Small Kindnesses

When our oldest daughter was about a year old, we stopped for dinner at a family restaurant after a long day in the car.  Our baby was tired and cranky, and I became increasingly upset as other diners turned to stare, making it clear that a toddler’s justifiable fussing was ruining their dinner.

My husband and I tried to soothe and distract her, and I ended up taking her outside to walk until she finally fell asleep on my shoulder. Back inside the restaurant and near tears from the dagger-like stares of other patrons, I concluded that I was the worst parent in world history.

Just then, a couple, who were about the age I am now, got up to leave, and as they did they stopped by our table to complement our beautiful daughter and to congratulate us on our patient and loving care of her. “Such good parents,” the woman said, and her husband agreed. Those words, and their smiles, enfolded me like a warm blanket.

That kindness and affirmation meant everything to me at that moment, and its spirit has lived with me daily in the 27 years that have passed since that day. I’m certain that our daughter was nowhere near as obstreperous in reality as it seemed in that moment, but neither was I a model parent.

Still, that couple did something that I have endeavored to do ever since: They looked for the best in me, and in praising what I had not yet become, helped me grow into what I always hoped to be.

From that day onward, I have looked for opportunities to recognize the effort to become, the desire to be better, the determination to grow into the person one aspires to be. Whether in the grocery check-out line chatting with a tired mother of little ones, or someone in despair, or a young person looking to make their way in the world, we can all be the voice of kindness and gentle encouragement, especially when things aren’t working out.

It’s easy to be that person. One small kindness can transform someone’s day, or even their entire perception of themselves. That couple who did it for me all those years ago? I don’t know their names, but I wish I did so I could thank them. They saw the mother I wanted to be, and in so doing, helped me to become. It made all the difference in the world to me.

Every day, I try to be that person.

It feels really good.

The Truth About Autism

We recently began watching a TV series in which two parents learn that their son is on the Autistic Spectrum. They freak out. They cry a lot. They act like assholes.

Over the course of several episodes, they consult a specialist because he’s the best, then challenge him…like assholes…when they hear the news that their son is, indeed, autistic. They push their way into a school for kids on the spectrum and berate the director when she tells them the school simply has no openings…perhaps because the school wants to make sure it can meet the needs of the kids who are already enrolled. They eventually get their way, and their kid jumps the line…because his parents are assholes.

They hire a therapeutic behavioralist and immediately challenge her methods, then complain about how much her services cost, but ultimately everyone is happy because now the wife can stop faking her orgasms. Yes. They’re assholes.

It’s a TV show. It’s targeted at people who are 20 years younger than I am. The life lessons it seeks to teach are ones I learned a long time ago, and I can spot most of the conflict coming thirty seconds after the theme music has ended. So, it’s not my thing, and, also, it’s a TV show. Some of it is probably pretty accurate. Some of it is probably relatable. But most of the parents are assholes.

When we found out Allie was autistic, we freaked out, too. There was a whole year where I thought I could “fix” her if only I could combine the perfect combination of therapy, interventions, equipment and a rigorous home program.

This was in the 90’s, mind you. Before Autism Speaks, before the blue puzzle piece logo, before most people knew anything. There was almost nothing in the way of support, and for five years I went from doctor to doctor practically screaming, “tell me what’s wrong!” only to be told there was nothing wrong.

They were wrong.

Allie was diagnosed at 5. It took us 4 years to get an appointment with the only autism specialist in Philadelphia, and during those 4 years we tried to figure it out for ourselves. By the time we got in to see the specialist, she basically told us that she had nothing to offer us other than her seal of approval for the team we had cobbled together for Allie – the occupational therapists and speech therapists, the educators at the school we couldn’t afford but sent Allie to anyway, and the medical specialists (neurology, psychiatry), the behavioral specialist and the TSS and wraparound service people, the meds, the homemade equipment to address sensory integration issues. It was pretty much the best we could do.

Allie is now almost 25. It has already been a long road. She’s been so fortunate to have had outstanding, tireless advocates in the form of teachers and therapists and our dear friends who have loved her and supported her. She had 4 years at a specialized sleepaway camp for kids on the spectrum, and she spent a difficult year in a remote corner of West Virginia with virtually zero support from the faculty at her equine studies program, buoyed only by the amazing young woman we hired who became her champion.

Allie now works at a therapeutic equine program that has embraced her as part of their family, and where she knows and loves each horse as a dear friend. She works part time at a movie theatre. She’s in a book club. She’s the adoring owner of a ginger Maine Coon cat who is almost as beautiful as she is. She’s pretty amazing.

Of course no one rejoices when they are told their child will almost certainly struggle every day of their life, and no one jumps for joy when they think about how hard it will be that their kid is going to be different in ways that may profoundly impact how – or whether – others value them.

So, I get that these parents on this TV show freaked out, because, of course they did, and who wouldn’t, and it’s really dumb to get pissed off by a TV show that exists mainly to sell advertising and generate revenue, and no one ever watched a network television show and said, “that precisely reflects my actual life experience, without comedic or dramatic embellishment.”

BECAUSE IT’S TELEVISION, STUPID!

But here’s my point: People often behave as though autism is a fate worse than virtually anything else that could befall their child, ever. Worse than being blind, or losing a limb, or getting cancer. The fear of autism is so great that many people refuse to vaccinate their kids against DISEASES THAT CAN KILL YOU on the basis of a thoroughly discredited “scientific study” and the say-so of a Playboy centerfold model who got her medical degree from the University of Oh, That’s Right, I’m an Asshole.

My daughter has autism, and guess what? It’s no more and no less a part of her than her startlingly beautiful sapphire eyes, her grace while trotting her horse in a dressage ring, the earnest pride she takes in being a reliable worker, or her determination to lead a meaningful life. Freak out all you want, asshole TV character parents, but even though you aren’t real, I wish I could meet up with you when your TV kid is 25 and ask you whether you’d want him to be anything but what he is.

My Allie is everything I ever hoped she would be – she is hardworking, honest, kind, and empathic. She is loving and silly and a good cook. She has a frighteningly exhaustive memory and looks great in a Carhart coverall. She’s our Boops, our Lissie, our Rosebud. And she’s perfect just the way she is.

A Few Thoughts About the College Admissions Scandal

Dear Felicity and Lori:

When I was a college senior, we typed our applications on an IBM Selectric (if we were lucky enough to have a mom who access to one at work), and we used Wite Out to cover up the mistakes.

We wrote our own essays, we took our own SATs, and we ended up where we ended up.

And we survived.

We were blessed with friends who, with a most loving heart, recommended we read Frank Bruni when, during a rainy visit to Pitt, our beloved Beanie got a shitty rejection from the School of Her Dreams (Fuck You, School of Beanie’s Dreams! Like you would EVER have understood how miraculous she is!)

And we survived.

My kids did not go to USC, they did not pretend to be on a crew team, and we did not have $500k lying around for us to bribe some university coach so we could skip the line.

How did our kids ever manage to survive?

I don’t know, really, but one of them earned a Masters in speech and language pathology and now helps young adults on the autistic spectrum express themselves. One helps others with disabilities gain confidence and greater vestibular/sensory awareness through equine therapy. One hopes to help us better understand our humanity through the paleo anthropological record.

That’s what you do when you don’t live in Hollywood.

Love, A Mother Who Didn’t Pay $500,000 to Get Her Kids into College

P.S. Bill Macy, I thought you were better than that.

Millennials – I Love ‘Em!

Every time someone over the age of fifty (that is, my generation) opens their mouth to say something about Millennials (anyone born between 1981 and 2000), it’s inevitably something negative. They’re spoiled and demanding. They’re snowflakes and need constant reassurance. They’re lazy and entitled. They have no respect for the generations that came before them. And, they’re ALWAYS on their phones.

