Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

Smart baby

Bill has had a fussy week.  Restless sleeping, kvetchy and needy when awake, and diminished appetite.  (Teething, it turns out.)  The Cap’n was working yesterday afternoon, so after taking a short nap with the baby, I gave him a snack (which he threw on the floor after one or two bites) and then (remembering last resorts of years past) brought him to the computer and put on Baby Mozart.

A graduate school friend gave us our first Baby Einstein video after Beans was born, the original with toys, nursery rhymes, and foreign languages.  Over the course of a few years, we acquired most of them, including the post-Disney-sellout ones.  The music, mechanical toys (which we never bought for the kids), and puppetry were acceptable viewing for our kids, though they never watched more than a couple per week.

Then in October, a friend emailed me with a link to a New York Times article detailing how Disney is recalling the Baby Einstein videos.  It seems many parents who bought them were actually hoodwinked into thinking the videos would make their children smarter and were disappointed and angry when their children’s IQs didn’t actually go up as a result of watching them.  Poor things.

We on the other hand, were under no such illusions.  We bought them strictly for sedation purposes, to shove into the DVD player when the kids were cranky, fighting, or driving us insane.  A nurse I met when Beans was new called Baby Mozart “the shower video,” since it would keep a newborn amused and quiet for about 20 minutes, the length of time a frazzled parent would need to take in the bathroom in order to emerge clean and sane (for at least another few hours).

The whole industry of “make your baby smarter” is a snake oil industry.  Nothing a kid can watch on the idiot box is going to make him or her smarter.  Young kids get smarter by doing things with their hands, exploring the world, touching, tasting, and making a mess.  They can’t do any of those things when they’re watching someone else do it on TV.  Just as research showed that kids’ aim (in throwing? shooting AK-47s? Couldn’t find a link—sorry) wasn’t found to be any better after playing video games, no kid is going to become smarter by watching other people play with toys.  (Perhaps the Baby Einstein people got smarter making the videos; they certainly got richer.)

My mother-in-law gave me a book last year edited by Harold Bloom entitled Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages.  At the time, I asked her if it was because she thought the kids needed it, or because she thought the kids were already smart and this book was up to their standards.  (With such a title, one cannot be sure.)  She assured me that it was very much the latter, though the title still bothers me.  It suggests that the stories and poems within, which are part and parcel of Western culture, are meant only for children who are extremely bright, as though children who are of average or below-average intelligence cannot benefit from them—or worse, that only through hearing these stories can children become extremely intelligent.  Neither possibility fails to insult me.  (I studied with a protégée of Harold Bloom’s in graduate school, and respect them both.  I certainly hope he had nothing to do with choosing such a pretentious title for the book.)

I may not have purchased our family’s copies of the Baby Einstein DVDs in the time frame specified to receive a full refund, but I’m not worried.  About halfway through the video, Bill squirmed until I put him down, then crawled off to play.  I guess he’s smart enough not to need them after all.

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Last week, Peach (our 6-year-old) was running around outside and getting warm in her Shabbat dress.  This particular dress has a sleeveless cotton knit bodice with a taffeta skirt, layered with a three-quarter-sleeved cardigan in matching fabric.  (Very perky.)  When Peach was too warm, she took off the cardigan and returned to play, only to have two of her playmates shriek “Eeeewwww!” at her.

The same thing happened to Beans last Shabbat.  (With one of the same “Eeeewwww”-ers who had shrieked at Peach.)

Now, my children are normally proportioned, nicely built, and not unpleasant to look at.  A flash of lower back from a shirt hiking up, or the sight of a pair of six-year-old upper arms should hardly floor one with shock and horror.  These are children, after all, and not adults with scars, hair, and bra straps dangling down shoulders.

So what’s with the dramatic reaction of my daughters’ playmates?  They go to different schools (one which has a reputation for being “frummer” than the other, though both very respectable schools) and are from different families (one of which is frum-from-birth, the other with a ba’al teshuvah and a convert for parents).  All I can guess is that the kids have been improperly informed about why modesty is a Jewish value.  They have either been told, or have concluded on their own, that the human body is ugly, disgusting, and should never see the light of day, and that’s why we cover it up.

They have clearly not yet been educated about the art world’s adoration of the human body, and the fact that married people, or people of the same sex, are allowed to disrobe in front of one another.  Women are allowed to sing and dance for an audience of women (in sleeveless leotards, yet), because these uses of the body—considered by rabbis to be immodest (don’t get me started here)—are not considered immodest before other women.

This is why I showed Peach a coffee table book I have of Renoir’s paintings, many of which are of women bathing (i.e. nude).  It’s why I told her about Michelangelo’s statue of David (and why Jews snicker, since Michelangelo painted him as a non-Jew, not having had a brit milah).  It’s why I told both my daughters that, rather than being covered because it’s ugly, the body is covered in Judaism because it’s beautiful, and we like to preserve that beauty for occasions when it’s considered appropriate to uncover it.

This is one of the things that bugs me—not only about Judaism, but about people in general.  I agree that modesty is a good thing, and I don’t enjoy the sight of people dressed in too-short skirts, in jeans torn at the seat, or with too much of their torso exposed.  (This goes for both men and women.)  But extremes at both ends often become unhealthily obsessed with their bodies: people who are hyper-focused on covering their bodies feel ashamed of them and lose sight of why they’re doing it, while people who expose too much of themselves focus too much attention on their bodies, dieting, removing hair, painting, tattooing, etc.  The former are often uncultured because they’re afraid of art; the latter walk around afraid not to look like art themselves.

I do wish these frum parents would teach their children that it’s out of respect for the human body—not disgust—that we cover it up.  (It wouldn’t hurt to add that their children are hardly the frum police, either, but that’s probably asking too much of children.)

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With three daughters, I’m keenly aware of the heavy marketing aimed at young girls by Disney and whatever products they slap the sluts princesses’ faces on.  (Dolls, nightgowns, notebooks, games, toothbrushes, even toothpaste for heavens sake!)

Those tarts princesses sell more merchandise than I can guess at.  But where, may I ask, are the Disney fathers?  Granted, they’re all probably pear-shaped, gouty, pock-marked, and shamefully weak.  But it’s just plain sexist to have the young nymphets get all the attention, especially when all they do is scrub floors, get yelled at and left out of parties, go to sleep for 100 years, get run off the castle grounds, or given away to the crone next door for a handful of salad greens.  What about all those fairy tale dads?

Well let’s see.  There’s Rapunzel’s dad who is so worried about her pregnant mom and her gestational food cravings that he barters away his unborn child to give his wife just one more salad.  While he has no right to make the executive decision to give up their child, he does acknowledge the rights of the living over those of the unborn.  (How very modern of him.)

And then there’s the miller, father to the nameless waif whose purported ability to spin straw into gold gets her into trouble in “Rumplestiltskin.”  Millers were notorious drunkards, and meeting the greedy young king on the road (whose personal philosophy seemed to be, “You can never be too rich or have too much gold”) is too much temptation for him.  Since he’s a souse and a loser, no doubt he believes he can give his daughter a better start in life if he recommends her in some way to the king.  The fact that humans had never managed to turn anything but gold into gold doesn’t matter.  Leave getting out of that mess to the girl.  She’s managed this far, and with a father like me.  Hiccup!

But most dads are just clueless.  Or spineless.  There are the fathers of Snow White and Cinderella.  Both marry gold-digging hags the second time around (“trophy wives,” perhaps?), and are too absorbed in their own affairs to pay much attention to what happens to their first wives’ daughters.  Child-rearing being women’s work and all, they retire to their counting-houses, or wherever neglectful fathers usually retire to in order to let their new wives work their wicked wills on their defenseless daughters.  The fact that Snow White’s father may well have partaken in a meal of liver and lungs believed by the queen to be Snow White’s doesn’t bode well for her being missed around the palace.  But hey—she gets taken in and duly enslaved by a pack of neglectful dwarves, so all’s well that ends well, right?

And Hänsel and Gretel’s father is even worse.  He marries a scheming cow just like the others, but instead of spending all his time in the potting shed, he’s lying in bed next to her as she plans the children’s deaths, and ends up agreeing to her plans!  Thankfully, of course, she dies of a black heart within the month, his children return home to him laden with gold and jewels (and only a few cavities to show for their harrowing experience), and all is forgiven.

