It’s My Responsibility to be the Adult in the Room

It never fails. Every time the elder boy comes to visit for the Summer, we get into at least one huge blow-out argument. It always starts out as something relatively small, but the boy is always trying to test me and see how far I’ll let him push. That is, after all, part of being an adolescent.

We were doing so well this year. I had been cross with him a few times, but he seemed to mature and understand that I wasn’t tolerating any BS. That and my younger brother has been here to help keep the boy in check.

One thing that I’ve been being very patient about was the teasing. It seems like that’s what kids do; they tease each other. I suppose us grown-ups do it too, but at least among my friends, the ribbing never seemed so harsh. I mean…I can’t remember every being called ugly by anyone I considered a friend, let along a sibling or family member. And after I had a conversation with the boys about it, they seemed to tone it down.

Then the younger and elder boy were playing a game on the Wii and the younger boy did something good and decided to do a victory dance.

“You can’t dance,” elder boy snapped.

“Don’t say mean things for the sake of being mean,” I interjected. I mean, the younger boy stood there looking hurt and I simply don’t like the idea of them tearing each other down.

“Whatever mom. It was just a joke.”

“Don’t joke like that. I told you before that those kinds of jokes aren’t funny. There’s no reason to say something like that.”

“Why are you yelling?” A common question he asks when I get on his case about something. I might have taken a harsh tone, but I certainly wasn’t yelling.

We went back and forth a few times before he snapped at me not to yell at him at which point I explained that I wasn’t and demonstrated what yelling sounded like by telling him to turn off the video game.

And he went OFF. Shut the game down and started snatching the cords from here and there. Gathering his things and stomping around. He was in full-on brat mode and I was in full-on ready to kill his ass mode.

I stopped him at the door. “Put that suitcase down.”

I also went on yelling at him about why he can’t just be mean for the sake of being mean and I was tired of him saying mean things to his brother and…he yelled back and I grabbed him by the collar and told him he’d better get it together. I sent him to the bedroom with instructions to calm himself down.

When he continued to stomp around making loud closed mouth screaming sounds, I went into the bedroom and yelled at him to stop. He ignored me. He said he just wanted to put his stuff away. I yelled that he needed to calm down first.

Of course, all of my yelling and being out of control did nothing to help him calm down. Sure, he as being bratty, but it was my job as the adult to maintain control of situation because as a 12-year-old, he was just going to respond to me with the same energy I was giving him.

It was when I realized this that I stopped yelling and arguing. He had to sit in the room for 10 minutes and calm down. We didn’t need to talk about it, I had already said my piece. I’d be back to check on him and once his 10 minutes was up, we’d be done with the whole thing.

When I returned in 10 minutes, he was calm. I briefly explained why he had been placed on time out (yes, time out for a 12-year-old, and it worked) and told him I was sorry for yelling. He apologized and told me what he had learned. We hugged and kissed and let it all go. Five minutes later we were laughing together and the previous drama was nearly forgotten.

What did I learn? I’m the grown-up, he’s the child. There’s no need to argue and yell. No need to be mean and aggressive. When I calmed down, so did he. We didn’t have to argue and keep going over and over why what he did was wrong. When I stopped yelling and instead controlled myself and the situation, the resolution became much easier.

And in the end, it was my responsibility to be the adult in the room.

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Are You Ready to Join the Ranks of Urban Bicyclists?

I’ve been commuting by bike for over a year now but people are always surprised and sometimes amazed that I can survive without a car in Southern California.

First of all, it didn’t start off as being a choice. I was abruptly confronted with not being able to afford the luxury of a car and I wanted an efficient way to get around town. Despite Southern California’s deeply ingrained car culture and the fact that people think biking for transportation is dangerous, I find it quite fun and efficient.

I bike pretty much everywhere now, unless I get a ride or have lots of errands to run (and then I just rent). I don’t have to deal with sitting in traffic. I don’t have to deal with the gas prices. I don’t have to deal with the maintenance. I don’t have to deal with a car note, registration, insurance…Now I know that California car culture is an albatross around our necks.

And a stressful one. It wasn’t until I stopped driving that I realized how stressful it can be. Now I spend a lot more time doing things besides driving and cycling around means that fitness is automatically incorporated into my lifestyle.

Urban bicycling is becoming more popular in some parts of Southern California. This is probably a result of rising gas prices. There is some evidence that urban bicycling improves the quality of life for urban dwellers. This quality of life improvement is attributed partially to the increased activity, but also to the reduced stress of not having to get in a car to go everywhere. When you add to it the earth friendliness of not hopping in the car to make a 5 minute trip to the local convenience store, you’ll see the benefits of urban cycling really start to add up.

