The Campification of Summer

As the school year winds down, there is really only one thing left to decide: where are we sending the kids to summer camp?

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, you have a multitude of choices. Just thumbing through our local directory, I see Lacrosse Camp, Ballet Camp, Forensics Camp, Archery Camp, Bible Camp, Volleyball Camp, Sewing Camp, Reading Camp, and even a Camping Camp. There are beaucoup opportunities this June, July, and August. A bunch sound super-cool.

Except I don’t think we are going to do any of them.

Working parents: I get it. School is closed. You need places to park your kids. You folks, I understand. But the rest of us? The stay-at-home dads? The work-from-home moms? What is our excuse? Was there some meeting I missed when we all got together and decided to pee on summer?

But my daughter loves soccer. So play soccer with her.

But my son loves to paint. Then give him paper and a brush.

Since when did a child’s passing interest in an activity translate into automatic enrollment in summer camp? Why are we so eager to contract out this parenting stuff? Last year, I paid 300 bucks for my daughter to participate in a week of Music Camp — Monday-Friday, 9-5 — culminating in a performance on Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure any experience has ever made her dislike music more.

And I’m not alone. I know folks who spend thousands of dollars to bounce their children from one ill-run, overpriced camp session to the next. Our kids are frazzled and exhausted. In July. During the school year, we have accelerated the pace of academic skills in young children. We over-homework, over-test, and over-schedule. But summer…summer used to be untouchable — marshmallows, fireflies, skinned knees, ice cream. What the heck happened?


I would keep them home, but everybody else is at camp and I don’t want them to be bored. Why not? Boredom is good for kids. It’s the big empty field of possibility. And it is a necessary part of summer. Boredom inspired our epic Kick the Can battle of August, 1985. Boredom inspired us to invent Tree Tag, a game that only ended with blood or mayhem. Boredom gave birth to Mud Bakery, Baby in the Air, and countless other awesome/useless games to fill idle time. Defying boredom used to be the creative work of childhood. We drew with chalk, and rode bikes, and had lemonade stands, and planted gardens, and held talent shows, and picked dandelions, and walked to the library, and stayed up too late, and awoke without an alarm. It was like retirement for children. We learned how to be at ease in our own skin.

Now summer has become Chess Camp, Baseball Camp, and Pottery Camp. On balance, chess, baseball, pottery…these are all terrific hobbies. But do you really want to knit for five hours every day? Or play the violin? If I were a kid, I would be afraid to show a predilection for much of anything. Do one card trick and you are off to Magic Camp. Have a bake sale and it’s Cooking Camp for you.

But I don’t know how to play chess, so I HAVE to send the kids to camp. I hem my skirts with a stapler. Believe me, I understand the allure of Sewing Camp. But I also like the idea of my children and I learning something together. Last month, we tried a Paleo cookbook. This week, we are muddling our way through Intro to Piano. We played a clumsy version of “Heart and Soul” before bed last night. It sounded like “Chopsticks,” but it was great fun.

I am not against all organized summer activities. I know high school students who take Math courses or SAT Prep to get their schedules in order for the upcoming school year. My friend’s daughter is trying for a scholarship, so she attends gymnastics clinics throughout the summer. I, myself, went to Show Choir Camp. Yup. Twice. Super-nerdy. Also fantastic. For four nights, we hung out in a college dorm, ate pizza, and congregated with other singing and dancing nerdballs just like us. But we were fifteen, not five.

This kindergarten camp stuff is different. Parent-driven. Like some bizarre competition to get our children ahead. As though plopping a kid into Soccer Camp at age four will ensure high school varsity stardom. I’m afraid we are raising a generation of torn rotator cuffs and worn-out knees. We teach our children drive. We would be wise to teach them leisure, too.

