Snowed UnderMy brother took his wife on a kid-free vacation for four days and left his offspring with me. I planned a sensational schedule of activities that was sure to solidify my position as the best aunt ever. One of them was a trip to the Queen Mary, an ocean liner built in the 1930s that is now a gigantic floating hotel in the Long Beach harbor. During the season that Californians refer to as winter (with no practical understanding of what that means) there is an event at the ship called Chill that features novelties such as touching snow and viewing ice sculptures.

Word spread of the amazing adventure and it is a bit of a blur, but I ended up with seven nieces and nephews signed up for the trip. I recruited my friend Priscilla because I could not handle the transportation or child wrangling on my own. I believe I billed her role in the outing appropriately but that would later become a grey area.

I could have taught the kids that during World War II the Queen Mary was painted a camouflage grey color and turned into a troopship. She was the largest and fastest ship to sail, capable of transporting as many as 16,000 troops at 30 knots, which is why she was nicknamed the “Grey Ghost.” The boys would have found that interesting. I could have shown them the gigantic propellers and explained how they transformed the boat back into a luxury cruise liner after the war. It could have been an educational and enlightening afternoon. This is what happened instead.

I had read that the ice sculpture room was really cold and the kids would need gloves and hats. Seven of them were packed into the cars in 80 degree weather wearing ski jackets and two pairs of pants. Clothes were discarded at various intervals during the drive and scattered all over the place. When we arrived it took quite some time to gather and separate everyone’s belongings and walk all nine of us across several parking lots and into the event. Once there, my nephew Rider announced he had left his coat in the car. We were all sweating at this point so I said he could have mine. It’s really hard to imagine being cold enough for a coat when you are getting sunburned and I was not about to go back to the car and restart this party. Then he announced that he had to go to the bathroom. I left Priscilla with five of them while I disappeared with Rider and the three-year-old, Stanley, whom I had no intention of letting out of my sight for a moment. Of all seven, he was the most likely to find adventure elsewhere.

A mere hour after our initial arrival we were back together, heads were counted, and we were finally ready to hit the ice sculpture room. It was crowded and hot as we stood in line, holding our coats and hats, for an hour and a half. The children amused themselves for the first ten minutes and then rapidly descended into whining about how long it was taking and collapsing on the floor in melodramatic exhaustion. Stanley was such a mess he had to be carried and tried to fall asleep on my shoulder crying, “I so ti-awed, Aunty Jo.” Finally we got past the first check point. The kids perked up and we confidently moved forward . . . to the back of another line. A child in front of us threw up, expressing the review of this event that so many of us were thinking. So now the children added the wretched stench to their list of grievances. “We are almost there. It won’t be long. You’re fine. We just need to be patient a little while longer.” I was starting to sound like a broken record. Priscilla found a package of car air fresheners in her purse and the kids tried to stuff them up their noses. They were a good distraction so I chose not to question the thought process behind storing sticks of air freshener in your handbag.

Finally we made it to the end of the line and all of a sudden the event staff were rushing us up to the door. A man mentioned seven degrees and something about my phone cracking while I scrambled to get the kid’s coats and hats on. We were pushed through the door and the magical adventure began! Seven degrees. The kids all looked at me like I had brought them into a torture chamber. I struggled with zippers, handed out gloves and tried to sound enthusiastic about the room full of plastic looking characters from the Nutcracker. I said, “Hey, isn’t this fun?” Seven-year-old Rose said, “You are crazy, Lady.” (She is the delicate flower of the family.) Stanley turned blue within two minutes and started crying, and Rider asked to leave. Priscilla surveyed the happy scene and said something I can’t repeat.

The crowd was blocking both exits and panic set in. The older kids wanted to stay and try the promised and long-awaited ice slide but it was another long line. Stanley added shaking to the tears coming down his blue face and I was clearly becoming unhinged. I decided to leave Priscilla with the sliders, and the hysterical children headed out the emergency exit with me before she knew what hit her. We found a spot outside with hot chocolate and cookies and settled in to wait for the others. For the next 45 minutes colorful texts and photos from Priscilla indicated that maybe this situation could have gone another way. But Stanley was back to his usual color and happily chatting with Siri on my phone.

When they finally emerged from the frozen tomb of hell the kids told me how bad the slide had been while I placated them with cookies and their guardian began defrosting and plotting her revenge. The next event we had paid for was ice tubing but we’d all had enough. We explored the ship instead and I let them take their shoes off and tear around the top deck playing tag like a bunch of hoodlums. People trying to enjoy the tourist attraction were no doubt wondering where the adults responsible for these unruly children were, and I tried to look equally disappointed in the parents of America. I sat in a heap and watched the game, happy they were finally having fun. Priscilla found the bar.