As the parent of three Millennials who have introduced me to countless more through their group activities and friendships over the years, as someone whose friends’ kids are all Millennials, and as someone who regularly encounters Millennials in the course of my professional life, I call bullshit.

I’ll say it proudly. I love Millennials! As for all of those criticisms? It’s all in the way you frame the discussion. I don’t see Millennials as lazy, I see them as individuals who are trying to learn from their baby boomer parents that having a work-life balance is important. Both my husband and I are professionals who would no sooner have taken a gap year than sliced off a finger or two; rather, we rushed headlong into medical school and law school respectively, and we haven’t had a break in thirty years. Our careers have only gotten more demanding with age and experience, and there doesn’t appear to be an off-ramp or any realistic way to pull back without forfeiting the income we have come to depend upon.

Millennials have watched their parents working relentless hours, answering emails while on vacation and returning business calls well after the end of the work day, and the result is that they have learned they don’t want a career that allows them precious little time for personal pursuits. Is that lazy? I don’t think so; as a slave to the billable hour, I think it’s downright brilliant. If I could go back and recraft my life, I would think seriously about choosing a different job that paid less but left more time and energy for things that nourish my soul. By the time I’ve hit my hourly goal for the month, I don’t have much left in the tank to think about taking up a new hobby or learning Spanish.

I also disagree that Millennials are overly sensitive or are “snowflakes,” a word I detest. Instead, I see a generation who would like to treat those who aren’t White, Christian, American, heterosexual, or cis-gendered, equitably and with respect. Is that a bad thing? If you’re a racial or religious minority, or if you’re LGBTQ, probably not. I see Millennials as legitimately concerned about inclusion and fundamental fairness. They are the ones who shout for those who can only whisper, who gently chide their well-meaning parents about tolerance and respect for things they may not understand, and in so doing, seek to achieve something closer to a level playing field for all. I think that’s admirable.

And disrespectful? Well, if you want to characterize holding accountable the lawmakers and gun lobby for refusing to consider reasonable gun control, or putting a spotlight on the greed of Wall Street, as disrespectful, okay. I call it making asking adults to be responsible.

Here’s some other things that are true of Millennials:

• They are more likely to take gap years, and in doing so, come to a better understanding of how they want to live their lives. This means they don’t spend many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing education and training in a field that may ultimately not be a good fit.

• They are more likely to participate in mission trips, community service, or other activities that are outer-directed. This means that they are more aware of the hardships faced by the impoverished, the sick, and the oppressed, and are in turn more compassionate and more likely to speak up for those who need their advocacy.

• They are less likely to see those with physical and mental disabilities as shameful, repugnant, or the object of ridicule. Millennials are far more likely to be inclusive and respectful of those who struggle with physical handicaps or intellectual disability; the days of jokes about “riding the short bus,” and the use of the word “retard” as an insult, have greatly declined since I was young and those in the specials needs classes were called “SPEDs.”

• They care about the environment – which is important, since they are the ones who are going to inherit this planet and be charged with the task of cleaning it up. Thanks to my youngest daughter, I’m no longer allowed to use disposable straws, and forget about leaving the water on while washing the dishes.

• They’re innovative. Millennials are responsible for Lyft, Spotify, Groupon, Air BnB and Bark Box. They’re also responsible for most of the hottest online apps, such as SnapChat, Bumble, Tinder, Instagram, and Facebook. Like it or not, they’re digitally savvy and constantly improving how we use technology.

There are lots of reasons to love Millennials, so why do so many seem to hate on them so much?

I suspect some it has to do with jealousy, as in, “in my day, we walked to school in 6’ of snow, uphill, both ways, and so should you.” The misery-loves-company mindset has never contributed anything to the world other than resentment and bitterness, and for those dissatisfied with their lot in life, perhaps calling Millennials pampered snowflakes (rather than praise them for their insight and conscious choices) feels easier than considering whether our own decisions were the right ones (and perhaps they were).

It also has something to do with Baby Boomer Parents who have overindulged their children, and there are plenty of those who have in some instances raised hothouse flowers who can’t cope when faced with the realities of adulthood. But whose fault is that? Eventually, yes, the Millennial must face the music and “adult,” despite the shortcomings of well-meaning helicopter parents, but if you have a gripe with Millennials based upon what you think of as a lack of accountability, motivation – or, really, anything else – think about where the blame should squarely fall – it’s not on the kids.

For those who continue to insist that Millennials are the worst generation ever, however, I have to say this:

Look at the world they grew up in, and ask yourself whether that might have something to do with whatever it is about Millennials that you hate.

Think they’re sissies? Consider that Millennials learned at a very early age that at any moment, some lunatic could break into their school and shoot their classmates, their teachers, or they themselves, and that politicians care more about NRA lobbying money than the lives of children.

Consider also that they learned that in the space of a few hours, a gorgeous September day could end with the deaths of 3,000 innocents, all because of “religious” beliefs.

Consider that they have from a tender age, they have been warned about “bad touch,” but that the people they were supposed to be able to trust – priests and scout leaders, for example – could sexually assault them and get away with it. For. Years.

Consider that they learned that you can grope and harass and rape women with no consequence. Like. All. The. Time.

Consider that they learned if you’re gay, someone might tie you to a fence and beat you until you die.

Consider that the impact of climate change may threaten their very existence.

Then ask yourself whether they have good reason not to want to grow up.

This is the world that Millennials have grown up in. It’s a wonder they haven’t all committed suicide.

Millennials, a lot of us older people suck, we’ve messed up pretty much everything, and we’ve left you a world that is corrupt and hateful.

But I believe in you. I believe in your compassion, your sense of justice, the fact that you are unafraid to take on previous generations to challenge the status quo and demand fairness.

I believe in your ability and desire to do good works for others. I believe in your sincere hope for a better world. I believe that you are good and fine and courageous.

Millennials, I love you, and the rest of the world should, too, for it will be you that finally set us straight.

Those Crazy Helicopter Parents, and Why They Need to Eject

Thanksgiving has come and gone. Such a happy celebration, and a welcome reminder to me to stop being such a cranky old bag of dog farts.

Except that I was born a cranky old bag of dog farts (or, at the very least, a vocal observer who calls out the dog farty behavior of others), and so I have to post about something that makes me want to tear my ears off. By way of just a little bit of background, I attended a seven sisters school; my oldest also attended and graduated several years ago, and my youngest is now a student there. I recently discovered a College Family/Friends/Alumnae/Way Too Involved/Go Get a Freaking Life/Parents and Community Facebook Page.

So much material to scorn, so little time to be smug and superior.

At its best, the Community Page is a nice place to post pretty pictures of this idyllic and impossibly gorgeous wonderland that is perennially acknowledged to be among the Top 10 Most Beautiful Campuses in America (pause for a moment and reflect that my alma mater is, at its core, a bastion of fiercely independent warriors who brook no Polo-reeking Frat Boys and who enjoy spending a Friday night using words like “hegemony” and chiding their parents for uttering phrases such as “third world” or “developing nations” given their inherent arrogance and ethnocentrism. Yes, the campus is pretty, but woe to the person who believes it to be a “Catholic girls school” whose students pursue non-controversial majors while binge drinking on weekends, and where the focus of student unrest mainly concerns the wilted lettuce at the salad bar).

Though its value lies primarily in producing critical, independent thinkers and strong, capable leaders, there is no question that my school is spectacularly beautiful. As an alum, the parent of an alum, and the mom of a current student, I enjoy seeing snaps of my beloved alma mater bathed in the glorious jewel tones of October, blanketed in pristine white snow during the long winter, and gleaming resplendent in greens and pinks and puppies gamboling about the green as spring approaches.

It’s a pretty magical place.

So it’s nice that the Community FB Page provides this little slice of nostalgia to the likes of me whilst we pluck inch-long hairs from our chins and rub liniment into our creaky joints.

