I know how it happens, that little kid people have been buying gifts for over the years, and who used to jump up and down at a stuffed animal or fire truck or blocks or books, hits the double digits age. Adults know, from experience, that it is difficult to buy for teens and tweens, that they are probably chasing ever changing trends of which the non-parent is unaware, or that they have particular tastes that are as fiercely adhered to as some fundamental religions, “But I don’t like that. No one wears that.”
In the old days when adults got tired of trying to figure out what the kid will actually like an Aunt or Uncle would get one of those cool money cards and put cold hard cash in it for youngin’ to, “Buy yourself something.” No further instructions necessary. Now, when adults transition from giving the nicely wrapped and thoughtful shopped-for gifts, they skip the cash and pick up a gift card at the mall, or grocery store, or convenience store or almost anywhere these days, for a store that they’ve heard that teens like.
But I’m over it.
Here are the reasons why I will not give gift cards anymore, and why I will ask my loved ones not to give gift cards to my kids this holiday season.
Disclaimer: There may be some kids who do not have the issues I’m going to talk about below. My decision is based on what I’ve seen my kids and some of their friends do.
- They Don’t Use the Cards
The gift cards are sometimes not used for weeks, months, years, or not at all. Kids collect them, forget about them, take months to decide what to do with them, or lose them. Your hard earned money is doing nothing, except contributing to the bottom line of the store.
2. They Teach Kids to Spend Money Only at Expensive, Specialty Stores.
You are telling a kid that they must go into a certain store and buy something only from that store. And if they don’t have enough on their gift card, they have to find some way to make up the difference — Mom? This is all to buy a sweater that might cost $60.
Why, I ask you, are we encouraging kids — minors with no jobs — to buy a $60 sweater? Why are we normalizing it?
Because it benefits the stores.
It gets the kids in the stores where they play all the cool music (my sister calls it jeans-buying music) and then they want to come back. And, because many of these cards can be bought elsewhere, adults might not know that their $25 dollar gift card merely gives the kid a discount on a $60 sweater.
And even if the kids would consider buying elsewhere, where they might find the same or similar sweater for less — they can’t — because your gift card only allows them to go to the $60 sweater store.
So, if you want them to have a $60 sweater, buy it for them. You’ll be the favorite Aunt/Uncle and if they don’t like it, they can exchange it. But don’t get them used to buying it. Don’t let them feel entitled to it. Don’t normalize it.
3. Gift Cards to Discount Stores Aren’t Much Better
Giving them a card to a discount store doesn’t always help. See number 2, the kids have already been socialized that it’s cool to buy at the other stores. “I hate that [insert discount or department] store” and “I don’t like anything here” are words I’ve heard uttered when we are barely through the front doors. When a kid feels that way before even looking at the stuff I guarantee they won’t find anything there and your gift card will sit unused, see Number 1. Oddly enough, if I buy something from Marshall’s or TJMaxx and bring it home and put it in my closet, then it is suddenly wearable. They borrow it and I never see it again. (I have my own marketing tricks, thank you very much. . . heh heh heh). My girls are currently wearing two of my jackets — one from Kohls and another that I got from a Thrift store. But if they had a gift card to those stores it would sit unused.
The shopping experience at less expensive and more inclusive stores is quite different — there is merchandise not just for teens and gasp — they see people buying it that are not their age, or gender, or size, or their perceived economic group (teens tend to believe they are wealthy). They refuse to do it. The gift cards to the discount stores simple tell them that they aren’t allowed shop at their favorite stores, and that makes them angry.
My girls are sitting on Target and Old Navy cards that are almost a year old now.
4. It Normalizes Use of Plastic
I know, I know, we are in a paperless society. I use my credit, debit cards all the time. It’s convenient. But I’m grown. And I have other bills to pay and in every job I’ve ever had I got paid in money, not plastic. And if you look at any consumer debt article it will talk about people, largely Americans’, reliance on credit, specifically on credit cards to buy things they cannot afford.
Gift cards now look and feel just like credit cards. If that’s all your kid gets for birthdays or Christmas, he or she will start to normalize paying for things with plastic and without thinking about how much they spent, or what they are spending this money on. Instead, if they think at all, they ponder only,
“Do I have room on this card?”
Scary. This is not something kids should be conditioned to think.
When this kid is finally old enough to get a real credit card — and at stores they can get them at 18 years old, they have shopped for years with plastic without consequence. A recipe for disaster.
You have to learn how to manage money before you learn how to manage debt. Gift cards train kids to manage plastic.
Notably, people who have debt or spending problems are often encouraged to use cash exclusively even just as an exercise for a defined amount of time. This is so that they see where their money goes and it is obvious when it’s gone. I’ve also heard that people tend to spend less and more thoughtfully when they use cash and have to see it dwindle away. I think teens should be encouraged to spend with cash, just like the credit-challenged — so they have a visual of their spending habits — and limitations.
5. Gift Cards Discourage Saving
When you give that store gift card, the kid is unable to put money away for a rainy day, or plan to work to add to it in order to buy that big ticket item that is so important to him/her but that is only sold at a different store, or available on Craigslist or eBay.
In this sad economy the kid might only make a penny in interest if the money sits in a bank. But the gift cards? They make nothing at all and some even lose their value over time. And, again, see Number 1. They might sit unused or lost.
6. Gift Cards Take Away Spending Ability and Decisions
If the kid has gotten a handful of great store gift cards at Christmas and then their friends call them and ask if they want to go to the movies, or out to eat or — gag me — Starbucks — (again, the prices and marketing of Starbucks to people without jobs is a topic for another post), this kid has no money to do so. Then it’s all, “Mom, can I have $20?” while they are sitting on $200 worth of gift cards. Whether or not Mom or Dad pony up the money, the kid can’t pay his or her own way.