On reflection I realized that, for the first time, my plans with the kids had turned into an epic failure. It was an expensive, exhausting and stressful lesson in babysitting. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are if you get too ambitious, like thinking you can handle seven children in a chaotic tourist trap. When you are that outnumbered it is best to keep it simple. The kids would have had a much better time jumping on the trampoline in the backyard with me and we could have played tag in our bare feet at the affordable and spacious park down the street. I laughed out loud a few days later when I got a thank you note from one of the kids saying that he’d had fun and asking if we could do it again sometime. I told him I’d have to check Priscilla’s schedule.

WantAdsMy sister-in-law took the kids out of town to visit their grandparents for a few days, leaving my brother at home to fend for himself. Conversations with my brother these days are usually peppered with distracting side notes such as, “Stop blowing bubbles in your milk and eat your carrots,” “No, you may not be excused while everyone is still eating,” and “Where are your pants?” So we took the opportunity to hang out together and have an adult conversation. He very kindly offered to take me out to do things he knows I like to do but I said, “I get to do whatever I want every day. Pick something you want to do.” I quietly teased “and I’ll pretend it’s not lame” but that is not pertinent to this story. I was envisioning myself building a chicken coop or a rabbit warren or one of his other I-can-be-a-financial-broker-and-a-farmer-in-Los-Angeles projects. But he is also an artist so we had a lovely evening at an art gallery in Laguna Beach.

Ever since then, I have been chewing on the idea that I get to do whatever I want, every day.  I am single, childless and financially stable. I sold my house and moved into an apartment so that I would not be tied to yard work on the weekends. If I get a text that my friends are going out, I can blow off any chores I was planning to do. I don’t have to explain that Nordstrom bag to anyone. If I want to go to the post office in my pajamas, there’s no one around to suggest a more appropriate course of action. Besides getting up every day, grooming myself, and going to work, there is very little in my life that I absolutely have to do. I’m not sure you can get any closer to complete freedom without moving into the woods, throwing away your smart phone and refusing to pay taxes. I’m in a strange stage in my life when I am free to follow my heart and do just about anything. That should make me happy, right? Isn’t that living the dream? My married friends who spend their days picking up toys and wiping noses with their t-shirts certainly seem to think so.

It turns out that total personal freedom doesn’t equate to happiness. Everyone needs a sense of purpose. It changes as you go through life but we all still need purpose to feel secure and fulfilled. Young people generally do not have a problem finding their purpose. Their lives are full with getting an education, finding a career, and learning how to hold a fork on a date. However, as you get older you can find that what you thought was your purpose in life may have taken a detour. The dream career you went to school for was fun for a while but not realistic. You are so deep into the responsible career you ended up with that you are set on this path for life. The husband you lovingly cared for passed away. The house you spent years remodeling into your own castle was too much for you on your own. You spent years working late into the night after work to earn your master’s degree and never intend to think that hard again. These may be my personal detours but I’m sure you can relate. Life changes all the time and it often takes away those things that you think give your life meaning. Coping with that change can be hard.

What really matters is the people you have in your life and how you contribute to their happiness and wellbeing. That’s hardly a revelation but it is easy to forget sometimes. I don’t know about you, but it takes effort for me not to focus on what I don’t have and instead pour my energy into what I do have. Right now my life is pretty uncomplicated, but one day it will all change again and I will have a whole new set of goals and responsibilities to focus on. Maybe I’ll fall in love again. Maybe I’ll move to a third world country and build schools. Maybe I’ll adopt an extremely needy cat. The possibilities are endless and that gives me hope for the future. But what gives me my sense of purpose right now are my nieces and nephews. Being a good aunt is my job, my responsibility. I am fortunate that I have a brother and cousins with kids nearby and I take great satisfaction in giving them new experiences and being a good example. OK, maybe just the new experiences thing, but you know what I mean. Without a family of my own, I have found a way to feel needed and useful.

The good thing is that you don’t have to have a flesh and blood family or lots of nieces and nephews to get the same sense of purpose in your life. You can find a community to connect to and people to care for, but you can’t wait for it to come to you. You have to go and find it. I didn’t always live near my family and I had to put myself out there. I mentored a child through my town’s family services department. I volunteered at a pet shelter. I had an elderly lady on my street that I checked in on every few days. For my most recent purpose-finding adventure, I joined a charity organization that makes me get up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to train for a half marathon that I am going to run . . . on purpose.  If you feel like no one needs you and your presence on this planet is not important, you haven’t been proactive about it. Your sense of purpose and fulfillment is out there if you are willing to try new things to find it.