I also appreciate that it’s a forum where parents can voice legitimate concerns – the new dining commons, the design of which assumed an undergraduate enrollment of perhaps a third of the actual population (with the result that it is very difficult for students to eat sitting down during the high-volume lunch rush); the similarly short-sighted decision to admit far more students than current course offerings can accommodate (such that underclassmen are finding most of the courses they want filled before their registration time slot even opens); or, perhaps most importantly, the botched handling of an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct by a professor that, it appears, was known to the administration since the 1980’s but was essentially ignored until just recently. (Badly done, Alma Mater).

These are all important issues that concerned parents want addressed, and as far as providing a forum to discuss those issues and share information, the Community FB Page is a helpful resource. Thank you, Community FB Page! #accountabilitymatters

What the Page also does, however, is nurture and encourage helicopter parenting at its absolute worst. Initially open to current students and faculty, the Page recently booted anyone who wasn’t family, friend, or alum after a kerfuffle in which, near as I can tell, a current student who was also a Page member blew the lid off those pesky, intrusive parents concerned about students smoking weed on campus (hardly something to write home about 30 years ago, and basically legal now) and wrote a searing article in the campus newspaper basically telling parents to BACK THE FUCK OFF.

In her piece, this woman criticized parents for being invasive and for inserting themselves into the minutiae of their children’s lives. She was RIGHT. Thank you, Brave Muckraking Journalist. #factsmatter

But then bunch of parents got all bent out of shape that this student dared criticize them, and one called her out like a spinster Presbyterian schoolmarm from 1873.

Then, in an unrelated matter, another parent went on a tirade directed at a professor for not being immediately available to meet with her kid, and the faculty member weighed in with some lame excuse like “we set up an appointment and your kid didn’t show up – twice- and I’m the (unpaid) coach of the rugby team and had to chaperone the women for an away game, but here’s my email and phone number, so have your helpless pudding cup of a child call me and I will meet with her whenever it’s convenient, even if it’s in the middle of my weekend while I’m out spending all the money I make as an assistant professor,” which I guess wasn’t a good enough explanation.

And so there was much wringing of hands by the HP’s (helo rental units) because, of course, this incident was the very thing that was going to permanently derail this kid’s entire college career and position her, certainly and forever, as someone who will never shop at Whole Foods or donate to PBS or spend two weeks each summer in a rented home in Tuscany with friends discussing the elderberry and nutmeg topnotes of the montepulciano they sipped at a vineyard near San Gimignano.

Some parents rightly chided the parent, pointing out that it is the student’s responsibility to address whatever issues she has, that inserting herself into the matter did nothing to assure that her daughter would learn to handle such matters on her own – which is sort of the whole point of college, itself a safe space where nearly adult humans are confronted with modest challenges and either succeed or, better yet, make mistakes and learn from them in a supportive environment where the consequences of making the wrong choices are relatively benign.

But the HP’s again fretted and expressed their hurt and outrage over the insensitivity of those who dared to express an opposing viewpoint.

It should come as no surprise, however, that parents who send their kids to eastern liberal arts colleges tend to get uncomfortable when people take a stand against anything other than Ted Cruz and disposable plastic straws (Query: When did it become a crime to use a disposable plastic straw? You’ll take my disposable plastic straw when you pull it out of the Gallon Bucket of Soda I just threw out the window).

So it was that the site moderators took swift action by ousting current students and most of the faculty/administrative presence (although a few college employees – those whose job it is to address non-academic issues – remain active to weigh in where helpful or necessary). In so doing, the moderators (themselves HP’s) seem to be striving for a controversy-free venue devoted to Happy Talk and photos worthy of Moho admissions department publications.

And that’s the Community FB Page in a nutshell.

After I joined the group this year after being alerted to its existence over the Family and Friends Weekend, I mostly ignored it, but my husband likes to watch my head explode, so he occasionally updates me as some of the truly asinine behavior masquerading as responsible parenting. For example, there were a slew of posts leading up to the Thanksgiving break in which parents attempted to manager their kids’ travel plans. I read with amazement as mommies and daddies turned themselves inside out making sure their offspring didn’t have to worry their pretty little heads about how to make it home for the holiday.

I turned to my husband (who often wishes he could shove an ice pick into his eardrums), and said, “When I was in college, I figured out ON MY OWN how the FUCK to get home for Thanksgiving!” Which often involved a variety of train, bus, and car rides that weren’t necessarily convenient or direct but which got me home safely and cheaply, and Lo, I lived to tell about it.

The point is, I made the arrangements. It never occurred to me to ask my parents to do that for me, any more than I would have called them to ask them to take care of a roommate situation (not because I didn’t have one – I did – and 30 years later, she’s still one of my best friends even though I made her wear peach when she was one of my bridesmaids). I know I probably had many complaints (I always do), although with 35 years in the rear view mirror – mostly I recall the blessings and gifts of my college years with gratitude for the woman they helped me become.

But things are different now. The brilliant Julie Lythcott-Haims has written extensively from her position as a former dean at Stanford about how today’s college students have been so micromanaged by their parents that they arrive on campus minimally prepared to deal with the challenges that await them (and let’s be honest: the vast majority of those “challenges” are of the 1% kind…a C- on a chem test LORD HELP US!). Julie has said everything there is to say with far greater insight and empirical data than I, but the point remains: Parents are WAY to involved, at their children’s expense.

Don’t believe me? Here’s another example from the Community FB page.

Last night, a parent asked for advice concerning her daughter’s plant.

You read that right.

As in, who would take care of her daughter’s dorm room plant over the winter break?

In the interest of fairness, I should probably add that, during first year orientation, students are invited to select a small plant from the college’s incredible arboretum – you know, to make their dorm rooms a little more cozy. I don’t recall this being a thing in the Fall of 1982, but maybe it was.

What I’m certain was NOT a thing is the so-called “college lore” (not really) that you won’t graduate if your firstie arboretum plant dies. Uh-huh. I know.

I sighed when I learned of this little nugget, along with others I heard for the first time during my youngest’s campus visit and which purportedly date all the way back to the school’s founding over 175 years ago (notwithstanding the four years I spent there in the 1980’s or my oldest daughter’s tenure there almost 30 years later in which there was nary a peep of such things). I suspect they were manufactured in recent years to add an extra bit of pixie dust to a legacy that needs no further burnishing – aren’t M&C’s, class animals, and Laurel Parade tradition enough?

As to the claim that the continued well-being of the Arboretum Plant plays any role in one’s successful completion of her Moho studies, if this “tradition” were true, the Amphitheater would be pretty empty each year at commencement. Truth be told, if anything is going to prevent a student from graduating, it’s probably going to be the PE requirements or organic chemistry.

And I have to add – because it would be criminal not to – that to predicate a woman’s ability to obtain her diploma on whether or not she can nurture a life form for four years seems firmly rooted in patriarchal oppression and entirely at odds with the overarching goal of educating women, but perhaps I am being overly dogmatic – indeed, I have a home filled with plants (although neither my success nor my access to opportunity is intrinsically tied to said plants’ viability).

I digress.

To recap, supposedly there is this “tradition” (there isn’t) and Sikorsky Mommy was concerned that her “DD” (darling daughter, that is – yes, I agree – barf biscuits all around) will not graduate if her Arboretum Plant DIES while said DD is home making merry over the holidays. God, those Syrians who had chemical weapons dropped on them by their own leader have NO FUCKING CLUE what it means to daily grasp, in the midst of overwhelming and utter hopelessness, at some chance for survival.

I thought, at first, that it was a joke. Then I read the comments that followed and realized that she, and her compatriots, were very serious indeed.