So what happens is, kids believe they are entitled to use or hoard their gift cards on speciality items of their choice and without regard to price, but all other expenses they incur are the obligation of parents.
Or, more importantly, the kid is not able to designate it for use toward a wonderful experience they hope to do — something small like being able to go to a game and buy food at the snack bar with friends or something big, like saving for that trip to Italy that is offered at the school. And, they can’t donate to charity or use any part of it to buy a gift for someone else.
Sure, if they received an actual gift they couldn’t put it in the bank, but they wouldn’t be told to shop without thought, either.
7. Visa/Mastercard Gift Cards Aren’t Much Better Either
See number 1 (they often aren’t used). See Number 4 (kids are encouraged to buy things with a credit card). See Number 5, they can’t save it, See number 6, though it gives them more spending decisions, they still can’t use it at a fair, or to buy something they are selling at school as a fundraiser or at a snack bar, and they probably can’t decide to use the money to pay for something themselves — like their prom tickets.
Plus, you’ve paid a fee of $4 or $5 dollars that goes to the company. This is for the privilege of giving a gift of plastic to a kid. Wouldn’t you rather give the full $30 to the kid rather than a $25 gift card plus a $4 surcharge to the company?
8. Giving Cash is Not Tacky
There are times when giving cash is a no-no — to a date, to a judge, to a addict. But to a kid? It’s perfectly okay. As I said in the beginning, this was the norm for years — Uncle Ben would hand out money envelopes. Grandpa would sneak a kid a $10. But that changed. I believe it was just a marketing thing. The stores want us to think we shouldn’t do it, and that the kids would rather get a $25 gift card to a store than $25 in cash. But see 1 and 2, that benefits the stores. When we have been convinced that giving cash is bad, but giving a gift card for the same amount is somehow better, we have directed business right where they want it — in their store. And, with their jeans-buying music and slick ads with gorgeous, young, thin models, they have created a loyalty to that store. If we gave cash, the kid could shop whereever he or she wants — even unwisely, or save, or use it for spending money.
9. Giving a Gift Card to a Store That Is Beyond Their Parents’ Means Can Cause Problems
Think about that. Using extremes, say you give a kid a gift card to a Luis Vuitton store. He/she buys some beautiful leather expensive thing. Loves the store, the service, how special he/she felt going in, the looks of approval when he/she carries the real LV bag. You’ve now trained a kid to only want real designer items, that may cost as much as her parents car and mortgage payments combined. But the kid doesn’t appreciate how much the thing costs, and when they need a new backpack or wallet, they aren’t going to want to go to Target or Marshalls, because they’ve now been trained, socialized to buy new designer items in specialty stores. This, even though they have no job and they are items that their parents could not or would not buy for them — or even for themselves.
It works the same with the $60 sweater from the trendy store. Let the kids save, combine cash they have received as a gift or earned babysitting and buy that sweater if they so choose, but don’t make them buy it, don’t train them to buy it, especially if it’s something their parents cannot afford. Teaching them that it is perfectly normal to to buy a $60 sweater when her parents can’t afford such items, or who have debt problems of their own, is kind of unfair. The next time the kid needs a new shirt, they will only want to shop at the designer stores, and it’s the parents that have to say no.
If you want to give an expensive, special present, please just buy the gift. Don’t gift the “shopping experience” that the parent cannot sustain.
10. A Word about Victoria’s Secret
Yes, the catalog has clothes. And some clothes are in stores. And they have very nice $60 bras that go on sale twice a year. And they have cute underwear and $75 bottles of perfume and also have the $10 lip gloss, and key chains, and body spray, etc. But unless you are comfortable with a 12 year old girl combing through panty bins looking through bejewelled thongs, crotchless or furred panties alongside grown ass women and sometimes men, you might want to skip sending a kid to that store. One of my daughters got a Victoria’s Secret Gift Card and I told her to to wait until the sale to use it. When she saw all the people digging through the bins of panties (all types of panties thrown in together — the regular ones and the sex clothes) she said, “This makes me uncomfortable,” and left the store. We ended up quickly buying perfume just to use the gift card. Of course, I have other daughters who got used to buying in there with their gift cards and don’t want to even look anywhere else. Sigh.
Call me old fashioned, but I think that when a woman is at a point in life when she needs or wants to buy sexy lingerie, she should be old enough to pay for it herself, not with a gift card from Uncle Bob.
In addition, somehow, the brilliant marketing people at Victoria’s Secret have convinced teen girls that paying twice as much for a T-shirt or sweatshirt that says PINK than they would for a T-shirt or sweatshirt that says literally anything else is perfectly normal.
Perhaps as adults, we shouldn’t encourage that.
I’ve decided that if I’m going to purchase an expensive sweatshirt or hoodie for my kids, it will be one with a college name or their high school spiritwear. The girls really like them also, and the inflated price is at least going to a good cause. Plus the girls are advertising something meaningful, rather than simply the word “PINK,” a brand for Victoria’s Secret.
Just to be clear . . .
I don’t mean to sound preachy, this is from experience. I’m frustrated.
I’m so tired of my kids not appreciating the cost of items, or their gifts, that a splurge is a splurge or special gift, not an entitlement, and that if someone thought enough of them to give them a gift card, they should use it. I’m tired of my kids complaining that they don’t have any clothes or money and asking me to buy them something, yet refusing to use their Target, Old Navy, or Macy’s Gift Cards because they don’t like those stores. I’m tired of the Christmas lists that simply list stores that the kids like to shop in but that I can’t afford. If they got cash they could still shop in those stores with cash, or window shop and choose to buy elsewhere.