Last weekend I was sleeping in my niece’s room in her little twin bed, surrounded by ponies and dolls. I heard the door open and a little person sneak across the room. I opened one eye just enough to see the clock. 5 a.m. Ugh. It’s funny how you can tell which child is nearby from the time of day and the speed of the sneak-up. My three-year-old nephew Stanley climbed into bed with me, snuggled in and went right back to sleep. For the next two hours I stared at his little face while perched uncomfortably in the three inches of bed that were allotted to me. I briefly considered getting down on the floor, and then marveled that I even had that thought. I was putting myself out and suffering for this little boy that had a perfectly good bed of his own. It was more important to have him near me and let him sleep in than to sleep myself.

Now, that is what I call a sense of purpose.

ImageI was swimming with my nine-year-old nephew, Rider, on a hot summer afternoon. We were doing cartwheels and somersaults off the diving board until I remembered that I am not nine anymore and pulled a muscle I didn’t know existed. I quickly changed the game into a floating competition. We talked about his adventures at summer camp and starting school, but every conversation with Rider turns into a story about a video game in about 30 seconds. He went on and on about a game he likes that involves skeletons, zombies, and building forts. I listened to a full description of the challenges at each level and still can’t tell you the point of the game. Rider finished his excited tale of monster-slaying architecture and whined, “But Dad doesn’t let me play it because it’s about zombies.” I said, “Yes, well zombies are evil and scary so I can see why he doesn’t like you playing it.” Such a good aunt, backing up my brother’s parenting decision.

“But they don’t even look like zombies! They have a green block for a head and blue blocks for a body.”

“Then how did Daddy know they are zombies?”

“I told him.”

My brain immediately leapt into action and valiantly tried to wrestle my tongue into submission. But it was too late. I heard myself say, “Well, there’s your problem.”

I was an extremely sneaky child. It’s really not surprising that I am encouraging that behavior in the next generation. My mother has quite a repertoire of stories that occasionally get dusted off at family dinners. She used to keep chocolate-covered almonds in a candy dish in the living room. I thought I was exceptionally clever and I would take one every few days and put them in a plastic sandwich bag that I hid in a space between the stairs and the organ. The ’70s shag carpet hid it perfectly. (Yes, I know I totally breezed over it but we had an organ. It was cool in the ’70s. Try not to let that distract you from the story.) One day I clued my little brother into the inventive scheme and showed him my stash. I don’t remember him being as impressed as me, but he was five so I probably ignored his ignorance. I knew a brilliant plan when I saw one. It turns out when you remove candy from a bowl, one by one in carefully timed intervals, the remaining pieces don’t magically reproduce. My mother did eventually notice that something was amiss and staged an inquisition in my father’s office. He sat behind his desk like a judge holding court and surveyed the two children standing before him. My mother presented the charges. As the oldest I was cross examined first and adamantly denied all knowledge of the wayward chocolate-covered almonds. It was a mystery indeed. Benedict Arnold caved immediately. The stash was retrieved as my parents no doubt exchanged looks that said, “So she didn’t eat the candy, she just stuck it in a bag behind the organ? This has to come from your side of the family.” That candy dish now sits on my bookshelf, a proud monument to my genius.

Since he was merely an innocent bystander whose only crime was not telling on me sooner, my brother came away unscathed . . . a lesson that would serve him well in future endeavors. I tried so hard to teach him my sneaky ways but he was really bad at it. He would cave under interrogation every time and point the finger at me. As far as I know, he didn’t learn to lie to our parents until high school (when my training finally came into its own.) Kids aren’t born sneaky and this cautionary tale clearly demonstrates that shared genetic pools don’t create partners in crime. So kids have to learn to be sneaky. How do I, as the single, inexperienced, slightly irresponsible aunt, stop myself from contributing to their education?

I did some research and found an awful lot of people on the Internet posting queries like. “My kid is a sneaky thief. How do I stop this behavior?” We’ve had the Internet for quite some time now and yet people still open themselves up for public, anonymous comments from anyone who is bored and opinionated.  Why do they do that? Do they really want the whole world to chime in on their personal problems? It is a question that blows my mind on a daily basis. From what I have observed, rarely do the people who feel the need to comment on random posts offer up anything useful. Most of the responses I read involved shaming kids in inventive ways, beating it out of them or shipping them off to boot camp. Among my favorites:

“Your child is a thief and a liar who is going to jail one day. Start whipping him before it’s too late.”

“Being sneaky is great. It got me where I am now.”

“Clearly you are giving your child too much sugar.”

“Ignore the fact that he is lying to you, and it won’t be such a big deal.”

 I couldn’t find anything helpful to me as the aunt (either real or imagined) of a group of young children that are likely to grow sneakier as they develop out of the cute stage and into pre-teens. The thing is that I’m not the one who has to manage the discipline. If they lie to me, I’ll just tell on them and let their parents deal with it. I love them with all my heart but I am an adult first and their buddy second. What I will do is try to be a good example. My record is not impressive in that area, but we all need goals to strive for. I have decided to provide a safe environment for them where they will not be judged for their honesty, unless it’s really bad and my silence gets me in trouble. I will also not encourage them in their deceit, now that the whole zombie game incident is over. I will be honest with them and build a relationship that they treasure enough that they won’t want to break my trust by lying to me. This from the woman whose seven-year-old niece last weekend snuck out of bed, stole her phone, and took a photo of her sleeping. Time to put a password on the iPhone.

