Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day!

Hey friends!  I hope you are all having a lovely day.

As part of our February fourteenth decor, I made an eye-chart inspired poster featuring a quote from Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways/I love thee..."

And guess what?  I resized my image for you, just in case you need a last minute valentine.  Download and print right here.

For personal use only.  Thanks!    

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Beauty and the Boys: the challenge of raising a "nice guy"

One of my favorite snapshots, taken last spring.  

As I straightened my hair in front of the bathroom mirror, my three-year-old son walked through the door and asked what I was doing. 

"Straightening my hair."  


"To make it look pretty."

The moment the words came out of my mouth, I wished I could have taken them back.  What I really meant is that I like the way I look with my hair straightened, just like I like the way I look with makeup on, or when I wear my favorite clothes.  But it wasn’t what I said.  What my son heard was that my hair would be pretty after I had finished straightening it.

There are days when my hair isn't done, when my makeup isn't on, and days when I’m wearing yoga pants and a worn t-shirt leftover from high school.  Most of the time, I am less than pulled-together.  I only occasionally wear makeup, my hair is almost always thrown into some form of haphazard bun/ponytail thing.  When it’s time to head out the door, my hurried attempts to spruce up my own appearance are often accompanied by negative self-criticism. We parents, and especially mothers, are the lens our children see the world through.  If I am constantly criticizing my own appearance, it doesn't matter how many times I tell them that "everyone is beautiful," or "you’re perfect just the way you are" if I stand in front of the mirror audibly complaining about my hair/love handles/bags under my eyes.  Children are not stupid. They see the hypocrisy (probably better than I can). 
I have read a ton of articles on raising strong, confident daughters.  I worry about the social pressures that my daughter will face; I worry that she won't feel pretty enough or smart enough or just plain enough.  But until recently, I hadn't really thought about how all of this affects my son.  The truth of the matter is that he is exposed to cultural ideas of beauty and womanhood and "pretty" just as much as my daughter is.  He's sitting next to her on the couch when they watch Disney princess movies and beside her in the shopping cart when we walk down the girly aisles at Target.  He sees the perfume ads on the backs of my Martha Stewart magazine just like she does.

What makes me even more nervous for my son is that if I don't model and teach what I believe true beauty to be—intelligence, compassion, verve, perseverance, integrity—he has the potential to become part of the same sort of patriarchy that I want so badly for my daughter to discount.  Additionally, it would be naïve to assume boys are never self-conscious of their own appearance.  Too short/tall/fat/ whatever is an issue both boys and girls face.  
My question today is not how to raise a strong daughter.  There are scores of articles and essays and lists on this topic already. What I’m after is how to raise a son who respects women and who recognizes the true beauty in others and in himself.  A quick internet search produced some very general lists of answers: teach him that it’s okay to have feelings, positive father involvement, etc.  Some good thoughts, but like I said, very general.  After giving this topic a lot of consideration, I've decided to share some of my own ideas.       

Here's my list for me and The Buster:   
1. Sometimes dress up to do ordinary things.  I’m not talking every day, and I’m not talking evening-wear dress-up.  Wear a skirt on a Tuesday to go grocery shopping.  Put on makeup for my turn to host playgroup.  Be comfortable and confident in being feminine. 

2. Sometimes don’t dress up at all.  Wear yoga pants and clean the house together.  Get sweaty and go on a bike ride together.  Let him wear my apron to help make dinner.  Make certain he knows how much I value spending time with him. 

3. In reference to other people’s appearances (and my own), use kind words.  Think before I speak.
4. Tell him he’s smart.  Thank him for being kind.  Admire his bravery.  But also tell him the things I love about the way he looks: his red curls, that one-in-a-million freckle that sits dead center on the tip of his nose, how he can make great monster faces, and how much I love his smile.

5. Tell him his sister is smart.  That she is just as smart as he is.   That she can be as brave as he is.   That she is beautiful.  But also tell him that he is lucky to have a sister, and even luckier that she can be his friend.  Encourage him to use kind words.  Agree with him when he says she has “Rapunzel hair” or exclaims “she looks like a princess!” when she wears a hair bow.  Tell him all girls are princesses.  Tell him princesses are smart. 

6. Tell him I am smart.  Help him find answers to his questions when I don’t know instead of telling him to wait and “ask Dad when he gets home from work.”

7. Read together, fiction and non-fiction.  Read some books off of those “raising strong girls” book lists.  Introduce him to female characters that are smart, compassionate, funny, and engaging.  Let him see me reading.     

8. Explain that sometimes people—girls and boys—have a hard time remembering that they are beautiful.  Remind him that we are all the same, all children of God.  Remind him to be kind.

9. Give him lots of hugs and kisses.

10. Tell him every single day that I love him.   
What about you?  What would you add to this list?  

Friday, January 18, 2013

(No) Thanks for the Recommendation, Netflix!

image via

Today, The Buster found a children’s program on Netflix called The Wheels on the Bus and immediately begged to watch it.  As far as I can tell, the premise of the show is to ride around on a bus singing repetitive songs and to foster basic childhood skills (the episode we watched promoted the virtues of getting along, sharing, not procrastinating, washing our hands, and eating healthy snacks).  Sometimes the passengers get off of the bus and the viewers are treated to a video montage of things like insects and parades. 

