The Deep, Dark Underbelly of Parenting (and how my attitude is still my own problem)

Give them rocks to climb and they won't fight. Oh wait. They had that fight over the walking stick, didn't they? Never mind...

Give them rocks to climb and they won’t fight. Oh wait. They had that fight over the walking stick, didn’t they? Never mind…

I was driving home last night from Julianna’s last horseback riding lesson of the year, and pondering what to write for a blog post today, when I realized Julianna and Michael were in the back seat, fighting over…

…wait for it…

…a dirty paper plate.

This was not the first fight of the afternoon, either. Two hours earlier, Nicholas and Michael had a screaming match over who got to use the electric piano at the piano teacher’s house that included a tug of war over the headphones. And they snapped the cover off one of the headphones.

Fortunately, in this case I was able to snap the cover back into place, and no harm was done. But they got the full scolding, including the words not okay, not acceptable, and who has to pay for the things you break when you’re fighting?

Several things occur to me this morning, as I sit outside typing this and listening to Michael shriek, “JUWEEANNA, *I* AM THE LEADER!” while they ride bikes before school.

But if they work together to try to, say, dig a trench from the wall seepage to the creek, you might just get forty-five minutes of peace and quiet.

But if they work together to try to, say, dig a trench from the wall seepage to the creek, you might just get forty-five minutes of peace and quiet.

One: Michael has definitely hit the age where he’s no longer the victim of sibling oppression, but a full and willing participant.

Two: Often when I do presentations on Down syndrome I get the question about how my boys view their sister’s disability. These illustrations make it very clear that the younger boys, who were not partners in her early intervention therapy, see no difference at all. She’s fair game in every way that ordinary siblings are. She gets no free passes in the Sibling School of Hard Knocks.

Three, and the main point: having children is without a doubt a powerful reminder that I have to choose my attitude, because life will always, always be full of irritations and frustrations.

I frequently feel like pulling my hair out when my kids start bickering. It’s usually so petty. I mean, really. A dirty paper plate? There’s not even a good story behind that one. It really was just a dirty paper plate. And fighting over the electric piano? They actually both had good cause to consider themselves justified in wanting that instrument. Michael got to it first, but the purpose of the piano being there at all is so that kids waiting for their own lessons can practice, and Nicholas wanted to—gasp—use the piano for its intended purpose.

But it never occurred to them that there was any way to resolve their dispute other than PULLING APART SOMEONE ELSE’S ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT?????????

Excuse me for a moment while I take a deep breath. Or twelve.

The danger in failing to acknowledge the icky underbelly of family life on a blog is that you give the impression that your life is all unicorns and rainbows, thus making others feel inadequate.

But the danger in focusing on said icky underbelly is that it’s really, really easy to start seeing nothing else. You start thinking that your kids are going to grow up to be sociopaths, when in reality there are indications to the contrary. For instance:

A week ago, Christian dropped Julianna and me off at church on Wednesday night so she wouldn’t be late for “church school,” and then he took the boys and went to fill up the van with gas. The gas station happened to be next door to Taco Bell, and nobody had had dessert, so Christian decided to get them some of those amazing cream cheese-stuffed fried whatevers. And Nicholas put a check on Alex, who wanted to finish them, by saying, “But what about Julianna? Julianna didn’t get any.”

It’s hard to accept the self-absorption of young childhood, especially when your whole life is structured around meeting their needs ahead of your own. It doesn’t really matter how many times the experts tell you it’s normal. It always chafes. And that chafing draws attention to itself, to the point where sometimes you fail to recognize—or choose to ignore—the sweet moments, and cling to the problems.

When all those parenting surveys show how “less happy” people are after they’ve had kids, I think it is more an indicator of our own attitudes, which are, let’s face it, entirely in our control. Bad things happen. That doesn’t mean it has to ruin your entire life.

Thus concludes my daily self-pep talk. How about a funny Nicholas school paper?

That mile-long word?

That mile-long word? “Music.”


Me, My Kid, And Risk Aversion



Photo via Wiki Commons

There was an article in the Washington Post last week about middle schoolers and risk taking. Essentially, it said: in order for children to morph into adults, they have to take risks–defined as anything that takes them outside their comfort zone: crazy hair, weird clothes, a new activity–or scarier alternatives like drugs, sex and alcohol. Kids are going to take some sort of risk whether you like it or not; that’s what makes them grow into adults.

I dug into my memory, looking for confirmation of this argument in my own experience, and I came up blank.

