSA claims to believe that “helping youth is a key to building a more conscientious, responsible, and productive society.”

How, exactly, does setting an example of bigotry create a responsible society?

Cooper’s been a Cub Scout for a couple of years now, as are many of his friends. They seem to have fun and it always struck me as a good program — skill-building, having fun, learning how to be confident and how to do good things for others and the community as a whole. But I must have missed the asterisk after that last part — helping others, unless those other people happen to be the gays. Then, not so much.

I don’t know if any of Cooper’s peers are gay; I don’t know if any of their parents are. I don’t really care. But it’s outrageous to me to imagine a scenario when, a few years down the road, as one of these dedicated Scouts working toward his Eagle status comes out, and is summarily thrown from the program he’s been committed to for his whole young life. Or that a kid’s parent might be denied an opportunity to lead and teach, just because of who she loves.

Ray and I had been wondering lately if Cooper was going to do scouting next year — last year, there were so many conflicts with his other activities, he hardly got to participate. Did it make sense to sign him up again?

I found my answer. I don’t want my son to learn lessons of bigotry. I don’t want him to learn a culture of hate. I refuse to let him belong to a group that discriminates.

I know that our local pack has nothing but the best intentions and goals, with dedicated volunteers, and an awesome group of parents and young people involved in the program. This is not about those people. They are good people and they are kind and teach my son fine lessons of volunteerism and character; they are not the problem.

But by keeping my son in scouts is hypocritical. Would I allow him to play on a baseball team that only let white kids join? Or attend a school that said “no Asians”?

I won’t do it.

Shame on you, Boy Scouts of America. And, you just lost one incredible kid.

Playing for fun — not for runs

Last week, Cooper spent an early weekend morning trying out for a summer baseball league. Depending on his performance that day, he would be drafted to play either the local team (“sandlot”) or the travel team (“self-explanatory”). My Cooper loves him some baseball — but, mostly, he loves to play ball with his friends. He didn’t seem to care where he ended up, so long as his buddies were by his side.

Come to find out, he was picked for the competitive travel team, but most of his friends got into the Sandlot league. So Ray and I gave him the choice — it’s summer, after all. He’s nine years old. The point of playing is to have fun. Did he want weeks of on-the-road playing-to-win competition? Or in-town games? If he wanted the challenge, we were on board. If he  wanted casual games with local friends, well, that was awesome too. We left it entirely up to him. After a few hours of consideration, brows furrowed in serious thought about what he wanted — to play to win, to play to laugh — he let us know. “I want to be with my friends,” he said. “I just want to have fun.” Sandlot it was.

Secretly, I’m glad. I know that my kid has a natural athleticism and affinity for sports, and while I recognize that he’s not a nine-year-old phenom, I’m not surprised that he often gets picked toward the top. It makes me proud to see him perform effortlessly, and a little part of me wants to encourage him to challenge himself, to be better, to excel, to tap into that inherent potential I see buzzing through his entire body.  But, at the end of the day, I don’t care about that. Because for me, sports is about fun, not competition. Yes, I understand that at some point you play to win, but, being me, a sort of granola-munching, Kumbaya-singing Mom, I just want everyone to play. Play. As in, be joyful. Smile. Cheer. Whoop-holla-woot!

Whatever the score.

That’s why I am so glad that Ray coaches. Even though sometimes I get a little nuts watching, I know his heart is always — and first — with the boys. Both he and our team’s other coach each take his role seriously enough to help the team improve their skills and understand the game, but always, always, playing is about having a good time. And even though it seems that, around here, draft season is a big deal for a lot of coaches, when Ray picked the team, he not only chose boys with strong skills, he also chose boys who were friends. Kids who would enjoy playing together. Boys who hung out with each other in their free time — even if their abilities are not on the same level as some of the others.

I think he chose very, very well.

We’re nearing the end of baseball season. Last night our little purple-wearing team played a great game — their opponents were a fairly even match for us, and all the kids did well, even if, in the end, our team lost by one run.  I could see the improvement from a couple of months ago, the solid hits and the well-executed fielding, the way that all the boys are starting to remember where the play is without being reminded, and working together to get the job done. Best of all was seeing the giant grins on the faces of boys who, for the first time this season, got a few RBIs or remembered to throw to the cutoff man or touched home plate.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, and nothing wrong with being exuberant and proud when you do. But those smiles, that pride, that unabashed joy — that is what sports ought to be about, not the scores or standings. There’s a reason it’s called “a game.”