I’m sure this doesn't sound much different than any other children’s program.  But the thing is that the people on the bus are crazy-weird.  The bus is driven by Roger Daltrey (lead singer of The Who) dressed in a full-body dragon costume.  Or at least the dragon is voiced by Roger Daltrey…it’s likely someone else wearing the actual costume.  Other bus riders include an assortment of mismatched puppets, some people wearing what look like cast-off mascot costumes, and some (mostly) normal people.  The kids are all future music-dance-theater majors, the grown-ups keep on smiling, and there is some guy dressed up like a clown/mime.  Add in some terrible computer animation and some random children appearing as singing, dancing, fairies and you have half an hour of my life that I will never get back.  Naturally, The Buster was riveted to the screen.    

This is where good-mommy-me and I-like-the-arts-me have an internal struggle.  The overall message of The Wheels on the Bus is great.  No one is hitting anyone else.  No one is being called stupid or dumb.  We’re learning about taking turns.  I want to like it, but the part of me that sat through all those theatre, literature, and film classes is threatening to throw a fit.  The lessons are a bit heavy-handed, the production values poor.  I want children’s programming to be smart, funny, and high-quality.  And I want it to be watchable, and not just by The Buster and Miss Meatball.  I want to see what they are watching—is there a new concept that I need to explain or help reinforce?  Or something a character did that I don’t want my kids doing?  We spend a limited amount of time watching TV and I don’t want to spend it watching rubbish.  Or things I find straight-up annoying (Dora the Explorer, I’m looking at you). 
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of great stuff out there.  The PBS line-up is predictably good—where we live Barney is out and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is in (thank goodness).  Sesame Street is as fantastic as ever.   And while I still think that the Man in the Yellow Hat is a terrible pet owner (seriously, if Curious George were a human child, DFACS would have stepped in) and that Super Why should stop changing all those stories, I’m grateful for all the quality children’s media options available.  

What are your favorite children’s television programs?  Least favorite?  In addition to the shows mentioned above, we like Kipper, Charlie and Lola, and The Octonauts.   

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My Les Mis

There I am, right next to Jean Valjean.  My eyes are shut because, apparently, that note is a beast to hit.  Or I'm just blinking. Or both.  

It seems somehow appropriate that the film version of Les Misérables was released this year—ten years after my own Les Mis experience.  I saw the film version a couple of weeks ago and I still can’t stop singing the songs (you’re welcome, family).  I loved the movie for both its own sake (seriously, were you listening to Anne Hathaway? and looking at that camera work?) and for all of the Les Mis-associated memories it brought back.      

The original London cast performance of Les Misérables opened on October 8, 1985, the day before I was born.  In a very literal sense, Les Mis has been there my whole life.      

I can’t pinpoint the moment the musical entered my consciousness, but I know it hadn’t registered as important until the year my high school drama teacher decided we would put on a production in our run-down auditorium.  I knew some of the songs, a bit about the plot, and absolutely nothing about what the musical would do to my junior year of high school.  Les Mis changed me.  I know it sounds kind of hokey and clichéd, but really.  It did.  That production, my production, was one of the defining experiences of my adolescent years. 

At seventeen, the themes of love, redemption, and identity resonated with me—really, aren’t they what being a teenager is about?  Figuring out who you are, messing up a lot and trying again, learning that love is both exquisitely simple and devastatingly complex.    
Check out that hoop skirt! 

And then there was just how hard we all worked and the people we had the opportunity to work with.  The musical was so very big and we were all so very young.  Talented, but young and only minimally experienced.  Few of us had performed outside of other school productions.  Our teachers believed that we could do it, though.  Matt and Kelly and Trevor and the loads of other adults who I used to call Mr. and Mrs. never questioned whether or not we were capable.  Instead, they told us to keep working.  I wish I could adequately thank them all for that.     

Of all the hundreds of hours of rehearsals, I remember one in particular; we visited a homeless shelter to sing some highlights of the musical.  I remember our teacher’s words as he spoke to the people there about the songs we would sing.  Jean Valjean was transformed for me…he became someone who was “down on his luck” who “wanted a better life.”  And there were nods and mmm-hmms and eyes that brightened with comprehension.    I remember the sudden understanding that this wasn’t a story written for a dressed-up, theatre-going elite.  “For the wretched of the earth/there is a flame that never dies/even the darkest night will end/and the sun will rise;” we were singing about hope and hope is for everyone, particularly the hopeless.    

I just dug out a cd someone made of one of our dress rehearsals, and I am struck more than anything by the sincerity of our voices.  I love that.  I listen to the pit orchestra struggle along in the background as Jared sings “Stars.”  Ben and Jessica break my heart with “A Little Fall of Rain.”  I shake my head at the number of high Cs I hit.  “One Day More” still gives me goose bumps from the moment Matt starts singing.  I miss that entire cast.

Favorite Les Mis memories, HHS or otherwise, go! 
Yeah...everyone else is paying attention to something important and I'm looking at a Mr. T coloring book.