Your Kid Beat Someone Up? Mine Too. Let's Chat.

By Shannon

It's easy to assume that kids who have conscientious parents don't pick on other kids. They don't bite their playmates at preschool. They don't make fun of misfits. They don't intimidate kids who are timid. 

If you are one of the people who assumes these things, I have a few possible explanations:

1. You don't have kids.

2. Your kid isn't old enough to show you what you're in for.

3. You have no idea what your kid does behind your back.

4. You control your kid’s life way too much.

5. Your are just lucky to have a super-duper compliant kid (and you probably don’t have very many of them, because the odds of getting a very compliant kid are rare, I’m telling you).

I have fit each of those parent profiles over the years. Each of my children makes me worry in their own special way. Much as I'd like to remove all opportunities for them to horrify me, I recognize that children need the option to make wrong choices every now and then (within reason!).Because my kids outnumber me 4 to 1, they have ample opportunity to make some really bad choices without my knowing. Last Halloween, one of them did just that.

It started in the typical way--roughhousing with a couple of friends at a party. One of the 8-year-olds whipped out some ninja moves. Another called upon some ideas gleaned from a recent video game. To make it more realistic, they focused their attention on the boy who would be easiest to beat up. (And very unfortunately, this kid also happened to be the son of one of my husband's unavoidable coworkers. Can you believe I relegated that detail to parentheses?) Play fighting soon turned into real fighting, and Lucas, the easy-to-beat-up kid was kicked in the ribs, his ear was smashed into the ground, and he took more than his share of kidney punches. His face told the whole story without his ever whispering a word to his mother.

She was the one who conveyed the story to me. Within a few minutes, I had located my son and was dragging him back home. Outraged as I was, I reminded myself to maintain composure as I delivered his sentence: no trick-or-treating.

If it hadn't been Halloween, I'm sure his howl of agony would have roused the neighbors. He sobbed uncontrollably when his dad and sisters left with candy baskets in hand. He might even have been sobbing inconsolably, but there's no way of knowing--I didn't try  to console him.

Instead, I sent him to his room to cry it out. Later I let him return to the living room on the condition that he wouldn't try to convince me to remove his punishment and that he wouldn't otherwise verbally harass me.

Despite frequent interruptions from trick-or-treaters at the door, my boy and I actually had some great bonding time together that evening. We snuggled into the couch and talked about what he had done and what he hadn't done at the party. We talked about a lot of unrelated stuff too.

My son agreed that he should apologize to Lucas, even though (he claimed) his other friend had inflicted most of the damage during the beating. That friend actually showed up at my door at one point. Holding his bag out for loot, he asked where my boy was. Trying to be evasive in this semipublic setting, I answered, "He, uh, did something he wasn't supposed to do tonight."

"Oh, he can't go trick-or-treating for THAT?" he exclaimed. ". . . I didn't even get in trouble about it from MY mom."

Guess who got the lamest piece of candy in his Halloween bag for that response?

When my husband returned, my boy was ready to make amends for what he had done. Abu Halen made a couple of phone calls and arranged a meeting with Lucas that night.

Lucas was sitting on his porch when we arrived. Not one to waste time on small talk, my boy immediately apologized, saying that he was really sorry for what he had done. Lucas shrugged with a quiet, "That's okay."

Then my son offered Lucas one of his best matchbox cars. Because these are boys, the car was all it took to mend the friendship. They changed the subject and chatted happily as if they hadn’t both just experienced the worst Halloween of their young lives. Lucas's peacemaking younger sister even invited my boy to come along to a haunted house with their family.

Aren't kids awesome?

In the months that have passed, I've seen my son exercise greater caution not only with Lucas but with other children. I've even seen him defend other kids from his unpunished accomplice. Although I'm not proud of my son's mistakes, I'm proud of what he has learned form them. I think God feels that way about us all. I think He's disappointed when we do wrong but thrilled when He sees evidence that we've truly changed, because that's exactly the reason He gave us the opportunity to be alive.

Raising an Introverted Child, Eleven Years On

By Shannon

As a baby, my daughter didn’t generally like people outside her family. I figured this was just as phase; eventually she’d grow up to be just as happy to be with people as her father and I were. But she didn’t grow out of it by the time she was a toddler or by the time she was a preschooler or by the time she was a kindergartener or first grader or second grader, and eventually I detected a pattern.

By the end of fourth grade my daughter still hadn’t gotten beyond the acquaintance phase with any of her school peers. During the school day she hardly spoke at all. She preferred the outskirts of any situation—as far away from the commotion and action as she could get. Her greatest aspiration was to be ignored and forgotten. Her greatest frustration was being recognized in a group. When she wrote an exceptional essay, she resented the teacher’s public commendations. When she made an expressive drawing, she disliked her classmates’ admiration.

She disliked me too; I was the one who forced her to go to school.

One morning she said that she had dreamed that she was stuck in a deep pit and couldn’t get out. She looked up and saw me walking by above, so she called out to me to help her up. But I flatly told her no—I was sure she’d find a way to get out on her own. . . . And then she died. End of dream.

Obviously, my daughter felt that I wasn’t giving her the tools she needed to handle her life. I’m sorry to say that it took me about ten years to finally accept that she was just really different from other kids, and it was futile to wait for her (or pressure her) to change. It was only once I did this that she started developing into her best self.

I started thinking about ways to give her tools and to show her how to use them. In our weekly

family nights

, we role-played how to look people in the eye, give a firm handshake, and say polite things. We practiced together and then throughout the following weeks and months I praised her for (occasionally) getting it right in public.

I made sure that she learned that being different is not bad. It’s just . . . different. It was because of her social differences that she could uniquely appreciate and find joy in the world. And she could contribute to it

in her own way

.

For example, it’s because of her different approach to people that she knows just how to pose characters in her drawings and how to arrange the face into telling expressions. Her keenness as a listener and observer is evident in everything she creates.

Her talents have helped her develop her sense of self in a way of her own choosing. At school she was labeled “shy” and “quiet,” and she always resented the labels because they didn’t represent the self she wanted. So we’ve pursued opportunities to enter her drawings and writings in contests and publications to help her expand her sense of self and build up enough confidence to take more risks. We’ve encouraged her to pursue ambitious projects and to learn from her setbacks.

Over time I eventually realized that her problem wasn’t actually that she disliked people; it was that her comfort zone was just really, really, really small—like, about the size of our house. That’s why it was relatively easy for her to make friends with her cousins or with kids she saw in her home regularly. Making friends on the playground or at school was way too much to ask of her, however. Any expansion of her comfort zone had to start at home.

The personality types that have made the easiest friends for her are what I like to call “Barney personalities”: very verbal, loving, and expressive. They are the kind of people who don’t need any feedback at all to continue talking about whatever interests them. You could be a telephone pole with a painted-on face, and they would still talk to/at you.

That is why God sent us

our son

. Socially, he has taken his older sister by the hand many a time and helped her step outside her comfort zone. The year my son entered elementary school was the year that my daughter stopped vehemently complaining about going to school.

The realization that our home was key to expanding my daughter’s social capacities was transformative. When we consistently identified and invited Barney-type kids into our home, we saw correspondingly consistent progress in her social confidence and enjoyment. These types of kids might drive you batty with their chatter, but if you could hear the uninhibited laughter they can elicit from my daughter, you would understand that they have an important mission to fulfill on this planet.

So she makes friends best on her own turf and with a certain kind of personality. Another important element in friend-making for her is being among her siblings. They help her build emotional bridges to people outside her comfort zone. When they’re involved in her play dates, she can much more easily cast off her inhibitions and be her true self.

In summary, here’s our quick-and-dirty list of tactics that have helped our introverted child become her best self:

  • Role-play, practice, and review social conventions like eye contact and smiling; don’t assume that a child already understands how to use these tools.
  • Encourage relationships with Barney-type friends. They don’t even have to be the same age or gender as your child.
  • Set up play dates where the introvert’s siblings can participate.
  • Help her develop a strong sense of self. This can be through anything she’s good at or interested in. These things will help her grow confident in her unique voice and capacities.
  • Develop a strong family culture. Your child’s first and primary comfort zone is your home, so you need to make it feel as safe, stable, loving, and inviting as you can. Maintain daily, weekly, and seasonal family traditions. We have a lot of these traditions because of our religion. Religion can and should provide a strong sense of identity and purpose. If you don’t have a religion or don’t want one, you’ll have to think hard about how you can compensate with other healthy traditions. They are powerful.