Right now my young nephew is innocently offering up information that will work against him, because like my brother, he hasn’t developed the sneaky streak that his aunt (and apparently his sister) so readily exploited. But time is friend to no one and my brother is only a few short years away from his teenager getting his hands on a packet of cigarettes, trying them out in the backyard with his friends when his parents aren’t home and hiding the butts in a crack in the garden wall. Not that I would know personally, but I hear that kind of stuff happens. All I can do is draw upon my knowledge as a rehabilitated adult and be honest and straightforward with the kids, and let them know that I am here to listen without judgment or collusion. And hope that my theory of genetics not being a factor is actually true.

 

FriendshipI found an interesting quote from Frederick C. Collins on the daily affirmation wall of inspiration I call my Facebook news feed. Not interesting enough to bother finding out who Frederick C. Collins is, but enough to write it down. It said, “There are two types of people—those who come into a room and say, ‘Well here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.’” In other words, attention whores and attention givers.

Attention whores are really annoying. You know the type. You can hear them screaming “Look at me!” a mile away. They wear pink wigs to parties so people will notice them. They bribe children with presents to ensure they stay the most popular aunt. And they write blogs so that the whole world can share in their brilliant insights. It’s sad really. Attention givers, on the other hand, are truly interested in other people. They listen while making eye contact and make everyone around them feel important. Everybody wants to be friends with someone like that.

Our families have to love us because we are, well, family. We learn to love and develop bonds in the context of our family, and our social skills take root in (what should be) a safe and loving environment. But the time we spend with our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters is really the training ground for everything else that comes with adulthood. We grow up and go out into the world to make friends. Family relationships prepare us for the other relationships that we will need for the rest of our lives.

What makes somebody a good friend? Besides the obvious characteristics of kindness, concern, loyalty etc., how do you guide a child towards becoming one of those people who walks into a room and is outgoing, genuine, and comfortable mingling with all their friends?

The Beginning:  Attachment (yes, I said attachment)

Harry Harlow was a psychologist who is most famous for his experiments in social isolation the 1950s. He was motivated by John Bowlby’s studies of maternal separation, and his claim that children need much more from their parents than simply food. Bowlby, known as the father of attachment theory, had been criticized for his views because at the time, parents were taught that too much physical contact was bad for an infant’s development. In Harlow’s experiments, monkeys were raised in isolation chambers so he could observe the horrible and cruel things that happened to them when deprived of nurturing love. Harlow deprived babies of their mothers and observed that they chose a soft cloth doll that provided comfort over a doll made of wire that provided food and nourishment but no emotional relief. Depriving monkeys of physical contact amounted to torture and they developed severe cognitive issues. I’ve seen the old black and white footage of the experiments and, as an animal lover and a normal human being, I am still trying to block it out. The experiments are very well known and credited with raising awareness of the importance of social bonding. And with inspiring the movement against animal cruelty in laboratories. One of his own students is even credited with saying that “the work was really violating ordinary sensibilities.” Really?

What is interesting about the experiments is that they confirmed Bowlby’s claims about the importance of care-giving and companionship in not just the social development of a child but cognitive development as well. The failure of a child to bond with a caregiver in the early stages of life can have dire consequences. I should warn you, if you are interested in learning more about how our brains and social skills develop through attachment and bonding, you are likely to find more case studies and photos of abandoned, unloved children than you can emotionally handle. Trust me on that one.

What is positive and fulfilling about the subject is the incredible power of attachment to heal and nurture. In discussing Attachment Theory, the scribes on Wikipedia explain, “Infants become attached to individuals who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them. . . . When an infant begins to crawl and walk they begin to use attachment figures (familiar people) as a secure base to explore from and return to. Caregivers’ responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment; these, in turn, lead to internal working models which will guide the individual’s perceptions, emotions, thoughts and expectations in later relationships.” My sister-in-law has a degree in this stuff and talks about attachment research all the time on Mom Psych. The point is that children learn how to relate to other people through the interaction with their first caregivers. What an awesome and overwhelming responsibility for anyone who is close to a young child.

Emotional Literacy

Friendship can be boiled down to one idea—having someone in your life that fulfills your needs. You have to admit, one of the strongest motivating factors in life is “I am being paid attention to? Am I being heard?” Even those people who seem to be so outgoing and only interested in others need attention. We all need our friendships to make us feel like we have value. As we mature, we learn to recognize that need in other people. We acknowledge what other people want and we have to make decisions about whether to give it to them. We decide whether in that moment we are the giver or the taker. Friendships are hard work, like a marriage. The key to real friendship is what we do when someone else’s needs conflict with our own, and the first step in getting through those situations is having the emotional maturity to recognize the conflict in the first place.