I was able to restrain myself for exactly as long as it took to finish watching Episode 5 of the 2017 season of “The Great British Baking Show” (just not the same since Mary, Sue and Mel left – and I feel appropriately shameful that Noel freaks me out even though he seems really nice and supportive), and then I had to respond. I think I said something like, if DD was responsible enough, old enough, and smart enough to go to college, she should be able to figure out how to take care of a plant. I don’t know exactly what I wrote because as of this morning, the whole post had been taken down. Thanks, Brave Page Monitors! #helicopterparentfeelingsmatter

I don’t care that my post was taken down (I suspect others who saw it agreed with me but refrained from weighing in in the name of cordiality, and also because the whole issue is so staggeringly dumb), and I’m actually surprised that my membership in the Safe Space for Parents to Invade Their College Students’ Lives Like Scabies was not revoked.

But here’s the thing: This is EXACTLY what the People Whose Politics We Don’t Like mean when they demonize millennials, except that they should be demonizing the parents who insist on infantilizing their children. If my kids EVER called me from school to ask me to arrange to have their plant taken care of for four weeks so they wouldn’t be at risk of NOT GRADUATING, after I mopped up the kitchen floor of the pee I expelled as the result of hysterical laughter combined with sorely challenged pelvic floor muscles, I would have told them (1) look it up on the interwebs; and (2) if you don’t graduate, you’ll need a better excuse than a dead plant; and (3) you need to be studying, hiking, or getting arrested for attending a protest march.

Except I doubt that DD ever mentioned her stupid Arboretum plant, except perhaps in passing, as in, “I really wanna binge watch “Friends” on Netflix, Mom…” and probably never even considered that if you don’t water a plant for a month, it often dies.

BECAUSE THEY’RE COLLEGE STUDENTS!

As another example of the sissification of America’s youth, yet another parent posted and generated 35 – THIRTY FIVE – comments on what snow boot to buy her never-spent-a-winter-in-New England daughter. I guess her kid has never bought footwear on her own before.

You know what happened to me when I bought shoes or clothing that did not keep me sufficiently warm and dry? I GOT COLD AND WET, AND THEN I LEARNED.

Lest you think I am a prickly, unsentimental ogre with an apricot pit for a heart, you should be aware that (1) I hate fruit; and (2) if my heart is other than a four-chambered organ intended to pump blood throughout my aging, cellulite-ridden body, it would be a Little Debbie Swiss Cake Roll emblazoned in beautifully piped royal icing, “I love my daughters with every fiber of my being and frequently wonder what to do with these arms when they aren’t enfolding said daughters and pressing them to me, teary-eyed with pride and a love so fierce it you could install it on the Southern Border to successfully repel all those Islamic Terrorists in diapers that keep trying to infiltrate our nation.”

Which is a long, politically-charged sentence that conveys my love for a truly awful dessert treat while neglecting to mention my Bingo Wings (if you don’t know what they are, message me and I will tell you).

No mother ever loved her children more, nor yearned more profoundly that they become functional adults with meaningful lives than I – EXCEPT FOR PRETTY MUCH EVERY OTHER MOTHER OUT THERE and that’s the WHOLE POINT:

Sikorsky Mom et al., your “DDs” are no more precious or lovely or brilliant or WORTHY OF A MAGNIFICENT LIFE EXPERIENCE than every other young person out there, even if you have a lot of money and are yourself well-educated.

Helicopter parenting, it seems to me, finds its origins in the self-esteem movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s and from a desire of baby boomers to be more available and nurturing to their kids than their parents were to them.

At it core, though, Helicopter parenting is an ugly combination of “my child must be successful in order to validate me as a parent” and “my child is better than all other children and I will use my advantage and privilege to make sure he/she – worthy or not – gets pushed to the top in every circumstance and in every setting.”

My kids are now 27, 24, and 19. From the age of 18 to 27, the oldest was sometimes 5, sometimes 25 hours by car from home. During those years, she got sick, homesick, scared, and overwhelmed. She was even monumentally shafted during her graduate school years in the way that forever inscribes on your heart and etches upon your entrails that Life, in fact, is not always fair. Wherever she was, whatever she was doing, we always took her calls, checked in, listened and helped when asked. But we didn’t try to solve her problems for her. She now has a masters degree, a good job, and a caring and devoted husband who is also gainfully employed. They have and pay for their own housing, cars, and insurance. She survived.

My middle daughter, who has intellectual disability and is on the Autistic Spectrum, spent 9 months a 7 hour drive from home in a remote corner of West Virginia pursuing an education in equine care. Her school was 2 hours from a regional rail station or airport. Her roommate moved out a week after she got there, there was no student support whatsoever, and the promises that the school could and would make accommodations for her never materialized. We asked her if she wanted to come home, and though she was desperately lonely (she spent her weekends holed up in her windowless cinder block room, because no one could be bothered to get to know her), she opted to grind it out until the end of the year. She now has an internship in her field, a part-time job, is in a book club, rides, can cook a mean Chicken Francaise, and is doing just fine.

The youngest still isn’t fully baked, but she’s on her way. To put it succinctly, she can take care of her Arboretum Plant on her own or, if she chooses not to, can handle the repercussions.

I say this not to brag (though I’m quite proud of these kids), and with the understanding that no one knows how to parent well unless they don’t have kids. I’ve made many mistakes along the way, but my guiding philosophies as I raised my girls were (1) teach them to be resourceful and optimistic; and (2) make yourself obsolete.

Our children don’t need us to solve every problem for them. They benefit from learning how to cope with frustration and failure, for no life is so charmed as to be free of sadness, disappointment, or hopelessness. Being able to endure hardship is the only way that mankind has ever been able to persevere and ultimately succeed.

So, to the good people at the Community FB Page, if you truly want what’s best for your kids, leave them alone. Let them neglect their plants and go without snow boots and make their own travel arrangements. They will thank you, and you will have more time to watch “The Great British Baking Show.”

Also, you can’t go wrong with LL Bean footwear.

Kids Today…and What We Can Teach Them

May 28, 2018

So Michael and I went to Whole Foods after our work out this morning to pick up some snacks for later today and also to have some pizza. Because Whole Foods makes really, really good pizza.

When we arrived, there was no cheese pizza. The guy making pizzas told me it would be about 10-15 minutes because he had a to-go order. I said that was fine, that I would wait. I stood patiently watching the French Open as this very nice man made his pizzas.

Shortly after he had finished the to-go order and had put a cheese pizza in the oven, a very tall father wearing a red t-shirt, with three school-age kids, all wearing Vineyard Vines, came over and began milling about the various available pizza selections, which, at that time, were limited to lemon ricotta zucchini and mushroom/meatball. Which is great if you’re an adult, but not so much if you’re a kid. The family walked away, then came back. They stood right next to me, not two feet away.

Another guy came up and asked the chef if there was any cheese pizza. The guy looked right at me and said, “yes, it’s coming right out, and this lady is waiting.”

The pizza comes out, the guy puts it on the counter (it’s self serve), I reach for the spatula, but Red T-Shirt pushes Vineyard Vines toward the counter. I’m standing RIGHT THERE. Kid take the spatula and Dad helps him get a slice.

I say, “you know, I’ve been standing here 15 minutes waiting for the cheese pizza.”

Without even looking at me, the guy says to his kid, “say you’re sorry,” in a tone of voice that communicates, “there’s nothing to be sorry for, my precious, perfect child who can do no wrong, and fuck you, you dumb bitch.”

The kid says nothing, takes his pizza and walks away with Red T-Shirt.

I call after him, “You saw me, the pizza guy told you I was waiting, and still you allowed your kid to butt ahead of me.”

He turns around and with a really nasty look on his face says, “He said he was sorry, and he’s nine years old. What’s your problem?”

I say, “Actually, he didn’t say he was sorry, and nine is old enough to know to wait your turn. So is forty, or however old you are, for that matter, but if you don’t know how to take turns, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he doesn’t, either.”

He said, “hey, you got your pizza, didn’t you?”

Which, indeed, I did. It was good, too.