When my daughter was a baby, I found her every movement, sound, and expression enthralling. She was like a campfire in a dark night. I couldn't take my eyes away from her. I still find her as wondrous as ever—she’s always changing in beautiful new ways. I love that little by little I find tools and understanding to help her light up the darkness.

Crossing Off the Days (or, "Stuff Edward Scissorhands Cannot Do")

My daughter is super talented. She made a calendar a few months ago. Out of paper and markers. It's harder than it sounds, what with all the drawing straight lines and counting the right number of days of the week and making sure the numbering is correct. Not just anyone can do it. Edward Scissorhands, for instance, cannot do it.

My daughter hung her calendar up on the wall and faithfully crossed off each day as it passed, counting down the boxes until she was going to get to leave Saudi Arabia. For, like, evah. Not because Saudi Arabia isn't a great place to live, because it is, if you like heat and dudes with nightsticks policing your behavior. Unfortunately, my daughter doesn't like those things -- don't worry she is starting therapy this week -- so she was pretty excited to leave, for, like, evah.

On the calendar box containing her departure date, she wrote in big capital letters, "WE LEAVE!!" I was less excited for her departure date than she was, because I didn't get to go back home with the family. Evidently the government requires its employees to work at least two out of every three months? So I had to stay behind and work for two more months before Uncle Sam will loosen the pursestrings and pay for my plane ticket home.

There they go. There they go again.
Finally, my little girl had crossed off all the days up to her big departure day. I threw nine bags, one wife, and four kids into the back of our Suburban at 8:30 p.m. -- the children are still small enough that they think it's normal to be thrown in the car, but my wife sometimes protests and calls me "brute" or "scoundrel" when I chuck her in the car. I rather like those labels. They make me feel like an English dockman. Or a member of the Sex Pistols (maybe just a roadie for the Sex Pistols).

When we arrive, the Jeddah airport is a zoo of humanity, the way it always is. There is no order. There are no parking spaces. Cars park anywhere. Everywhere. Dudes are leaning up against their idling cars, smoking. Their cars are idling in the middle of most lanes of the drop off zone. Guys honk and drive in reverse. Pilgrims are pushing carts stacked with Zamzam water -- water from the sacred Zamzam well in Mecca. They're taking the water home with them, a souvenir. Shannon comments that water is a funny thing for Saudi Arabia to export. She's so witty, that Shannon. I want to hug her, but we are in Saudi Arabia, so I just look at her fondly, but not too fondly, because, Saudi Arabia.

The guy at the check-in counter checks our bags and hands us five boarding passes. There are six of us, I silently and sadly note, but I don't get a boarding pass because I'm not leaving. I think the guy at the check-in counter did his job far too quickly and efficiently. Why couldn't he take 45 minutes to figure out our e-tickets, like they did last year when we were trying to leave on vacation? Then I could hang out with my family for an extra hour.

I can't go past the gate to the passport check lines. So I stand and watch until Shannon and her four little ducklings get lost in the swirl of people, and they're gone. It's one of those moments where you're in the middle of a cacophonous crush of thousands of people, amid furious noise and motion, but you're still all alone somehow.

The house is empty and quiet when I get back from the airport. I stand in the dark for a minute, thinking how everything is where I left it, how no curious little hands will be misplacing my stuff for the next two months, how no little voices will disturb me for the next two months. The thought makes me blue.

I flip on the light and I notice my daughter's calendar, hanging just a little crookedly on the wall behind the front door where she left it, dangling by a single strip of badly cut tape. She crossed off all the days, except today. She forgot to cross off today before she left, to draw a big, happy X through her "WE LEAVE!!" announcement.

I read something once in the Dad Handbook about how you're supposed to share in your children's happiness, even if they're happy about something that makes you kind of sad. So I swallow the lump in my throat and I find a big, fat marker, and I cross off her last box for her. Done. Good job, Susu!

Should You Force Your Kids to Do Chores? Or, Dragon Mom, Two Years On

By Shannon

A little over two years ago, I started a weekly tradition of chore day with my kids. At first it was THE worst day of my week. Ditto for the kids. We could hardly get through it without yelling at each other. A lot.

Part of the problem was that I was a newbie at training my kids to work, and the learning curve and resistance were steep. Another problem was that the kids had never considered that they should be required to work during their lifetimes. Establishing that expectation and the accompanying work routine were a huge part of the battle that is now basically won (in my favor!).


Why Kids Should Do Chores

Chores are like vegetables—kids don’t generally like them, but they universally need them. Chores teach children how to cope with things they don’t like and to delay gratification, which are both key components of grit. Grit is arguably more important to your child’s lifelong success than early reading, piano lessons, good grades, or soccer aptitude.

Chores also teach kids critical social skills, like working with their siblings, being civil even when they’re frustrated, and obeying their parents. Organization skills can also be an important byproduct of chores, as children learn to sort their clothing into the proper drawers, their toys into the proper boxes, and the silverware into the proper sections of the drawer. And you could also argue that chores can develop physical skills: maneuvering a vacuum cleaner or a wet mop, washing a window, etc.

One sage mom suggested that chores are essential for mothers who eventually expect to be promoted from laundry and dish duty. They’re also critical for moms who want their children to know how to take care of themselves by the time they graduate from high school.

How to Get Kids to Do Chores

You have to really believe in the value of chores before you’ll be willing to carve out the time, persistence, and patience necessary to get this ball rolling. Once you have that, you need to set up a system that works for your family. This will likely require some experimentation, so don’t give up too soon!

Here’s what works for my family. During the school week, my kids are on call for chores. Daily duties typically involve unloading the dishwasher, washing the table, setting the table, clearing the table, and laundry. During the summer, the kids are required to complete a minimum of two chores every day. On Saturdays I require them to complete at least six chores. Early on the kids settled into their favorites: S likes folding laundry and organizing, H likes mopping, and G likes anything that’s easy, like sanitizing door handles and light switches with these. I try to let them do what they like.

Especially in the beginning I always tied rewards to chores. Each chore was worth one point, which equated to a sum of money that was different for each child (because their quality of work differed). Chores like folding laundry freed up a lot of my time, so I agreed to spend that time reading stories to the kids while they folded (win-win, right?). In addition to these smaller rewards, I tried to arrange to have fun activities after chores were through—swimming, a trip to the playground, going out to lunch together, a movie, and so on.

The rewards are like a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Now that the kids are proficient at many of the chores, they don’t always ask for rewards but do them simply because they’re part of the routine.

Setting Up a Chore Economy

You don’t have to use money to reward kids for doing chores; I know there are arguments against paying for chores. But we pay our kids for their work. We don’t give them any allowance.

We went through a few schemes for chore payment, the first of which involved a weekly printout of the chores they would be expected to complete. That scheme eventually devolved into columns on a scratch piece of paper: one column for each child, with tally marks indicating the number of chores they completed. For my family, simplicity has staying power.

I think it’s important to pay your kids like a cheapskate--even if, unlike me, you’re not a cheapskate. Otherwise, the money comes too easily and ceases to be a motivation for work volume. To teach them the incremental nature of the rewards for hard work, you've gotta be on the parsimonious side. S is paid 35 cents per chore, H gets 25 cents, and G gets 15 cents. They’ve each had a 5-cent raise on their birthday for the last two years.

You’d think that at those rates the kids would never be able to save up enough money to buy what they want. And I’m sorry, but you would be wrong. With supplementation from birthday and Christmas money, they have been able to buy LEGO sets galore, shoes, backpacks, lip gloss, jewelry, and more. None of those purchases are made without a great deal of deliberation. They know how long it takes to save up for what they want, so they don’t want to spend unwisely.

In addition to saving, the kids also set aside 10 percent of their earnings for tithing. (If you don’t pay tithing to a church, you could teach your kids to instead divert that 10 percent to a different kind of charity.) This teaches the kids that compassion requires sacrifice and that even when you’re at your poorest, you should still be compassionate.

Setting up your economy and your routine are the two aspects of kids’ chores that will require some research, planning, and follow-up on your part. After that, you just need to be as gritty about making your plan work as you want your kids to be when they grow up.

That’s pretty much it for how we roll with chores at our house. What chore traditions work well at your house?

Home Schooling, Nine Months On

By Shannon

We’re coming up on the end of S’s first year of home school now, so it’s time for a little summary of our experience.

The short summary is that if I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.

Now for the long version. . .