No, I think we’re giving dads short shrift in the toy industry.  I think in addition to the $10 whores princesses, these fairy tale fathers should be merchandised too.  If they’re plump, trim ’em down.  If they’re pocked, smooth out their skin.  If they’re too old and gray, give them Botox and Grecian formula.  But put aside your bias toward sexpots females and add these men to the fairy tale toy pantheon.  Girls will love playing with them.  And burying them alive.  And burning them.  And throwing them down ravines.

It’s all good, clean fun.

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The Giving Tree

First of all, if you have not read this book, you can read the text here.

This book by Shel Silverstein is a favorite of many adults who remember it fondly as children and, I suppose, of people who are children now.

Not us.  The Cap’n and I have many things in common, and one is a SERIOUS uneasiness with this book.  Well, make that a strong dislike.  When we were discussing it the other day, we wondered if people are supposed to like it.  Are we supposed to view the tree as a metaphor for motherhood or fatherhood, whose sole purpose is to make a child happy, even to the extent of donating limbs for the purpose?  Is it a cry for help by an environmentalist who sees the boy as the representative of a rampantly consumerist society?  Or is it just a portrayal of a really unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship?

I have no answers to those questions, and at this point in my career, as parent rather than text-consuming child, those questions are irrelevant.  What I concern myself with now is what my kids think of those books.  I have no problem reading that kind of stuff to them, just as I don’t mind if they play with Barbies.  But I never read them a book or give them toys to play with that don’t involve a conversation of some sort.  If they play with Barbies, I discuss Barbie’s dimensions with them, her high-glam makeup and hair, and the difference between what Barbie looks like, and a resident of Planet Earth.

Similarly, if we still had a copy of The Giving Tree (which we don’t; we donated our English and Hebrew copies to a good cause some years back), I would ask my children what they think of the boy and the tree, what sort of relationship they had, and whether my kids think that is healthy.  I wouldn’t expect the same answer from them as I would give, since their relationship with me and the Cap’n is not dissimilar to that of the boy and the tree.  But we might discuss why the tree is happy when it’s fast disappearing, and why the boy keeps coming back to the tree instead of getting a job.  (I suppose if the tree had a basement, he’d still be living in it.)

What are the thoughts of discerning readers, parents, and consumers of children’s books out there?  Am I missing something?  What makes this such a great book in the eyes of some?  And what, if anything, freaks you out about it?

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I am always getting questions from my kids about what they did as babies and toddlers.  Their memory of what they did seems to kick in at around 3 or 4 years old, so for them what happened before is the stuff of legend and hearsay.

With this in mind, when Beans was born I not only kept an up-to-date photo album for her, I did as my mother did for me and purchased a baby book with places to record firsts, store locks of hair, and note details of the first couple of years.  But something my mother did for me in addition was to sit down at the typewriter on several occasions and type up notes about some of the things I was doing and saying in my first year or two.  Growing up, I relished taking that book off the shelf and looking at the copy of my birth announcement, my hospital anklet, and the onionskin sheets tucked into the pages of the book.

Beans, being the first child, got a small novel written about her (in the neighborhood of 50 pages or so).  Peach, as the second, has about 25 pages, Banana about 5, and I haven’t written a word about Bill yet.  (But I will.)  There is something satisfying about collecting all that information for the kids to read about themselves later, as though when I print them out and tuck them into their baby books, I am finishing a chapter I helped write about their lives.  This, plus the fact that no matter what happens to me, they’ll know they were early walkers, late teethers, and as sweet and hilariously funny as can be.

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I hate growth charts

The Cap’n took Bill for his regular well-child visit last week to Tipat Chalav, the children’s clinic where they do weight checks, observe the child’s development, and offer dietary advice.

Back in the US, I used to find these regular well-child visits to the pediatrician’s office pleasant.  Our children were usually healthy, thank God, and doing okay developmentally.  They have always been small (around the 25th percentile) though, and around the nine-month mark they all begin to dip down on the growth charts (usually down to the 3rd percentile). We would usually leave the office with words of praise and encouragement from our children’s pediatrician, who knew our children well and knew to expect these dips as one child after another passed through her office.

Why the dips?  The Crunch children are all breastfed long-term–Beans and Banana for over 2 years, Peach for 15 months, and Bill ongoing.  Growth charts are based on the growth patterns of children who, by and large, are formula-fed.  These children, in addition to lacking the Crunch family’s genetically small frames, tend to beef up faster than breastfed children.  And while healthcare professionals should understand the limited value of growth charts in evaluating breastfed children, they tend nonetheless to use the charts as a measure of where ALL children should be.  (Do they also register the same alarm at finding not all adults of exactly the same average height and weight?  I thought not.)

Nurses and doctors over the years have told us that it’s fine for our children to be small; they just get concerned when the kids dip down in their trajectory, suggesting that their growth has slowed.  And yet there is nothing to suggest that there is anything wrong with our kids.  They aren’t sick.  They haven’t stopped growing.  They’ve just stopped blowing up at the astonishing rate they once did.  And are they not still getting what the public health world claims is Nature’s Perfect Food?  If it REALLY is Nature’s Perfect Food, aren’t the kids getting what they need in the way of sufficient fluids, fats, and balanced nutrition?  Or did Hashem cock this one up, and it’s up to humans (and Better Life Through Chemistry) to fill in the gaps with things like formula, vitamin and iron supplements, and appetite stimulants?

Like a number of mothers I know, I have dropped out of taking my kids to Tipat Chalav.  I am still supportive of immunizations, and there is nowhere else to get them.  But I am truly sick of being badgered every time I have a 9-month-old about how my healthy, typically developing child isn’t measuring up to an arbitrary instrument based on statistics from Norwegian immigrants in Kansas City.  (This last observation is from a friend who trained as a pediatrician.)  So for the foreseeable future, it’s up to the Cap’n (who has smiling, nodding, and totally ignoring nagging females down to a fine art) to take the kids.

N.B. We were warned soon after making aliyah to take what Tipat Chalav nurses say with a very large grain of salt.  Our family doctor in Beit Shemesh went to so far as to encourage us to contact her anytime Tipat Chalav said anything that alarmed or concerned us.  We don’t panic when they harass us about putting Bill on his tummy more, or about giving him more solids and less breastmilk.  But it’s still hard for a mother not to get teary or ticked off at a stranger making free to be so bossy and judgmental.

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I exchanged pleasantries with a friend on Shabbat.  He told me that he and his wife were to spend that evening with a friend who had recently returned from a trip to Poland.  Since most Jews don’t visit Poland just to sample the borsht and visit the church where Chopin’s heart rests (his body lies in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris), I asked if their friend had made a Tragical History Tour, a well-beaten path of ghetto remains, cemeteries, and crematoria.  He had.

This leads me to consider one of the knottier issues of bringing up children in Israel.

We are a tiny country.  We can’t visit our neighboring countries on vacation.  It’s difficult enough to travel to friendly countries, given the issues of kashrut and Shabbat.  Our kids traverse nearly every square meter of this country on foot through family and school trips to the North, the Negev, and everything in between.  But when they leave the country, it’s usually to see grandparents and relatives in whatever quiet part of the world we come from, and by the time they graduate from high school, they’ve only seen the outside world maybe half a dozen times (if their families don’t have the means to spend every summer on Long Island).

During a typical senior year (at least in the religious schools in Israel; I’m less aware of what happens in secular schools), kids are offered the chance to participate in school-sponsored trips to Poland.  The itinerary of these trips generally covers Warsaw (ghetto remnants, Mila 18, the main shul and cemetery), Lublin (including the old yeshiva and Majdanek), and Krakow (again, ghetto remnants, Ram”a shul, main shul, and Aushwitz-Birkenau).  Side trips can include Wiszkow (where a large monument was erected to the destroyed community and includes a cemetery with a special walk allowing Kohanim to perambulate around the edges), Treblinka, and any of a number of tiny villages with memorials or vestiges of Jewish life (e.g. Ger, Sandomiersz, Gura Kalwarya, Kielce).  When the Cap’n and I joined a group from the program we’d done here in Israel, we found ourselves meeting up with the same girls’ school group every day or two as we all trudged our way through this dolorous chapter in Jewish history.

Parents in Israel are faced with a difficult decision as this trip looms.  Do we send our kids on it, and let them see with their own eyes the hatred that the rest of the world feels for Jews, and the outer limits of the violence the world has been capable of visiting on the Jews?  Do we allow our kids to confront the shock, horror, and raw emotion that such sights cause?  Do we send our kids, who are still so young and immature, on a trip to visit Death rather than take them skiing at a nice kosher resort in the Swiss Alps?