In order to create lasting friendships, we have to develop emotional literacy and learn to read other people’s social cues. We subconsciously learn to read body language through example, and that starts when an infant stares into an adult’s face and learns to copy a smile or a frown. Not only do we recognize other’s needs through non-verbal cues, but we communicate respect and empathy through eye contact and body language as well, and that is not something you can sit down and teach someone. Children learn to read other people and develop social skills through the positive physical interaction in their early relationships.

When psychologists talk about the Caregiver, they are generally referring to a parental figure. However, I like to think of it in a much broader sense. Every time I hug my nieces and nephews, bounce with them on the trampoline, give dolphin rides in the pool, or kiss them goodnight, I am teaching them social skills. I am communicating that I love them, but I am also helping their little developing brains to learn how to engage and communicate effectively. I am teaching them how to be successful friends and partners.

All of my nephews and even my nieces have gone through a stage where they pretend to be grossed out by my kisses, and my hugs are a form of entrapment to be wriggled out of like I have cooties. I don’t know what cooties are but I know they are not good. Kisses are currency to be used when I’m not cooperating. “I’ll give you 50 kisses if you come outside and play.” But I know that it is just another way for them to get my attention and start a wrestle. Strong social connections are very important keys to happiness and physical interaction with children in their early development gets them started on the right path. I take great pride in pinning my nieces and nephews down and smooching them or wrapping my arms around them in my lap when we watch TV, because I know that I am contributing to the caring, friendly people that they are going to become.

ImageA few weeks ago I volunteered to take my niece and nephew to their school fundraiser. Usually when I am alone with the children, our exposure in public places is limited to restaurants and grocery stores, places where I have learned to contain the chaos through trial and error. For some reason a carnival did not strike me as a challenge at the time. We arrived, and the kids immediately disappeared while I stood in line for the tickets. Thirty seconds in and I had already lost control of the situation. We were off to a good start. I found them at a booth called Franken Stuffers. They rooted through boxes and boxes of stuffed animals while I cut off heads, tails and legs so they could sew together their own Frankenstein version of a stuffed animal. I thought this was a great idea for a kids craft until we sat down with our selection of body parts and two little faces looked at me like, “Well, now what?” Oh, you mean I have to sew this crap together? One of the ladies attending the booth saw the look of horror on my face and gave me the two-minute Build-A-Bear instruction demo. I began to explain that the problem isn’t that I can’t sew, it’s just that I don’t. But she had moved on to the next victim.

The kids were almost immediately bored with watching me stare at a pile of teddy bear parts so I released them to use their tickets on other games while I got to work. The lady next to me asked me whose mother I was, and I explained that I was the babysitting aunt. She looked around for my absent wards so I had to keep looking up from my sewing in the direction of the balloon toss so that she would think I had one eye on them. I knew very well that my threat that they were to stay together or else had been ignored and they were running rampant through the carnival but I was only mildly concerned about it.

I understand why people do crafty things like sewing. Your hands move while your head goes to some other place. My other place was a fascinating conversation with myself about the perks of being childless. I am single and fabulous. How did I get roped into sitting on a dirty park bench next to a judgmental soccer Mom, stitching a duck’s head onto a tiger’s body? After about half an hour I staged a one-person coup and stuffed the legs and tails into my purse. Their mother was going to have to deal with this mess later.

Another of my nieces, Danielle, was having a piano recital that afternoon, so the plan was to take a small break from ring tossing and bouncy castles to spend an hour down the street listening to children play the piano. I told the kids that they had a few minutes before we had to leave and they went to get their faces painted. Rider had a small concern about showing up at the recital with a mask painted on his face but he was more concerned about missing out. He had seen another booth selling masks so he finally decided that on the way out he could buy a mask to cover up the mask painted on his face. I began to poke holes in his thought process but immediately gave up. My willingness to expend energy combating eight-year-old logic is pretty low.

Rider naturally chose the hardest face painting in the book of options provided and was seated in front of a girl that I had been watching while we were in line. All of the kids that walked away from her station looked like kindergarten art projects and I knew immediately this was not going to go well. In less than 10 minutes, Rose’s face was a spectacular glittery butterfly, and Rider’s face had been wiped clean three times so that his “artist” could start over. Now here is the kind of aunt dilemma that just kills me. With Rose strutting around like a walking piece of art, there is no way I can drag Rider away with nothing but some grey paint smeared over one eye; but I also can’t be late for the recital and potentially miss the piano debut of another niece. There was no apparent way to come out of this as the world’s best aunt, which is the whole point of spending a Sunday afternoon in a park full of screaming schoolchildren. As an aunt it is very important, and occasionally impossible, to be loved and adored by everyone at the same time.