I have never liked risk. I have always been a homebody who wants things to stay familiar and comfortable. My mother had to plant a boot on my butt and make me get my driver’s license, for goodness sake. And I was so intimidated by walking into fast food restaurants and asking for job applications, she had to issue an ultimatum before I would do it.

Even these days I loathe risk. There’s a lot of it involved in writing. The obvious is the risk of rejection, but there are many others: the risk of making oneself vulnerable to criticism (can you say “reviews”?), the risk of intellectual property violation, and so on. To me, risk is a nasty but unavoidable side effect of the drive to create.

Hence my continuing problems with anxiety.

Miscellaneous July 018 smallBut all that is just navel-gazing. The reason any of this is blog-worthy is that I have a nine year old who is already broody and moody, teetering at the edge of the adolescent abyss. It seems ludicrous to suggest such a thing, the distance between 9 and 13 being almost half the length of his life thus far. But he’s definitely changing. More to the point, he’s me with an XY instead of two Xs.

In this case, that means he does not like risk. Which is defined as “anything new that does not involve a video game or a mythology-spinoff book.”

He’s eligible to be an altar server this year, but he doesn’t want to do it. When I asked why not, he said he didn’t want to be up in front where everyone was looking at him. I pointed out that nobody is supposed to be looking at the altar servers. I pointed out that he likes acting, where people are supposed to be looking at him. He did not answer. (Whatever that means.)

I don’t like to make the kids do things they don’t want to do, but in this case we thought it was too important not to. This is entry-level ministerial work: service to the people of God. So last night I took him to altar server training.

And you know what? Once they got to the part where they were learning about the items used at Mass–once they got to pass around the huge Lectionary and the heavy, gilded Book of the Gospels and touch the paten and chalice–I could see interest in my son’s  eyes.

That is basically the shape of my own life: parental foot on butt, shoving me out of the nest; insides quivering with terror; followed, at some point (not always right away) by the discovery that I’m having fun.

Blog-sweet boysI had to be forced to take risks, and Alex is shaping up to be the same. In fact, I think I need to harden myself to the necessity of being the foot-on-butt. My risk-averse personality caused me to play it safe far more than I should have in adolescence. Instead of venturing out, I built a safe cocoon around myself. And when it was time to fly the coop I had to be kicked out of the nest, because I didn’t want to leave home. It took me until I was twenty-five to learn to be friends with a man, independent of romantic entanglements, and until I was almost forty to be able to interact with liturgical music colleagues as, yanno, an adult and not a fan girl. I always knew I came into my own much later than I should, but until now it never really occurred to me why.

So maybe I have to stuff that I-don’t-want-my-kid-to-suffer empathy into an iron box and shove it in some deep dark corner of my soul for the next few years. Maybe I have to force my mini-me to take some of the risks I was too scared to take when I was his age. And maybe…just maybe…I can spare him some of what I have suffered because of my own risk-aversion.

The Un-Twinning of the Littles

She still looks older to me, but maybe that's just because I know.

She still looks older to me, but maybe that’s just because I know.

It lingered so much longer than I expected.

When Nicholas first left babyhood, he seemed like Julianna’s developmental twin. I expected it to last just a few months, but the twinning grew firmer and firmer. For over three years, they have kept pace with each other, Julianna managing to stay just far enough ahead in key areas–like reading, for instance–to counterbalance Nicholas’s exploding cognitive and speech capabilities.

I should have realized, when I started referring to “the little ones” and meant Julianna and Michael instead of Julianna and Nicholas, that the twinning had passed at last.

But I didn’t. Not until Friday night, when we had company over and I caught a snatch of conversation between Christian and Nicholas. Christian said, “But Nicholas, Julianna’s older than you.”

“No she’s not! I’m older!”

Christian and I exchanged a look across the room: half amused, half pained. “Nicholas, you are not older than Julianna,” I said. “Julianna is two years older than you.”

You should have seen the incredulous, rebellious look on my third-born’s face.

How in the world did we miss this long enough for him to internalize a wrong-headed view of the world that thoroughly?

Julianna keeps to herself a lot. She’s not big on playing; she likes listening to music and reading books. And swinging. She loves to swing. She’d still rather ride a tricycle than get on her bike, because she’s intimidated by the size–although she can ride it. She’s expected to do chores, but they’re the simple sort: pull the chairs out of the kitchen, bring the dishes to the sink.

Meanwhile, Nicholas is learning concepts and play skills and chore duties by leaps and bounds. We intended to pull the training wheels off his bike this summer; I just didn’t get it done because my work load was heavier than I had realized. He outweighs her, although he’s still marginally shorter. He cleans the bathrooms (though not necessarily very well) and makes his bed. He’s writes as legibly as Julianna (which is to say, not very), although he can’t spell and she can.