If only we could figure out how to help kids to hang on to that feeling.


How to build a reader, part 2

Yesterday I shared the story of how I helped Cooper grow as a reader. We are both very proud of the way his literary muscles have strengthened over the past two years!  He came home from school yesterday with a book from the library, a huge, fat book — he walked through the front door with it held high over his head, as if it was a trophy (which of course, it was, sort of, since it had been on hold for a few weeks and he was psyched it was finally available to him.)

Then last night I read this awesome post by the amazing Laurel Snyder. You should go read it. Now. I’ll wait for you right here.

*gazes thoughtfully out the window*

*drums fingers*

Okay, you’re back.

Laurel’s post just blew me away, because, in her usually beautiful style, she said exactly what I believe to be the immeasurable value of picture books — who needs them, and why, and what we’re losing by forcing our kids to read bigger and harder books at earlier ages.

Then I thought, “Oh crap!” Because I really didn’t want anyone who read my blog yesterday to have gotten the message that I was suggesting that it’s a good idea to push kids in their reading. Because there is a difference between forcing kids to read up too soon, and helping a child expand his repertoire, broaden his literary horizons. In the former, you’re forgetting about all the wonderful things children — and adults — get from reading picture books, and you’re forgetting why we need those things. In the latter, you’re encouraging a reader to branch out and try something new.

I happened to be sitting at the dining room table while I read Laurel’s post last night, and Cooper happened to be sitting next to me doing his homework. I asked him if he still liked to read picture books. He looked at me like I was nuts. “Why?”

“Because some adults think that kids should be reading harder books at younger ages. They think that picture books are for babies.”

Cooper rolled his eyes and said, “That’s stupid. Picture books are awesome!”

And you know what? Before bed he read one to Joanna. And despite his new library borrow, I saw him take a few picture books to bed.

There are just some things you never outgrow.

Thank goodness.

How to build a reader, in four (not-so) easy steps…

Last evening, after we’d dropped Cooper and Ray off at the baseball field and brought Mitzi to her softball game, Joanna, Ellie and I headed to the library. I wanted to get a book for Cooper’s project on John Adams, and figured it was a good time to restock our supplies. The girls loaded up with a dozen picture books and easy readers, and I chose a similar amount of middle grade reads for me and the big kids to share. Picking titles for Mitzi is easy — really, she reads just about anything, and there were some books I wanted, so we could share them.

Choosing for Cooper was harder.

Once upon a time, my son, child of my literary loins, did not like to read. It didn’t come easily to him at first, and he is the sort who, used to certain things being easy for him, gets immensely frustrated when things are hard.

It was difficult to watch — he struggled and gave up. Nothing interested him. He wanted to play sports, not be still with his nose in a book. As much as I try to let my kids be the little people they are, frankly, this drove me nuts. I love reading. Reading is awesome! CHILD, YOU MUST LEARN THIS TRUTH! Oh, he was happy to flip through picture books, mostly of the nonfiction variety, and, okay, that was fine, but I was there on the sidelines with a whole library just waiting for him. I began to worry that, even though he was going to be *able to read, he would never have that passion I truly wanted him to have.

And then….Captain Underpants swooshed into our lives. It was perfect for Cooper — a graphic novel with hilarious text (bathroom humor and all) and fun interactive features (Flip-O-Rama!). As soon as he gobbled those up, I introduced him to the spectacular Lunch Lady series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. (These, too, were a hit, not just with Cooper, but all my kids.) Suddenly, Cooper was reading eagerly, whenever he got the chance.

It was time for my move. I’m a fan of graphic novels, but I wanted him to try longer texts, to challenge himself, to work his reading muscles because, darn it, there are so many awesome books out there that I knew he’d love if only he had the confidence to crack their spines. Around this time we had gone to my parents’ for a visit, and I was perusing a box of books I’d been saving for when my kids were old enough, books from my childhood that I read so many times they were battered and worn.

And there it was. The perfect book for Cooper: How To Eat Fried Worms. I knew he’d love the plot, but also the fact that the chapters are quite short and not intimidating. I smuggled the book home and when the time was right, I offered it. Okay, I seriously played up the gross factor of eating worms and the competitive aspect of the challenge, but, hey. I knew they’d hook him. And it worked. He probably read that book a half-dozen times. It was our Chapter Book Milestone. From there he went on to books like Encyclopedia Brown, again, with short chapters and a fun pace.