I announced to the teenager butchering my nephew’s face that she had three minutes. I must have conveyed my authority effectively because she panicked and the resulting artwork was a mess. I could have achieved the same result after a fifth of scotch. However, Rider’s reaction when they gave him the mirror was, “Cool.” Who was I to argue? Feeling like we had turned the corner on one crisis, I told Rider to get ready to run for the car and turned around to get Rose. She was nowhere to be seen. Rider and I ran around yelling “Rose!” at the top of our lungs. The carnival was small and I wasn’t worried about losing her, but the recital had started and I needed her in the car ASAP. It occurred to me that freaking out about a missing child in the middle of a school festival was probably going to get back to the parents and I should be a little more discreet. So I told Rider to calmly walk around and look for his sister while I waited where she expected I would be. Rider heard my instructions as, “Run up to one of your teachers and tell her to keep an eye out for Rose because your Aunty Jo lost her and you can’t find her anywhere.”  Seriously, just kill me now.

Panic started to spread until Rose reappeared wondering what all the fuss was about. I decided not to address her disappearing act in favor of flying like a bat out of hell to the car, which also gave me the added benefit of avoiding any direct eye contact with her teacher. We hadn’t done enough to create a scene at the school event, so now we were running through the carnival like our lives depended on it. Tearing down the hill in the car, I threw Rose’s skirt back to her and told her to put it on. We were going to a formal recital so we had brought something more appropriate for her to wear instead of shorts and sneakers. “Aunty Jo, how am I going to put this on in the car?” “I don’t know. You’re six, figure it out.” “Can I unstrap?” “Yes! Just get changed.” And that, Children, is another lesson from your aunt on how to exude grace under pressure. You’re welcome.

As we walked into the recital, Rider hid his painted face like he would shrivel up and die if anyone saw him. We quietly slid into our seats and I took a really deep breath as Danielle walked onto the stage. We had made it in the nick of time. As I started to calm down to the dulcet tones of beginner piano exercises, Rider asked if he could go to the bathroom. He was followed by Rose, and both came back a few moments later with clean faces—no longer embarrassed to be seen in public. I sat there with my mouth open. I paid for this face painting that they just desperately had to have; it made us late for the recital and stressed us all out, and ten minutes later it was gone.

As soon as the recital was over, we all went back to the carnival. My brother, sister-in-law and the youngest nephew, Stanley, had arrived for the festivities and Danielle’s mother began her shift at the teddy bear atrocity booth. Rider and Rose went straight back to the face painting for round two. With the parents back in charge, I sat down on the grass, ate Stanley’s popcorn when he wasn’t looking, and took stock of the day’s events. How do all these people do this, every day? I was exhausted after one afternoon. I kissed them all goodbye, texted a friend to meet me at a bar and happily rejoined my regularly scheduled programming.

The next weekend we all went to a friend’s house for dinner and there were no kids for Rider, Rose and Stanley to play with. They amused themselves for a while but I could tell they were starting to get cabin fever. I excused myself from the table and helped them scale the garden wall. I was wearing a new white skirt but they managed to help me up over the wall and we made a run for it. My brother was the only grown-up with a good view of our escape. We found an open grassy area in the housing complex and played freeze tag until I announced that I had reached my running limit for the day. Aunts in pencil skirts can only run so much before they have to sit down. It’s the law. I sat on the grass and they organized a talent show for me. Rider dazzled with his Jedi moves, Rose did a fabulous cartwheel demonstration, and Stanley showed off his best three-year-old somersaults. Then after some whispering and collusion, Rider announced, “Now we are going to sing a song.” On the count of three, they swiveled around and started wiggling their backsides at me while the older two rapped, “I like big butts and I cannot lie, you other brothers can’t deny . . .”  Tears were streaming down my face, I was laughing so hard. I did get to the bottom of who exposed them to Sir Mix-A-Lot but he won’t appreciate me outing him.

As I sat on the grass watching them shake their butts, I thought to myself, “You are three of the most wonderful, interesting and adorable human beings I have ever known. And I am glad that I am your aunt and not your mother.” I used to suspect that my acceptance of not having children of my own was a defense mechanism. Lately I am wondering if I am starting to believe my own hype. Being an aunt who gets to do the fun stuff and very little of the discipline is amazing. We recently had a sleepover during which they ate nothing but sugar and watched a week’s worth of television, and they repeatedly exclaimed what a wonderful aunt I am. The whole weekend was the perfect aunt extravaganza and I was feeling pretty proud and competent, until the three-year-old threw himself from the top of a jungle gym at the park. While I was rocking him, kissing it better and bribing him with ice cream, a helpful playmate walked up and asked me how old Stanley was. I told the nosey little kid that he was three. He informed me over the din of Stanley’s screams that kids under six were not allowed in the playground. Lucky for him his parents were nearby, judging me for allowing a child to swan dive off a playground apparatus. I have no idea how people do this every day without strangling someone.