The Socialization Fear

Parents’ greatest fear about home schooling seems to be that their child will not have enough social opportunities to develop normally. I too had this fear, especially for my daughter, who has never really socialized the way her peers do. For five years we sent her to school with the belief that if she were just immersed long enough in a typical elementary school, she’d eventually grow into a gregarious, happy kid. She spent many of those five years trying to convince us that she was not happy and that she would fare better with home school.

To our great surprise, she was right. At home, where she could read or draw as much as she wanted to without being stared at, where she could be as quiet as she pleased without being labeled “the shy girl,” and where she could finish her work as quickly or as carefully as she liked, she was finally happy.

Given the permission to be her authentic self, and given a secure and loving home base, she grew tremendously in confidence. She actually became more outgoing and more willing to take social risks! She learned to look adults in the eye and to smile at them (although, granted, she doesn’t do this consistently quite yet—we’re still working on it). She learned to attend dance or tennis classes without using her little sister or me as a security blanket. And she made more friends and learned what it was like to laugh (hard!) with them.

Home school has ended up being more socially beneficial to our daughter than traditional school ever was.

Time Requirements

I figured that when I started home schooling my daughter, I was finished with my own career. And although it’s true that it did require some significant time in the beginning, here at the end of the year I’m spending only about an hour a day correcting assessments, making sure she has the materials she needs, and seeking out opportunities for enrichment. She does the rest.

Having more spare time than I expected, I’ve been able to continue freelancing at little, manage our rental house, and even start an online group fitness certification course.

S, by contrast, spends a lot of time on home school. This surprised me—many home school families report that their kids finish their schoolwork by around noon or 1:00 each day. But S works from the time her siblings leave for school until the time they return home. However, her school day includes not only her coursework but also things like piano practice, conversation exchange with a Spanish neighbor who is learning English, writing novels, responding to emails from her cousins, making lunch, doing chores, and drawing.

One of S's recent comics.

On the few days that S was just not in the mood to do her schoolwork, she spent more time on these sorts of activities. Even with that, she finished most of her courses weeks before the end of the school year.

Curricula and Resources

There is an astounding, mind-boggling, completely overwhelming amount of resources available to educate your child. With all of these resources, the average child can have the tutor-based style of education formerly available only to the aristocrats of previous generations . . . but on steroids. Have you recently checked out the free learning resources available at

http://khanacademy.org

or

https://www.coursera.org/

or

https://www.duolingo.com/

or

BrainPop.com

or even YouTube or Pinterest? Yes? Great, then you’ve scratched the surface.

Rather than piece together my curriculum from this overwhelming array for my first year of home schooling, I chose to use a full-package fifth-grade curriculum (with teacher support included) called

K-12 iCademy

. In that, I think S got a better education than she would have gotten at our local private school.

With K-12 iCademy, the Spanish and history courses were awesome. Language arts and math were fine. Science and art sucked. Overall I think it was a good curriculum to start with because it took a lot of the stress out of home schooling—it was U.S. accredited, I didn’t have to put much energy into gathering materials, and I had the feedback of certified teachers to help me along.

If I home school next year, I might try

Calvert Education

(they also have a dyslexia home school if you're interested), or I might gather a curriculum from various sources, using recommendations from some home school Facebook groups that I follow.

Why It Worked for Us

I believe that some kids are more suited to home schooling than others—or at minimum, some are easier to home school than others. The kids that seem to do well at self-directed learning (which is my kind of home schooling) share some characteristics:

· Introversion

· Curiosity

· Long attention span

· Well-developed ability to delay gratification

· Responsibility

(Come to think of it, these characteristics are likely the same ones that make a kid a great student in most contexts.) So, S was just an easy kid to start this with. Plus, she was motivated because she knew I was making a sacrifice to do it, and this was also something she had wanted for years.

Another reason home school worked well especially for S is that she is a prototypical humanities student. So even though her science course sucked this year, I didn’t sweat it too much. This girl is going to make her living in publishing or illustrating. All she’s going to need is a respectable foundation in science and math, and she’s good.

My son, however, is a different story, and that’s one reason why I hesitate to home school him. In general, home schoolers tend to be weakest in math and science, which are both critical subjects for a kid who wants to grow up to be an engineer. To support him in his interests, I’m planning to keep him in a traditional school so he can be taught by teachers who are actually (hopefully) passionate about science and math.

If I felt that a traditional school were not adequately serving his needs, I would consider home schooling him. But I’d go about it differently. H fights any unpleasant activity that is not part of a routine, so strict and predictable scheduling would be paramount for him. Also critical would be regular and fulfilling social time with friends after school.

One aspect of home school that would be very beneficial for H would be a huge reduction in distractions (see

this TED talk

for the pitfalls of overcollaboration). If I were able to balance things just right, home school could be good for him academically (except maybe in science; math we could do).

I am less hesitant to home school my daughter G. However, I'd prefer to wait until fourth or fifth grade with her because I am NOT the sort of person who is good at (or interested in) crafty, hands-on, manipulative kinds of activities. At her age, much of the education seems to focus on these things, and so far she has had teachers who are fabulous at it. S, by contrast, is a super book learner, so educating her is much more my speed.

Siblings Attending Traditional School

I’ve had a few people ask me how I dealt with home schooling one child while the others attended traditional school. In the beginning S’s siblings were upset that they wouldn’t be home schooled too. We dealt with that by addressing their underlying assumptions about home school. After assuring them that S would not be allowed “entertainment” screen time during school and that she would be expected to help out more with house work during the day, the other kids didn’t think home school sounded quite so appealing anymore.

Drawbacks and How We Coped

One of the drawbacks of home school is that your kid doesn’t interact with peers as much as other kids do. So, maybe they don’t pickup on the meaning of certain body language or verbal expressions as quickly as their peers. For me this isn’t a deal breaker, but I still feel compelled to mitigate the deficit.

Going into home school, we told S that we would expect her to be more proactive about making friends. We approached socialization as part of her coursework. For example, we required her to spend at least thirty minutes at the playground several times a week. Sometimes she spent this time loafing around and staring at all of the playing children. But occasionally she managed to integrate into a game of tag or soccer or tree climbing. Generally she found it easiest to get involved when one of her siblings was around. She also did better when other kids were on her own turf. During play dates at our house, she learned to really open up and ultimately made a handful of great friends whom she genuinely enjoys. Victory.

Another drawback, at least for us, was that S’s schooling required her to be at the computer almost all day long—researching, completing assessments, doing online lessons, etc. After the school day was over, she felt entitled to noneducational screen time as well. We responded by taking a hard line and outlawing all noneducational screen time during the week and allowing only one hour of it on weekend days and holidays (with occasional exceptions for family movies). So far, I’m still pretty proud of that rule.

Benefits

This year of home schooling my daughter has completely transformed our relationship. She herself will tell you that she didn’t like me before, and she admits that she was “really mean” to me. I’m guessing that her behavior was due in part to the stress of being forced to go to school every day (I was the warden of that effort) and in part to the fact that in her mind I was failing to give her the instruction and tools she felt she needed to measure up to perceived expectations.

Spending all day, every day, with my daughter changed the way I parent. I think I’ve become a better nurturer, and I know I’ve become a better teacher. I certainly have more time for those things than I’ve had with her in previous school years. When we eat lunch together, we talk about things like growing up, economics, history, science, our family, jobs she’d like to do as a teenager, and ideas for her next comic strip. It’s awesome.

In my observation, the kids I meet who are well-rounded and impressive are those whose parents spend lots and lots of time with them. Home school obviously affords you lots and lots of time with your kids. And although by the end of summer vacation that sounds like a terrible idea, somehow spending lots and lots of time with S during the school year wasn't quite the same for me. Maybe it was because of the routine or the fact that we were always working toward well-defined objectives and goals.

For her part, S has become much more helpful around the house, having recognized all the work I do during the day. And she knows how to study—something that not many fifth graders (or eleventh or twelfth graders, for that matter) grasp.

A year ago I was really afraid of how we'd manage the teenage years with a relationship like S and I had. Today we're in a much different place. If home school had provided no other benefit than improving my relationship with my eleven-year-old, it would have been worth it.

Okay, so if you have managed to read all of the foregoing text, you have a reason for it, so let's see your questions and comments below so we can have a good discussion together.

Urgent Questions; or, How We Roll at Breakfast

Many urgent questions are stirring here.