Or do we decide to send them, preparing them in advance by discussing anti-Semitism and other events in Jewish history that were motivated by similar hatred (though not on the industrial scale of the Shoah)?  We were once at the house of some friends, enjoying a Yom HaAtzma’ut barbeque, when the subject of the ma’apilim (illegal immigrants to British Mandatory Palestine, most of them refugees from the ovens of Europe) came up.  One of our hosts’ daughters asked, “But didn’t the world care about the Jews?  Didn’t they want to see them settled safely?”  Through Herculean effort, I didn’t gasp and splutter at her naiveté.  Clearly she hadn’t yet been on her school’s Tragical History Tour.

When the time comes, the Cap’n and I are agreed that our children should go.  It’s a fact that seeing those sights gives kids (and adults, as we discovered) a feeling of overwhelming anger—so much anger sometimes that we have no place to put it all.  But in time, the anger becomes more focused and gives us purpose.  The Cap’n said that especially since most Israeli kids go into the army when they get back, it is essential for them to know what they’re fighting against.

The world has changed so little.  A French diplomat can call Israel a “shitty little country” and know that he will not be reprimanded, nor even disagreed with.  A Swedish newspaper can print a blood libel against Israel and the world will not cry “foul.”  The president of Iran can turn up annually at the UN and make speeches calling for the murder of six MORE million Jews (i.e. the destruction of the entire Jewish State), and end his speech with people still in the room.  Violence and vandalism against Jews and Jewish property increase steadily around the world.

Hatred of Jews may never result in anything that looks just like the Shoah again, but it’s clear that that hatred hasn’t disappeared, nor the will to act on it lost.  If our children want to live as Jews in the world (and especially in Israel), they need to understand this.

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Missing out

Yesterday, while enjoying a very pleasant Shabbat lunch with neighbors, the subject of becoming religious, conversion, and intermarriage came up.  My neighbor told me about a family she knew where a grown child married someone very religious, came to live in Israel, and hasn’t seen her parents since.  But not because she herself is too frum for her parents; it’s because her parents are still too resentful, decades after her marriage, to see her again.  As a result, they didn’t attend her wedding and have never been to Israel or met their grandchildren.  I remember hearing about the bad ol’ days when Jewish families would sit shiva for children who married non-Jews, but to carry on as though their daughter is dead because she’s TOO JEWISH?  How messed up is that?

My neighbor then made a similarly astute observation about children who grow up and intermarry, and it got me thinking.  I don’t advocate or encourage intermarriage; it is accompanied by complications and frequent lapses in communication between marriage partners, and often results in identity-confused children.  But I also do not believe intermarried children should be shunned by their families.  Many years ago, the Cap’n and I attended a reunion of our respective (affiliated) yeshivot, during which the rabbis held an open question-and-answer session on any topic the attendees chose to discuss.  One young man stood up and said that his brother was planning to marry a non-Jewish woman, and what should he do?  The head of the yeshiva immediately seized on the question and told the young man that he should cut off his brother immediately: not speak to him, not attend his wedding, not engage in any further communication.  I began to prickle with sweat, and could feel myself reddening with rage.  After a moment, though, the yeshiva head changed tack, and said, “Well, maybe you should still keep up contact.  After all, she might convert some day.”

At the time I couldn’t focus on anything more than what I perceived as the bigotry and hypocrisy of this rabbi.  His first recommendation was straight out of a Polish shtetl.  His second was only slightly better.  The fact is, this yeshiva’s programs were designed for ba’alei teshuvah who, by definition, grew up with weak Jewish backgrounds.  Did no one stop to think that perhaps the young man’s brother had had as weak a Jewish upbringing as he himself had?  And that his brother may have been part of that large percentage of Jews with weak backgrounds who don’t see the point of marrying Jewish, and that what was done was done?  Do those from weak Jewish backgrounds who “get religion” have the right to act like sanctimonious asses to their siblings?

But there is a third, very remote, possibility no one brought up in that conversation.  That is, think about the good that can come of 1) living as a Jew should, i.e. treating others with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness, and 2) letting the non-Jewish spouse AND CHILDREN see that.  My father’s Jewish family wasn’t pleased when he chose to marry my non-Jewish mother, but because they accepted that this was reality, they were warm, loving, and attentive to my mother and us children the whole time I was growing up.  (Much more so than my mother’s family, as it happened.)  That feeling of belonging with my Jewish family was one of several factors that I believe contributed to my decision to choose Judaism for myself when I grew up.

Intermarriage, while not ideal, is not necessarily a permanent state with inevitable consequences.  I occasionally hear of non-Jewish spouses who, after decades of marriage to a Jew, finally decide to convert.  It is no less possible for the halachically non-Jewish children (or even grandchildren) of those marriages to convert.  The statistics are not high for this, but it should be obvious that the more included those parents and children are in their extended Jewish family, the more likely they are to see themselves as belonging to the Jewish people, and the more natural it would be for them, if they desire the stamp of halachah on their Jewish identity, to convert.

Everyone’s life is “their turn.”  Our parents had their turn to choose how they would identify themselves, whom they would marry, how they would run their household, how many children they would have, and how they would chart their upbringing.  We have our turn, and our children will have theirs.  None of us has the right to judge the previous generation for their choices, and they do not have the right to impose on us for ours.  While we can influence the next generation through education and modeling of our own choices, the decision to be religious (a la us), haredi, secular, or intermarry is theirs to make.

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These last few weeks have been packed and difficult.  Returning from the U.S., unpacking, finding things missing, the start of cold season, school starting, parent meetings, signing the kids up for activities, helping friends settle in Efrat, the high holidays coming and, in the last week or two, several upsetting illnesses and deaths.

The latest is the death of an acquaintance’s three-month old baby.  The baby was ill from the time of his birth, and spent his early weeks (possibly his entire life) in the hospital.  The community through which I know the father is a supportive one, and groups of its members were carpooling to Tel Aviv to donate blood (or blood products) to help the baby survive.  This week I learned that the struggle is over, and the young couple is now sitting shiva for their first child.

I know there was a time when infant mortality was high, and such incidents were not unusual.  But I don’t think for a minute that that made them any easier.  The hope that parents pour into each and every pregnancy and new baby, the expectation of seeing that baby grow to adulthood, and the love that it is impossible not to lavish on them (not to mention the hormones hard-wired in a mother that make her a little cuckoo when it comes to her children) cannot be helped.

So as I paced my room last night at 1 AM with a tired but stuffy-nosed Bill (who complained any time I tried to lie down with him), exhausted and ready to collapse, feeling the beginnings of a headache and wondering when I was ever going to get to sleep (not at all, as it turned out), I knew exactly how lucky I was.

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Cleaning lessons

Hashem has blessed the Cap’n and me with four adorable, delightful children.  But as most parents know, kids don’t come with a “cleaning chip” installed in their brains.

So one of the great challenges of my life in recent years has been to find the right combination of teaching, reminding, reprimanding, and doling out of unpleasant consequences (you know, punishment) for failure to pick up one’s own possessions and put them away.

I have some compassion for the Crunch girls, because they don’t have large amounts of their own space in which to dump their clutter.  The three of them share a room, and since Israeli closets rarely include those most excellent junk depositories known as “drawers,” they are forced to tuck them between socks and pajamas, or dump them next to their beds.  On a trip to IKEA last year, I picked up a set of six drawers to allow the girls to store personal items, giving them two drawers each.  But for pack-rats, that’s just not enough.  (Of course, I have the same system for their father in the form of his old foot locker, in which to store memorabilia from years past.  Once the locker is full, he has to part with things to make room for more.)

I devised weekly charts for each child with a grid reflecting the chores I expect each child to do (tailored to the child based on age) and a space to put a small sticker when the chore is done.  One of these chores is picking up one’s things, and keeping their room and playroom tidy.  A small amount of mess is permitted in the playroom, since they will occasionally come back to a game.  But the bedroom has to be kept tidy because it’s a much smaller shared space and tidiness is a form of consideration, something the Cap’n and I think is important to teach, especially in the context of family life.

I had hoped that the presence of this chore on the chart would serve as a motivator for them.  (The more stickers they have at the end of a week, the greater a percentage of their total possible allowance they receive.  A pitiful week gets them a half-allowance disbursement; a good week, with about 80% of their stickers, gets them their full allowance.)  Alas, it has not proved to be so.  My children are not all good readers (at least in English) so either reviewing the contents of the chart for them would be in order.  I could also put it in Hebrew, which the eldest two read well.