Or, have actual presents to open on Christmas morning.
Just Me With . . . cold hard cash, but not enough.
And by way of full disclosure, I think all but one of my bras are from Victoria’s Secret. And I have one purple shirt that says, PINK, inexplicably. But I’m grown and know how to shop for sales, and, in past years have used gift cards to purchase my goodies. About two years ago I asked my family not to give them to me anymore. And I no longer wear the PINK tee. I do, however, wear t-shirts with my son’s college name on it and the names of my daughters’ championship sports teams.
I finally got my oldest child off to college. He lives hours away from home now. It’s been a process. Depending on how you I calculate it the process began 18 years ago when I started talking to my growing belly, taking prenatal vitamins and playing music for my unborn child, reading and talking incessantly to him as a baby, or the process can be measured in the last year of making college visits, college choices, buying dormitory bedding or the untold joy of filling out financial aid forms. My particular journey was salted by the sudden yet not completely unexpected visual appearance of my ex-husband — just in time for the graduation celebration and going off to college festivities. See The Unspoken Pain of Sharing Celebrations. Despite the extra anxiety, the kid is safely enrolled on a residential college campus. He won’t be home until Thanksgiving. Going Away To School — And Staying There.
Now that he’s gone I am often asked, “Don’t you miss him?”
And sometimes, I say, “Oh yes, yes, I do.” But I’m faking it.
Really, I’m thinking, “Oh crap. Wait! I’m supposed to miss him? Already?”
He’s only been gone a couple of weeks. I’ve been so focused on getting him ready for college and out of our suffocating suburb and the stupid visitation schedule — I had not counted on the expectation that I should miss him — so soon. I mean I cried the traditional tears when I said goodbye and left my boy to live elsewhere, with people I don’t know. I’m sure I sported the vacant, almost Zombie-like look that the freshman parents had wandering around campus and in the bookstore having been separated from their precious babies. I did all of that.
But then I came home
— and rearranged his room.
Apparently many other parents and loved ones are really grieving about the absence of their college freshman. People are asking me how I’m holding up. And how the siblings are doing. And I am reminded of the episode of Sex and The City when Miranda, who is pregnant, finds out the gender of the baby and everyone expects her show excitement at the fact that she now knows she’s having a boy. After a while she just feigns a show of excitement to satisfy the general public. “I faked a sonogram,” she admits. Sex and the City, Season Four, Episode 15 “Change of a Dress”
And then there’s me. I love my son. I am so ridiculously proud of him. And his absence is felt, that is true. It was kind of weird on the first day of school when there was one less child I had to beg to allow me to take a picture of. But I admit, I am not the face of mother grieving over temporary absence of her son, though I sometimes play the part.
My son, who I sometimes refer to as The Arrogant One, has always been fiercely independent, while simultaneously relying on me to support his endeavors, get things taken care of, and sit in the audience and bleachers and watch him do what he does. He’s been away from home before — going on an annual week-long vacation with a friend’s family and traveling to Europe for eleven days. I remember preparing for the Europe trip, going to a meeting where many parents were asking how they would be able to contact their children while they were away. Other than in the event of an emergency, I hadn’t considered needing to talk to my son during his eleven day trip. It was only eleven days! But back then I started to panic — Was I supposed to be in contact with my kid all the time? Was I missing some sort of mom gene? I had, with the other parents, helped raise the money so they could go on this wonderful tour. Now weren’t we supposed to let them go and have fun without us? Why did I never even consider needing to call him while he was out of the country for less two weeks?
I figured that I’d hear about it when he got home. Turns out I was wrong about that . . . but I digress.
Me: “How was the trip?”
Him: “Good, really good.”
And that was that. Oh I probed him for some additional details, but . . . it was his experience, not mine.
I’ve been feeling that same kind of panic lately when people ask me how I’m “holding up” since my son’s departure. (Wait, I’m supposed to be falling apart?) And when my daughter, the one I refer to as The Quirky One, the one who is very sensitive — almost a Star Trek level Empath, burst into tears saying she missed her brother, I was taken off guard. I consoled her. I told her I knew it was weird not having him here and that it’s okay to miss him and he’ll be home before we know it, but I thought to myself — “He’s really not that nice to you, he told you that you were worthless. Why are you crying for him?” He’s not very nice to his sisters. That’s a fact, and an issue I’ve tried to address. So to the people who feel sorry for him for being the only boy, well, I’m not feeling that. He has stated out loud that he’s more important and smarter and a better person than his sisters, who, in his mind, do not deserve any attention. And sometimes, him being a teen person, he wasn’t very nice to me either. (I’m the safe parent, you see, the one who gets the crap because the child is comfortable that I’ll be here regardless. Sigh.) So there are things — like his assertions of superiority — that I definitely will not miss. Now he’s dealing with the fish/pond thing — everyone on his campus is a high achiever like him and he won’t have his little sisters to belittle to make himself seem more important. And I think it’ll be good for him. Nay, necessary for him.
And my failure to pine after my college dwelling son might also be a big family thing — one less kid to feed, or who needs to be picked up or dropped off somewhere, or requires some sort of supplies, etc. One less kid to start an argument with the remaining kids. And to me, someone who is the only adult living in a little house full of teens, having one less home means having one less person to ridicule and/or ignore me, and one less person who has no problem vocalizing the assumption that I know absolutely nothing.
So, do I miss him?
I know I’m supposed to say, “Yes, God yes.” I know I’m supposed to well up and tell you exactly how many days it will be until I see him, and the last time I talked to him, but . . . as my own mother used to say when we went away,
“Yeah, I miss them, but it’s a good miss.”