As I ate my pizza, I wondered if perhaps the kid was on the spectrum, or had some special needs, and that made me feel bad about how I had acted, except I’ve parented a child on the spectrum, and in our house, that wasn’t an excuse not to follow the rules.

Then I thought, maybe he’s having a bad day and really just needs a blow job, and I felt bad for him, but then I thought, that’s true of many men, and it’s also not an excuse not to follow the rules.

Then I thought, to what extent did my impatience to get my pizza (recall, if you will, that Whole Foods pizza is REALLY good) influence my behavior, and I thought, more than it should have, and that’s not a good reason to be confrontational.

Later, we saw the guy in the parking lot as we were getting into our car. He was struggling with a stroller. I said to Michael, “I owe him an apology.”

“No, you don’t,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. He was a jerk who needs to teach his kid some manners.”

I felt bad about it nonetheless, and if I had been alone, I might have approached him and said I was sorry. Since Michael is smarter than me and contemplated the very real possibility that this guy might have punched me in the face, he kept driving.

Once at home, I got out my pruning shears and trimmed up a few trees, all the while asking myself how I could have handled things better, and I wish I had handed my empty pizza container to the kid and said in a sincerely nice old lady voice, “hey, can you get one for me, too?”

I don’t know if that would have made the point about the social contract that we should always wait out turn, but perhaps it would have clued the kid in, for a split second, at least, that the world does not revolve around him, as I am fairly certain Mom and Dad have taught him it does.

So that’s what I’ll do next time.

Snot-Nosed Brats and The Parents Who Raise Them

Happened to catch Lavar Ball on CNN this morning. He was arguing that having to apologize for stealing should be more than enough punishment for his son, LiAngelo Ball, and whining that his kid has been unfairly persecuted by UCLA, the college he attended (until yesterday, anyway). You may recall that LiAngelo and two of his teammates were caught shoplifting sunglasses at a Louis Vuitton store while visiting China as members of the UCLA basketball team; they were arrested and faced a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Before the poo hit the fan, however, President Trump, who happened to be in China at the time, stepped in and asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to show clemency and release the three young hooligans, which he did (and which was a nice thing to do, when you consider that the way Donald Trump says “China” is kind of weird and sort of sounds like he’s insulting it)

Within a week of the arrest, and having never seen the inside of a Chinese jail, LiAngelo and his buddies were allowed to go home. They later appeared at a press conference in which they dutifully said they were sorry, and then they were suspended indefinitely from the UCLA basketball team (but not from the institution) pending further investigation. A few days later, there was a brief, hilarious Twitter battle between LiAngelo’s father and Donald Trump in which Trump griped that the Ball Family wasn’t more grateful (Sad!) and in which Mr. Ball indicated that no thanks were even necessary because things would have worked out on their own. Which was spectacularly ungenerous, even if Donald Trump is the human equivalent of a vaginal yeast infection.

As of yesterday – less than a month after this whole thing went down – UCLA had not made any permanent decisions about how LiAngelo & Company would be disciplined. Who knows why it has taken so long – maybe because of the Thanksgiving holiday, maybe because finals are coming up, maybe because UCLA wants to consult with all the appropriate personnel so they can be certain that their decision is the right one. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: As long as he’s suspended, LiAngelo Ball isn’t playing basketball, lighting up the scoreboard and leading UCLA to victory, and given what we’re hearing about his talent (from his father, anyway), UCLA’s decision to take its time to conduct a thorough review – contrary though that may be to the success of its men’s basketball team – is perhaps refreshing. How many times have we read about university officials looking the other way when star atheletes behave badly in order not to compromise the team’s win/loss record?

Then, yesterday, in a fit of childish pique (the ramifications of which could be far-reaching), Lavar Ball pulled his kid out of UCLA – you know – the institiution that was willing to given him a free education and room and board for four years (estimated price tag: $250,000) so he could play basketball, get a lot of attention on a very big stage, and probably end up being drafted by the NBA. Curse you, UCLA!

According to Mr. Ball, his reasoning is based upon what he believes is staggeringly unfair treatment by UCLA. He thinks that his son’s apology was sufficient “punishment” (god, it’s so HARD to say “I’m sorry” and not really mean it!) and that this whole think should be over already. It’s unclear whether he even believes that what his son was actually all that bad.

Well, I, for one, think it’s time for Lavar and his son to get woke, and I say that realizing that a 53-year-old white woman who gets excited about a new set of Rubbermaid storage containers probably shouldn’t be using the term “woke.”

But here goes:

Lavar, any way you slice it, stealing is illegal (whether you’re in China OR the US), and under any other circumstances (like, President Trump didn’t happen to be in China at the time, or your son wasn’t a promising young athlete), your kid would probably be sitting in jail or, at the very least, awaiting a court date with the real possibility of prison time, especially if he’d been left in China to deal with a criminal justice system that doesn’t exactly work the way ours does. In other words, the potential NBA career would probably be off the table, and being suspended by UCLA would have been the least of his worries.

So let’s all agree that what LiAngelo did was wrong, and that he was extremely lucky that our National Pride, Donald Trump, was in the right place at the right time, not groping women or insulting people’s cultural heritage. Let’s agree that it was a good thing for Lavar Ball and his idiot son that Trump was able to get LiAngelo and his friends (the little fuckers) back home to the USA without pissing off the Chinese government and prompting them to call in all our loans. Let’s agree that all LiAngelo had to do was say THANK YOU, ride out his suspension, and maybe use their free time studying or volunteering in a soup kitchen.

Well, that’s NOT what LiAngelo did. Because UCLA was mean to him, and his dad thought it was unfair. (As an aside, if you want to know what’s unfair, talk to Colin Kaepernick about his work in the Black Community, and the real injustices that go on there every day that do not involve LV sunglasses and basketball scholarships.) But was UCLA’s treatment of LiAngelo unfair, Lavar? Was it unjustified in taking some time to figure out how to handle this?

C’mon, Man.

Call me old-fashioned, but UCLA – or any other institution – has a right (and, indeed, a responsibility) to decide whether the athletes who represent it should be discplined when they, oh, I don’t know, break the law in a foreign country while on what was supposed to be a sort of goodwill tour. It has a right to determine whether or not this snotty little brat and his asshat father are really worth the squeeze, and whether it’s likely that there will be more shenanigans down the road. UCLA has a right to assess whether it expects its atheletes to adhere to a basic standard of conduct when they venture abroad – one that does not include stealing designer sunglasses.

Lest we forget, by giving LiAngelo a scholarship (and, sure, it if hadn’t been UCLA, it would have been another school), UCLA pretty much handed him the Golden Ticket – free education, room and board, so he could play basketball on a national level where he would be seen by NBA teams and likely be signed to a million-dollar contract before he even got his degree. How many kids get that kind of opportunity? By all accounts, LiAngelo Ball is an athlete of enormous talent, and his future, once UCLA reached out, seemed all but assured. All he had to do – ALL HE HAD TO DO – was play basketball. THAT WAS HIS ONLY JOB.

But LiAngelo decided that it would be a good idea, while visiting a non-democratic foreign country that has had a sketchy human rights record, to shoplift designer sunglasses.

It’s not surprising that young Mr. Ball made this particular error in judgment – and I’ll bet he’s probably not even willing to concede that much. Listen to his father talk for more than 35 seconds and you know exactly how much accountability, discipline, and good old-fashioned DON’T DO THAT SHIT parenting he got growing up. LiAngelo gives every impression of having inherited his father’s unearned belief in his own specialness and excellence, and it’s likely that if it hadn’t been designer sunglasses in China, it would have been something else, because the Ball Men don’t think they have to adhere to the rules that apply to everyone else. At least, that’s what it sounds like to me.

Still, Lavar Ball believes that the only “guilty” party in all of this is UCLA, and so he decided to get even by…yanking his kid out of UCLA (he refused to say this morning whether his son was on board with that decision). He says that he’s exploring other options for his son. How much you wanna bet that none of them include actually getting an education?