You absolutely have to consider the city you live in before you decide to become an urban bicycle commuter. In most SoCal cities, bicyclists must content with motor traffic, that isn’t prepared for the reality that California vehicle code considers bikes vehicles and should be treated as such.

Does you city have bike paths? If not, is the right hand of the roadway wide enough for you to ride without impeding the flow of traffic? (NOTE: This not a legal consideration, just a safety one. Remember bicyclists have just as much right to the road as car drivers do). Are there lots of blind curves where cars zip around and hit you before they even see you there? What’s the city cycling population like? If there is a significant number of cyclists on the road regularly, a lack of bike lanes might not be a problem.

The cars aren’t the only thing to take into consideration though. The biggest complaint of car drivers is that bicyclists are inconsiderate and don’t obey traffic laws. As an urban cyclist, I’ve seen the recklessness of others on bikes. I’ve seen people ignore red lights and stop signs. I’ve seen people cross lanes to make a left turn, when oncoming traffic seemed dangerously close. I’ve seen people ride down the wrong side of the road, against the flow of traffic. All of these things put the cyclist, not the car, in danger. As a general rule, urban bicyclist fair best when they are treated — and behave — like they are part of regular traffic.

Riding on the sidewalk is also dangerous. If you’re on your bike, you are not a pedestrian, and you actually present a hazard to those who are. And if you ride against traffic on the sidewalk, you are at risk of not being seen by cars coming out of driveways (they should look both ways, but often they only look in the direction of oncoming traffic).

Last, but certainly not least, I recommend that anyone riding a bike wear a helmet. I see people biking all over town, safely and recklessly, and 90% of them without helmets. California law only requires children under 18 to wear a helmet while biking, but when you’re an urban cyclist you need all the protection you can get. And guess what, the helmet is ALL THE PROTECTION YOU GET. Wear one.

Now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, go out and join the increasing ranks of urban cyclists. You can start small, but I’m betting you’ll find that with all the sun and the dopamine produced by the increased activity, bicycling around town will become one of your favorite past times.

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Of Mourning, Lost Time and Last Words

I had a feeling this day would be arriving sooner than I was comfortable with admitting. And still I kept telling myself there would be more time. Another Christmas to pop in and sit with him for a while. Another Mother’s Day that maybe we’d have brunch together. Another day I could call and just tell him I love him.

But time ran out and now I’m left with this mourning.

My brother called before sunrise to tell me that our dad had passed. Only, he couldn’t actually say it. He was just crying and I didn’t need him to say the thing I knew he couldn’t say. So I said it for him. And for a moment, I felt myself go numb.

My dad had been very sick for a long time. He had been depressed and lonely since losing the love of his life to breast cancer. He hadn’t been the daddy I remembered for many years and we had grown apart.

As I got older, I started feeling like maybe I never knew my dad very well. He was an emotionally-closed man of few words. But somehow I always knew that he loved me. And I loved him. And we loved each other the best way we knew how.

Unfortunately, when I wasn’t making the effort, we went long stretches without seeing each other. The kid in me wanted her daddy to just pick up the phone and call her. The adult in me wanted the kid to get over it and call dad. And I did, once…about a year ago.

He was in the hospital and I was afraid that would be my last chance to talk to him. I asked him if I should visit and he told me he’d call me when he got home — which, of course, he never did. As we talked I asked him about his health and he spun me some bullshit about being ok. I wanted to believe him, but I knew he wasn’t well. Still, I didn’t push. We had a short conversation before we ran out of things to say and began our goodbyes.

“Dad,” I said. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Kimberlee.”

And those were the last words we said to each other.

The next time I saw him, he was in the hospital again. This time in a diabetic coma and even more frail than I remembered. I almost didn’t recognize him. I sat next to his bed wishing I knew more about his condition…hoping he’d wake up and I would have one more chance to talk to him.

That was three weeks ago and today I got the call I had been expecting — and dreading. And while I wish I had been brave enough to visit him in recent years, I am so grateful that the last thing we said to each other was “I love you.”

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Worry Edges Out Possibilities and Happiness

Don't worry, be happyMy sister often talks about how I am her example of how faith works. She’s seen me take risks and believe that the universe would return my willingness with abundant prosperity; and it has. For most of us, the problem isn’t that there aren’t opportunities and possibilities, its that we give into the fear and worry.

But there is one basic principal that got me on the path of shifting my perception away from lack and limitation to limitless possibilities.

I stopped worrying.