The last thing I said to my son when I left him on campus, when I said goodbye to my baby through tearing eyes was, “I am so so proud of you. I love you. And you know I’ll always have your back. Have fun and learn.”
And, upon my return, one of my daughters asked the definitively more important question,
“Do we still have to wear pants in the house now that the boy is gone?”
“Yes, yes, you do,” I answered.
But it’s not because of him. It’s not about him anymore.
In Sex and The City Miranda did have a quiet moment when she first felt her unborn son move — it brought her to her knees, and that was her first moment of connection. Quiet, and unexpected and not when people thought she should have it. I assume at some point there will be something that triggers me — something that makes it painfully clear to me that my first-born will never really live under my roof in the same way again — if things go well. Then I’ll acknowledge the reality — that this first step into pseudo-adulthood is actually a natural progression to full adulthood, that one day I’ll end up being the mom to call from time to time with news, for advice, and someone to visit on the holidays — maybe someday with his own family. And I suspect, that like with Miranda, it’ll be a private moment of reflection when I’ll truly feel my son’s — move.
But in the meantime, as I sit in his room writing behind what used to be his closed door –with my pants on while relishing in the fact that in my now all girl household we could go pants-less any time we damn well please —
Do I miss him?
Not yet, but . . . it’s early. Give it time.
Just Me With . . . One less child under my roof — until Thanksgiving, anyway.
Postscript: My son has matured immensely. Graduated college, lives on his own in a different city now. He’s a nicer guy. And in his own way, he shows his appreciation for me, my struggles.
*This is a long metaphor or twisted analogy. It may not work, bear with me. You’ve been warned.*
Imagine you were in a horrible car wreck, broadsided by a drunk driver. You were seriously injured. You lost mobility, time, and a sense of hope. You gained scars, fears, and pity.
Imagine you rally, survive, and for some reason, want to punch fate in the throat by training for a marathon, something you had never considering doing before, having usually enjoyed team sports, or the arts.
Imagine you train, battling old injuries from the car wreck, acquiring new injuries from the training,. You run to the soundtrack of self-doubt announced from the voices in your head and repeated on loud speaker when you get home by the real people closest to you:
“You don’t have to do this. You can’t do this. It’s too much. Just being able to walk is good enough. Why run?“
Imagine you also battle financially because of lost time, work, and pain and limitations from the injuries, and a lawsuit that finally settles for minimal damages, because your pain and suffering are not visible or quantifiable. You have, reportedly, recovered from your injuries. The drunk driver was not injured. He was not prosecuted and retained his license to drive and does so without restrictions.
Imagine you sign up for the marathon anyway. It’s the big kind of marathon, similar to the Olympics where runners start and end in a stadium full of people. Most of the real work takes place on a journey through lonely, winding roads, though, with very few spectators.
And imagine running, without a partner, not part of a pack, and certainly without an endorsement deal. No one really gets why you’re doing it at all. You do get encouragement, however, from unlikely sources – complete strangers you pass on the road. They clap, they call out to you,
“You can do it. Way to go. Looking good!”
Imagine thinking that they are wrong, you can’t make it, that no one really expects you to make it, that it is ridiculous to even try and that your time would be better spent on more traditional endeavors for people like you.
Imagine wondering if stopping halfway might be good enough. Imagine knowing that no one would blame you for simply walking it, “It’s the finishing that counts, you don’t have to finish like the real runners,” the voices say. Imagine a cramp, then another, imagine feet on fire, imagine pain in joints that had never been there before.
Imagine continuing to run, regardless.
Imagine entering the stadium after over 26 miles and starting the last lap around the track to reach the finish line.
Imagine feeling suddenly and surprisingly overcome with emotions as the crowd cheers, because some people there know that in the recent past you couldn’t get out of bed — let alone run or race. You also know that some of the cheers are coming from people who don’t know a thing about you, but they recognize a woman fighting not only to finish, but finish in objectively solid time regardless of any personal struggles.
Imagine the emotions taking hold so suddenly and with such intensity that it causes you to stumble as you take your last steps. You stop dead for a moment and put your hands on your knees, trying to catch your breath and blink away sweat and tears.
Imagine seeing out of the corner of your eye, a flash of color? Another runner trying to pass? Is your mind playing tricks on you? Are the cheers for the other runner? You raise your head, wipe your eyes and try to sprint, hoping that your pumping arms will convince your legs to rise from the dead, but you have so little left. Still, you begin to run, the end is in sight and the crowd, pardon the overuse – is going wild.
Imagine right before you cross the finish line being wrapped in a blanket — covered by the flash of color that had come alongside of you. The flash of color from the driver, the same drunk driver who had broadsided you and put you in the hospital.
Imagine looking up to see his fist raised in the air and his smile as you are reluctantly led across the finish line by him, being robbed of the opportunity to cross on your own — which you would have done, which you could have done, had you been permitted. Had you not been intercepted. Had you not been broadsided, again.
Imagine seeing your unwanted escort in running clothes, but without a bead of sweat. He did not run 26.2 miles. He was just one of the thousands in the crowd, and, from the smell of it, he had recently eaten a hot dog.
Imagine the crowd on its feet, those who know the story — cheering you not for finishing the race despite the odds, but for your obvious show of public forgiveness by allowing the embrace of the drunk driver who had taken so much from you and caused you so much pain.