But even were I to do those things, my expectations of their tidiness performance are limited.  This is why I reached back into my employment past to the year I worked with kids in residential treatment and some of the practices we employed there.  I worked in a “cottage” in what was officially a mental health facility with girls ages 8-14.  With a dozen or so girls in the cottage, neatness was understandably an issue.  The children’s daily routines allowed for regular tidying times, but for items left unclaimed at the conclusion of such times, there was “confo box.”  This was a cardboard box in which stray clothing items, toys, books, or other tchotchkes were put to be redeemed (for a small ransom) at the end of the week.  In the past week I have adopted a cardboard box for the Crunch family’s confo box.  Roller blading pads and wrist guards left out in the garden for the birds to poop on were rescued and put in the box.  A bag of crafting supplies that Beans was instructed on numerous occasions to put away were added.  And I’m not above putting errant pairs of shoes or discarded dirty socks in there.  All items are redeemed on a mandatory basis for a small fee (half-shekel for large items like the pads, 10 agurot for smaller items).  The fee goes directly in the tzedaka box.

When I was looking for graduate programs in psychology almost half a lifetime ago, I met with a professor at the University of Washington.  She told me her area of interest was motivation.  I nearly laughed out loud.  “M&M-ing!” I thought, remembering Psych 101.  How could someone possibly spend all her professional time and energy doing that?

But as every parent knows, getting kids to do their homework, eat their vegetables, and clean their rooms is ALL about motivation.

Now I know.

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Years ago, when I was pregnant with Beans, my first, the Cap’n and I were up late watching television.  There was an episode of “E.R.” on where one of the plot lines involved a kid brought to the hospital after collapsing on a school trip.  It turns out the kid had measles, and ended up dying in the emergency room.  Further inquiry into the case turned up the fact that the child’s parents had opted not to vaccinate him.

How he managed to get through school (especially public school in America) without being current in his vaccinations escapes me.  But the real point was the fact that despite widespread immunization programs in the U.S., diseases like measles have not yet been eradicated.  I remember as a child an outbreak of measles in our area, and my parents taking us on a Saturday to a school gym many miles from where we lived in order to get my sister vaccinated.

This made a conversation I had recently with another mom about our children all the more interesting.  She’s a new immigrant to Israel, and I was telling her about our experiences with Tipat Chalav (the well-child clinic) and Nurse Evil who works there (sister to Dr. Evil, I’m convinced).  She smiled at my stories, and said, “Well, I won’t be taking my children there.”  “You won’t?” I asked.  “No,” she answered.  “I don’t vaccinate them.”

The way she said that last sentence was with the same casual assurance as one might use to say, “I don’t spank my children” or “We don’t eat non-kosher food in our house.”

This fascinates me for a number of reasons.  Most of my home-schooling friends here and in the States don’t vaccinate their children either.  (This mom’s kids go to regular schools here in Israel.)  I suspect their reasons include the fact that their children aren’t in regular contact with children they don’t know, they believe that these diseases are essentially eradicated, they don’t need to vaccinate since everyone else does, and some developmental difficulties have been correlated with (note I don’t say “caused by”) administration of some vaccines.  There may be other reasons as well, but these are the ones I can guess at or have heard.

The Cap’n and I have chosen to vaccinate our children against all the typical diseases (measles, mumps, rubella, polio, whooping cough, hepatitis A and B, and the rest) except chicken pox, which we will do as late as possible.  (Despite the vaccine being given for a couple of decades, no one seems to know how long it’s good for, and when a booster might be required.  Since the result of a woman coming in contact with chicken pox while pregnant is usually quite bad, and because we have three daughters, we will have them get the vaccine as late as possible in the hope that it will carry them through their child-bearing years at least.)  We believe that despite what some people may think, these diseases still exist on the planet, and while the chance of catching them has been drastically reduced, the morbidity and misery associated with them is not worth taking the risk.  Our children are healthy, thank God, and we have observed no ill effects from giving our children the vaccines against them.

What I do find interesting is that in the population I know that doesn’t vaccinate, all the same sorts of anomalies in children exist as in the vaccinated population—developmental delays, ADD, personality disorders, learning disabilities, and sensory integration difficulties.  In other words, their children appear comparable (not superior) to vaccinated children in mental and physical health, intelligence, and every other category.

In the end, it’s up to the parents to decide whether the risks (as yet unproven, to my knowledge) of vaccinating outweigh the risks of a child getting ill, and act accordingly.

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Last night, I went to a talk given by a speech pathologist on the topic of bilingualism.

This was the second such talk I’ve attended since the Crunch family made aliyah in 2006.  The first talk I heard was in Modi’in, given by a speech pathologist who specializes in bilingualism.  In the first talk, given by Margaret from Ra’anana (in Israel for over 20 years), the Cap’n and I learned that parents with mother-tongue English should speak only English to their children.  They should read books, watch videos, play games and do Internet research on subjects of interest, all in English.  They should spend several hours each afternoon actively expanding their children’s vocabulary, and using the most sophisticated diction and grammar to ensure that the children grow up with mother-tongue English as well.  By no means should Hebrew words be sprinkled throughout their English speech; for every Hebrew word, Margaret contended, there is an English equivalent which should be used.  Hasa’ah should be “bus,” petek should be “note,” and chug should be “class.”  The children will learn Hebrew in school, and for children having trouble learning Hebrew, Israeli children or teens can be invited (or paid to come) to the house to play in Hebrew.  Bottom line: English speakers should speak English, and Hebrew speakers should speak Hebrew.

Last night’s talk was given by Esther, whose family came to Israel 17 years ago.  She had a much more integrative approach.  She pointed out that the message sent by a family with only English books, newspapers, videos, and conversation in the house is that the members of that household are not part of the greater Hebrew-speaking society.  When Jews emigrated to America from Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Rumania, what they all had in common that unified them was Yiddish.  What unifies us as Jews and Israelis here in Israel is Hebrew.  Therefore, according to Esther, the main priority here in Israel is to make sure the children learn Hebrew.  She made a distinction between the official definition of bilingualism (i.e. equal proficiency in two languages) and functional bilingualism, which is the ability to function (i.e. read a newspaper, textbook, technical manual, or books for pleasure, do Internet research, and converse) in two languages.  To encourage this, Esther urged parents to read to their children in Hebrew (starting with the kinds of books to be found in preschool and kindergarten libraries), to discuss the books in Hebrew (if possible), and watch videos (including dubbed American films) in Hebrew.  She believes there is no harm in sprinkling one’s English vocabulary with common Hebrew words (like gan for “kindergarten,” tiyul for “field trip,” and aruchah for “snack” or “lunch”).  She discouraged parents from trying to make their children speak one language or another in the home, saying that communication free from power struggle is the most important thing to establish between parents and children, and if the parent speaks English to a child and the child answers back in Hebrew, that should be acceptable.  For kids who are speaking English with thick Hebrew accents (it happens even in homes where mother-tongue parents are teaching their children Hebrew), a parent can get on the extension when the kid talks to his grandparents in Boca and translate the Hebrew words or conversation.  Here was an example she gave:

Kid: Shalom, Savta.  Asinu tiyul maksim hayom.
Parent: Hi, Grandma.  We went on a great field trip today.
Kid: Nasanu b’otobus lagan hachayot.
Parent:  We went on a bus to the zoo.
Kid: U’kshe chazarnu, haya m’od amus b’machsom.
Parent: We stopped at a Dairy Queen on the way home. (Real translation: When we came back, it was really crowded at the checkpoint.)
Kid: Shamanu b’radio shehaya pigua.
Parent: Everyone had a great time.  (Real translation: We heard on the radio there had been a terror attack.)  Okay, honey, it’s time to get off the phone and let Mommy talk for a while.

There was plenty of food for thought last night, not least because Esther and Margaret have such different approaches.  How do the Cap’n and I manage?  We hover somewhere between Margaret’s strict and Esther’s more easy-going approaches.  We tend to use some Hebrew words in our speech, but I at least try to alternate between using the Hebrew and giving English equivalents.  We model sophisticated language and grammar, and the Crunch girls, God love them, are receptive to correction.  We have a growing Hebrew library (picture books, poetry, Harry Potter) and the kids alternate between watching programs in Hebrew and English, seemingly equally comfortable with both.

Who out there deals with bilingualism, and how do you handle it?