And this is all about to intensify, because Nicholas is starting kindergarten in a week. Since we held Julianna back, she’s only a year ahead of him in school.

One of the things that comes up periodically at Down syndrome conferences is the reminder that we have to let/force our children to grow up. Julianna is seven and she thinks she has to have me put her shirt on for her. She still wears her underwear sideways (can you imagine being skinny enough for that even to be possible?). And I know she can’t brush her teeth well enough to be left on her own.

It’s ridiculous that we haven’t tackled independence for her in these areas–but that’s a response to being so crazy-busy. With four kids and a mom who works at home, the practical aspects of life turn into an assembly line: meal prep, morning ablutions, bath time. The focus lately has been on getting Michael to talk. There’s only so much parental effort to go around. Sometimes you just opt to sacrifice independence to the concept of get it all done.

But that’s not good enough anymore. It’s not fair to her. Because she isn’t a “little one” anymore. I have to stop treating her that way.

Raising My Strong Willed Child


baseball portraits 117We don’t parent on our own. Or at least, we shouldn’t. If we try to muddle through on the basis of our own (lack of) expertise, we’re more likely to screw it all up.

So I was very grateful to sit down for a long, focused conversation with a woman I respect deeply. She is raising a child like Nicholas, only she’s much farther along in the process. I’m not sure how to process that conversation except to share what has changed in me since then.

If you’ve been reading for any length of time, you’re probably aware that I’ve focused more emotional energy on figuring out how to deal with Nicholas than all my other children put together–including the one with Down syndrome. A strong-willed child wants to test the limits, and that includes the limits on the limits. For example: if you draw the line in the sand, he’s obviously going to cross it. But he has no intention of abiding by the consequences, either. If the consequence is “go to your room,” you’re going to have to make him go. It’s exhausting. It never lets up.

And if you’re not careful, all of life becomes a battle. And battles don’t leave room for love–the warm fuzzy kind of love, I mean. The battles themselves are an expression of love, but not one that brings you closer together and facilitates enjoying each other’s presence.

I’ve always known I needed to keep calm when dealing with Nicholas. But he’s so good at identifying my buttons, and he goes right for them. (Name this tune: He never hit the brakes, and he was shifting gears.)

Insert note of irony: while I am drafting this blog post, everything I am writing about is playing out around me. Just keep that in mind.

What always made it even harder was the sense that Nicholas had no empathy, no willingness to think about anyone’s feelings or desires but his own. I have often feared that Nicholas is wandering through the world without much of a conscience to guide him. Consciences can be molded but not created, and I’ve spent a lot of energy fretting on that subject.

“Oh no, strong-willed kids usually have a huge desire to please,” my mentor-mother said. I wasn’t sure I bought that, but I went back to my memory with an open mind and I soon decided she was right.

I’m jumping into speculation here, so bear with me. I think part of the reason things often spiral out of control is because parental disapproval weighs so heavily on him. Once he’s on Mommy’s bad side, he feels he’s beyond redemption. So then he acts the part.

That reaction makes no sense to me, but it is what it is. Everyone’s soul smarts when they get in trouble, but different people react differently. What makes Nicholas decide in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound is the appropriate response to getting in trouble? I don’t think I’ll ever understand that, because I was…uh, I still am…a person who reacts to criticism with a desire to instantly remake myself in the image of whoever is scolding. That, or stay up for three nights tossing and turning and having ghost arguments with them to vindicate myself.

But it doesn’t matter, really. I don’t have to “get” why my son reacts that way, as long as I can see through to the hurt and sadness that lies beneath it. When I address the problem through that lens, everything works out much better.

In the meantime, his public persona gets comments like “easy-going,” “goes with the flow,” “so kind and thoughtful,” and “an absolute joy.” Nicholas, like Julianna, has an uncanny knack for creating a fan club for himself wherever he goes. At least among the adults. So I know he’s got the empathy, the ability to think of others. The conscience is there. It’s just that the way I’m trying to access it isn’t working.

So I’m trying to learn new patterns of behavior for myself. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but flexibility is a good thing–not just for the body, but for the mind and the soul, too. God grant me the grace to raise my son up into a holy man, despite my many failings.

Child Abuse, Part 2: Personal Defense


SEX ED (Photo credit: 707d3k)

A commenter once took issue with a post I wrote about parents’ responsibility to arm their children against the threat of child abuse by teaching children about their dignity as human beings, and in particular the dignity of the human body. This person took issue with the idea that such concepts can provide any protection against predators. I’d like to address that as a starting point today.