By Shannon

Friday breakfasts are my favorite, because everyone is unhurried during this, the best meal of the day. It’s a good time for me to catch up with Abu Halen, especially after a week as busy as this one has been. This morning he and I were talking about mortgages, as Abu Halen is again testing the waters of a particular real estate market and has his eye on another property.

Partway through our conversation, Halen raised his hand, saying, “Ooh, ooh, I have a question!” Pausing ever so briefly, I told Halen he needed to wait until his father and I had finished our conversation. “But it’s urgent!” he protested. Abu Halen and I proceeded with our conversation despite Halen’s squirming in his seat, his hand still stretched above him. He tried hard not to make guttural noises of excitement as he waited for his turn to talk.

Recognizing that we would have no peace in our conversation, Abu Halen turned to his son and asked, “It’s urgent?” Halen nodded. “Okay, Halen, what is it?”

“Um, why did Mao put educated people in torture camps in China?”

“This was your urgent question?”

“Yeah.”

“Buddy, a question is ‘urgent’ when your finger or something is falling off, and you’re not sure what to do about it. Questions about the Chinese Cultural Revolution do not qualify as ‘urgent,’ mmkay?”

“Okay. . . . But why did Mao do that?”

If Halen weren’t so danged cute, I imagine we wouldn’t have put our breakfast conversation about mortgages on hold to discuss the history of Communism. But dangit, he is cute.

Exactly How Bad Is Lying? or, Even Better than the Real Thing

By Shannon

Last week Halen came home with a note from his Arabic teacher that was written at the bottom of a note he had written to her. It read,

“Dear Miss Haifa,

“One day when I came home from school I saw my baby sister tearing my notebook apart. I tried to pull it away but that just tore the notebook into smithereens. So I threw it away.

“Signed, Halen.”
I’m not sure that Miss Haifa knows what “smithereens” are, but she seemed to get the gist of the idea: that Halen had lost his notebook and didn’t want to take the blame for it. When I confronted Halen about the note, he insisted that the story was true. “Halen,” I sighed, “Tess has never ripped anything to smithereens. Ever.”

“Reeeeeeeeeally?” Halen asked, in his best skeptical tone.

“Really.” I answered, in my best staunch tone.

He rolled his eyes.

“Buddy,” I continued, “why did you lie to Miss Haifa about this?”

Halen was silent for a minute as he mulled over his options. Finally he came clean: “Because I just wanted to tell Miss Haifa what happened in a more dramatic way. It’s so boring to say that I just can’t find it anymore.”

“In the future, Halen, I expect you to tell the boring old truth. No more drama like this, okay?”

“Ohhhhkay, Mom.”
This dog demonstrates that drama does not necessarily imply truth, because he didn't end up ripping the baby to smithereens.
The lecture was nearly over but for a final parting statement. I nodded, “Remember, Leavitts don’t lie.” But then, glancing at Halen's dad and realizing that my boy might see through this moral, I added a quick “—to their teachers. . . . Or their parents.”

The truth is that the truth is complicated—especially when you live in a place where rules are often inconsistent, short sighted, inadequate, and unenforced (are they actually rules if no one follows or enforces them?). So there are times when we are out in the hinterlands when we lie, right in front of our kids.

There, now you know.

When we’re out in the wilderness in Saudi Arabia, for instance, we tell the kids to claim Canada as their home country if strangers express curiosity. Everybody loves Canadians, but not everybody loves Americans. No need to ignite irrational violence in the odd political extremist, eh?

Father Abraham seemed to have understood this principle. He had no qualms about deceiving his neighbors about his true relationship to his wife. No need to ignite lust-born violence in the odd libidinous tyrant, right? Abraham was a good man of good character even though not all his statements were strictly truthful.

When I was a kid, our church group spent an entire year on the theme "I Believe in Being Honest." I don't remember discussing any of the contradictory Old Testament stories that year. Things were framed in black and white, which left a lot of scenarios out of the picture. But honestly (really), I think that's a good tactic with young children. To make sense of their world and to set themselves up for a respectably lived life, they need to perceive appropriate behavior as being defined by clear boundaries. It's easier to construct a good life when you've consciously accepted an honor code than to live a good life in the absence of an honor code.

But as the kids gain a little life experience and sophistication they can start to make appropriate sense of ambiguity. They can learn that being honest is a general principle of morality rather than an unbending one.

Recently we read the story of Jacob and Esau. At the part where Rebecca tells her son Jacob he needs to take Esau’s blessing for his own, my kids gasped (I know that sounds totally 19th-century, but I'm not even exaggerating; they were completely invested in the story for once). When Isaac suspiciously told Jacob that his voice didn’t sound like Esau’s, my six-year-old hid under her blanket. Then, when Jacob boldly declared himself to be Esau, my eleven-year-old protested: “But that’s a lie!”

I smiled, pleased that she had picked up on the anachronism. Then it was her turn to smile when I explained the irony that Jacob indeed did something bad (he lied) to bring about something good (receiving the blessing that Esau did not deserve). The concept blew the kids’ minds—that you actually should sometimes do something “bad” if it brings about a greater good. I gave them numerous other examples in scripture, history, and our own family where this principle has played out. I hope it was enough to clarify a principle that can be very difficult to understand.

They dug it.

But the teaching won't end there, of course. A principle like this needs guidelines, or it leaves a kid exposed to slippery slopes of all descriptions. It's not difficult to tell an innocent or socially expected lie that snowballs into a very difficult situation. That's where good character and regular self-reflection come in. Robust religious practices and a strong family culture should foster both of those pursuits. These two elements are critical to a society that cannot afford to lose its members to life's slippery slopes.

Stay, Mommy

Heat and desolation may have played into Tess's nightmare.
By Shannon

Tess woke up crying last night. It doesn’t happen often, so I came to her quickly to see what she needed. I think it was a nightmare because she immediately calmed down when I picked her up. I sat with her curled in my lap for a few minutes and then moved to put her back in bed until she moaned, “Hug!” I smiled and sat back down with her for a while. Soon I rose again to put her in bed and she cried, “Stay, Mommy!” So I did for a little while longer.

Although nighttime soothings like this are not easy, nor are they even done in full consciousness, there’s something glorious in them—something sweet that you don’t want to abandon quickly. It’s maybe the wonder of being what a child wants and needs most in the night. It’s a moment whose fleetingness makes it all the more splendid. It’s the aching goodness of being Mommy—of having a name that is among the dearest your child’s mouth ever forms.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the blessed mothers out there.

What Little Boys Are Made Of (or, Justice and Mercy in a Bottle)

By Shannon

Before I even got out of bed the morning after our twelve-day road trip, Halen was breakfasted and in his school uniform. It was all we could do to keep him from leaving for school an hour and a half early. He had missed his friends sorely and could think of little else.

He is like a very, very low-flying quail.
It was good that he had a full day with his friends before he came down with a fever. Although he wanly insisted that he was not ill, Abu Halen and I ruined the day’s social prospects by keeping him home from school. In the afternoon we wouldn’t even let him go out to play soccer, which made us “the worst parents ever.” Even sadder, he also missed a critical birthday party later that evening. It was cruel timing for sickness.

Fortunately, Halen’s fever broke during the night, and this morning he knocked brightly on the bathroom door as I was getting ready for church. I opened the door to find him standing in his school uniform, questioning whether I had wrapped his friend’s present yet. It was with reluctance that I broke the news that today, in fact, was not a school day. Halen’s smile fell, and he bashfully pulled off his uniform shirt.


It’s when this boy’s guard is down that I love him the most. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I can see right into his heart.


On our way out of the U.A.E. a few days ago, we stopped at a gas station and let each of the kids choose a snack for the road. Halen chose a grown-up-looking drink in a glass bottle and stood patiently near the cashier’s counter. And when I say “stood patiently,” I mean that he swayed from side to side while making wordless boy sounds with his mouth while scanning the ceiling for water stains while shuffling his feet while swinging his arms.

Meanwhile, a man making his way from the restroom to the exit came too close to Halen’s patient standing and bumped the loosely held bottle from the boy's hand. To everyone’s horror, the bottle exploded in a fizzy pink disaster all over the floor.

I immediately flagged down a clerk and apologized for the mess. Abu Halen fumed. The girls put on the faces that best fit their world views: for Tess, excitement; for Grace, compassion; for Savannah, vindication. We were all playing our parts, so Halen tried to play his by arguing that—somehow—this had not been his fault. But the argument apparently sounded so lame that even he wasn’t buying it, so he broke off short and hid his face against my hip.