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Cat fight

My alma mater’s alumnae magazine recently did a cover piece on stay-at-home mothering.  This was a big deal in a magazine that usually pays scant attention to parenting at all, preferring instead to celebrate women in high-powered careers and community service in exotic places, as well as its own expanding science programs.  Over the years, I have drifted away from many of the warm feelings I once held for the college, feeling alienated from their mostly liberal views, anti-Israel attitudes, and apparent lack of interest in women like the one I turned out to be.  Yet I was pleased to see a bone of validation thrown at the thousands of women like me who choose to be home to care for their families, postponing or foregoing ambitious careers.

What did not cheer me was to see some of the responses by alumnae to the article printed in the most recent issue.  While some women appreciated the college’s acknowledgement of their choice to stay home, some working women bristled at the suggestion that staying home is beneficial to their families.  In one woman’s case, she had a child with an illness that limited the child’s life expectancy to five years, and returning to work was a way of ensuring that she had some occupation to keep from drowning in her grief should she indeed lose her child.  (Baruch hashem, her child lived.)  But other women who responded took exception to a single passage in the original piece where an alumna claimed that she was doing a better job as a mother than a working friend because she was spending more time with her children.  One angry working woman complained that it was the 1970s all over again, when women who returned to work after having children were “dumped on” by greater society.  Another woman wrote, “How about the stay-at-home mother who spends 24 hours a day at home with her children because she’s drunk and passed out on the couch?  Or the mother who stays home and abuses drugs as her children look on?”

I’ve blogged about being a stay-at-home mom.  And some of my decision to do so was made after talking to other working women who rued that their children’s best hours of the day were spent with other people and that by the time they got home, the children were hungry, tired, and cranky.  Perhaps it’s gratifying to be the one to see to their children’s needs at the end of the day, and if so, that’s a form of good mothering.  I’ve never been a working mom, so I don’t really know what it’s like.  I know some women return to work to keep their jobs and maintain the professional stature they’ve worked years to establish.  I know some women who return to work because while they want and love their children, they don’t think they could handle the amount of together-time that comes with staying home and meeting their children’s every need.

My mom stayed home with my siblings and me.  She and my dad did the math and figured out they could make a better income if she left nursing and stayed home with us, while my dad worked weekends in addition to his work week.  (That also says something about the relative incomes of doctors and nurses.)  I saw very little of my dad in those years, but everything comes at a price.  My mom loved what she did, and we loved having her at home.  It worked for us.  The Cap’n’s mother returned to work after each of her children were born.  She didn’t relish staying at home and letting her professional skills become outdated, and with the Crunch Srs.’s dual income, quality childcare was within reach.  Both the Cap’n and I concur in retrospect with our parents’ choices.

Feminists are often accused of being humorless.  I usually stick up for them (a humorless job in itself), but I was at a loss when I read these letters to come up with any excuse for the rancorous tone.  Is it so hard to live with the knowledge that some people make different choices?  And do other people’s choices automatically represent a reproach to your choice?  Is everything really all about you?  (It reminded me of the responses the Cap’n and I got from liberal and secular Jews when we embraced Orthodoxy: “I don’t keep kosher or Shabbat, and I’m just as good a Jew as you!”)  I was disgusted to see what was a simple acknowledgement of full-time motherhood turn into a cat fight.  Every decision on the part of parents to balance work, income, and children is a complicated one and depends on factors that differ from one family to another.  The at-home mom who thinks she is doing a better job than her working-mom friend is entitled to her opinion.  (Who knows?  It’s possible in her case that she was right.)  There was no need for working moms to come out in force and either make excuses for their decision to work or bash at-home moms in retaliation for whatever slight they decided had been made to them.  The defensive tone and obvious rage in some of the letters suggested that some serious baggage was attached to the working mothers’ responses: residual anger at society’s former attitudes toward them, a belief that staying at home is an unattractively conservative position to take and an affront to feminism, or just plain guilt.  I don’t know what these women were feeling, other than pissed off.  But it was reflected in some pretty vitriolic prose most unbecoming to civil discourse.

I seem always to be having to define feminism for people who should already know what it is.  Ladies, it’s about having the opportunity to make your own choices.  That’s what we didn’t have for thousands of years, and it’s what the women’s movement got us.  That means you can choose to become Secretary of State (as two of our fellow alumnae have in the last few years) or you can choose to wear make-up, high heels, and a frilly apron and bake cookies for your freckle-faced suburban schoolchildren.  You can be a kindergarten teacher or a pile driver.  You can get married or not.  You can have children or not.  You can get Botoxed or not.

So retract your claws, please, pour yourself a stiff drink (but don’t let your children see you, or you’ll be labeled a bad mother!) and relax.

Or not.

It’s up to you.

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The other night when getting ready for bed, 5-year-old Peach started to take off her turtleneck, but left the neck stretched around her crown, the shirt dangling inside-out down her back.  “Ima,” she said to me, “you have a Bat Par’o” (Pharaoh’s daughter).  I chuckled along with her, and we proceeded with her bedtime routines.

When she climbed into bed, however, I asked if she wanted to take off the shirt.  “No,” she answered.  I asked why not.  “Because I want to be tznu’ah,” she answered, looking at me a little reproachfully.

I’ve been dreading this sort of confrontation for a while now.  How do I explain to a 5-year-old kid that it is possible to be modest without covering one’s hair?  And that hair-covering is not the only measure of modesty?

It is true, I don’t cover my hair. I did for a few years after my wedding, then stopped.  It wasn’t the community standard where I lived, and after Beans was born, I was less interested in broadcasting my status as a married Jewish woman.  I had become much more comfortable with who I was as a convert, a Newtonian, a wife and mother, a modern person, and just me.  Covering my hair no longer felt comfortable with how I saw myself.

When we made aliyah, however, I knew that hair-covering was a community standard and while I still planned to wear trousers occasionally, I decided to start covering my hair again while I assessed the lay of the land in Israel.  We moved into a community that was modern, but not as modern as Newton.  While most women cover their hair in that community, I was noticing that a good number of the women who became my friends, to whom I related particularly easily, were non-hair-coverers.  Despite hair-covering being so prevalent, I began to feel uncomfortable again, and after six months stopped covering my hair for good.

Before making aliyah, I did some research on hair covering.  I had studied the sota story in the Torah, the basis (so I’ve been told) for the practice of women covering their hair, but I wanted to know more.  A fellow congregant directed me toward the book Hide and Seek: Jewish Women and Hair Covering by Lynne Schreiber, a collection of stories by women about their own experience of hair-covering (or not).  As I read the book, I took careful note of why women were covering their hair.  The answers ranged from the dubious to the preposterous:
1) because it’s halachic (perhaps, though I’m not entirely convinced);
2) so people know I’m married (I have a ring that says that);
3) because I want to save it as something special only for my husband to see (I think we all have more special things set aside for our husbands than that);
4) because I don’t want men to have indecent thoughts about me from seeing my hair (then why is your sheitl so much prettier than your actual hair?);
5) because Hashem wants me to (nowhere does it say that in the Tanakh).
Upon finishing the book, I was convinced that covering my hair was not the right thing for me to do.

Certain things I have agreed to do in Judaism “because Hashem says so.”  I keep kosher, not because it had any health ramifications in the ancient world (it didn’t), but because the Torah says to, because it is meaningful, and because it’s a basic community standard to be met in the world I inhabit.  It’s challenging, especially when one lives in the Diaspora, but it is a challenge I’m up to, that I think is worthwhile.  I go to the mikvah too, not because I need to make sure I get a bath in once a month (though sometimes that can be a challenge with a newborn around), but because it is a Torah imperative.  But I’m not willing to cover my hair because it means nothing to me, it doesn’t do what women think it does, and while it’s supposedly based on a very circumstantial story in the Torah, I suspect the real reason is that for hundreds of years women in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East covered their hair because that was a cultural norm, and while women in many of those regions no longer cover their hair in the modern era, Judaism has chosen to make continued hair covering a halachic imperative.  (And it would not be the first popular custom to be made halachic in that way.)

So Peach is right when she says accusingly, “You hardly ever cover your hair.”  But it’s also true that I am a modest person.  Modesty is not just how one looks; it’s how one behaves.  I don’t flirt with men, do things to call attention to myself, or wear alluring (i.e. trendy) clothing.  I am shomeret nigiah, and while I sometimes bristle at the lengths some religious Jews go to avoid the sexes being in the same vicinity (on buses or in lectures), I don’t make a scene.

I guess my challenge with my daughters will be to show them that hair-covering is not a deal-breaker in the realm of modesty.  In Israel, where people are quick on the draw with labels (realtors often ask women how they cover their hair when deciding which neighborhoods to show them), this won’t be easy.  Wish me luck—I’m going to need it.