Imagine the front page newspaper story, showing a photograph of you in visual defeat, being assisted across the finish line by the man who inflicted the injuries you fought so hard to overcome. Imagine looking at yourself as you’ve now been memorialized to others, as a woman lost without his assistance, a woman who could not have finished on her own. Your mouth is open, seemingly in a cry of gratitude, but you know that is was a cry of despair that no one heard above the roar of the crowd,
“No! Let me finish. I can do it. He didn’t run. He wasn’t there. I did this. I did this!“
Imagine the newspaper headline:
They did it! They did it! They did it together!
* * *
Imagine my son’s graduation from high school, with honors, and six college acceptances later, headed to a very selective college — accepted there because of his grades, test scores, challenging course load, essay, and leadership in many extra-curricular activities in both the arts and athletics. His accomplishments, not mine. But such accomplishments were not achieved in a vacuum, or even from a partnership, but achieved in a home atmosphere of encouragement, physical, psychological, emotional, and visual support created by me (and my supporters), coupled with a belief that we are just as good as everybody else. No excuses. I wore myself out making it possible for him to have opportunity and yes, the expectation, to achieve.
But now that it’s time to celebrate, imagine being hijacked at the finish line by the guy who, on one snowy night long, long ago said to me, his long time wife and mother of his five children, simply, “I have to go.”
Imagine sharing the podium with a runner who didn’t run — and who, previously, had broken both your legs.
It’s not uncommon for distance runners to vomit after a big race.
Just saying . . .
Just Me With . . . graduation festivities around the corner.
Could somebody get me a bucket?
Related: Misplaced Praise of a Father
Many moons ago I worked at a high-powered law office. Long hours, doing anything and everything for the client, emphasis on family or work-life balance was actively discouraged, there were glass ceilings, glass doors, and glass elevators, along with supervising attorneys or opposing counsel who were equal opportunity assholes. Sometimes it seemed as though people took great pleasure in making junior associates’ work life miserable, and making sure they had no other life. The money was good, though, so I can’t really complain. Plus, I learned a lot.
I’ve left that particular practice behind, but now I’m dealing with teens. Demanding, self-focused, pompous, teens. I’m outnumbered. Most of them weigh more than I do. Some are taller than I am. At times they behave as if I couldn’t possibly offer anything of value while simultaneously requesting everything I have to give them. Recently it occurred to me that some of the tricks of the trade I learned in my high-powered white shoe law practice can be transferred to how I deal with these large, smelly, mouthy people I grew in my womb and propelled from my hoo-ha (except for the ones that were surgically removed).
Sometimes, it seems, these once cute and cuddly balls of smiles and coos are quite simply, the enemy, trying to break me down.
But Mommy, Esquire, is used to dealing with the enemy, the big boys, the man. These children don’t scare me. I have life and legal experience behind me. Here are a few tricks of the trade I learned from my law practice that I use on my children.
1. Stand up.
When dealing with a difficult opposing counsel, client, or supervising attorney, it helps to stand up, even when on the phone. It’s a power stance and works even if your opposition is taller than you are.
Once a senior partner stormed into my office to yell at me about an expense form. This partner had a reputation of screaming at young associates for ridiculous things in order to break them down, hoping to draw tears. He usually got them. I was just waiting my turn, but I have a strict policy against crying at work. It is one of my few rules. Do NOT cry at work . . . but I digress. Remember “How I Met Your Mother” the Chain of Screaming episode? When being yelled at is just part of the job? Well, that stuff happens. But when my number came up I was busy. I didn’t have time for his crap. So when he found me in my office sitting behind my desk and started to ream me out . . .
I stood up.
He was not expecting this physical display of strength from a first year, female associate. He actually sputtered like a truck with an empty gas tank going up a hill. (I admit I was slightly taller than he, but still . . . ) I listened to his rapidly dying rant, and while still standing I calmly explained why I had submitted the perfectly valid expense form, and he left — quietly. He never yelled at me again.
It was a beautiful thing. A beautiful thing.
I’ve tried the standing thing with my teens as well. It works. My son is seven inches taller than me, which I expected to happen. But I have a daughter who is model tall — she’s got four inches on me, and I’m not short. Still, when any of them come at me with ridiculousness, I stand up. It unnerves them.
I will not have them standing over me. I will not.
2. Create a Paper Trail.
No matter what was said, what was agreed upon, whose “word” was given, or whether there was a handshake, it doesn’t count unless it has been memorialized in writing. Opposing lawyers can amicably agree on the smallest or the largest of issues, but they always follow it up with a letter, “Thank you for meeting with me today. The purpose of this letter is to confirm your agreement to produce ABC documents to be by X date.” Is it repetitious? Sure. But it’s better to have it in writing if there is a sudden memory loss down the line.
Works the same with kids. It could be something simple like telling them what you expect, but also writing on a whiteboard an instruction, like, “Empty the Dishwasher.” Or it could be a matter of more importance like, “Curfew is at 11pm.”
Or an issue of public policy like, “I will not bail you out of jail or raise your child.”
Equally effective is to request something in writing from the kid. Then later, when the child inevitably forgets what he or she said, you can whip out the document and gently “refresh his or her recollection” of what actually transpired.
Me: You’re late.
Kid: You never said . . .
Me: Yes, yes, I did. I told you. Then I texted you, and you responded.
(Slowly pull out smart phone, begin to scroll. Pause for effect.)
Kid: . . .
Mom: Shall I print it?
3. Some conversations should be had “behind closed doors.”
As an associate, nothing caused more fear than to be summoned into a partner’s office and told to “close the door.” The partners knew what they were doing. They were creating a power balance, or, more accurately, they were reminding the associate that he or she is not in a position of power. And the associate? A sitting duck.