So, sure. Book a camp, maybe even two. But otherwise, man, let the kids play. Stake out July. Declare August sacrosanct. Rededicate summer to barbecues, swimming pools, mosquito bites, and bicycles. Make the most difficult question your kids answer be: Will the lightening bugs really die if I don’t poke holes in the lid? This isn’t just nostalgia. It is necessity. These are glory days. They are numbered. And we are missing them.


Originally published by the New York Observer.





There Is More than One Way to Load a Dishwasher

My husband is in charge of bedtime tonight. Which is why it is 10:24 and all three children are still awake.

I don’t mind breaking rules. I hold cereal taste tests for dinner and let the kids eat hot dogs for breakfast. In an era of helicopter parenting, my children run barefoot, climb trees, and walk by themselves to the corner store. But when it comes to bedtime, I am regimental: Bath, Jammies, Teeth, Books, Sleep. This is a half-hour process, though I have gotten it done in as little thirteen minutes, seven if I skip the bath.

My husband’s strategy is different. He strives to wear the children out. “It’s simple,” he says. “Play hard, sleep hard.” I think he developed this theory on a college bender. When Dad does bedtime, it is customary for the kids to fall asleep in the same clothing that they wore to school. With Nutella on their faces. And smiles. He frequently skips Bath, Jammies, Teeth, and Books, and goes straight to Circus Stunts. When I went in to say good night just now, they were practicing acrobatics.

“Watch this, Mom,” shrieked my five-year-old. “It’s called cannonball!” She tucked her forehead to her knees just as her father hurled her three feet into the air. She landed upside-down in a pile of pillows, laughing.

I looked at him. “Really?”

“At least she didn’t hit the ceiling fan this time,” he said. Then he turned his attention to our two-year-old who was demanding a trick called, “Beeto,” which seemed merely to involve Dad shoving him to the mattress by his face.

Despite our philosophical differences regarding bedtime, we no longer argue about it. I used to implore my husband to stop thrashing the children and read them a damn story. He used to ask me why I insisted on so many freaking baths. “Didn’t we just clean them yesterday?”

But somewhere along the way, we realized this was not a disagreement worth having. It just wasn’t. My husband works in an office, and he actually misses playing with the kiddos. I work from home. I see them constantly, and by bedtime, I am desperate to have them out of my sight. But even if this was not the case, arguing over bedtime routines is wasted breath.

In fact, a lot of our old arguments have fallen by the wayside. We no longer squabble over what goes in the kids’ lunch boxes, how the clothes are folded, or how to load the dishwasher. (He does it terribly WRONG, but it just isn’t an argument worth having.)

We could easily fill our lives with disagreements about these things. But we have bigger fish to fry. We are raising three little humans and every day there are hundreds of questions to answer. Can I cut my Barbie’s hair? Do I have to wear matching socks? Can I please wear these purple shoes to build a time machine in the garage? In the beginning, we made up all of our answers. Often, Dad said YES, and Mom said NO. Occasionally, vice versa. But after ten years of inventing answers to our kids’ incessant questions, something funny has happened: we finally know what it is that we stand for.

We are for love, but not indulgence. We want our kids to feel safe, but also curious and to know adventure. We nourish their wellness with good food and exercise. We teach them to be brave, honest, modest, and kind.

And that’s about it.

I think too many of us argue about the little stuff — the toys, the dishes, the bedtimes — because it is so much easier than figuring out the big stuff. Deciding where our children will put their dinosaurs is way simpler than determining what we will teach them about God. Or Santa Claus. Or sex before marriage. Saying NO to mismatched socks is easier than talking about nonconformity, or popularity, or whether it is more important to be accepted by peers than to be secure in your own skin.

My husband and I could definitely argue about the dishwasher. (I mean, my God, he puts Tupperware lids on the bottom rack.) But there is so much more to figure out. When our daughters say they want to be cheerleaders, will we let them? And how about our son? We have taught all three how to punch, but will all three learn how to sew, too? The oldest is asking about home school. Should we try it? The kids are toying with piano, but the middle one wants a drum kit. Can we still say we support the Arts if we don’t want a drummer in the house? When we want to argue, this is where we spend our breath. Who are we hoping these children will be? How are we helping them get there?