I love being an aunt and I am working on being a more patient, unflappable version of the role model that they currently enjoy. I may appear to have a loose interpretation of adult supervision, but I take my role in their lives very seriously. And I am fairly certain that when they are grown they are going to remember the aunt that gave them candy before bed and let them watch Star Wars, instead of the aunt that overreacted and hysterically tore through their school carnival like an escaped mental patient.

Schuylers-Monster2Last summer I was travelling with a good friend who does not like children or animals. Or people. But mostly children. She is quite happy being single and in charge of her own kingdom. That kingdom just happens to be the one from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the Child Catcher lures them out with lollipops and throws them into the paddy wagon. Our club-style hotel hosted a mixer for the guests and for a minute I thought a young family was going to join our table. Under my breath I threatened that under no circumstances was she to make a scene and move to another table. She confirmed with equal ferocity that that was exactly what she was going to do if they did not keep moving. We agreed she would be eating dinner alone. Thankfully her withering stare scared them away and I was spared the embarrassment. We were instead joined by three elderly ladies who spoke Italian with my friend and they thought she was a delight.

After I had lectured her on the joy that is strange children in public places, we spent the next morning on a crowded train with no air conditioning in 100-degree heat. A little boy and his mother sat next to me and for an hour the child kicked, screamed, threw food and generally irritated everyone within earshot. My friend watched in smug satisfaction from the seat she had managed to escape to a few rows back. I passed the time in seething judgment of the mother who clearly had no control over her Tasmanian devil of a child. I would like to think that I was able to keep a straight face and therefore my feelings to myself, but I’ll bet the poor woman felt every bit of my disdain as I picked cookie crumbs out of my hair. I’ve thought a lot since then about how we treat people whose children are misbehaving in public. The truth is that we know nothing about the strangers that we encounter in restaurants and airplanes and there is every chance that a situation like my train ride calls for compassion rather than criticism.

Rob Rummel-Hudson is an author and parent to a child with a rare neurological disorder caused by a malformation of the brain. He wrote a memoir about his daughter’s inability to speak and the family’s tireless efforts to find ways for her to communicate. It’s titled Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with his Wordless Daughter. I read it in one sitting, mesmerized by this man’s honest and touching story about his struggle with feeling inadequate as a parent and fighting for a place in this world for his child. He tells a story of the first time he was confronted with a lack of compassion and patience while grocery shopping.

As I pondered the choices, Schuyler played a game that might be called “Sugar-crazed Howler Monkey Runs in Circles,” Since we were standing in the freezer section of a mostly unoccupied store, I was inclined to let her be rowdy for a while longer. A short older woman walked down the aisle in front of us, eyeing Schuyler with a pinched expression on her face. As she moved past us, the woman rolled her eyes and said loudly, “Wow, I hope you are not planning to have another one . . . “

”’I beg your pardon?” I said. She gave a short sarcastic chuckle and kept walking. “Wow,” I said, feeling my irritation growing. “I can’t believe you’ve never seen a rambunctious kid before.” The woman snorted and said, “Not like her . . . ” “Not like her.” This time, I’d heard something new from someone confronted with Schuyler’s uniqueness. I’d heard disgust. And rejection. Of Schuyler. I’d wondered for years if I would ever experience it, and suddenly there it was. This woman faced Schuyler’s jabbering and hooting and didn’t hear Schuylerese. She heard a feral child.

After confronting the woman and explaining the situation with his daughter’s brain disorder, he was expecting an apology. But what he got was, “I don’t care what’s wrong with her. If she can’t behave like a normal kid then she shouldn’t be out in public. Maybe you should have her institutionalized if she can’t do any better than that.”

It sounds like an extreme story. Really, who could be that cruel to a perfect stranger? Several of my friends have autistic children and in talking to them about their experiences in public, I have realized that it is a very common occurrence. In a time when our every thought is Twitter-worthy and we are free to spew our opinions, informed or otherwise, all over the Internet, we seem to have become a society of people who are emboldened and entitled to share our disapproval. And certainly anyone who dares to inconvenience us in any way is asking for a piece of our mind.

Just because a child looks like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, I don’t think it gives us the right to jump to conclusions and chastise the parents. The mother struggling to keep her screaming child quiet might be an incompetent mother who has no idea how to train a child. Or she could be a wonderful mother trying to deal with a disability that she is bravely battling every day. She might be doing her best to make a normal life for her family and could use an offer of assistance rather than a look of disapproval. And even if she is just a clueless mother, who are we that we feel compelled to make a stranger feel bad? Do we really need to look down our noses and make it clear we don’t approve of their child’s behavior just because we don’t appreciate being showered with their kid’s soggy cookie? Of course, there are obviously times to speak up when we witness what might be abuse or neglect. But I’m talking about those times when a child is making a mess in a restaurant or disturbing your meal, and you feel compelled to make a snide remark to the parents about keeping their animals in the zoo. I’m pretty sure you know what I mean. We’ve all been tempted.