The concept is deceptively simple. I like to plan. I like to create structure around myself. I don’t like when things don’t go the way I plan them and I am still learning to be a good steward over my finances. But through all of life’s ups and downs, I’ve learned that worrying just gets in the way.

Ultimately the worry is fear. And fear doesn’t focus on possibilities. It puts the focus squarely on the problem and magnifies it so you feel helpless. The helplessness turns into stress and then you find yourself unable to rest or focus on anything other than whatever your current worry is. And some people worry all the time. That must be a stressful life.

I made a conscious decision not to worry and since then, when stressors come, I have learned to trust that everything will work itself out. It took years to get to this place where I can simply trust that things will work for the good. Yes, that’s right. I trust that things will work in my favor. After years of going through life’s peaks and valleys, I’ve learned that worry edges out the ability to see possibilities, and creates more stress.

And, really. Who needs that much stress in their lives? I sure don’t

Instead of worrying and focusing on the problem, when something comes up, I first evaluate what I can do about it. If there are actions I can take immediately to resolve the problem, I get to work. If there’s no immediate action that can be taken and I feel worry start to creep up, I remember that I have never gone hungry or been without shelter. In fact, my life has constantly improved and I have always been able to take care of my kids. I remind myself that through it all, I have come through a stronger, wiser and happier person.

Most of us spend our days worrying so much that we don’t even know we’re worried. But the key is to begin changing the way you think and shifting your perception away from the fear, to something more productive. Over time, when life knocks you over the head, you’ll be less compelled by that internal trigger that wants to focus all energies on “OMG OMG WHAT EVER WILL I DO?” Instead, you’ll be able to handle life’s stressors with a clear head, rather the being beholden to the negative what ifs.

Image via Evil Erin

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Parents Can Get Together to Teach Kids Respect For Each Other

This isn’t a movie review for the movie I’ve never seen with the same title. Instead, its an expression of pride in teh collective parenting my neighbors and I are doing.

About a month ago, the Boy came into the house crushed and crying that his friends had told him he wasn’t Christian. While my first impulse was to say, “So the-fuck-what,” I could tell he was very hurt by the assertion that his spiritual foundation was false. Instead, I asked him why they had said this…had he done something to provoke such a response?

He told me that he and the girls had gotten into a disagreement and that he pushed one of them. One of them responded to his violence toward her friend by questioning his faith.

Clearly, she had no real understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Christ beyond the concept that hurting others was wrong. It was a good place to start, but her assertion indicated a youthful ignorance that resulted in behavior that was hurtful to someone she called a friend.

I talked to the boy about spirituality being personal and the concept of being Christian meaning to follow Christ’s example of love and decided to let him try to work things out on his own.

But then it happened again. And again nearly a month later, this time with a group of girls cornering the boy at the water fountain to taunt and yell and threaten to beat him up.

This was the point at which I decided to contact the teacher and request that she take action. I also decided that since most of the taunters lived in our building, that I would talk to their parents. The good news is that the parents were sympathetic and agreed that the kids should not be picking on each other. And since then, the kids have been playing nicely together.

We tend to react to bullying in one of two ways as parents: either we ignore it in the expectation that the kids can negotiate their own conflicts, or we get way too involved taking on the defender position which can often make things worse. Sometimes though, parents can band together and teach kids to respect one another.

Thats what me and the other parents here did. We all agreed that the kids didn’t have to be friends, but we didn’t want them to be mean to one another.

It was a teachable moment for all involved.

Image © katclay

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And So Summer Begins…

With the surprise arrival of the elder boy and a house full of kids this afternoon (my own plus several neighbor kids), I realized that summer vacation is upon me. And I’m so not ready for this.

How am I to get any work done with a bunch of kids in the house, playing music videos, video games and talking loudly? I sent them to the park, that’s how.

The awesome thing is that the neighbor-kid parents are starting to loosen up, and today, the kids went off to the park in a group of four!

What a change from last week, when I thought one of my neighbors was a free-range hater who called the police. I’ve since decided that probably wasn’t the case and that the police visit was a hang over from the first run in. I’ve also realized how important it is to encourage other parents to let the kids go off to the park as a group, so the boy isn’t on his own traveling between the park and home. Not only are they all safer that way, they get to play together and they’re less likely to be bothered by a busy body thinking one parent is crazy for letting her kid cross a major intersection.

I’m winning the parents over and the kids get to go play at the park. I think summer is going to be awesome…

That is, as long as we all kick the kids out of the house and send them off to play together.

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“What’s Wrong With People?! I’m a Big Kid Now!”

It happened again…Quite possibly the biggest fear of any free-range parent: Someone called the police about my son being unsupervised.