So, as a parent, I find it effective to summon a teen into a room, tell him or her to close the door, and invite him or her to sit down. (And if you can pull off Denzel’s facial expression above, you’ve got it made.) Pause, always pause before you begin to speak. (I learned from depositions that the pauses are not reflected on the record, but they make people uncomfortable and the witness will have a tendency to fill the silence with golden nuggets of information.) The teen might start to explain something you didn’t even ask about, at the very least he or she will listen to what you have to say, and may be thankful that he or she made it out alive. Bonus, if you have more than one kid, the others will become deeply concerned that they will be next, and may be more likely to evaluate their recent behavior and/or any (written) lists of things to do.
In conclusion, end the meeting with, “Let’s keep this between us.”
Just Me With . . . lessons from a law firm.
“The computer won’t wauk.”
The teen-aged girl, whom her mother affectionately refers to as “The Quirky One” among her online friends, led with this. Years of school provided speech therapy had almost eradicated her “speech impairment” — so much so that sometimes she possessed an aristocratic lilt, sounding almost British. Other times, that pesky and slightly out of reach interior “r” sound, reportedly often the last of the identified “impairments” to be corrected, makes a surprise appearance. When it does, suddenly this teen girl, a young woman in training who wears women’s size thirteen shoes, sounds just like a little girl.
The computer won’t wauk.
She simply stared at her mom, who had just returned from getting coffee and who was planning to sit and just read. The other kids were on a visit with their dad, The Quirky One had missed this visit in order to attend to her cat sitting job, for which she was paid well . The Quirky One had been misdiagnosed for years — was it depression? Was it some kind of learning disability we can’t identify? It’s not dyslexia? No? Her reading is behind yet her comprehension is very high. She’s frustrated with the books she can read easily so she started writing her own, or at least she starts to, along with short stories and poems. But something is, has been, wrong — or just — off.
Now, finally there was a diagnosis that made sense, The Quirky One is on the Autism Spectrum –sounds so pretty in the abstract — like the diagnosis should come with a colorful painting or butterflies — but it’s so, so complicated. This diagnosis explained why the girl would often announce distressing news in the same manner that another child would simply state his or her age. “She does not read social cues,” is how it is described. But to an outsider it looks like laziness or limited mental capacity or lack of empathy. It’s none of those. It’s just the way she is, Roxanne thought, but with the right therapy, thank goodness, she’s gotten so much better — and happier.
Roxanne had learned to expect these dead-pan announcements over the years. Now that she understood the cause of these and other odd behaviors, she was learning how to deal with it.
The computer won’t wauk.
Ahh, Roxanne thought. This explains why The Quirky One had perched in front of the desktop watching Anime when she returned from feeding the cats. The laptop was out of commission. The Quirky One just stared at her mother, expressionless, waiting for a response. Defeated, Roxanne forgot about her coffee and postponed her reading plans. She walked over to the laptop and turned it off. Then, after waiting the required 30 seconds, she turned it back on, practicing the well-worn ritual of the computer-repair-challenged. She was met only with a blank, black screen. She clicked random keys: Enter, Esc, Space Bar, and Enter again. Then she sighed, turned the useless device off again, closed it and walked away, without saying a word, except in her head, “I can’t deal with this now.”
The laptop was only three months old. School would resume in just over a month and a half.
Don’t get upset now. Just read your book, she told herself.
So Roxanne did what she had planned to do before The Quirky One announced that the recent $700 purchase had failed them. She would read, a novel.
Roxanne hadn’t been reading much in recent months, at least not novels, but she’d found a book that did what books are supposed to do — make her forget everything else. Previously she’d been nursing a popular comic novel that everyone else seemed to love, but she couldn’t quite finish. Then the realization, actually a reminder, “I’m not a student. I don’t have to finish it if I don’t want to.” So when buying books for the kids, Roxanne decided, not without the requisite guilt for spending $14.99 on herself, to buy a book.
It did help her forget. Wasn’t it just four days ago when one of the other kids, The Anxious One, having just been told to carry her phone in a purse or wallet at the pool, dropped said eighteen day old phone, shattering the screen?
It was four days after the return date, insurance doesn’t cover physical damage to the phone. And now . . .
The computer won’t wauk.
It still echoed in her mind. What now? A visit to the computer store? A diagnostic test that will cost $80 in order to decide what it will actually cost to fix the computer? And the phone?
Roxanne couldn’t help it, but thoughts of her ex-husband and his new family crept into her mind. His new kids are little and presumably cute and do not require computers or phones . . . yet. Oh, his time will come, if this marriage lasts. But then again if this marriage lasts he won’t be doing it alone the second time around. Then Roxanne had thoughts of her children as babies, remembering the smiles, the hysterical cries and the smiles again a few minutes later. Back then, if their toys broke, it didn’t matter. She could hide them, replace them, or distract the child with another shiny object or a song. The good old days were filled with bodily fluid control and clean up, tantrums and no sleep whatsoever. The good old days, when providing for and educating a child did not require a $700 purchase, though she knew she’d spent much more than that in diapers alone. But the diapers did what they were supposed to do, and she didn’t have to spend $700 at one time– only to have them fail. The good old days — when she could teach the alphabet by singing it, could provide a hug, a song, a breast or two, and simply hold her babies, shifting weight from one foot to the other.
Back then, Roxanne thought, I could do what they needed, and they would smile back. Though the Quirky One never smiled as much as her twin, Roxanne remembered. She often seemed like she was deep in thought. Still, she could make them all smile. She taught them things. They were so cute and everybody said so. “Oh they’re still cute now,” Roxanne thought, “but that’s frankly a little scary in a teen girl.”
“Back then, they needed me. Now, they still need me, just as much, but they also need a $700 computer they treat like a recyclable magazine and they need phones with two-year contracts that they carry like a balls when running through a parking lot. And they complain that their friends all have smart phones? I don’t think so. Not happening.”