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What we REALLY need for baby

Around the time I gave birth to Beans (our first child), we began receiving a magazine in the mail called Parents.  We were in such a daze, so utterly sleep-deprived, blue (I was, anyway), and psychotic, that we actually thought this was a serious magazine.  But after a couple of months, it became clear to us that the articles were much more about products parents should buy than about mapping the choppy waters of first-time parenting.  (Parenting, it should be noted, is the name of another magazine, and one longer on substance than on product-pushing.)

We have come to the conclusion that first-time parents in America must be one of the most sought-after market shares in the commercial world.  They’re ignorant, vulnerable, stressed out, and looking for help wherever they can.  (At least we were.)  In short, First-time Parents = Suckers.

Seven years and three kids later, the Cap’n and I consider ourselves a little older and a little wiser.  In that time, we’ve moved twice, given away most of our baby things, and now only have a handful of odds and ends with which to furnish Bill’s babyhood.

We don’t miss all that stuff, and looking back now, realize how little of it we ever needed in the first place.  Here is a catalog of the stuff we had then, followed by what we actually think we need now:

Had then:
Carseat. Gotta have one of these.  It should meet minimum standards of safety, and that’s it.  Fancy brand names, upholstery, or other whistles-and-bells don’t matter.  For the forward-facing kind, we can probably get one without the cup-holders next time.
Crib. Tried to get the kids to sleep in it, with no luck.  There was no substitute for that warm piece of mattress next to Ima.  Besides, Dave Barry accurately states that cribs are for crying and going to the bathroom (and vomiting).  The car is where baby sleeps.
Bassinet. Borrowed one of these and returned it a few months later, practically unused.  Beans outgrew it before we could ever get her to sleep in it.
Baby-carriers. I wore our newborns in a sling, which made them feel squeezed together in the dark—a familiar feeling to a newborn.  But the Cap’n never got the knack and preferred the Baby Björn.  Once baby could hold her head up by herself and face out, she usually preferred it too.  From the time baby could sit up by herself, the backpack was the preferred mode of transportation for baby, with a sun/rain cover (very important in Massachusetts) and under-seat storage for diapers and wipes.
Stroller. Anyone with back problems is going to want one of these.  Ours was a fancy Italian one with pram option and a warm snap-on boot for winter.  As luxurious as it was supposed to be, it snagged on every blade of grass or crack in the sidewalk.  Something a little simpler and sturdier would have been better.
Play mat. This is a mat with arches over it from which to hang toys.  For a first child, or a second child whose elder sibling is not a good entertainer, this can keep baby occupied for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour (if baby manages to fall asleep playing).  It’s not necessary for Bill, who has three elder sisters to coo and dangle toys in his face.
Bouncy-seat. This was a good investment for us and was used by all three girls.  It was a metal frame with cloth covering holding a baby in a reclining position. It came with a toy bar and a vibrating feature to lull a fussy baby.  It took Beans and the others a while to get used to it, but it was usually good to plunk them into while we did dishes or a load of laundry.
Nursing pillow. This is a back-saver for the nursing mom (and probably of use to bottle-feeding parents too).  The more popular nursing pillow in my early nursing days was the C-shaped polyester-stuffed kind, but mine has loose filling which can be shaken to fill one end or the other of the pillow, elevating baby’s head on the side on which he’s nursing.
Changing table. I got one of these for free from another family in the States.  At the time I liked the formality of a place to change baby where baby was just the right height and I had storage space reserved for diapers, wipes, etc.  But we passed it on when we moved to Israel and wouldn’t have had room for it anyway, since there is barely enough room in a typical apartment here for closets (which are not built in as separate “rooms” as they are in the States, and therefore take up entire walls) and necessary furniture.
Baby bath tub. The kind that fasten onto the kitchen counter top with suction cups.  We used this once.  I found it more efficient to sponge bathe baby on the changing table until she was old enough to sit up in the bathtub.  This thing took up space and worse yet, it’s one of those things one really can’t pass on in the hygienically sensitive Western world.
Portable crib. As infants, the kids never had any interest in cribs, but when they were toddlers, the portable crib took on a whole new cache, and each in turn enjoyed sleeping in one either when we were on the road or when we had house guests and the child would give up her bed for someone else.
High chair. The Cap’n and I invested in what my parents called the Cadillac of high chairs when Beans was a baby.  It adjusts height-wise, tilts back for when baby falls asleep at the table (a breach of manners which happened with shocking frequency), and collapses to fit in a narrow space, out of the way.  But it also takes up about a square yard of floor space, is easily tripped over, and needs to be almost completely disassembled to be cleaned well.  If we had it to do over again, we would have bought a much simpler model, easier to clean.  Or even just a booster seat.
Baby swing. We borrowed one of these with a hand-crank for use on Shabbat.  It was great for a few minutes of entertainment, and sometimes for getting a fussy Beans to sleep, but when we returned it after she was done, we never borrowed it again for the other girls.  It took up too much space in our small condo, and we didn’t really miss it.
Booster seat. This is a great invention.  We got the kind that comes completely apart, straps and all, and when I want to clean it well, I disassemble it and throw the pieces in a warm, soapy bathtub for a good soak.  They come completely clean, reassemble in minutes, and it’s also extremely portable.  The tray isn’t as big as that of the high chair for playing with toys or crayons and paper, but it’s very serviceable nonetheless.
Diaper disposal system. We had one that took any garbage bag that fit.

Need now:
Carseat. This time around, we bought a rear-facing infant seat/carrier that clips into a stroller.  I’m not sure when we’ll use them together, but they were good-quality, second-hand and cheap.
Nursing pillow. I still have my faded-but-trusty one.
Baby rocking seat. Our old bouncy seat is long gone, but the Cap’n insisted we get something similar for Bill.  There are a couple of chain stores in Israel for baby things, one of which is called Doctor Baby.  The two baby chairs we had to choose from were the typical rectangular-shaped seat that reclines (separate adjustments for back and feet), or an oval-shaped seat that was displayed with the back upright and the footrest lowered, looking eerily similar to Dr. Evil’s chair in the Austin Powers movies.  We chose the rectangular chair, but the Cap’n has still dubbed it the Dr. (Evil) Baby seat.
Booster seat. We hung on to this and are glad we did.  A friend who had twins fed the babies in booster seats on the kitchen floor rather than investing in two high chairs.  Easy clean-up, easy on the budget.  (We still have the fancy high chair, too–not because we need it, but because it was so expensive.  I’ll eventually bring myself around to getting rid of it.)
Stroller. This is more so the Crunch girls can take Bill for walks and give me some relief.  The Cap’n and I wear Bill in the Björn when we take him anywhere, but the stroller will also be nice to have when he’s too heavy for the Björn.
Portable crib. This remains in storage for the time being (see my post on co-sleeping), but at some point perhaps I may transition him into it, then into the kids’ room to sleep.

For us, that was 15 items reduced to six.  (Clothing and diapers are non-negotiable, though the Cap’n likes to hold our newborns over the toilet several times a day.  He thinks it gets them used to the idea of using the toilet and saves the occasional diaper.  Infant potty training is big with him.)

There is very little that parents need to invest in, and some things on the market can be improvised with common household items.  We’ve created a bassinet by folding a blanket and putting it in the bottom of a rectangular laundry basket.  We’ve replaced the baby bath tub with a plastic laundry tub.  We’ve placed diaper changing kits on two of our four floors, containing diapers, wipes, and changing pads.  (Changing can take place on a bed, couch, or floor.)  Diapers can be thrown in a covered garbage bin which should be emptied frequently.  (Solid diaper waste can be dumped in the toilet before throwing away soiled diapers to spare the rest of the family from lingering noxious fumes.)

My overall message here is for parents to be conservative about what they spend on baby equipment.  It’s astounding the number of products invented and marketed to befuddled parents.  Rather than running out and buying the most elaborate equipment available, think about what you really need in a high chair, for example: What is it for?  What features are really necessary?  Where will it be used and stored (i.e. how much space does it take up?)  How easy is it to clean?  Is there anything simpler that could do the job just as well?  What do you think is a reasonable amount of money to spend on it?  Do you know anyone who has one to lend or sell for less money?  Ask a skilled veteran parent what they think of the model you’re considering and see what he or she says.

Children are expensive enough.  Better to put the money away for day school and college than to blow it on unnecessary baby equipment.

This post is based only on my experience and what I’ve seen other parents do.  Do you have any suggestions to help simplify the early child-equipping years?