Realistically, there is no foolproof way to protect our children from any of the dangers they may face. But to me it seems self-evident that whatever defenses we can arm them with are wise investments. I do believe that young women and men who truly understand their value and dignity as human beings are more likely to be capable of protest when they are pressured, either by peers or by authority figures, to do things that violate that dignity. It’s no guarantee, but it’s another tool in the arsenal.

I used to believe young children should be shielded from all references to sexuality, because it would sully their innocence. But this implies that sexuality is a) not innocent, and b) something separate from personhood, when the truth is that the two are braided together so tightly that separating them leads to dysfunction.

I am now convinced that lessons about sexuality cannot be imparted in a single conversation upon the onset of puberty, but must, MUST be introduced a bit at a time. You don’t dump Pi r squared on a student without laying the foundations first; they’ll never, ever understand it. They might be able to plug in numbers to a formula, but they won’t understand. The same is true of sexuality. A child’s psyche isn’t prepared to deal with so much earthy, bodily frankness if it’s never been introduced before.

So in our family we start in early childhood by laying foundations.

1. The key concept is this: the body is holy because it is the dwelling place of God. God lives in the soul, and the soul is housed in the body. Our bodies were given to us in order to make the world a better place. A place that looks more like what God’s vision for it.

2. Because of this, we take care of our bodies. We don’t play with them as if they’re toys, and certain parts of us are not meant to be touched by anyone other than a parent or perhaps a doctor in an examination, and beyond a certain age, not even by a parent. We care for our bodies by keeping them clean, well-nourished (healthy eating and exercise are part of this lesson) and well rested.

3. We call body parts by their proper names. Euphemisms and slang imply that there’s something that needs to be hidden because it’s bad to talk about. The kids are comfortable with words like breast and penis and labia and scrotum. (More comfortable than we are, to be honest.)

Once these foundational concepts are worked into life, it’s not such a stretch to talk about where babies come from. God puts the baby in the mommy’s tummy, but you know the child is going to ask how. It would be easy to punt and say something lame and evasive, but I think that’s shortsighted. Kids need to understand that something holy and miraculous happens in the sexual act, and that they have a part to play–that their choices and their dignity are relevant.

So I tell the kids that mommies and daddies have a special hug they give each other, and sometimes when they do, God takes something from the mommy and something from the daddy and makes it into a baby that grows inside the mommy.

Alex has probed further, and I have had to say, “You don’t need to know that yet.” I think of Corrie Ten Boom’s story about the suitcase a lot.

Now, when we need to address abuse by authority figures or even something Alex sees in the movies that doesn’t add up, we aren’t constructing elaborate evasions in a misguided attempt to preserve his innocence. This weekend we were watching Superman Returns and Alex, puzzled by the complicated relationship between Lois, Superman and Richard, and how that boy could be Superman’s kid, asked, “So…are they married?”

“Alex,” I said, “the thing you have to understand is that the special hug is meant to be given by people who are married to each other, because that special hug makes babies, and every baby has a right to grow up in a family with a mom and a dad who are married to each other. But the hug can be done by people who aren’t married. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, but sometimes people do.”

What I’m trying to get at is that the issues of sexuality are all tied together. You can’t just address child abuse in a vacuum. Because then, yes, it does destroy a child’s innocence. But if you give them a vision of their own dignity as human beings, that facilitates those other, more difficult, conversations. It gives them one more ring of defense in case, God forbid, they do face a situation you can’t protect them from. And in the long run, it should help them live an integrated, holistic life, too. This is my theory. I’m the first to admit it’s unproven, but it’s in the testing phase, and so far the indications look good.

Sibling Love?


“I’m sure you know this already,” said Julianna’s teacher, sitting in our living room on Saturday morning, “but…Julianna is just so sweet.

Christian and I exchanged a glance and chuckled, because we hear it all the time. In fact, he’d heard it from the counselor at her school just a couple of days before. And we get it all the time when we’re out and about as a family.

Which makes me really curious to know what goes through my other children’s minds when they hear such things.

The world’s perception of Julianna:

Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Blossom Festival

Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Blossom Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My children’s perception of Julianna:


People routinely tell you how great your kids are, and every time they do, you have this surreal moment in which you have to remind yourself that they don’t see all the moments you do. Right?  But you’re an adult and you can remove yourself a bit from your own experience and appreciate what others see.