This time the call came from someone who had my address, and probably, one of my neighbors.

Unlike the previous run in with the police, the officer did not yell or automatically jump to the conclusion that I was a bad mother. He didn’t assume that because my son was playing at the park, I was negligent.

Instead, he noted that my being home was an indication of supervision and simply asked if my son had a habit of getting into trouble. “Is he responsible? Can you trust him to be where he says he’s going to be?”

No, yes and yes.

And then we both stood there for a moment looking puzzled.

“Someone gave you my address?” I asked.

“Yes,” he responded. “I don’t know how long the call has been in the system, but someone reported that you regularly leave your 9-year-old son alone and unsupervised.” He paused for a moment. “It sounds to me like you’re doing alright. And obviously, he’s not unsupervised if you’re home.”

While I was heartbroken thinking that one of my neighbors might have sent the police to my home, I was encouraged by the officer’s lack of concern. He was kind and assured me that “this stops with me,” and that CPS had not been alerted. He was just investigating a call. He asked a few more questions, thanked me for my time and went on his way.

But I was frazzled by the visit. Again my mind wondered if I had done anything wrong. I began trying to figure out which neighbor or community member might have made the call and why. Was it time for another move? This time with the goal of landing in a more kid friendly community? (Later I realized that this was probably a hangover from the last police visit and the officer probably hadn’t been completely forthcoming in that regard.)

I waited a few minutes and then headed to the park to check on the boy, who was already on his way home. As we hit the stairs, one of the kids from our community ran up and noted that the police had been here. Was everything alright? I told her things were fine, as the boy and I made our way to our apartment silently.

“Why were the police here?” The boy asked once we were inside.

“They said someone made a call about you being unsupervised.”

He was livid. “Again?!? What is wrong with people?!” He said throwing his helmet on the couch. “I’m a big kid now!”

“I know, honey…” I didn’t really know what else to say. I was still processing the whole thing myself. I was afraid, but didn’t want him to be. How could I teach him not to be afraid of the community if I was afraid?

“Maybe…” he started. “Maybe I shouldn’t go to the park.”

In that moment, I knew I had to reassure both of us that we were doing the right thing. “No. We will not be afraid and we have not done anything wrong.”

“But what if this happens again?”

“Then we’ll deal with it.”

I could tell that he was just as shaken as I and for a couple days, he didn’t ask to go to the park.

Thankfully, the fear didn’t last long and yesterday, he asked if he could go visit his friends near the big park. Still nervous about the visit from the police, I decided to escort him. And once he had successfully found a friend’s house at which to play, he quickly waved me away.

I left trying to ignore the nagging feeling, but knew he would make his way home on his own just fine.

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He went to the park without me. I checked on him. He didn’t need me

Last year the Boy and I celebrated a play holiday created by Free-Range Kids author Lenore Skenazy: Take Your Kids to the Park and Leave Them There. We biked to the park and I left him at the playground while I rode the bike trails. I was nervous at first, but when I came back 30 minutes later, he had made a new friend.

This Saturday was Take Your Kids to the Park and Leave Them There Day, but we didn’t celebrate. Well…not in any official way. You see, in the year since the one we did celebrate, it has become commonplace for the boy to go to the park on his own and hang out with the other kids…mostly boys. So today was really a regular Saturday for us.

I suppose the real difference is that we’ve learned a lot since then. We’ve learned that while most folks are free-range friendly, there are those who don’t agree with the free-range philosophy. As a result, I pulled back a little, and the Boy hadn’t been able to visit some of his friends at the skate park/community center near our house. Sure there was the school park a block away, but the the Boy was beginning to miss his friends from other other park.

I had worried. Maybe a half a mile was too far. Maybe the big intersection he had to cross to get to the “big park” was too busy for him to cross without my supervision. Honestly, I was more worried about what people would think and do about my son being unsupervised than I was about him being hurt by a stranger, hit by a car or doing something dangerous.

But he wore me down and I started letting him go back to the big park. First for only an hour. Then for two. Then one day he called and said one of his friends was having a party, could he stay? And when I went over to check on him, he was playing with all the kids he had met during our first summer in this neighborhood.

All of this lead to today, when he begged me if he could go to the big park and despite my fear, I let him go with a warning to be careful and call me if he decided to hang out at a friend’s house. Which he did. And later, he called me again to let me know he was at the skate park. I thanked him for checking in, hung up the phone and geared up for a surprise check-up. (I find doing this keeps him honest, he never knows when I’m going to pop up and if I can’t find him where he said he’ll be, he’ll lose some of his precious freedom.)