Soon after, he had The Big Kid Book Epiphany when he found Dan Gutman’s series of baseball books.

Then it was Origami Yoda by John Angleberger, Warp Speed by Lisa Yee, and How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephardt. The 39 Clues. Then came The Full-On Novel Breathrough — Percy Jackson. I saw this as a huge step. Long chapters, lots of characters to keep track of, a twisting plot, and lots of books in the series. But he was addicted to them, staying up far to late to “just read one more chapter.”

And so Cooper became a reader. He is still unpredictable in his tastes — I’ve gotten him books that I was sure would be perfect, only to have him labor through the first few chapters.

So it was, at the library, that I picked up The Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott and Scumble by Ingrid Law. I also told him that he was welcome to read any of the others I got — Hound Dog True by Linda Urban or Eleven by Lauren Myracle — though I did tell both the kids that the copy of Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore was just for me.

I think all kids can learn to love to read. As a parent, you just have to keep trying. If I could get Cooper from Captain Underpants to Percy Jackson in two years, you can do it too.

The library is an excellent place to start.

The no-food birthday treat conundrum — no pencils, please!

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. February 2nd.

Oh, it’s also Cooper’s ninth birthday. And, yes, every year, we joke about making him stand outside to see his shadow and all of that. Did you have to ask?

So today is birthday prep. Ray is commissioned to do the shopping. I will be working on the birthday treasure hunt clues, cursing myself all the while for starting this tradition that, come to find out, is the highlight of each of my children’s birthdays.

I will also be agonizing over what to send to school tomorrow — the special birthday treat the Cooper will share with his friends.

Yes, I said “agonizing.” Figuring out what to do is awfully hard. We are not allowed to send in food or candy. Cooper is tired of giving and receiving pencils for every occasion (frankly, so am I — we have a giant Ziplock bag of the things, enough to get us through high school, and I’m running out of space.)

He also doesn’t want to be the kid who didn’t bring in anything for his friends on his special day. He’s nine. He wants to party with his friends, if only in a limited way, because he knows that, yet again, this year we don’t have extra funds to throw him a “real” party outside of school. And he hasn’t pouted or complained about it. He’s practical, understands the reality of our financial situation, accepts it when we repeat what we have for the past few birthdays: Maybe next year. Maybe next year.

His matter-of-fact attitude makes my guilt worse, and I fret.  I can’t give him a party with his friends — the least I can do is make his time at school with those friends something of a mini-celebration, his chance to be the birthday boy for a few minutes as his friends smile and laugh and sing, if only for a few minutes of the day?

The easiest thing, of course, would be to mix up a batch of brownies. But I can’t do that, because, as I’ve ranted about before, somebody has decided that the occasional birthday treat during the school day is what is causing our epidemic of childhood obesity. (No, it has nothing to do with the lack of daily gym classes or after-school free time for kid play. Don’t be silly. It’s the cupcakes.)

I’ll probably go to the party store, figure out what I can get for 27 children that is not edible, and, instead of spending a few bucks on a box of Betty Crocker, I’ll spend about thirty dollars getting each one a bouncy ball or something.

It’s funny how, when making that no-treats-in-school guideline, no one considered the added expense to parents of a no-cupcake/candy birthday treat. Is it because I live in a wealthy town, where money doesn’t always seem to be an issue for a lot of families?  Twenty-seven kids is a lot to buy goodie bags for, even if I spend a dollar on each.

On one hand, a 120-calorie brownie that the average 3rd grader will burn off in about ten minutes of recess play. On the other, a fistful of money. Clearly, taking away the brownie is the better choice.

Sure, I can send in nothing. Or he will have to make do with the loathesome pencils. Or what he thinks of as “babyish” stickers.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not the worst pain to suffer. Like I said, Cooper’s pretty easygoing. Whatever happens, he’ll give that little lopsided smile, a small shrug, and move on. He’ll have his treasure hunt and cupcakes at home, just as kids used to do back in the time before birthdays became the mega-celebrations they are today. (Seriously, do you remember having a party with your friends EVERY year? Me neither.) About the birthday treat, well, he probably will get over it in thirty seconds. So will his friends. I know I’m making too much over this, and, having written this post, will now let it go, except to say one more thing:

I sure wish I could make the brownies.