When we think about it that way, it turns out there are plenty of parenting rules that are actually not rules at all. Kids are marvelously resilient. They can eat Cheerios for breakfast or sushi. It does not matter. The trick is in valuing one another’s choices in front of the children, and letting them know there is more than one way to pack a lunch, style a Barbie, and even (gasp!) load the dishwasher. Lots of questions have more than one right answer. Just as there are many ways to be brave, honest, modest, and kind.




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Solidarity Brothers and Sisters

Other Mothers Day

Let me begin by saying I love my mother. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Thank you for all these years of unconditional love, laughter, and great cooking. Your guidance and care echo in my heart every day.

Now let me continue for everybody else.

We are all mothers today.

We all mother.

Even if you are a childless man, you mother.

If you are a moody teenager, you mother.

All of us nurse, protect, cherish, and tend to the people we love in this world. At least, we should. And THAT is what this weekend is reminding us. To mother.

Sure, take your mom to brunch if that’s what she really wants. But the day is not about seafood omelets or exclusivity. Mother’s Day is about celebrating mothering. Let’s minister to the sick, defend the weak, nurture the young, the old, the rich, the poor.

In recent years, I have seen women crying on Mother’s Day, weeping openly during the “Ave Maria,” or muffling sobs in contemplative prayer. Last year, a friend told me Mother’s Day was when she missed her mom the most. Of course, it is a day to remember, reflect, and pay homage to the women who birthed us. But we need not leave it there.

Mother’s Day can also be an occasion to check ourselves. Do we mother our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers enough? Do we nourish, tend, and enrich others on this planet the way we should? The way all our mothers taught us to?

That’s right…mothers. Those who birthed us AND all those Other Mothers – the many men and women, both young and old, who held our hands and guided us along the way.

I am blessed to have many Other Mothers. I have auntie-mothers, and boss-mothers, and sister- and brother-mothers. I have a father-mother, and a grandma-mother, and a former-next-door-neighbor-mother. I have had teacher-mothers and student-mothers. I even have a husband-mother. And, of course, a mother-mother.

Let’s all be mothers today. Definitely call your mom. Give her your love. Chances are if you are close, you do this all the time anyway. But call one of your Other Mothers today, too. Don’t weep because you have lost someone. Well, you can do that, but don’t let it be the only thing you do today. Thank an Other Mother. Let that person know he/she loved you, led you, nourished you, and mothered you. And that you are always there to mother right back. Pay it forward and backward today. Let Mother’s Day heal.

Be the mother all your mothers taught you to be.


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Health & Fitness & Oreos Uncategorized

Little Surfer Girl

Lizzie went surfing today with her preschool class. Say what you will about Angelinos, but they knock some things out of the park. Lifeguards picked up the kiddos and drove them to the beach, where they played Sharks and Minnows, donned teeny-tiny wetsuits, and then kayaked, surfed, and sailed. All morning, I was wide-eyed. It was like watching the best kind of magic show – children dazzled by one mountaintop experience after another, all before lunch.



Big idea for today: it is fun to say yes. All day long I say NO. No cookies, no marshmallows, no hitting, no arguing, no jumping on the bed. But today we said, YES.  YES you can surf, and YES you can sail. And everyone was happy. I like YES days.


Why We Do Not Take Family Vacations

My husband and I vacationed separately this spring.

Friends have asked whether our marriage is okay.

It is. Though sometimes we daydream about leaving. Just hopping in the car and driving away.

Not from one another. From the children.

It’s not that we dislike them. They are delightful. They walk and talk and eat soup. But we also kind of hate them. Not in a mean way. Just in a we-wish-they-lived-somewhere-else-sometimes kind of way.