The kids, though–it’s harder for them. Above kidding aside, I really do wonder what my boys think of their sister. The relationships among the three of them are pretty clear. Nicholas is a button-pusher and he knows Alex’s buttons at least as well as he knows mine, but they declare regular cease-fires to play Ninjago or Avengers or Other-Superhero-of-the-Day together. Nicholas wants to be Alex, and Alex’s most common spiritual goal has to do with being nicer to/more patient with his brother. Alex and Michael adore each other, pure and simple. Nicholas and Michael are hurtling toward a mirror image of Alex and Nicholas’ relationship.

But Julianna stands kind of outside all these relationships. She plays with them occasionally, but she’s not cognitively able to play pretend; she still prefers to sit and look through word cards and listen to music. Her communications are different. You never know if you’re getting a straight answer out of her. She’s just, well, different.

We’ve never tried to hide, downplay or otherwise sugar coat Julianna’s differences. Alex began learning about Down syndrome as soon as we could talk about it without crying. Nicholas, being far less empathetic and much more, er, let’s call it focused-on-himself than his older brother, has only in the last six months begun to process what that extra chromosome means. But both of them know that Julianna’s disability means they have an extra long-term responsibility as brothers.

The circumstances of each person’s life color childhood, but the way they react to those circumstances is unique to each child. When I see Alex playing with his cousin or a friend who is around Julianna’s age, it always causes a pang. We had our first two close together partly so that they could be playmates, but it didn’t work out that way. As much as we value treating Julianna like any other child in our family would be treated, we can’t escape the fact that she is different, and those differences force many, many accommodations to be made. She does get treated differently. And I wonder how my boys will react to their sister in the long run.

A Julianna primer


Mothers Tea 2First, an introduction to Julianna-speak:

  • Kwawk-wee–chocolate
  • Kee-yoh–carousel
  • Kohl-ee–Nicholas
  • Al-ee–Alex
  • Bah-koh–Michael
  • Bah-ee–Mommy
  • Geepaw Geepaw–Grandpa (or Grandma, or both)
  • wei-ee yah-yee–swim lessons
  • wah bee-bah–watch baby signing times (but it means “movie”)
  • pah-tah–pasta
  • Hah boh-bee–happy birthday
  • hoe-ee–horsie
  • geiger–tiger
  • goggie–dog
  • Beebee Iccshee–Baby Izzie. (Not sure how to put that consonant into letters; it’s in the back and the front of the mouth simultaneously, a sound related to both sh and the French r.)
  • Wow-kuh–fire truck
  • bih bugee–big bug
  • lee bugee–little bug
  • wow doy–loud noise

Go on, try saying these out loud. See if you can hear the original word buried in hers.

Julianna has difficulty with speech because her tongue is larger proportional to the size of her mouth, and because of low muscle tone, which makes it harder for the muscles to work together. If you think about it, speech is the finest possible fine motor skill the body performs. Minute variations of the tongue, the cheeks, the lips and the teeth create a vast array of sounds.

The human brain can clump sounds together that actually aren’t the same. For instance: Huge swaths of the population seem incapable of putting s, t and r back to back clearly. “Strong” becomes “shtrong,” thunderstorm “thundershtorm.” Yet we recognize the words despite mispronunciation. This also accounts for being able to talk to people with different accents.

Watching Julianna learn to talk has taught me how closely-related the various sounds really are. When he was little, Alex used to say “kyack” instead of “truck.” At first blush that sounds not even remotely similar, but say “truck” and pay attention to where your tongue hits. Now say “Kyack.” Both of them begin with an explosive consonant on the roof of the mouth, followed by pulling the tongue back for a vowel that sits in virtually the same place.

So it is with Julianna’s speech. One of the first phrases we identified was “wah bee-boh,” which literally translates “watch baby signing times,” but in reality means “movie, please.” Baby = beebee, shortened to bee. Signing and Times both have long I’s, but the shape required to produce a long I is not that far removed than that for a semi-long o.

The thoughts she’s trying to express are getting more sophisticated–she is, after all, six years old; imagine being six and not able to communicate in complete sentences. But as they get more sophisticated, they become harder to decode. Nicholas continues to boggle my mind by being able to understand things the first or second time he hears them. Maybe, being not far removed from that developmental stage where all sound combinations are a bit suspect, he’s got the brain plasticity to run through the myriad possible combinations and come up with the right one to fit the context. Or maybe this is an early indicator that he’s going to have a gift for languages. Who knows? In any case, I’m becoming more grateful for his gift every day, and although mostly I wanted to record this for my own memory, I thought other people might find it interesting as well.

And just for fun, here’s Julianna reading with Christian last night: