For some people, the Coronavirus quarantine has a silver lining—getting to spend more time with family. For others, too much family time has been a source of contention and frustration. I keep wondering what it would have been like if this pandemic happened when my kids were younger and still living at home. I shudder to think of it!
Not because I don’t value family time, because I most certainly do. But enforced family time without breaks and activities outside the house with other people would feel claustrophobic and strained.
I loved aspects of summer when the kids were off school and we had no set routine. But we weren’t stuck at home. We had plenty of activities to choose from, including swimming lessons, bicycling, pool and park visits, Park & Rec baseball, trips to see cousins, and day camps in art, theater, and soccer. My girls and I even ran our own day camp—Camp Moore—and the art fair/tie dye parties. Our backyard was filled with friends and neighbors. I can’t imagine summer without kids trotting across our lawn every day.
But even without a pandemic, we had enough family mishaps and mayhem, as I shared earlier. In fact, you might feel like Parent of the Year after reading some of our family events gone awry. No idealistic Norman Rockwell moments here.
Of course, since Murphy’s Law reigns supreme, these incidents often happened when I was trying to adhere to sound, well-intentioned parenting advice from “the books” and “experts.” Or when I stopped caring about all the advice.
Principle #1 — Girls playing with Barbie dolls will have a false concept of body image and true beauty.
I grew up playing with Barbies. My sister and I had numerous Barbies, 100 outfits, Skipper dolls, Barbie cases, and Barbie houses. My mom even made Barbie dresses for our dolls’ wardrobe. Carol and I thoroughly enjoyed our Barbie times together, oblivious to any negative impact from playing with full-figured dolls.
But as an adult on the brink of parenthood, I decided to ditch Barbie. Yes, I’d saved her all those years. Wistfully, I sold my Barbie stuff (still in pretty decent shape!) to a toy collector and declared our house a Barbie-free zone.
Instead, Kaia and Audrey happily played with baby dolls, Water Babies, Beanie Babies, American Girl dolls, and a miniature dollhouse.
But one day, six-year-old Kaia participated in a toy survey and earned a prize—a Barbie doll, of all things! I couldn’t very well snatch it from her. Then at her birthday party, she received one or two more Barbie dolls plus clothing. I guess I’d forgotten to say “no Barbies” on the invitation. It was the end of an era. Good-bye, baby dolls. So sad.
Principle #2 — Take a little time for yourself now and then.
But don’t let that downtime be at Six Flags Great America.
When my girls were eight and six (and every elementary year after that), I took them to Great America for the day with free tickets they’d earned for summer reading. We had a great time. We walked all over that park and stood in line after line for whatever rides struck their fancy. At dusk, I was exhausted, but they were still going strong, especially on the Raceway where lines had dwindled to nothing.
I accompanied them the first two times, but whenever the ride ended, they hopped back into line and jumped right back into a car for another loop around the track. Exhausted, I sat on the bench and let them have their fun. I recall thinking about what a great day we’d had, and how wonderful that they were independent enough to take this ride by themselves. It was a day well lived, and a quiet moment well deserved.
Interrupting my pleasant daydream, a woman tapped me on the shoulder. “Is that your daughter?” She pointed to a girl hanging off the back of one of the race cars. Oh, my word! It was my Audrey, flapping in the breeze like a one of the Six Flags, having the time of her life as her sister drove like an Indianapolis 500 racer.
Principle #3 — Don’t pamper your kids too much when they get hurt. Sometimes they are just fine but react to your reactions.
Well, we took this too far at least three times. The first time, Kaia hurt her wrist while sledding. But she wasn’t screaming and seemed able to function, so we deemed it a sprain. We encouraged her to tough it out. Three days later, it still hurt so we had it x-rayed. It was broken and she needed a cast.
Did we learn our lesson? No. About five years later, a similar thing happened when she fell while roller skating. We didn’t take her to the doctor for at least two days, then felt guilty the whole time she wore that cast.
When Audrey was seven, I took the kids hiking. The girls ran ahead of their little brothers and me. Suddenly, the sounds of somebody wailing sliced the air. Audrey had tripped and rolled down a very long, woodsy hill.
She got up yelling across the forest to me. “Mom, I have to go to the doctor! I bumped my head. If I don’t go to the doctor, I’ll have to miss school, and if I miss school, I won’t be able to do my homework, and if I can’t do my homework, I’ll be STUPID!”
That is word-for-word what she said. Pretty logical cause-and-effect thinking for someone who just bumped her head! I figured she was fine. And she was.
But in eighth grade, she joined cross-country at school. She huffed and puffed her way from race to race, park to park. She’d never run like that before, so I assumed she was getting into shape and would eventually be able to run without tiring so quickly. But she wasn’t any better at the end of the season.