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Sleeping with…Baby

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m not a terribly crunchy person.  I stand by this, though I recognize that there are certain choices I make in regard to mothering that might give one a different impression.

I have chosen to stay home as long as I had babies and toddlers in the house.  This has put me out of the work force for nearly a decade, but since I’m not in a fast-paced career field, I’m not worried.  Baruch Hashem, the Cap’n’s salary is enough to keep us fed, housed, and clothed, they’re panting for English teachers in Israel whenever I choose to go back, and my children are more important to me than other people’s.  Call me selfish.

I nurse my children exclusively.  While this means no formula, it doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally make a desperate effort to get an infant to take pumped breastmilk in a bottle, always with zero success.  I also nurse discreetly in public.  Women in the modesty-obsessed Orthodox world go off to other rooms, drape blankets over their shoulders, and turn their backs to company when they nurse.  While this is okay, I think it calls unnecessary attention to the fact that one is breastfeeding.  With appropriate clothing, one can nurse a baby without looking like one is nursing a baby, and keep right on living without interruption.  I was once holding baby Beans in the cloakroom at our shul in America when a man came up to talk to me.  We chatted for a moment, then he looked down and started to stroke Beans’s head gently.  “Is she sleeping?” he asked.  “No, she’s nursing,” I answered.  The man’s smile disappeared, he colored slightly, then excused himself.  (Note to self: When someone asks if your nursing baby is sleeping, you say YES.)

And my babies sleep in my bed.

This last one is a controversial issue.  In America, I was scolded by Beans’s pediatrician for doing Beans a “disservice” and not sleep-training (aka Ferberizing) her.  Here in Israel, too, co-sleeping seems to be rare.  The children’s health clinic nurse asked at what temperature “his room” is kept, making the assumption that Bill sleeps in a different room.  She gave us a SIDS talk in which she stated firmly that he should sleep on his back on a hard mattress, NOT with his mother.

In my opinion, the people who should sleep on their backs on hard mattresses far away from any comfort are convicted murderers.

Given my experience of nighttime parenting, I’ve never understood having baby sleep in a crib in another room.  My newborns wake up every two hours to eat, and somehow the room in which I sleep is always the coldest room in the house (great if I’m in bed, not great if I’m having to get out of bed multiple times per night).  If the baby is in the bed with me, I don’t have to get up at all; I simply plunk the little runt on the breast and go back to sleep.  Baby’s fed, warm, comfortable, and happy, and I’m not making regular trips in the cold to a crib somewhere to fetch a hungry little malcontent every few hours.

People ask all the time, “But don’t you worry about rolling over onto the baby and crushing it?”  No.  I’ve slept beside another human being for nearly nine years, and the Cap’n can attest that I have yet to roll over and crush him.  Don’t most adults know where the edge of the bed is, and successfully avoid falling out at night?  A baby is the same.  My friends who co-sleep with their babies agree with me that our awareness of the baby in the bed compromises the quality of our sleep to a degree, but isn’t that part of the experience of being a parent of a newborn?  Show me a mother who has crushed her baby in bed and I’ll show you a mother who went to bed inebriated.

This post is not intended to persuade people who are sold on cribs to give them up, but there are certain advantages to co-sleeping that are worth noting.  Babies breathe better when sleeping next to someone else who is breathing.  (This can help babies with apnea jump-start their own breathing.)  They settle down and go back to sleep faster.  They sleep on their backs and sides more often than babies who sleep in cribs and can roll over onto their stomachs.  And for mothers who work and are away from their babies for much of the day, co-sleeping can be a way to share closeness with their babies during the time they’re together.  (These ideas are articulated on the website of my own parenting gurus, the Sears family.  The article about co-sleeping is here.  Google “co sleeping baby advantages” for more information about the benefits of sleeping together for mother and baby.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I never planned to co-sleep with my babies.  When my in-laws came to visit before Beans was born, they took us out and bought a lovely cherry crib.  But the night Beans was born in the hospital, the Cap’n and I watched her, swaddled but wide awake, gazing at us with her large navy-blue eyes through the glass side of the bassinet, and couldn’t bear to have her sleep alone in a hospital-issue Pope-box.  The Cap’n lifted her out and gave her to me to cuddle in my capacious hospital bed, and the rest was history.

Whenever I encounter someone who tries to tell me that I’ve done something seriously wrong as a parent, that I’ve screwed up or was irresponsible (and believe me, co-sleeping has earned me lots of raised eyebrows and scoldings), I remember my American OB-GYN who gave me heaps of good advice in the years he cared for my health.  Perhaps the greatest thing he told me was that “The best parenting book you can read is the one you write yourself.”

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I had a conversation last year with a friend about rearing children in an Orthodox Jewish environment.  For the most part, she grew up in a kashrut and Shabbat observant home (though the family traveled extensively and their home was made on several different continents).  I, on the other hand, had little Judaism and no kashrut or Shabbat observance in my childhood home.  Yet despite our very different backgrounds, we both wondered the same thing:  Are our children growing up in an overly sheltered environment?  

On the one hand, we are both delighted with the education our children get in religious schools here in Israel.  Their Torah background will be much stronger than ours, and at the same time they will get a firm foundation in secular academic subjects.  Their Jewish identity is being built on a curriculum of history, Zionism, and Jewish learning.  They live in the land of their biblical ancestors, and are privileged to be able to walk—quite literally—in the footsteps of our faith’s earliest adherents.  For Jews in the modern world, this is hard to beat.

And yet.  While our community turns out individuals who serve in the army and the professions alongside Jews more and less religious, we sometimes have the sense that as children especially, they are very sheltered.  They know the complete range of objects deemed muktza (not to be used on Shabbat) by age 7.  Where we live, they never even see a cheeseburger, much less find themselves tempted to eat one.  They reach their teen years and are shocked to learn how little the "civilized" world did to save Jews in Europe during World War II.  When asked by a teacher what they would think of a Jewish man who does not wear a kippah, they consider him "a bad Jew."  And when I mentioned at dinner recently how my mother had cooked ham when I was a girl, Peach blurted out "Yuck!  You ate pig?!"

Some of this can be chalked up to the black-and-white ways in which children view the world around them.  But my globe-trotting friend and I wondered if there was any way to expose our children to the other kinds of life that are out there.  What would really happen to us if we were to travel to Tel Aviv for a Shabbat and take the kids out for a seafood dinner (thus violating the laws of kashrut and desecrating the Sabbath in one go)?  How would we respond if our children as young adults did such a thing on their own?  Without an American Sunday to spend traveling the country or going on outings with our children, wouldn’t it be nice to be like the secular Jews who do that on Shabbat?  (I have long maintained that Israel is the best place to live, both for religious and for secular Jews.  The religious Jews have a nice quiet day to relax, daven, eat, and sleep, and the secular Jews have the rest of the country to themselves to sightsee, eat out, and play without ever seeing a religious Jew.)

The Cap’n used to say that he didn’t miss not keeping kosher.  He claimed never to have liked cheese on his burgers, or seafood, or anything else that wasn’t kosher.  That wasn’t the case for me at all.  I missed tandoori tikka kebabs with yogurt raitas, and dairy pumpkin pie with a big dollop of whipped cream on top after my Thanksgiving dinner.  I’ve learned to live without those things, but I still remember them fondly.  And in more general terms, I remember being part of secular American society, celebrating Christmas, traveling when and where I liked, and not belonging to a religion whose members are reviled and slaughtered for sport in the four corners of the world.  

Our experience differs dramatically from that of our children, but I keep coming back to the fact that both for us and for them, Judaism in general, and specifically our mode of Jewish practice, is a choice.  I don’t believe lightning will strike us if we abandon the mitzvot.  But having chosen to keep them as the Cap’n and I have, we can see that while we have given up certain liberties in our lives, we get much more back in the end.  We belong now to our third wonderful community that cares for and supports one another in good and bad times, and we enjoy a wide range of company, from other couples with young children to grandparent-age friends.  As for kashrut and Shabbat, I have never believed in Judaism as a culinary religion.  I rarely (if ever) make shnitzel, kugel, tzimmes or cholent, preferring ethnic food, whole grains, and lots of vegetables to the traditional Shabbat fare.  And Shabbat, while often seen by outsiders as limiting one’s freedom, actually imposes discipline on a hard-working people to take a day a week and rest, recharge, and enjoy one’s fellow humans.  