The worst of it was that we had no more U.A.E. riyals left to pay for another soda for him, so he made his way to the car empty-handed, buckled himself into his seat, covered his face, and wept quietly. Abu Halen arrived moments later, having paid for the goods. At first he made to start a “that’s what you get” lecture, but then seeing Halen’s condition, he muttered that the store clerk had told him he could pay with Saudi riyals if necessary.

Halen didn’t even look up but moaned pitifully, “I don’t deserve another one.” I think it was the first time Halen had ever considered that he might not deserve something. The thought was apparently soul-wrenching.

Abu Halen rolled his eyes.

There are a lot of things that Abu Halen is good at. One of them is serving up justice piping hot so that long after you’ve drunk your cup, your tender tongue remembers it. Mercy is a bit more difficult for him. Quietly, I suggested that Halen had learned his lesson—that he had already wished for the mountains to cover him and the heavens to strike out his name. 

Abu Halen stared at me for a moment, and then silently he stepped back out of the car, returned to the store where Halen’s fizzy pink soda was still being mopped up, and bought his son another bottle of the stuff.


I didn’t drink any of the soda, but even from the front seat, I knew how it tasted: like sweetness after a bitter draught.

Why Expat Kids Should Dine with Maps


Map above, world history timeline below.
My eight-year-old knows where Moldova is. I don’t say that to brag. Because, let’s be honest at the risk of offending all the Moldovans out there—bits of knowledge like this are only trivia on their own. But when you stack bits upon bits of knowledge and then you tie them together with understanding, you end up with something substantial. Substance is what I’m shooting for in my kids’ education.

I’m learning that a lot of the success in education is just presenting one gimmick after another until you find something that catches your kids’ attention. So I bought this world map for my kids for Christmas a year ago, hoping to spark an interest in geography (and also because my husband is a map nerd). I wasn’t really sure whether the map would be received as an “underwear and socks” gift or a “holy cow, this is the greatest thing ever!” gift. To avoid punishing you with the same suspense I faced on Christmas morning, I’ll tell it straight: the gift was just okay.

But then I hung the map on the wall next to the kitchen table. . . . And it was ignored.

Then a week later, over lunch, the map had a Rudolph moment. Without warning the kids became inexplicably entranced with the thing. Forgetting their steamy bowls of tomato soup, they pushed their chairs against the wall, climbed up, and started thinking aloud about the distance between Saudi Arabia and Grandma’s house. They started pointing out the countries they had flown to and through and over. They started asking questions like how to say “R-w-a-n-d-a” and “C-z-e-c-h,” questions about land-locked countries, and questions about the staggering breadth of Russia.

Over a different meal, a map game evolved from our “I’m Thinking of an Animal” game. It went like this: “I’m thinking of a country that starts with an S.” Everybody exhausted all of the S country names they could think of. They went to the map and threw out five more countries that they could see. No dice. Another clue was given: “It’s in the northern hemisphere.” (The kids soon learned that most of the world’s countries are in the northern hemisphere, so this is a paltry clue.) Another clue: “It’s on the African continent.” Bam: South Sudan.

We’ve learned about a lot of countries this way. The game can also be played with major cities, but this causes lots of fights for some reason, so we try to discourage it.

Aside from entertainment value, world maps can provide psychological grounding, especially to third-culture kids like ours: maps give them a visual of where they’ve been, where they are, and where their loved ones are. Instead of psychologically grounding themselves in a state or a town like I did when I was a kid, they ground themselves on the planet itself. That grounding will hopefully make the idea of moving to yet another country a little less daunting—more like relocating to a different part of their homeland.

Because I’m a genealogy nut, we’ve also mapped out our ancestral roots. We stuck notes with dates on the places where our immediate family members were born. Then we labeled and dated birthplaces for several more generations, surprising ourselves (okay, so in reality I was the only one who gasped) to find that although our ancestry reached across the Atlantic, almost all of it ends in the British Isles! As far back as the 14th century, no less! Our only outliers are in Spain and Nicaragua. Olé!

So much for building an identity of multinational heritage in our children. Still, it’s the truth, and it’s something to help the kids build their identity. Third-culture kids often flounder when they don’t have a firm grasp on who they are, where they come from, and what they value. To meet those needs, I’m more than willing to decorate my dining room with a not-so-elegant map. I’m feeding minds here.

Home Schooling, Two Months On


It has been a little more than two months since S and I started home school. I worried about a lot of things before I started—whether I’d have the time or patience for one-on-one instruction, whether S would have the patience or attention span for it, whether she’d end up being imbalanced by not learning in a classroom of kids her own age, whether she’d be miserable without other kids around her, whether I’d be miserable not having my own personal time during the day, and so on. So I have to say I’m genuinely astonished at how well these last two months have gone.

Before I go into all of the good that has come from home schooling, let me fill out the background a little so that you’re aware of some factors that have probably played a large part in all the goodness.

First, I stopped taking on copyediting projects. This is a hard one for me. I love freelancing. It’s really part of who I am. So consciously setting it aside to focus on a child who has actually managed pretty well in an assembly-line educational setting was painful. But recognizing that the assembly-line format wasn’t allowing her to develop into her best self made my sacrifice feel worth it.

"I'm not imbalanced. I'm balanced."
Factor three is that S is not a typical ten-year-old girl. She has an incredible attention span for anything that interests her, and most academic things interest her. And she has shown herself to be more mature, cooperative, and helpful than I had expected. That was a happy discovery that came after I took this leap of faith.
The second factor that probably contributes to much of our success is that we live on a compound, which is basically a gigantic multicultural neighborhood where kids are free to roam and explore as if this were the 1950s. S has lots of non-family social opportunities after school and on weekends. 


At any rate, I’ve independently confirmed what her teachers have been telling me for years: S is a wonderful student. Far from seeming imbalanced because she is not in a classroom every day, she actually seems more balanced and happier than I’ve ever seen her.

She’s more confident too. That may be because she gets hours and hours of attention from me during the school day. Undoubtedly, it also helps that she’s no longer surrounded by people who are always telling her how shy or quiet or sad she seems. Nor does she waste time wondering if everybody is whispering about her because of a thorough answer she gave in class or because she’s reading in the corner while everyone else is talking.

Her new confidence seems to make socializing a little easier. She’s more comfortable with who she is. She still doesn’t go out of her way to meet new people, but she’s excited when friends come over, and she plays with them enthusiastically and with great imagination. S is now even brave enough to attend her dance classes without requiring me or her little sister to stay in the room with her. (That was a milestone accomplishment.)

Because I’m a chronically task-driven kind of mother, sitting and watching my child complete assignments from start to finish has always been hard for me. But home schooling is schooling me. Taking time to understand the learning process helps me better understand not only S but also my other children.

Although I obviously have less time for my routine tasks, slowing down enough to watch my daughter work has been revelatory. I recognized how much time she must have been wasting on material that comes very easily to her. Although we’re only a couple of months into the school year, for example, S has finished more than four months’ worth of her spelling course. Conversely, within the first few weeks of math, it was evident that she didn’t even understand how to do the prerequisite long division. (And I’m guessing that had she covered this material in a regular classroom, she wouldn’t have been assertive enough to get the help she needed to understand the process. She would have been left behind.)

She has also discovered that she actually enjoys playing the piano. She plays it whenever she feels tired of studying; it’s a great way to reignite her mind and body when she has lost her focus. What a great realization!

Truth be told, these last few weeks have been some of the happiest both of us have ever lived. Home school has definitely disrupted my life, but overall the disruption has been pretty great. My daughter is thriving like never before, and I am becoming a better mom. 

Hero Dad (or "Mogwai Fear Caesar")

There is a place where the Saudi highway leaves street lamps and garish city lights far behind. Where it streaks through the sand and the rocks, hurtling into the puny circle of your headlights and under your blurry tires, then dissolves into inky oblivion in the blackness you leave behind. Where the only light dribbles from the dashboard and the night is a veil, and you wear it like a widow.

It's alright. He moves in mysterious ways.
This is where Grace announces to everyone in the speeding car, "Let's play 'I Spy'!"

"Okay!" Savannah squeals. "Cool!" says Halen.

"I spy with my little eye..." Grace sings slowly, "... somethinnnnnnggggggg... black." Shannon and I glance at each other with arched eyebrows, glances that, for the intense darkness, you sense more than you see.

"The sky!" Savannah shouts.

"Dang," Grace sighs. "You got it."

*****************************

I've never been to this town that clings to the lip of mountain walls that plunge thousands of feet to narrow valleys below, but I'm driving the strange, winding streets in the dark looking for a Little Caesar's. My kids have been eating limp french fries and iffy chicken since yesterday morning, so when they saw a flyer covered with Arabic script that nonetheless showed the little Roman pizza-eating munchkin, they focused like little lasers on their sudden hankering for Pizza! Pizza!

And I secretly sort of want to be a hero dad. You know, the kind that will strike out into the night in a strange, lumpy town strewn over sharp hills and sudden troughs, with meandering, serpentine roads, searching for American pizza for his children who are stuck in a sketchy motel in a city full of people who don't dress or talk like them.

It's 8:30 when the kid at the front desk of the motel gives me directions to Little Caesar's. He points and draws loops in the air, incomprehensible Arabic words dripping from his mouth. I catch "right" and "left" a few times. He also says "U-turn" and, I think, "international conference." It could also have been "chaotic intersection." It's hard to be sure in the heat of the moment.

Saudi dudes.
The air is un-Saudi-like here at 6,000 feet, dry and cool. I roll down the car windows for the first time since arriving in the Kingdom a year ago. I weave through the traffic. I pop on some Mogwai. I realize I am quite possibly the first person to ever listen to Mogwai in this town, especially at a stoplight with the windows rolled down. This realization fills me with an irrational and overinflated sense of pioneer-ness.

I circle town a few times before I happen upon Little Caesar's, quite by accident. It's a busy weekend night and the lobby is full of thobes. I wait for my pizza for 45 minutes. The satellite signal on the lobby television is poor, so the news anchor keeps freezing and his face keeps pixelating. Bearded men carelessly cut in front of one another in line, angling for the counter. The South Asian cashier serves whomever is most in his face at any given time.

Two hours later I return back to the motel for a hero's welcome. Everyone is asleep. Except Savannah. So me and Savannah sit cross-legged on the hard tile floor, eating pizza and chugging the Pepsi straight from the bottle. We don't say much. She doesn't have to tell me how amazing I am -- I can tell how she feels about me by the way she tosses the crust in the pizza box and gives me a little grin before rolling over to go to sleep. It's the little things.

*****************************

Saudi chicks.
We're still two hours east of Jeddah atop the gnarled mountains that mark the eastern rim of the Great Rift Valley. It's noontime in Taif, a town high above the sweltering seaside plains, where men in suits and ties and thobes and shmaghs ended Lebanon's civil war in the early-1990s over tea and coffee. We stop for juice boxes and cookies in a gas station on the outskirts of town. Halen says he has to go to the bathroom.

So we amble through the candy wrapper-strewn parking lot toward a dirty little mosque in a grimy corner of the parking lot. I've lived in Saudi Arabia long enough now that I know that the muddy bathrooms are always near the mosques. The call to prayer crackles from its squat old minaret, slightly grating, as if the muezzin is leaning too close to the mike. We're a long way from the smooth, haunting prayer song recordings of the upscale neighborhoods of Jeddah, and I think for some reason of the contrast between the biblical Pharisee, well-dressed and prayerfully boasting of the size of his offerings, and the publican who stares at his shoes, smites his breast, and mumbles a plea for mercy. This is the kind of parking lot -- the kind of tumbledown house of worship -- where I can picture the publican with his hands in his pockets, kicking at the dust, hoping for salvation to come from somewhere more likely.

Halen and I cross a tiny alcove on the way to the bathroom and the door to the little mosque is wide open. The prayer call has long since ceased and I expect to see the room full of all the men who 10 minutes ago were milling about the parking lot, meandering the aisles of the mini market, all the men who scattered and disappeared at the first notes of the prayer call. But they're not here. There's only one man near the front of the room, prostrate, forehead buried in the faded and torn carpet.

He's alone in the empty mosque and he doesn't know anyone is watching. And I suppose it's these two facts that make me figure, as me and Halen quietly move away, that today this mosque is a pretty likely place to find some kind of salvation.




Childhood Joy


Our lockdown ended yesterday, but we’re still in the middle of Eid al Fitr (the week of celebration following Ramadan), so Abu Halen has been home anyway. It’s nonstop vacation time here!

This evening we drove to another compound to meet with friends at their swimming pool. Once there, our baby discovered a toy pitcher and spent quite a while pouring water from the pitcher into a bucket. Then she discovered what fun it was to pour water on my arm. Then she tried pouring in on Abu Halen’s head, and she found it absolutely hilarious.

It’s not until you’re a parent that you realize that baby laughter is one of the most delightful sounds that has been presented to human ears. When it’s your own child’s laughter, you can’t get enough of it. Which is why Abu Halen can spend an uninterrupted twenty-five minutes playing one-two-three toss, one-two-three tickle, or one-two-three hug, but he can hardly bear to spend five minutes doing mundane tasks like, say, making a sandwich for lunch. An utterly exhausted parent can manage to stay awake a surprisingly long time to watch his slap-happy baby playing gleefully. Children are precious.

In Jeddah some Sudanese families live on the streets. That is, Sudanese women and children do—I never see fathers. The children sit on the medians of busy streets, waiting for streetlights to turn red. When traffic stops, the children wander among the cars, tapping gently on the windows and holding up a finger that means, “Just one riyal, please.” Now and then, a driver rolls down his window and hands over a few coins.

This money transfer needs to happen at least half a dozen times before the kid has enough to buy a piece of pound cake from the corner store or a schawarma and a coke from a street vendor. This is their daily routine—a routine that beggars follow all over the kingdom.

But today the routine was oddly changed at one semaphore where we stopped: just behind the Sudanese kid on the median was an olive-skinned, chestnut-haired boy carrying a box of chewing gum. “Is that a Syrian kid?” I asked Abu Halen, my jaw slack.

The boy quickly caught me wondering at his Levantine features, and he made his way to my window. Trying futilely to pretend that he hadn’t startled me, I looked the opposite way. But then he held up his box of gum for sale, and instead of giving me a pleading look and extending a mendicant finger into the air as is the routine, he grinned. Hilariously. Like, the way my own kids grin when they’re engaged in fun. 

Two cavities were making headway into the boy’s front teeth, but they didn’t dim the delightfulness of his smile. I smiled back, seeing my own children in his face. I rolled down my window to offer a few riyals, more to recompense him for joy than to offer charity (or to buy gum), to tell you the truth.

Have You Any Dreams You'd Like to Sell? (or "Camaros Are Cool")

In the hallway outside our bedroom we've hung big pictures of each of our kids. I walk past them all the time. But the other day my mind played a trick on me for some reason. I had to do a double take as I passed the picture of my son, because as I moved past it, my mind mulling something else entirely, out of the corner of my eye my subconscious noticed the photograph and said to me, "Hey, that's you." And I stopped, startled, and I turned to face the image of my son, and there was the most fleeting moment where the shape of his face, the smile lines arcing through his cheeks and around his mouth, the gaps where his front teeth should be, the texture of his hair -- I was staring at a picture of a cuter, innocent-er, little boy me. But then I was gone and my boy was smiling back at me again. And I slowly moved away, got on with my day, but I've been thinking about that fleeting moment, and how it's all connected.

It hasn't really been that long since I was seven, like Halen is now. On school picture day that year -- second grade -- I wore a shirt with an ironed-on image of a Camaro. I liked Camaros. Halen likes Camaros too. He says he wants one when he grows up. I did too, back then. But it's been 25 years and I still don't have a Camaro. I don't even like Camaros anymore. I think it's shameful how much money people spend on cars. If my seven year-old self heard me say that, he's say, "You're stupid. Camaros are cool." Maybe he'd be right.

When I was seven, the shuttle Challenger blew up. I saw the video on the news, over and over again. The news people kept saying it was the seals' fault that the space shuttle exploded, that the seals hadn't done their job. I wondered what cute little whiskered marine animals had to do with space shuttles. I don't think I ever asked my parents to explain. I don't remember why. I guess we just never really talked about current events as a family. So for years whenever I thought about Challenger, I felt bad that cute seals had been blamed for the disaster. I wonder how many things Halen wonders about that he doesn't ask me to explain, because he thinks I'm too busy, or I don't care, or I'll think he's dumb. I hope not very many.

I loved sports in second grade. I loved the 49ers, mostly because Joe Montana sort of had my name. I thought that, for this reason, we were basically friends, and that if we ever met he would play catch with me. On recess at school I would be quarterback, and just like Joe Montana I would hang in the pocket, cooly looking for the open man. Except no one was actually rushing the quarterback, but, still, I was calm as a clam. Joe Cool. Then, later, Joe Montana modeled men's underwear, which I thought was weird, and it made me think that if we ever met that maybe we'd just shake hands and say "Hey" to each other. I loved sports so much that I bet my parents thought I would be an athlete. But I'm not. Never developed competitive drive, or big muscles. Halen loves sports, especially soccer. He kicks soccer balls in the house. I hate that, but I love him. I hope he plays sports, so that I can maybe go to his high school soccer matches and watch him do things I can't do, like a bicycle kick. That'd be cool. I hope he doesn't model underwear, but if he does, we can still shake hands and say "Hey" to each other.

When I was seven, we had stacks of National Geographic magazines and I pulled the special map inserts out of all them. Then I tacked the maps to the basement wall. Then I stared at them all the time (maybe this is why I wasn't very good at sports). I'd dream of visiting all the places I couldn't pronounce. And also the funny places, like Turkey, places that no one in my small, sleepy riverside town really knew about or seemed to care much about. I had a pen pal from Ireland, and I thought maybe I'd marry her and move to Ireland, once I stopped thinking girls were gross. I didn't marry the girl from Ireland, but I did end up visiting -- and even living in -- some places I couldn't pronounce when I was in second grade. And I made it to Turkey. It's not as funny as I thought it would be.

And I guess that's how it works. You start out with dreams -- a whole bunch of them. And you think maybe you'll do them all. But you don't, because you find out that the cost of realizing one dream is another dream. And you find out that dreams aren't all worth the same amount. And so you live and you watch time snuff them out one by one, until maybe you're left with one or two. And for a minute you feel kind of bummed, because you remember the little boy you used to be, and you're afraid that if you ever happened upon your little boy self, he would size you up and say, "You're pretty lame. Your shoes don't even have velcro."

But, really, it's all connected. Maybe it wasn't really a trick of the brain when, for a fleeting moment, I thought a photo of my son was a photo of me. Maybe dreams are like seeds, and they come from your mom and dad, from the dream or two of theirs that survived, that made them who they are, and made you who you are. And maybe you take the seeds they gave you, and you plant a whole bunch of dreams, but in the end only one or two can grow. And then maybe when you're big you harvest the dream that's left, the one that survived when the others wilted, and maybe as you live that dream it yields a bunch of seeds of its own. And maybe you pass them on to your kids, and they plant their own dreams and see which ones grow. So maybe it's not such a bummer that time has smothered most of my dreams. Because my son has his own now, and maybe watching him pick and choose his dreams will be like living a dream I never knew I had.

A Tale of Kittens


This morning Halen and Grace’s friend Shawn came over. He played for a while and then announced that a baby just came out of his cat, Pebbles.

“She had kittens?” Grace exclaimed.

Seeing this as my big chance to motivate Grace and Halen to get dressed quickly, I suggested that they go see the new babies. Eyes alight, the two of them flew up the stairs to change clothes as Shawn set about studying his shoes near the doorway.

When Grace returned, fully dressed, about 4.2 seconds later, questions were spilling out of her. “When did Pebbles have the kittens, Shawn?”

A bit uncomfortably, Shawn answered, “I think yesterday . . . or maybe last month. I don’t remember.” Grace found that slipping her toes into her flip-flops took a bit of concentration so she didn’t listen to Shawn very hard.

She looked up only briefly when Shawn measured out a twelve-inch width with his hands. “The baby is about this big,” he explained.

“Is it really, really cute?” Grace asked, struggling to maintain her balance as I brushed her tangled hair back into a ponytail.

“Yeah . . . but I’m not sure exactly whether the baby came out of Pebbles, actually. It might have come out of a different cat—I’m not sure.”

“Wait for me!” Halen yelled desperately from the top of the stairs. He leaped down, two steps at a time. “Shawn,” he said breathlessly, “is it a boy kitten or a girl kitten?”

“It’s a boy!”

“Really? How do you know?”

Shawn looked around for answers and seemed momentarily distracted by the disappointment he read in Grace’s eyes. “Actually, it might be a girl cat. I’m not sure. I only found it yesterday. . .” His voice trailed off as the three bustled out the door, and I caught the tail of a conversation change as Shawn wondered aloud whether Halen and Grace would be interested in having some cinnamon toast at his house. 

I Am Funny. I Am Pretty. I Am Good.

The kids in Grace's Kindergarten class had to make a card for their families. My second favorite thing about Grace's card is how Grace is in the "B" Kindergarten class (KG), so the code for her class is KGB.

My most favoritest thing about the card is where she wrote, in severely spelling-challenged English that I have corrected for this post: I love you. You are funny. You are pretty. You are good.

Here's me being good. Right before I had a lapse and threw Savannah in the lake.
And it's true. I am all of these things. I could write a whole book on how I am funny, pretty, and good. It would be a thick book, and on the cover would be a picture of me juggling whoopie cushions, posing for the cover of Good Housekeeping magazine, and feeding Gerber baby food to someone who just got their wisdom teeth out, probably a teenager who is really good at video games. And inside there would just be lots of stories where I'm funny and pretty and good.

I remember once when I was funny. My girlfriend and I were at a nice Italian restaurants with a group of our college friends. I ordered spaghetti, because I couldn't pronounce anything else on the menu (except "garlic," which I pronounce the proper Slavic way: "gar-lich," which means that we can add "linguistic" to all the other superlatives that describe me). Then, while we were eating, I announced to everyone that I was going to eat my spaghetti in slow motion. It was probably the funniest thing ever in the world, with the exception maybe of when the Soviets called their first satellite Sputnik, which is funny because to me it brings to mind a potato wearing a beret and reciting Leonard Cohen lyrics. But my girlfriend didn't think that me eating spaghetti in slow motion was funny. I knew because she said "Stop it. That's not funny." But the funny thing was that it was funny.

Once when I was pretty was when my sister dressed me up like a pretty girl. I was six, and she said she wouldn't take me to the movies unless I let her put make-up on me and dress me in femme clothing. Even then I was a shrewd calculator -- I said okay. But even then she was smarter than me -- she dressed me up and then didn't take me to the movies. It was just as well. No good movies came out in 1985. Except Back to the Future. And The Goonies. And Spies Like Us. And Police Academy 2. And Pee Wee's Big Adventure. And Rambo. And Rocky IV. Why did Sylvester Stallone ever have to stop being in his mid- to late-30s?

There have been a ton of times that I was good. Once, when I lived in Syria, I was crossing the street and this little old lady was also crossing the street at the same time. We walked next to each other across the street, mostly, except she walked a little faster than I did, because she may not have been all that old, now that I think about it, maybe 40-something. But still. And I said hi while we were walking. She also said hi, and then when we reached the sidewalk, she went home and so did I. I think I really made her feel good for walking her across the street, and I'd be surprised if she doesn't still remember me and how good I was that day when I helped her in her time of need, namely, blocking the sun so that my shadow shaded her ankles.

Wow. It's really kind of mind-boggling how funny and pretty and good I am. Grace knows her stuff.

Hellions at the Dentist's Office



I have receding gums, so when I’m getting my teeth cleaned, I have to work hard to relax myself. But I lose it sometimes, and every muscle in my body tenses. I ache to burst out of the chair. The sensation is similar to the experience of taking my four kids out in public by myself. I avoid this situation whenever I can, but today I bit the bullet.

Our dentist appointments were to start at 3:30, and I was running late on preparations at 2:10, so I sent Grace out to find Halen while I fed and changed the baby. When our driver arrived to pick us up at 2:40, Savannah was locked in her room, angry at being disciplined for whipping her sister with a pillow case, and Grace and Halen were still missing.

I did some fast sweet-talking and managed to get Savannah out the door without a fight. She buckled the baby into her car seat while I ran to the playground, my abaya flapping at my ankles, hoping to find Halen and Grace quickly. But the place was deserted. I had turned to search elsewhere when a man watering some dirt hollered to me, pointing to the rabbit pen. There I saw Grace scaling the fence of the pen and running toward me.

This little angel? A hellion?
“Grace, you were supposed to be looking for Halen, not playing with the rabbits!”

“Sorry—I forgot!” she crooned, scurrying along behind me. I sent her to the car and rushed to the house of one of Halen’s friends, hoping to find him there. I was not disappointed—but I was sure to express my consternation at Halen for not coming back earlier.