Who knows where LiAngelo will turn up? Perhaps he is in fact so talented that he’ll be playing with the NBA next year, making enough money that he won’t have to shoplift anymore.

What he probably won’t be doing is taking responsibility for his actions, ever, because his father has never forced him to, and he has now been removed from a situation where he might have had to suffer the consequences of his conduct in a way that might have helped him transition from spoiled brat to mature young man who is accountable for his transgressions. He may end up being the best basketball player the world has ever seen, but he’s unlikely to accomplish much else as long as his father is calling the shots.

So screw you, UCLA. You’ll never see the likes of LiAngelo Ball or his father again. And for that, you will probably say…thank you.

In Praise of Participation Awards

Few people have anything nice to say about participation awards, that embarrassing exemplar of all that’s wrong with today’s parents and the reason why millennials and those who follow are destined to fail.  An award that some say honors nothing beyond merely showing up, the initially well-meaning participation award was originally intended to nurture our young ones’ self-esteem and encourage less-talented players to keep at it even if they weren’t star players.  I suspect that the participation award was also an effort to replace youth sports’ over-emphasis on individual performance and minimization of the value of teamwork.  All noble ideals.

The participation award has fallen on hard times of late, however, as red-blooded Americans from all walks of life decry the notion that all everyone on a team should be honored and recognized at awards time, regardless of whether they made a meaningful contribution to the team.  Cited by some as the ultimate example of the sissification of America, the humble participation award has become a scapegoat for everything people over the age of 55 think is wrong with anyone under the age of 30, including that they’re entitled, lazy and narcissistic; are depressed and/or numb due to their parents’ failed child-rearing strategies; and are incapable of meaningful relationships and human interaction because of social media and smartphones (more on that later).  If it were true that the participation award were to blame for all these alleged conditions, that would be a bad thing.

The case against participation awards has been made over and over again in recent years:  Some argue that they send the wrong message – that it is bad – unendurable, even – to actually lose, so much so that children must be protected from losing at all costs, which is of course ridiculous.  Others suggest that participation awards, by virtue of the fact that everyone gets one, don’t end up mattering all that much to their recipients.  Still other critics aver that participation awards perpetuate the incorrect notion that everyone is a “winner,” when in fact there are winners or losers, period.  Along those lines, in a letter to the New York Time, one accomplished high-school athlete expressed her opinion that participation awards are “a slight to the truly exceptional.”  At their worst, some say, participation awards instill a sense of entitlement and discourage effort because their recipients come to believe that everything they do – things that previous generations understood as givens – are worthy of recognition – indeed, consider the following quote from a 2015 Forbes article entitled, “You Don’t Get Participation Awards for Showing Up to Work:”

A $2 billion a year industry has grown up around some parent’s need to reward their child with meaningless awards just for joining a team. And as it has, we have all fumbled an important life lesson for our children. Prizes won’t increase motivation—it actually lowers it. Why would a child attempt to improve when he or she is treated the same as the kid on the sidelines chasing butterflies?

Unfortunately, the “helicopter parenting” crowd has already profoundly affected our society.  Study after study on millennials show an increase in depression, anxiety, and a lack of coping skills with disappointment. How do we reframe this discussion with a generation of young people that have been sheltered from the harsh realities of losing?

https://www.forbes.com/sites/donyaeger/2015/08/25/you-dont-get-participation-awards-for-showing-up-to-work/#69e3c87c78e4.

These are all thought-provoking arguments, which, if true, are a damning indictment on participation awards.  After all, no one wants to raise a generation of lazy, entitled brats who won’t strive to achieve unless there’s the guarantee of a tangible reward.

 

But let’s take a step back and really look at those arguments, and then let’s contemplate whether the participation award doesn’t have some value.

First and foremost, I disagree with the sweeping assumption that millennials are doomed to a life of poor job performance, depression, and isolation.  From what I’ve seen, while millennials certainly have a different set of values (as their parents before them did), they aren’t values that suggest that we are on the precipice of disaster.  My oldest daughter, who’s 26, cares less about making a lot of money and more about having a job that she finds fulfilling – and, having just received a master’s degree in speech and language pathology, as well as a a job working with older teens with intellectual disabilities and autism, she had found her dream career where the work she does feeds her soul.  She and her fiance care less about driving a luxury vehicle or living in a mini-mansion than having free time to pursue leisure activities and jobs that will permit them to spend a lot of time with their kids, when they have them.  They and their friends are a lot less materialistic that my generation that came of age in the Big Big Big 1980’s – they aren’t very impressed with designer labels or other status symbols, and most of them have made at least one humanitarian trip by the age of 25.

These days, moreover, most high schools are requiring kids to participate in some form of community service as a requirement for graduation, and while prejudice, racism, and bigotry are all around us, most people under the age of thirty truly do not understand the hoopla over marriage equality, gay rights, or the LGBTQ community in general – it’s simply not an issue.  Millennials care about the environment and have been raised to recycle, to be mindful of the impact of greenhouse gasses, and the impact of deforestation and species extinction on our global ecosystem.  Those facts suggest to me a kinder, more tolerant, and other-focused generation.  Are there millennials who are assholes? Assuredly.  But blanket generalizations about millennials are no more accurate than those about baby boomers, or the “Greatest Generation” were.  And even if those generalizations were accurate, I disagree that the participation award is to blame, and if I had to point to the factors that may play some role in the sea change we see in millennials, I’d suggest that it’s the constant threat of terrorism, the prevalence of violence in schools, or the specter of climate change that informs the attitudes and actions of this particular generation.

Having said that, I’d like to make the case for the participation award, and I make it from the perspective of the World’s Worst Athlete, Hands Down, Ever, Case Closed, Goodnight Gracie.  I was – and this is true – always, always, ALWAYS the last to be picked for any team, whether in gym class or in the recess yard.  Even though I knew it was coming – and it always did – knowing that I was going to be picked last didn’t make it any less humiliating.  I recall one such occasion in which it came down to the last two of us, and when the captain of one team said, “I guess we’ll take ___ “ (the person who wasn’t me), the entirety of the other team groaned in unison.  Now, if that isn’t a prime example of an opportunity to feel like a loser and learning to cope with that reality, I don’t know what is.  Even when gym teachers handled team selection by counting off or going alphabetically, it was inevitable that when my teammates realized that they were going to be burdened with my predictably poor performance, they didn’t bother to hide their disappointment.

So it was that team sports were not an enjoyable experience for me, and since gym class was pretty much all about team sports (at least, when I was in grade school and middle school), it should come as no surprise that I shied away from anything even remotely athletic, save a brief period following the 1976 Summer Olympics when I (like ever 12 year old American girl) wanted to be Nadia Comaneci and took gymnastics class until my lack of talent and progress lead one instructor to tell me to just go home and stop wasting my parents’ money (true story).

Then, in seventh grade, for reasons that, to this day, continue to elude me, I decided to try out for the soccer team.  On the day that students were to show up for try-outs, I went to the wrong gym and found myself sitting among those who were there to play women’s field hockey.  I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d walked into the wrong room, and so I stayed for the meeting, picked up my hockey stick, and started showing up for practice.  That’s how I ended up playing 5/6 of a season of middle school field hockey.

I detested field hockey.  Truly, I don’t know if there are words to adequately describe how much I hated it.  Field hockey involves a lot of running, and a lot of running drills, and every day, it seemed, we spent hour after hour running up and down the field, doing “suicides,” or whatever they call it now, in which you run for 12 or 13 hours, without water, until you die.  I was always the last one finished, and you know what happens to the last one finished? They get to do it again while everyone else takes a break.  Now, I do not profess to know anything about sports coaching – nothing at all – and perhaps this technique was designed to help me improve out of sheer humiliation, but it didn’t, because everyone else on the field hockey team had at least some pretension of talent and skill, and they were all better runners – better EVERYTHING – than me – and there was no way I was ever going to be as good, or as fast, as the rest of them.