Even the best-behaved children in the world have their moments and there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Embarrassing situations are inevitable. I know some children who will remain nameless who saw a horse urinating and running across a field at the same time and thought that would be an interesting experiment. Talk about a case for institutionalization. Maybe next time I find myself irritated when my comfort is being interrupted by a loud and seemingly out-of-control child, I should be a little less quick to judge and a little more compassionate.

ImageI had a couple of friends coming over for dinner and I needed something interesting to do with Tilapia. I don’t really cook so much as heat things up, so it had to be simple and foolproof. I pulled some lemon-pepper marinade out of the fridge, put it down on the counter and went away to answer the phone. When I came back I picked up the bottle and shook it with all the enthusiasm I could muster. The only little thing I forgot was that I had loosened the cap when I got it out. A second later I was standing in the kitchen with marinade dripping down my face, through my hair, all over my clothes and down the cabinets. I took a few moments to let the shock wear off and survey the damage. It really was quite spectacular. It occurred to me, as I was standing there in lemon scented socks, that this is the reason I live alone, so no one is there to witness the train wreck. Just in case you think this was an unfortunate but atypical incident, last week my sister-in-law emailed an asparagus soup recipe to my mother and me. I replied that it tasted like dirt and thanks to my new hand-held blender that I have yet to master, it was now all over my kitchen wall. My mother’s response was, “That’s my girl.”

I have very vivid memories of my mother trying to teach me to cook. She can make anything without a recipe but I was the queen of banana bread. That is the only thing I remember making as a kid. When I get good at something I tend to stick with it. In my teen years I progressed to lemon bars, which was exciting for everybody. My mother was very smart about teaching me to cook, which sounds odd now that I have so graphically described her failure. She figured out that I am a stubborn piece of work and I don’t respond well to the now-I-am-going-to-teach-you-something approach. She didn’t put me in an apron and say, “And now we are going to cook.” When she was making dinner, she would casually mention tidbits like, “To get the core out of an iceberg lettuce, you slam it down on the counter and then the core twists right out.” Her cooking tips have stuck with me through the years because I didn’t realize I was being told what to do. The fact that I can’t keep my dinner off the kitchen walls has more to do with my unwillingness to practice than the quality of my education. My cooking skills did not develop beyond cookie baking and breaking up a lettuce because in my young adulthood I discovered that you can have pad thai and chicken tiki marsala delivered in thirty minutes for a fraction of the effort and cost.

The only place I get any experience is when I am helping out at my brother’s house. My niece Rose likes to get involved. She smashes egg shells into the omelets, loses count when she is measuring flour, and usually spills milk all over the floor. I don’t like cooking to start with, so I certainly don’t love cooking with a six-year-old tornado who insists on doing everything herself. But I am constantly reminded of the times my mother watched me burn this or put the wrong ingredients in that. People who have been afforded that kind of patience have a duty to pass it on, I guess. I don’t announce to Rose that I am cooking, but if she notices and pulls up a chair, I hand her the eggs. Then I get the spoon I will need to fish out all the eggshell.

What I can try to pass on is something that I did manage to learn from my mother: the art of entertaining. It has always amazed me that my mother can whip up a meal for twelve people with an hour’s notice and not freak out about it. In high school, my brother and I could easily sweet-talk her into letting our friends come over at the last minute. Something mysterious would come out of the freezer and turn into a fabulous dinner without any drama. We were so proud of her for that. Other mothers would carry on at the imposition or just let us fend for ourselves. The art of entertaining is a fabulous thing. Most people assume it’s about money and snobbery, but it’s actually about planning and presentation. You can order pizza and still present it to your guests like you care. Entertaining well is not about having a fancy home or owning the Crate and Barrel catalog. Money certainly helps provide the appearance of class, but in reality it is an attitude and a way of behaving. If you have ever turned on a television, you know that money does not produce class. So you don’t need money to learn how to treat guests in your own home.

When Rose grows up, I’m not the one she is going to call to ask how long you cook a turkey or what spices you use on a rack of lamb. But as an adult that she looks up to, I can teach a few things by example. When my nieces and nephews come to my house we are more likely to have a food fight with Goldfish crackers while watching The Lion King than to sit at a nicely set table, but there are always opportunities to teach good manners and entertaining etiquette. When we have dinner parties, Rose sees me taking coats, offering our guests something to drink and making sure everyone is included in the conversation. Children absorb so much from the example that we set. Let’s just hope she doesn’t follow my example of the proper way to apply lemon-pepper marinade.

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