I was kind of amazed that with all of the last-minute sweating, we still arrived at the dentist’s office ten minutes early. We located the door—actually, there were two of them, but we found both of them locked. Assuming it must still be prayer time, I found a seat in the cavernous hallway, and we waited.

Halen poked at Grace to get her to chase him. Grace poked at Savannah to get her to join the chase as well, and soon the three of them were raising Cain in the well-echoing building. Ten minutes passed, and I gave up trying to quiet the kids. Ten more minutes passed, and I was starting to feel annoyed at the tardy dentist.

I knocked at the dentist’s door, entertaining the temptation to see it as an escape hatch. No answer. I huffed. The guy couldn’t arrive on time for our appointment? I knocked harder. Where was this guy trained, anyway? How could this dentist presume to accept Western clients while being so obviously ignorant of the basic courtesy of punctuality? I willed the kids to make as much noise as they liked. It was tit for tat—rudeness for rudeness. I beat at the door with a flat palm.

The kids were just reaching a crescendo of mayhem when a woman emerged into the hallway. Incredulous, she demanded, “What is going on?” I wasn’t exactly sure whether she was using that angry-teacher voice with the kids or with me. But I was a little embarrassed that she spoke in English, because that meant she could tell my hellions were Western ones rather than the usual Saudi ones.

I shrugged, like a punk, pointing at the door. “Where’s the dentist?” My intent was to communicate that wild children were the natural consequence of late professionals.

The woman was dumbfounded. “This is not the dentist’s door—the dentist’s entrance is at the end of the other hallway!”

“No—this is room 405 and 406,” I explained politely. “The sign downstairs and in this hallway says these are the dentist’s doors.”

“But the sign also says that 402 is the dentist’s office!” The woman’s expression changed from unbelief to pity at my obvious ignorance of Saudi signage customs. As I followed her meekly down the hallway, she added, “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you to have those children at home with you all day!”

“Oh, yeah, sorry about that,” I said pathetically as I noticed the other sign that indicated an additional entrance to the dentist’s office. 

Why are trips to the dentist always so painful?

Baby Shakes

Banana-date-oatmeal shake. Yum!
Every once in a long while, I come up with a brilliant idea. This one has saved me oodles of time teaspooning food into my baby's mouth, and it's not as messy as spoon feeding either. So I thought I'd share, in case anyone out there is interested.

Baby shakes are one of the best ways to feed a baby. It only took me four babies to figure that out! Here's how I do it:

1. Pull out the Magic Bullet and blend up fruits, veggies, rice, oatmeal, or whatever's on baby's menu for the day.
2. Pour the puree into a cup.
3. Cut a milkshake straw (it has to be a thick one to work properly for baby) in half, and drop it in the cup.
4. Bib the baby, and let her go to town.

How to Change Your Baby's Name (or "Violet Becomes Tess Over Attempted Filibuster")

My baby's name used to be Violet. Now it is not. Yeah, so I changed her name when she was 10 months old. Don't judge me. Cuz if you judge me, I'll tell everyone about how you listen to Linda Ronstadt in your stupid earbuds, then when people ask what you're listening to you say Sufjan Stevens.

The Artist Formerly Known as Violet
I feel like changing names used to be no big deal. Like it was even kind of cool and respectable. Cat Stevens did it. Elton John did it. John Denver did it. David Bowie did it. Tracy Chapman probably should've done it because, be honest, when she sang that "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution" song you weren't sure if that was a boy or a girl.

But then stupid Prince made name changes laughable. Now, if you change your name or your kid's name, people think you're either a crack addict or a megalomaniacal multi-instrumentalist from Minneapolis. I am neither (I've never even been to Minnesota).

The truth is, people, I just never liked the name Violet. I should've stuck to my guns early on, but we had this stupid "democratic" thing going on in our family at the time, and the kids outright refused to back down from naming her Violet when I brought up that the name just wasn't doing it for me. I tried again for a new name a few weeks after we brought her home, and again the kids flashed their bayonets. I should've gone authoritarian then and there, but I had visions of all three of them smoking pot in their rooms as teenagers, listening to black metal and muttering about how they never felt loved after Dad changed the baby's name over their objections, so they started burning ants with magnifying glasses and it just sort of went from there.

Ten months down the line I still just really detested my baby's name. And then one day I realized that the time was ripe for a coup d'etat. We'd just moved to a new country -- no one new the baby's name. And so I struck, winning Shannon over to my opinion one night after softening her up with a Galaxy ice cream bar. Then we blitzed the kids with our decision the next morning at the breakfast table while they while they were still groggy from the Benadryl I'd slipped into their toothpaste the night before. Sure, they cried later, after they came to and realized that I'd just made an epic power play on them. But it was too late. You've got to get up early in the morning to outsmart Dad.

Oh, right, so now the baby's name is Tess. Do you like it? Nyeh. Don't care if you do or don't. I do, and I'm the dad. BTW -- this is what a blog post reads like when it's written in ten minutes flat.

On Moving and Kids and Truckers (or "Live Long and Prosper")

We've moved from our rental house in Arlington to a too-ritzy-for-our-pocketbook-were-it-not-for-per-diem hotel closer to the airport. In a day or two a big jet will whisk us over the ocean and chapter one will begin.

I say chapter one, but the truth is we're somewhere in the middle of this book. Chapter one was probably when Shannon and I sat in front of a videographer scant minutes after being married and he filmed us answering hackneyed questions about where we saw ourselves in the future. We told the guy we were travelers. But of course it was bunk. We weren't travelers. I'd taken a couple Arabic classes and Shannon had studied abroad, but lots of students with those credentials go on to manage old peoples' mutual funds and process insurance claims in offices in strip malls in St. Louis. We weren't travelers. We were a couple of kids in wedding atire fidgeting awkwardly on camera and articulating cliches in snippets that would later be set to awful elevator music and presented to us in VHS format.

But pages have turned and it turns out that cars and airplanes have indeed carried us a lot of places I didn't expect to go as a kid on a bike on my childhood dead-end street. Sometimes I'd ride four houses down to where the pavement met the cherry orchards and I'd gaze at Mt. Hood, an 11,000 foot behemoth that rose thirty miles to the west. The dead-end street seemed like a mistake, like the street used to just keep on going all the way to the mountain's snow-capped peak, but that someone who hated little kids and didn't want them riding their bikes to awesome places had severed the road right there so I couldn't get more than four houses from home and wouldn't be late for dinner. But I was pretty content on the dead-end street. I wasn't born a traveler.

We moved away from my safe little street when I was six to a dirty highway junction where Interstate 84 crosses Highway 97. It wasn't a city, wasn't a town, just a junction. Two motels, a couple gas stations, and a pretty decent restaurant with french fries that I think tasted better than anything I've had since. My parents managed one of the motels. We lived in quarters behind the front desk. I attended a little school five miles down the highway where they combined first and second grades to make a class big enough to warrant hiring a teacher. 

I guess my parents might've been nervous to move me from the cozy dead-end to a motel in a place that was little more than a big truck stop. But I thought it was great. I had my own pool. The restaurant across the highway had Centipede and Frogger, and the waitresses thought I was cute when I stood on my tippy toes to play the arcade games, so they'd give me free ice cream. I discovered sunflower seeds at the gas station minimart next door. I explored the rocky slope behind the motel where with every inch you climbed grasshoppers leapt like brown and yellow sparks from the crags between the rocks.

Sometimes I worry that changing my kids' surroundings all the time will stunt them somehow. Turn them into maladjusted, psychotic villans that laugh whilst they swing cats by the tail or, worse, that they'll mistakenly believe that it's cool to listen to Katy Perry. We moved them from a cozy old house with a backyard and a rope swing to a temporary rental where they slept in the basement with cave crickets, and we sent them to a new school for a mere three weeks and then pulled them out to move to a hotel, and then, a few days later, to another foreign country, where they'll merge with a new school in midstream. And sometimes I feel nervous about it .


But then I remember the motel on the highway all those years ago, rubbing shoulders with the tobacco-chewing truckers at the minimart. I never said to my parents, "Listen, Mom, Dad, this whole living in a motel thing is fantastic. Really. I have my own swimming pool." But the truth is I was a happy kid. Children are flexible. They bend and they roll, and it's usually all okay. So I try not to worry too much my cute little nomads. They'll live -- hopefully long -- and prosper.