So I spent a lot of time running, up and down that stupid field, hating every minute of it.  It goes without saying that my other field hockey skills – hand/eye coordination, accuracy, etc. – were non-existent, and during the 5/6 of the season that I played on the Pennbrook Junior High School Junior Varsity Women’s Field Hockey Team, I played exactly 3 minutes of interscholastic competition, and that was about 2 minutes and 57 seconds longer than I would have liked.  I sucked.  I really and truly sucked.  Everyone on the team knew it, they made sure I knew it, and not once – not once did anyone, coach or player – offer me any encouragement whatsoever.  No, “hey, Wendy, good try!” No, “Way to stick it out even though you’re really, really bad at this!” Instead, what I heard was, “you suck.”  Which is fair, because I did.

Five-sixths of the way through the season, I decided I’d had enough, and I quit.  I think there was maybe a week left in the season, and my Mom was bewildered when I told her that I’d left the team.  “Why didn’t you just finish out the season?” she asked.  I couldn’t answer her, but the truth was, as much as I hated the running, my burning lungs, the tears that fell when, yet again, I came in last, it was the contempt I felt from my teammates that hurt the most.  I was so tired of being reminded for two hours every day how much I sucked – as if I needed reminding.

After that experience, I never, ever tried to play a team sport again, even for fun, like at a family picnic, and especially not at work events.  The summer softball game that was part and parcel of so many law firms where I’ve worked was always a cause for anxiety, but I’d always come up with an excuse why I couldn’t play (pregnancy got me out of at least two such games).  As I watched others play – some of whom weren’t all that good, and might have been worse than me if I’d given it a try – I got angry that my team sports experiences had been so negative that playing a game of pick-up softball (which everyone else seemed to be enjoying) was something I wouldn’t even consider.  There was no way I was going to risk demonstrating my lack of athletic prowess to my professional colleagues – no way.  So I’d sit in the bleachers pretending that I didn’t feel well.

Now, by this point, you’re probably saying, “gee, Wendy, that’s a shame that you suck so badly at sports and that people weren’t more supportive of you, but what does that have to do with participation awards?” Well, I’ll tell you:  If someone had given me an award – ANY award – for playing field hockey, I can tell you that I would have carried that award around with me my whole life.  It would have meant more to me than those I received for things like winning spelling bees, being the kid who read the most books over the summer, or earning the title of end-of-the-year math speed test champion.  Those awards and titles came easily to me, and even though they recognized my achievement, talent and skill, they didn’t require much effort (not at the grammar school level, anyway), so they were no big deal.  How hard was it to spell “syzygy”? How difficult is it to memorize your times tables and then write them down really fast?

But field hockey WAS hard.  It was agonizingly difficult.  Each night, after I got home from practice and ate dinner, I’d take my field hockey stick (number 56 – I still remember), and I’d go outside and practice my push-passes and dribbling down the field (which is probably not even what it’s called).  I tried – I really, really tried.  No one noticed, except me (and yes, I know, that’s the most important lesson of all).  But it would have been nice if, way back in 1977, there had been such a thing as a participation award, because maybe I would have stuck it out for the entire season, and MAYBE (it’s a big “maybe”) – I would have tried again the next year.  But we didn’t have participation awards in 1977; we had winners, losers, and contempt.

There are a lot of wonderful things about team sports.  I didn’t actually get to enjoy any of those as a field hockey player, but I did get the same teamwork-practice-goals-success piece of it as a member of a competitive marching band in high school, and I’m sure the joy and pride and accomplishment I experienced when our band won two state titles and one national championship were very close to what athletes feel when their team wins a big game – the sense of shared sacrifice, commitment, striving and success binding you forever to people you might not otherwise have encountered in your life.  I loved being in the band for the very same reason, I think, that others love playing team sports.  The lessons I learned as a member of the band have assisted me throughout my life and have made me a better person.  So, team sports can be a really great experience for kids, and we should encourage them to PARTICIPATE so they can learn some fundamental life lessons.

But a lot of kids don’t participate in team sports for precisely the same reasons I stopped after my field hockey debacle 40 years ago – because everyone knows who the stars are and everyone knows who sucks, and no one wants to be the one who sucks.  These days, especially, when kids are starting to play sports seriously at the age of 5, and it’s pretty much too late to try a new sport after the age of about 8, when parents are sending their kids for specialized supplemental training in middle school in order to increase their chance at making the travel team or the high school squad – well, it’s really bad to be the one who sucks (though those who do are weeded out soon enough).

The thing is, there are really, really good reasons to encourage kids to play team sports when they’re young, regardless of how good they are.  Some kids, for example, are late bloomers – their natural talent may not show up until they’re a little older.  There are also kids who just need a chance to get the hang of it, and that might take a few years.  There are still others who might never be a great player but for whom a team sport may be a window to friendships and experiences he or she might not otherwise have had, or who may find ways to participate as something other than a player – perhaps a team manager, or, later in life, as a coach.  For each of these sorts of players, participating in team sports can have a very beneficial effect, regardless of how “good” the player is.  And, of course, team sports is so much more that how you throw the ball; their value to most kids has less to do with how well they played than in what they learned about discipline, teamwork, and commitment.

Does the promise of a participation award guarantee that kids who normally wouldn’t play sports will give it a try? Maybe not – but it MIGHT encourage that kid to come back, even if he or she has had a tough season and is thinking about throwing in the towel.  The participation award also communicates that the player’s being there benefitted the group, not necessarily because he or she excelled, but because he or she was willing to make the commitment to the team and enable it to be a team – after all, most teams need between 10 – 20 players, depending upon the sport, and you can’t field a team with three superstars and a coach.

The participation award also acknowledges the importance of getting your butt off the sofa and onto the field, and who hasn’t heard at least one corporate CEO spout that old axiom, “the world is run by those who show up”?  Google it and peruse the many instances in which business leaders talk about the importance of just showing up – apparently, something that’s not quite as obvious as one would think.  It’s true, you aren’t likely to get an award at work merely for appearing each morning, but the importance of doing so – and, therefore, being in a position to achieve and succeed – is the raison d’etre of the participation award.  I’ve never been a huge fan of the participation awards more respectable cousin – the “perfect attendance” award – but when people talk about Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken as examples of dedication and commitment, it’s the fact that they never missed a game that they’re talking about.

When we encourage young people to show up, to try new things (even, and especially, when they’re not very good at them), when acknowledge the courage it takes to show up day after day, knowing your teammates (and probably the coaches, too), think you suck.  When we suggest that achievement and performance aren’t the most important thing in life, then maybe we also teach important values, such as persisting in the face of difficulty and being respectful of those whose talents don’t match our own.  As for that high school athlete who felt that her “exceptional talent” was being slighted by participation awards, I say, if you’re truly talented, and you’re willing to work to perfect that talent, you’re probably going to win a whole bunch of awards that recognize that skill and performance, such as team MVP, league champion, or whatever awards they give you when you play sports.  Your accomplishments are not diminished by the fact that someone with less natural talent than you was recognized for trying – and believe me, that person knows, as everyone else does, that you’re the better athlete, and always will be.

So I think participation awards may not be the worst thing next to parents who call principals and demanding that their child’s AP Chemistry grade be changed from a C to an A, or those who write they kids’ college essays or “heavily assist” in their third-grade diorama project (all bad things).  If there’s a way to encourage young people to play sports, and, in turn, to benefit from all that sports has to offer, is it such a big deal to recognize that those kids came out and tried? I’m not suggesting they receive a trophy that’s taller than they are; in fact, maybe instead of an award, the coach could say a few words about each kid and what they contributed to the team (maybe they do that anyway – I wouldn’t know).  The cream of the crop will rise to the top, and those who are truly without real talent will eventually step back once they find something else they enjoy and excel at, but I believe – I truly believe this – that the encouragement they receive as young players, being made to feel welcome and appreciated, will give them the confidence to try other things even if they aren’t sure they’ll be any good at it.