We went to the doctor and discovered she had exercise-induced asthma. She needed an inhaler. I felt terrible. I wish we’d gone to the doctor sooner. Besides being able to breathe better, she would have derived much more pleasure from her running.
For awhile, seems every time Tim and I went to a wedding together, trouble erupted at home when we left the kids. By then, they were ages 14, 12, 7, and 5. One time, neighbor boys sneaked into the basement of our house and turned off the circuit breakers! That turned into a standoff between our four kids and them.
Another time, Colin and Jeff were playing basketball in their bedroom. Colin fell and hit his face (right above the eye) on the corner of a shelf. We gave medical advice to Kaia over the phone several times during the wedding reception (we were about an hour away, on Lake Michigan). But when we got home, it was clear he needed stitches. So off we went to the ER.
Later, seven-year-old Jeffrey got the benefit of our previous negligence. He broke his finger on a Slip and Slide at his own birthday party. Poor guy! We took him to the doctor right after the last guest left. We’d learned our lesson.
Principle #4 — More than learning their ABCs, kids need mother-child bonding during their formative years.
I took this to heart, especially after reading David Elkind’s The Hurried Child, and others. Normally, I’m not in favor of pre-school, but we had the opportunity to send our kids to Milwaukee’s German Immersion School for four-year-old kindergarten—a great place to learn a second language naturally. Their half-day program appealed to me because the kids could still spend most of the day at home with me.
Above: Audrey & Colin (10 & 5), 2002
But when Colin started school, the program went to a full day of 4-K. No way! I enrolled him but only sent him to school two or three days a week. So when February rolled along, we received a truancy letter in the mail—Colin was only five. Though he was doing fine at school (other than being absent 50% of the time), I ended up pulling him out and we had extra bonding time at home with a lot of Legos, crafts, and cookie-baking.
And now he aspires to do great things!
Principle #5 — Keep your child safe at all times.
I tried, I really did. But some kids defy all parental efforts. The first year of Jeffrey’s life, I carried him around in a backpack. He was my fourth child, and I was constantly running around with the other three, so into the backpack he went. It gave him a great view of everything, and it kept my hands free to tend to the others. I was careful to secure his “seatbelt” tightly each time I slipped him in.
We went everywhere—the park, the zoo, the Freedom Trail in Boston, and Six Flags Great America. We stood by the Boston Harbor and on ledges and stairways at the theme park. Then one day, at County Stadium (before the building of Miller Park), while we were standing in the bleachers, Jeffrey popped out of his backpack onto the ground. Ouch! I scooped that crying baby up. I was so embarrassed. Thank God that hadn’t happened at Boston Harbor or on the bridge at Great America! That was the last time he ever went in the backpack.
But it wasn’t the last time he found himself in dire straits. He’d be gone in two seconds if you blinked too long. At age two, when we were all in the backyard and the kids were in the sandbox, Jeffrey disappeared. I went in search and as I came into the front yard, I saw him in the middle of the intersection with a car stopped waiting for him.
Another time, at age five, he somehow managed to get stuck in a hole in the street. One of those holes that goes to a water main. He was up to his waist and Tim had to pull him out—with a car waiting, of course. How did this happen? We do not know. I guess it was never safe to let this kid play outside.
At age eight, he did a belly flop off the high dive at the pool and practically gave the lifeguard—and Tim—a heart attack.
Yet another time, at age ten, he started his mattress on fire when experimenting with cords, plugs, and electricity. He called for help and ran to the bathroom for water. He managed to put out the fire, but not without a big scare.
Principle #6 — Kids need downtime and privacy.
Yup, they do. And my boys, around ages 7 and 5, sometimes crawled into the front entry closet under the stairs. It was the perfect spot for little ones because the closet curled around out of reach, and the kids could enjoy their hiding spot. Well, they weren’t really hiding, because I knew they were there, but they played quietly and made it easier for me to prepare supper or wash dishes.
But since that spot never saw the light of day (only the lightbulb glow), I never discovered the “treasures” the boys left behind until a couple years later. I finally took the broom to those nooks and crannies and swept out about 500 sucker and candy wrappers. I’m not even sure where they got them all, since I was pretty diligent monitoring their trick-or-treat candy and other goodies.
Principle #7 — It’s essential for kids to know the difference between Rock & Roll and disco.
You probably never read that in a parenting book, but this is Tim’s rule. Yes, I’m throwing him under the bus—with permission. One time when Tim drove the boys home from school, Tim was playing Classic Rock on the radio. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” came on. Jeff, in all innocence, asked, “Is this disco?”
Tim promptly stopped the car and made him walk the rest of the way home. (Okay, he was only 3 blocks away, and we lived in a safe neighborhood.) To this day, Tim has no shame in this.