When I got to the park, he was there, happily surrounded by other skater boys, practicing tricks. I stayed back and watched because I didn’t want to break his focus. It was awesome to see him out there with the other boys, all of them so focused on landing whatever jump or grind they were working to perfect. He fell down many times, as skaters often do, and I resisted the urge to rush to his aid.

And then the boy caught sight of me and I became a distraction from his practice so he asked me to leave. He asked me to leave!

The boy didn’t need me. Now isn’t that what being free-range is all about? So I left him. And it was just another Saturday.

Did you take your kids to the park and leave them there this weekend?

Image by greenkozi

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A Lesson in Empathy for the Boy

During the day, I usually don’t turn on the TV. I find it a noisy distraction. The Boy often comes home and after completing his homework, wants to turn on the tube, but I refuse.

It isn’t until after we’ve had dinner that, I go to my room and leave the Boy to get his cartoon fix before going to bed. But last night he came to me and asked if he could watch TV together instead of separate. I was watching The Constant Gardener and hadn’t seen anything in it so far that I thought inappropriate, so I continued to watch it.

After watching for about 15 minutes, the Boy turned his head and said he couldn’t watch the movie anymore. It was disturbing.

I was surprised. There had been very little foul language, no violence or no sexual content. Just a privileged white couple that was becoming increasingly fractured over the wife’s desire to help the impoverished people in an African country.

But I stopped the movie anyway and realized that the Boy was crying.

“What’s wrong honey? What were you disturbed by?”

“Its just…Its disturbing,” he said. “A 15-year-old dying?”

He shook his head as the tears slowly made their way down his cheeks.

There it was, he was disturbed by the depiction of the poverty. The 15-year-old mother of three, who was dying (probably of AIDS) had been just too much for him to handle. And while I realized that he was not yet mature enough for this particular movie, he was mature enough for a little talk about empathy — because that’s what he was feeling.

So I told him that while sometimes we have had some financial struggles, we are very fortunate. We have food, we have shelter, we have nice clothes, and clean water to drink and bathe with. But there are people in other parts of the world who sleep on dirt floors and drink the same water other people shit in. There are people who don’t have the privileged of attending public schools and for many of the children in third world countries, the lunch they get at school is their only meal of the day.

We are fortunate.

I held him close and told him that his empathy was a good thing. People who feel empathy are often compelled to help others. Empathy drives people to make it so that people don’t have to drink shitty water, eat rice mush and sleep on dirt floors. Empathy drives people to work to make it so that 15-year-olds don’t have to die of AIDS.

He nodded his understanding as I wiped away his tears and gave him a big hug.

And then I put on Kick-Ass, a movie with gratuitous violence and foul language, but one that I knew would not leave him feeling sad about the human condition. There will be enough for that when he gets older.

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Education, Pride, and Hope for the Future

Last week I had the pleasure of traveling to Cincinnati to speak to students, oh behalf of the Freedom Writers, about the importance of education and how one choice can have major consequences.

I recalled the high academic expectations my mother had for me and how hard she worked to make sure I got a quality education. How she constantly reminded me that education was my ticket to life as more than just a secretary or working retail.

For a long time, I thought my story of fighting every step of the way to achieve my mother’s dream was insignificant, compared to some of the other Freedom Writer stories of violence and abuse. But seeing the kids in Cincinnati — many of whom are also being pushed to go to college, while not really seeing any resources to accomplish this goal — made me realize that my story can help give these students hope.

I also had to reflect on the fact that while education is a great opportunity equalizer, there are even fewer resources available for these students than there were for me. Education budgets are being slashed and the result is crowded schools and classes, overworked teachers who have been villanized, and students who have little hope for their educational future.

Still, I did my best to inspire and encourage the students despite the increasingly difficult atmosphere in which going to college seems like an impossible dream.

And on my way home, I got an amazing phone call. My oldest son is being awarded a scholarship to a boarding school in Washington DC because of his outstanding academic achievement and strong leadership. My hope was restored that while the resources seemed to be shrinking away, there are still opportunities for kids who work hard to rise above the rest and be recognized for it.

I know that he’ll have to work twice as hard while being away from his family and surrounded by other kids whose parents are probably paying their tuition to this private school. But my fear that there would be too much pressure for him was calmed when he told me that he was ready and would do whatever it took, because this was his chance.

His chance to get a great education and a solid foundation to prepare him to get into a great college.

And my heart swelled with pride, remembering how hard I had worked to impart the same value for education as my mother had imparted to me. This legacy was being passed on, and there is hope that my son will one day earn a college degree and become a second generation college graduate.

Image by DieselDemon

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