This is not meant to fan any flames of Orthodox-bashing fervor, or to say that the Orthodox educate their children poorly.  We have met less religious Jews in the past who value organic food over kosher food, and consider it more important to educate their children in a multicultural context than in a Jewish environment.  As parents, their children’s education is their choice entirely.  But we think their methods may result in children with less established Jewish identities.  For us as parents, and as individuals who had to forge our own Jewish identities as adults, we prefer to give our children a firm Jewish identity first.  We are candid with our children about our non-religious backgrounds, and try to instill in them a sense that while non-Jews are not our co-religionists, they are fellow travelers on this earth.  We believe that with their own Judaism intact, including the ethical and behavioral standards that come with it, our children will be more than equipped to cope with how the wider world lives.    

The title of this post comes from a comment made by another friend recently who was bemoaning the difficulty of traveling the world as a kashrut-observant Jew.  I can commiserate with her (though I’m glad I did the bulk of my traveling before keeping kosher), but also remember that in the next life, as in this one and all the others, we have a choice.  If we can just walk away from it all now, why don’t we?  Perhaps the answer to that question can provide the mitzvah-observant Jew with a little chizuk (encouragement or strength) when needed.

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Children’s allowances

The Cap’n and I have had brief snatches of conversation on occasion about teaching our children about money.  The discussion has touched on chores, allowances, extra earning opportunities, spending, saving, and tzedakah contributions.  While our kids are still young, I would like to devise a plan for a household program to encompass all of these things.  Here’s how I would like it to look:

Daily routines and chores
1) fixing and eating breakfast (the Cap’n leaves supplies out on the table the night before, and the refrigerator is accessible to all three kids)
2) placing own dishes in the dishwasher or sink after meals
3) dressing selves (as age appropriate)
4) putting morning things away (pajamas on beds, dirty laundry in bin, hair things away)
5) doing homework after school (or when directed)
6) cleaning up playthings after play (or when directed)
7) help set and clear dinner table (when requested)
8) help put away clean dishes from dishwasher (cutlery drawer is all they can reach for now)

Additional chores (to be taken on as age-appropriate)
9) laundry (running machines, sorting, and folding)
10) making own snack/lunch for school
11) Shabbat food preparation (salad, washing and peeling fruit and vegetables) and cleaning (floors, bathrooms, tidying)

We have spoken to other parents who debate whether or not to tie allowances to chores.  We have chosen to do so partly to ensure leverage with the children when they want to purchase something (or to shirk their duties on a regular basis), and partly so they learn that privileges are earned through basic participation in the household’s functioning.  

We still need to discuss the amount of allowance appropriate for each age, but we are agreed that the money should be divided into portions for the purposes of saving, spending, and tzedakah (charitable contributions).  In this week’s parashah, in fact, Yaakov wakes from his dream, consecrates Beit El, and vows to set aside one-tenth of whatever Hashem gives him, setting the Torah’s precedent for a tithe of one’s salary to go to charity.  Regarding the children, we would stick with tradition or go a little above, to encourage the children to donate 20% of their allowance to tzedakah, either at school or gan (if collections are taken up there during morning prayers) or on Friday night at home before candle-lighting.  The rest of the child’s allowance, from 80% to 90%, we would have the child divide evenly into savings and spending money.  This, we hope, would allow the children to consider both long-term savings (the idea of planning for the future) and self-reward for meeting short-term goals.

In thinking about this issue, an interesting thing we have come across is a piece on the Aish.com website entitled "One Dollar an Hour."  It’s worth a read to add some human balance to the dollar signs we sometimes find ourselves mired in.

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I was weeding out old files in my Word folder yesterday and came across this piece I wrote back in September 2003:

Last week, I took my 2-year-old daughter to the Franklin Park Zoo.  After ambling around outside for a while, taking in the lions, zebras, and camels, I asked if she would like to go see the indoor tropical animals exhibit.  She assented, and we entered the double doors to the dark, close air of the building, and approached the first exhibit.
  Behind the glass was a room hung with branches and vines, with a small river running through the center.  It was the home of a family of baboons.  We stood looking through the glass as a zoo employee sitting nearby described the baboon family.
  "This is Woody," she said.  "He is 15 months old.  Over there is his mother, Mandy, and his father [whose name I’ve forgotten]."
  Woody was swinging back and forth on some faux vines, which I assumed was normal for a baboon, but there was more to this scenario than met the eye, it seemed.
  "Watch Woody," the zoo keeper said.  "He loves to put his head between the two vines and pretend to jump."  The vines were twisted in such a way that if he were to jump, he would almost certainly end his life on a homemade jungle gallows.  Indeed, Woody was fond of playing with those two vines, and focused his play in that area as we watched.  
  His mother sat on the other side of the exhibit, turning to watch him occasionally, and came over a few times to get Woody to stop playing with the vines.  After returning to her place on the other side of the exhibit, Woody began to play with the vines again.  This went on for some minutes—Woody swinging and Mandy coming over to stop him—before she returned to her place and ceremoniously turned her back on her wayward son.
  "She’s tried to bite through the vines to keep him from playing on them, but they’re not real, and she can’t sever them," the zoo keeper said.  "But see?  He’ll only play on them if she’s looking."  Woody continued to hang from the vines, throw them around, and make flourishes as if to continue his play, but Mandy was clearly using every ounce of will she could muster to keep from looking at him.  
  All the while, Woody’s father lay sleeping in a corner of the exhibit.
  After a few moments, when Mandy had held to her purpose and not given Woody more than an occasional furtive glance, Woody gave up, picked up a stump of carrot, and shuffled off to a quiet, vine-free corner of the exhibit to munch his midday meal and—no doubt—plot his afternoon’s escapade.
  Mothers of toddlers, how different are we really from the animal kingdom?

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Helicopter parenting

A friend’s blog entry recently included the expression "helicopter parenting."  The Cap’n and I took a wager about what this expression meant, then Googled it.  Very interesting results.

It seems that over-protective parenting (the short definition) has given rise to a number of expressions, many of them coined by education professionals who find themselves the victims of parental "involvement" in their students’ education.   A "helicopter parent" goes beyond being concerned about his or her children’s development and education and rushes "to prevent any harm or failure from befalling them and will not let them learn from their own mistakes, sometimes even contrary to the children’s wishes."  This apparently includes calling college professors to complain about their child’s grade in class, and even employers to try to negotiate their children’s salaries.  Remember the Israeli soldier who got 21 days in the clink, and his mother’s claim to have called and complained to his commanders?  Painful as it is, this helps explain the section below Wikipedia’s definition, "See also: Jewish mother stereotype."  Incidentally, some parents’ behavior even goes beyond the "helicopter parenting" definition of being a nudge and a pest, and enters the unethical zone of writing their children’s college application essays for them.  This type of parent is dubbed a "Black Hawk parent" (after the military aircraft).  

Other expressions for this style of overbearing parenting include "lawnmower parenting" (to describe parents who attempt to smooth any obstacles that their child might encounter and—heaven forbid—actually learn from) and similarly, in Scandinavia, "curling parents" (same idea: sweepers of obstacles from their children’s path) defined here and shown in action here.  (I think the fact that such a phenomenon exists outside the United States is both discouraging and validating.)

After reading this stuff, I’m left scratching my head.  I’m not a fabulous parent, but I do think kids often learn much more from making their own mistakes than from being told what to do all the time.  Doesn’t insinuating one’s parental self into a child’s life to this extent leave the child unskilled and inadequately prepared for life?  Doesn’t it rob a child of any feeling of personal achievement if the parent can take credit for any and all outcomes of the child’s experiences?  What ever happened to "natural consequences" where a child actually gets to see what results from his or her own actions?  If a parent tries to justify over-involvement in a child’s college career as "protecting one’s investment," shouldn’t one perhaps recall that academic subjects and grades are only a part of what the child learns in college?  And if the parent had his or her own turn learning to be a responsible adult, when does the child get that same turn?  To deny the (adult) child the opportunity to have these experiences is to deny him or her the chance to learn responsibility, organization, motivation, confidence, and self-reliance.  

I think all this points to the fact that it’s not only important for a parent to know when it’s important to teach a child; it’s just as important to know when to let others (other adults, children, or experience) teach that same child.  The image of a child as an amoeba swimming in a parental pond cannot apply to a child’s entire life; at some point the child must crawl out of that parental ooze, dry off, and strike out on its own.  As a child reaches adulthood, it’s time for that child to enter the take-charge, independent phase of life (that will last the rest of his or her life).  At the same time, the parent must enter the hands-off, supporting-without-interfering stage.  

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