In the end, I did learn a lot from my field hockey experience even though I didn’t get a participation award.  I learned that it’s probably a good idea to speak up when you’re in the wrong room, and I also learned that sometimes, you’re not going to be very good at something no matter how hard you try, and if there are other things you’re interested in trying, it probably doesn’t make much sense prolonging the inevitable – in my case, quitting field hockey 5/6 of the way through the season.  I don’t believe that finishing out the season would have made me feel any better about my field hockey experience (in fact, another week of humiliation and agony would probably have done more harm than good), and I can’t say for sure that the promise of some sort of tangible recognition would have been enough to keep me at it for another week.  But it might have, although that probably says more about me than it does about participation awards.  Wendy does not have an athlete’s spirit.

I guess I’d just like for people to consider whether giving out some form of a participation award is really the reason why millennials are depressed and don’t want to “adult” and why the world is going to hell in a handbasket.  Does all that owe to the fact that some of them were applauded for showing up, when they were very young, and trying something new, knowing that others might be better than them or laugh at them? Or could it be the constant threat of terrorism, violence in schools, or the specter of climate change that gives millennials pause about how much longer they’ll be here and what condition the world will be in as long as they are?  In any case, no one ever died from having someone acknowledge their contribution, no matter how modest the form of such recognition; in fact, I think just the opposite is true.

By the way, I am giving myself a participation award for writing this blog.  The rest of you can heap on all the performance awards you want.

Mother Wendy’s Letter to Young People

June 23, 2017

Last week, a Massachusetts judge found Michelle Carter guilty of manslaughter after she sent a series of text messages to her boyfriend urging him to commit suicide. At the time, she was 17; her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, was 18. Both had a history of emotional problems.

The texts sent by Carter to Roy on the night he killed himself are chilling, and the story is heartbreaking on so many levels. As the mother of a teenager and two young women in their 20’s, I can’t even imagine what Roy’s parents must be going through – or Carter’s, for that matter, as they contemplate the years their daughter will serve in prison.

But Mother Wendy feels compelled to speak to the Young People (not that I have many Facebook Friends under the age of 40), and so I ask that you please indulge me as I address all the teenagers who may read this post.

Dear Young People:

Being a teen isn’t easy. Sometimes, it out-and-out sucks (my mother hates that word, by the way, and I only use it when I really want to make a point).

You have a lot on your mind, hormones coursing through your body, parents and teachers who are annoying and think the Periodic Table of the Elements is like, super important, and you don’t have a lot of power or self-determination. You’re dependent upon others for your basic necessities, which means that those others get to make a lot of decisions you maybe don’t like, and they also get to tell you what to do or, at the very least, severely limit your ability to do what you want.

Or maybe you have no one – no reliable adults, no support, nothing. Maybe the people who are supposed to be there for you aren’t, because of their job or drugs or prison or because they’re narcissists who should never had children. Maybe you have too much responsibility, and not enough resources. Maybe it feels like there’s no one there to help.

If there are supportive adults in your life, maybe they don’t remember what it’s like to be a teenager. They think that because they have jobs and mortgage payments and have to pay for health insurance and new transmissions that whatever you’re dealing with is minor by comparison, and maybe it is, to them, but it isn’t to you.

Sure, someday you’re the one who’s going to have to pay for the new washing machine or deal with a boss who’s an asshole, but for now, you have teenage-sized problems, and compared to middle-school or elementary school problems, they can feel all-consuming. Parents sometimes forget that things like chemistry tests, or not being included in a social event, or being teased for something about yourself that you can’t change, can feel like the world is ending. They may scoff when you complain about school, or friends, or your job, or maybe they one-up you with an “in my day” story in which they spent their entire youth wearing the same pair of underpants and working in a factory where people routinely got their arms cut off (probably not true, by the way).

Please try to remember, when this happens, that sometimes adults really don’t remember what it’s like to be young. Even more importantly, they probably don’t realize just how different a place the world is these days. My oldest was 10 when 9/11 happened, and she’s spent her young-adult life with an awareness of just how quickly a beautiful Tuesday morning can turn into a nightmare that changes everything, forever. She has lived with the uncertainty and fear that the terrorism and school shootings and economic collapse have fomented, and so has every other young person under the age of 30. So it’s not easy, and when adults tell you to shake it off, it’s because they forget that when they were younger, they used to ride their bikes to the store to buy a soda, walk unaccompanied to school, and didn’t have to be taught about “good touch/bad touch.”

So, even when you have supportive adults in your life and a pretty stable situation (a relative privilege these days, it seems), things can still be rough, because neurotypical teenage behavior is fraught with drama and angst and urgency. Your body and your brain aren’t done baking yet, so that you’re subject to wild mood swings and may be easily frustrated when things don’t go your way.

Guess what? That’s normal.

What you don’t know yet is that how things may feel on any given day is very much like the weather in London: Don’t like it? Wait a few minutes. It’ll change. I don’t say this to minimize the importance of the things you may be struggling with, or to be patronizing, or to suggest that the things that teenagers are focused on are frivolous. I was a teenager once, and for all my wailing about my Double A bra size and the fact that no boy would go out with me, you would have thought I was a penniless, homeless orphan with terminal cancer and a bad perm – just ask any of my high school friends. They’re all on Facebook. They remember.

What you also don’t know is that, with the exception of very extreme and dire circumstances (and, frequently, even in the case of very extreme and dire circumstances)…this too shall pass. It gets better. Hang in there.

I know, I know, I KNOW. Not the words you want to hear, not very helpful when it feels like the world is about to end. You don’t understand, Mother Wendy, you may be thinking.

Ah, but I do. I do. There’s a reason that old people like me say things like this: Because we’ve been there. We’ve felt that fear and frustration and sadness, and we’ve cried those tears. Just because we dye our (grey) hair, don’t know how to Snapchat, and are totally lame in just about every way a person can be, if there is NOTHING else that we know, we know this:

You won’t always feel this way.

I promise.

But when you ARE feeling this way, and if it isn’t going away, and you’re starting to feel like there are no answers, you must hear this: No matter how sad, depressed, desperate, or lonely, you may be, THERE IS HELP. There are people to talk to, medications that can drastically improve your mood and correct organic chemical imbalances, and facilities where care is available.

There are ways to get better, and people who want to help. No one will judge you – they’d rather help you than mourn you. If your parents won’t listen, talk to a friend. If your friends won’t listen, talk to a teacher. If a teacher won’t help, because she’s busy staring at the Periodic Table of the Elements, talk to your friends’ parents, and if none of those people will help, Uber yourself to the emergency room and say, “I NEED HELP.” Yes, that’s hard and dramatic and scary beyond belief, but it’s better than being dead.

Young People, there are answers, and whatever is going on, you can endure this. So, no matter how bad things may seem, DON’T KILL YOURSELF. DON’T. JUST DON’T. And if you’ve got a “friend” who’s suggesting that you should, you need to end that “friendship,” like, yesterday.

I’m an old lady with a bad right knee, I am wildly out of touch with pop culture, I love nothing better than doing crossword puzzles in my jammies, or pruning trees, or watching koala videos. I use words like “notwithstanding,” and things I find interesting include memorizing world capitals and the Periodic Table of the Elements. In other words, I’m completely irrelevant.

Except that I will always be here for you, Young Person, whomever you are, even if you don’t know me, even if you think I’m an idiot (mostly, you’re right). I’m at least one person who cares about you, even if I don’t know you, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one. If things are rough, I will be here in any way I can, and so will a lot of people. Even if you’re getting through life one minute at a time, there are people who care.

Stay tough, get help if you need it, and know that things will get better. It may take a while, but they Will. Get. Better.

Love, Mother Wendy