With these thoughts running through her mind, the worries, the fears, frustration and jealousy . . . the tears almost came, right behind the bitterness.
But instead of crying, instead of attempting to fix the computer or finding someone who could, instead of interrogating The Quirky One on who and how the computer had last been used, Roxanne grabbed her book and sat down, outside. The Quirky One hates the outdoors, or more precisely, she hates bugs and sun and heat and fresh air, to name a few. Consequently, the outdoors is where Roxanne knew she could be alone. The Quirky One still had use of the desktop computer, after all.
Roxanne opened her book — an actual book that required no battery life, no “on” button, and no screen. The book would work.
So Roxanne read . . . and actually forgot everything for a little while. The book had worked. The tears retreated, the bitterness dried up.
After a bit Roxanne went inside and wrote . . .
in longhand . . .
because . . .
“The computer won’t wauk.”
Just Me With . . . a story. Not sure why I wrote this in the third person, except that I’m reading in the third person.
I’m currently reading , “Admission” by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Coincidentally, after I wrote the above, I got to a point in the book where a secondary character said the following:
When you’re a single mom, and everybody talks about how hard it must be, what they mean is the little-kid stuff. Getting up in the middle of the night all the time because there’s no one else to do it, or having to take on all the doctors’ appointments and parent-teacher conferences yourself. But I’m telling you, that was nothing. This teenager stuff is hard. This is, like, crazy hard.
Admission, Copyright 2009 by Jean Hanff Korelitz
It was also made into a movie, which I haven’t seen.
I just finished a road trip with my five children. I know no one asked, but I thought I’d share what we listened to and watched on the ten hour drive home.
Piano Concerto No. 2
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Piano Concertos 1 & 3
3. “The Foundation” by The Zac Brown Band
Because you know I like my chicken fried . . .
4. Soundtrack to West Side Story
Can’t believe I almost forgot this one!
5. The Radio — remember that?
“Momma said, ma ma ma momma said . . . ”
7. Les Choristes — A beautiful French language Film about a music teacher for troubled boys in 1940’s France.
8. Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo — Comedic Japanese (manga) Anime.
(I don’t really understand Bobobo, but there was lots of discussion about nose hair.)
For the most part, each of the choices were approved and enjoyed by all of the tween and teen kids
. . . and myself.
Just Me With . . . an interesting collection . . . of children.
The social worker said, “She wants to break you.” She, being my daughter.
The reasons why there is a social worker in my house are beyond what I feel like writing about now. But know that it was my reaching out for help, not a protective services situation. My daughter is struggling with anger and depression and literally ran — I mean ran from traditional counseling. You haven’t lived until you’ve chased a child around a therapist’s office, but I digress. Consequently, I sought another route which brings professionals to the house.
Over the years I had done what I was supposed to do. I told the children what they needed to know about the separation and divorce and move based on their age and capacity to understand. I did not talk about the legal aspects of it. The children never knew that I suffered through dealing with various court filings (actually for me I was usually responding to my husband’s filings) and court appearances. They don’t know about the financial and professional ruin and my poor health. They were too little, it was appropriate to shield them. The younger ones don’t seem to remember my good old-fashioned nervous breakdown and years, literally — years of tears. I suppose that’s good. I know it’s good. When my children are grown and thinking back on their childhood and mother I don’t want them to recall an image of me lying on the kitchen floor sobbing. That’s not cool.
She has stated that her misery is because we moved from the big marital home in the nice neighborhood, but I think it’s more. I agree, she wants to break me. I believe she thinks any appearance of strength or acceptance on my part somehow negates her feelings of loss. The more comfortable I get with leaving the old life — the old house, the more miserable she seems.
What she doesn’t know is that I’m already broken, I broke down long ago, my loss was substantial. For the last few years I’ve just been in survival and repair mode, with medications and counseling as needed, along with a fair amount of carpentry. As the children have gotten older I’ve enhanced explanations and have told them they can ask me anything and I will respond (age appropriately). I’ve explained why we had to move, and why we moved to where we are now . . . but she’s too young and too miserable right now to hear it.
Still, she is old enough to know that our move to a much smaller house in a poor neighborhood is not merely a new adventure; she can see that we have taken a step down, socio-economically. She also knows that her Dad also has a new life — with new people in it — and that’s just the way it is.
But, without acceptance of it all, it stinks.
Plus, my daughter is savvy, suspicious, practical and depressed enough to outright reject the “positive spin” talk. I’ve tried. She’ll need a different angle. She’s a lot like me that way.
And let’s face it, misery loves company, and she wants me to be miserable and angry, too. (I am, but I try not to show it.)
Though I’m thankful she feels comfortable enough with me to express her feelings, especially since she is uncomfortable with her Dad, I still want to (but won’t) say,
“Don’t break me, girl. You need me, more than you know. I’m all you got. I am not invincible. I am human, even though I am your mother. Don’t break me. Please. I’ve been broken before, you don’t remember — but it ain’t pretty.“
So when I recently tweeted, “I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry” after the heart wrenching session with my daughter and the social worker, it was because it hurt me to my soul and I feared that if I cried I would never stop. I know, sounds overly dramatic, but sometimes . . . it is.
Just Me With . . . some struggles.
Thankfully, my kids have all been healthy. Their gross motor skills developed early. Translated, that means as toddlers they were (are still) runners, climbers and jumpers.
Once somebody gave me one of those big plastic houses kids are supposed to play house in. I had space inside so I put in it the family room. Not once did my girls play house in it. No, no. They did, however, stand on top of it and jump off, repeatedly. Had to get rid of it. That cute little house was a safety hazard for my twins, two of whom I call Thelma and Louise . . . but I digress.