But allow some context. Tim can beat anybody in Music Trivia. Name a song and he’ll tell you not only the singer, the album, the date, and whether or not it hit the top 40—he’ll tell you the producer and some backstory as well.
Tim not only knows who’s who; he knows who knows who. Once, he even had the opportunity to introduce Bruce Cockburn to one of the Bodeens. Tim appreciates good music, from jazz and rhythm & blues to big band, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll. So it’s intolerable to confuse any of these with disco.
Principle #8 — Don’t talk to strangers.
And don’t approach strangers with odd requests, either! But if you’re driving through rural Indiana and chance upon a small, friendly town, it might be okay. Such as the time I was driving home from visiting friends with my girls, around ages five and three. Kaia blew her bubblegum into Audrey’s hair and it was a huge mess!
We were just coming into a small town where everybody was outside on their front porches. I stopped and asked a smiling lady if I could borrow some scissors to cut gum out of my child’s hair before the mess spread into her clothes and the entire back seat. Without hesitation, she ran inside and grabbed a pair for me. Now that’s trusting.
Sad to say, over the years, I never did Audrey’s hair justice. Fortunately, she could get away with looking cute no matter how her hair looked.
Principle #9 — Keep a close eye on your child in public (in other words, don’t lose your child in a mall!).
When Kaia was three, we were at the mall with my family and split into two groups. Each group thought the other one had Kaia with them. Kaia was the only kid among us, but somehow we all walked off without her. An hour later, a security cop found her and called for us over the loudspeaker. Wow, was that embarrassing! My poor little darling!
When Kaia was eight, a fire bombing occurred on our Milwaukee street, five houses down. Tim and I heard the commotion around midnight and ran outside. The girls (8 & 6) and Colin (1) were asleep. So we assumed.
Kaia woke up (from the noise?) and came to our bedroom but we weren’t there. She and Audrey commiserated on the couch, wondering why their parents had abandoned them. Then Kaia got on the phone and called our neighbors—who were standing outside with us.
Fortunately, John had his phone with him. He answered on the first ring. Kaia’s sweet little voice said, “Mr. Marrs, do you know where my parents are?”
(Part of that time, Tim was being a hero at the burning house by helping pull people out of basement windows until the firefighters arrived.)
Two years later in Boston, somehow I lost Kaia on the Freedom Trail around Quincy Market. That impacts her to this day. I don’t even know how it happened. My cousin-in-law Colleen and her daughter were with the girls and me. Jeffrey was in the backpack, and Colin was back home with Colleen’s son. So it’s not like I was chasing a toddler.
Strike three, I’m out.
Principle #10 — Make special memories with each child individually.
But be careful how you make it memorable!
I once took ten-year-old Kaia to Milwaukee County Stadium for a Brewer game. We had a good time together, but when we returned to the car, I discovered that I had left the keys in the ignition—and the car was running! I have no idea how this happened. The only thing I could think of was that I’d broken routine with how I usually got out of the car, so I hadn’t pulled the key out. But leaving it running? Yikes!
This happened before we had a cell phone, so I had to recruit help from a nearby vehicle who summoned security. We got home safely, and Kaia had a story to tell—but not the one I’d planned.
Principle # 11 — Buy age-appropriate toys.
This I usually did except for the time when Audrey was in 5th grade. I saw the Sweet Streets line of miniature houses and village shops in Target, and I couldn’t resist. I had to have some excuse for buying it, so I gave it to Audrey for her birthday.
Never mind that my sweet Audrey was growing out of dolls and dollhouses. I’ve never been able to live that down. In our household, the kids joke about Mom and her Sweet Streets—considered toys for future granddaughters. (Now I own the whole set.)
Above: a sampling of Sweet Streets buildings.
Principle #12 — Don’t overwhelm your child with too many questions.
I break this rule all the time but it’s hard not to. I’m a question asker. I’m more of a listener than a talker. I figure the best way to know somebody is to ask questions and get them to talk.
However, I’ve been told that kids don’t like too many questions because it can seem nosy, intrusive, and judgmental (depending on your tone). But I’m wired that way so even though I try, questions roll out of my mouth faster than water at Niagara Falls.
Once when Jeff visited from college, Tim and I took him and Colin out for lunch. In my usual mode, I spouted off question after question for Jeff. How are your classes? What’s your favorite class? How is the dorm food? How is your roommate? What’s your daily routine? How far is it to work? Do you have a lot of homework? You know, all the mom questions.
Finally, Colin intercepted. Deadpan, he said, “Do you want to know his sheet thread count, too?”
My first response was—of course—another question. “How do you know about thread counts?” Then we all had a good laugh. The joke was on me.
What family flops, flubs, feuds, and foibles are you experiencing? Past or present. If you dare share.
Please add your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!