I like the idea of family time. The five of us in the car on an adventure — to explore a canyon, a riverbed, a zoo. But in reality, time spent together with our children is just awful.

Our kids are two, five, and ten. There is very little that entertains all three of them. We’ve tried biking. The oldest does okay, but the younger two are basically ballast, adding seventy pounds to the bicycle trailer of whichever parent happens to be healthiest at the moment we set out. We’ve tried skiing. My husband and I hit the slopes with the oldest kiddo while the little ones run up a tab in the childcare room, and trade colds and flu bugs with the other inmates. We’ve tried hiking, but on our last rocky sojourn, we carried two-and-a-half crying children the last three-fourths of a mile.

For birthdays and holidays, we would prefer to give our children experiences rather than toys. But most experiences come with a height and weight requirement. At the amusement park, the child who was over forty-eight inches tall rode roller coasters, while the munchkins spun in circles on flying bananas and elephants. When we attempted horseback riding, only the girls and I rode, while my husband and the toddler napped in the car.

Even when we are together, we are not.

So this year, we called it like it is. Dad and Katie camped the Grand Canyon while Mom, Lizzie, and Henry visited family in the Midwest. For the most part, this division worked. I like to hobnob and kvetch with relatives. My husband is good for about twenty minutes before he’s off to nap or play chess on his phone. Conversely, he enjoys beef jerky and sleeping under the stars. I don’t mind camping, but after about four hours, I miss salads. And chairs. So this split arrangement suited us.

Katie at Grand Canyon

Surely there were inequities: Lizzie missed additional school days, while Katie begrudgingly had to attend. I drove in spring snow, while my husband came back with a tan. But there were also advantages. He was able to take one child to the Canyon without worrying that the other two would fall in. I visited my ninety-four-year-old grandmother without my tween interrupting to find her favorite programs on the Disney Channel. I also spent a perfectly wonderful afternoon with my five-year-old. We went shopping, to tea, and had a lengthy conversation about kittens. I was not impatient with her like I so often am when corralling all three kids in and out of the car. Everyone had individual attention and age-appropriate escapades. The ten-year-old canoed with her Dad while 2000 miles away, the little ones went to the dinosaur museum with their auntie and uncle. And our children — the kids who routinely smack one another with tennis rackets and chase each another with sticks, the people who proclaim, “I wish I never had a sister!” — these clowns actually had time to miss one another. Maybe we need less family time rather than more.


Or maybe the whole point of family vacations is not enjoyment but endurance. Maybe traveling with kin is supposed to be cataclysmic. Your job is simply to survive and tell the story. My husband remembers a family sailing trip to Greece as one of the mountaintop experiences of his childhood. He caught an octopus. He learned to snorkel. He dragged behind a boat in the Cephalonian Sea. When I ask his parents about this same trip, they remember the family unity, the way they sang together, fished together, and ate what they caught. How they shared their dreams under an impossibly blue sky. But I call bullshit. I bet if I had witnessed the week during which they were all trapped in close quarters on that listing sloop, I would have seen navigational discord and tantrums, seasickness and tedium, and at least one person threatening to abandon ship.

But that’s not what they remember.

And it turns out, it is the memory — the idea of family time — that matters. The essence of the experience is what lasts. Thus, our children believe they are awesome campers, rather than the jackasses who argued over the s’mores sticks until someone caught on fire. They believe they can kayak, surf, and paddleboard, even though when we do those things, the girls complain about “the ocean getting them wet,” while the youngest rolls on the beach and eats sand. They tell people they like to bike, hike, and ski.

If that is the case, maybe one of these days, my husband and I will drive, fly, or even sail somewhere with all three of our children. As long as, when it is all over, we can drive, fly, or sail somewhere without them. Because regardless of what they remember, I know we will need a vacation to recover from that ragged, wonderful, bullshit vacation. And with any luck, as we reflect back on the memories, it will all turn into the same glorious trip.


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