We had a long informal dining table, also given to us. With the leaves attached it sat eight people. It was just the size we needed. However, according to my Olympic monkey children it was also long enough to run across. Again, a safety hazard. The table wasn’t that long and once the toddler runs and reaches the end? BAM! No, this was not going to work. I’d caught the kids right before falls on previous table running attempts but sooner or later my luck would run out. My daily goal back then was just to stay out of the Emergency Room (and off the Six O’clock news).
Still, I needed a table, so it could not suffer the fate of the play house. The table and the children must learn to co-exist safely. But the children were still little, they were at that age where I could really only chase behind them. They had no concept of consequences, danger, or any real responsiveness to my voice — they were all,
“Oh I can run, I can climb. Therefore, I will run and I will climb — all the time.”
And all my parental, “No, Stop! Wait!!” and all that jazz — meant nothing.
Absolutely, nothing. Say it again, y’all . . .
Back to the problem. How to keep the girls off the table? (Later it’ll be how to keep them off the pole, but I digress again.) They could only get on the table by first climbing on the chairs, but simply moving the chairs away from the table had not worked. These minions simply pushed them back to the table and climbed up, then a sibling would follow and in a blink of an eye, I had a line-up of miniature Village People looking toddlers on a table.
No, no. I needed something more secure.
I think it started with a jump rope. No, I didn’t tie the children up (not then, heh heh heh).
But after every meal, I would push the chairs in, grab a rope, thread it through the chairs around the table and tie them up in a nice knot.
The children’s fine motor skills had not developed enough to untie the rope. They weren’t (yet) strong enough to pull the chairs away, though they tried.
I didn’t realize how weird it was until a friend from out-of-town came to visit. We sat at the table together, ate, fed the kids. When we were finished I cleared the table, got out the rope and proceeded to tie the chairs around the table while we were chatting away.
She stopped talking and said, carefully, slowly, like talking to a crazy person:
“What are you . . . doing?’
Oh snap, sometimes you don’t know how strange and dysfunctional you are until there is someone to see it.
Me: “You mean you don’t tie your chairs together after every meal?”
Sometimes the kids did listen to me, even when I didn’t want them to. See, “Momma said, No!“
We do not have holidays spelled out in the Custody Order, rather, we are supposed to work it out, so this is a big deal. I’ve always had the kids at Christmas since our separation, he’s always had them at Thanksgiving. This is really an extension of what happened during our marriage. We spent Thanksgiving with his family, and Christmas with mine. That worked for us. In fact, when we were together I spent Easter and all of the barbecue holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day) with his family. I traded all celebrations throughout the year just to get Christmas.
Last Christmas when I asked for the kids over Christmas break, he said fine but added that one of these years he’s going to want them at Christmas. That scared me. He meant it to scare me, I believe. But then he and his wife (then girlfriend) went on a beach vacation together over the holidays. He didn’t even spend it with his family, something the kids noticed and openly wondered about. “Why didn’t Daddy spend Christmas with his own family?” they asked. (No comment.) Last week I heard from the kids that my Ex-husband had already made Thanksgiving plans with the kids, his wife, and her extended family (again, not his family, something the kids are upset about, but again, no comment). I hoped that this meant that he would honor our tradition of “letting” me having the kids at Christmas. But one never knows. There’s a new wife in town now. Plus, my Ex can be mean. When I had to speak to my Ex about Summer vacation plans he yelled at me for almost an hour about various unrelated crap before eventually saying, “Go on take them for as long as you want. I don’t care, just let me know.” Haven’t been feeling up for a verbal beat down like that again.
So today, when he informed me he’d be traveling for work and would miss his visitations with the kids for the next couple of weeks, I finally got the nerve to ask him about the holidays. He was completely fine with it, not even a pause. My guess is he had already made plans with his wife anyway and/or assumed I’d take the kids regardless. He assumes and makes plans. I ask permission. (Yeah, I know, I see it, I’m working on it, acknowledging his rights does not mean being a doormat, but this is a lifelong pattern of accommodation I’m dealing with “My High School Self”. ) My Ex-Husband added that he had been planning to tell me that Christmas presents for the kids from him will be sparse this year, his wife isn’t working and he’s struggling. (No comment.) I’m just glad, hell, I’m freaking rejoicing in the fact that now I can openly discuss Christmas and that I didn’t first have to take a verbal beat down for the privilege.
Christmas with my family has a special meaning for me. It’s not even particularly religious, and we’re not wealthy so it’s not about the gifts. It is, however, usually the only time that my small but geographically fractured family gets together. My sisters went to college and moved hundreds of miles away from our home of origin and never moved back. They rarely made it home for Thanksgiving, don’t always make a Summer visit, but have always made it home for Christmas, even after they married and had children of their own. They, like me, often spent Thanksgiving, Easter and Spring Break with their in-laws or their own homes but reserved Christmas for us. It’s always been that way. Perhaps it is because so many of my family members are involved in academia. Teachers, people who work for universities, and students have off the week between Christmas and New Years Day and this is when they can travel and relax. Even now, my oldest sister’s grown children with professional careers make time and arrangements to travel cross-country to be with their grandparents and the rest of the family at Christmas. I know that one day someone won’t be able to make it; I know that one year we will have lost someone. But it is our family tradition to be together, and I look forward to it. My kids look forward to it. I’m just so thankful that today I know for sure I “have permission” to continue the tradition — to spend this Christmas with my kids, together with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and that my divorce did not change that — this year. What a relief.
Just Me With . . . holiday plans. Woo Hoo!!!!!!!