Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Vive la France

We're two weeks into my French experiment, which I've dubbed the War on Snacks, and I'm thrilled to report that it's changed our lives for the better. I've realized the error of my past ways and embraced the continental model of food rationing with an evangelical zeal.

The Grape no longer indulges in mindless grazing whenever the mood strikes him. We no longer carry a selection of snacks superior to that found on long haul flights in the stroller. He no longer pushes away his meals, with complaints that he's not hungry or that he wants "something else." I no longer scramble to produce the vaguely defined "something else," only to end up frustrated when the child, presented with an array rivaling that of most hotel buffets, still refuses to take a bite of dinner. If he absolutely must have a snack because everyone else is doing it, he knows it's going to be fresh fruit or nothing.

I never meant to create a little monster, but in hindsight, I let it happen.

I was so afraid the little waif wasn't getting enough calories that I let him determine when and what he ate, even if doing so messed up the day's planned events for everyone concerned. I spent hours pleading with him to eat at meal times, often failing to persuade him to take one lousy bite of something he'd gobbled happily the previous day. I pulled out fistfuls of hair (mine, not his) in frustration. I begged, cajoled, threatened and lost my cool more times than I care to recount.

I tossed all kinds of foodstuffs down the disposal. I hate wasting food, but there are only so many times one can re-heat a dish (I think about half a dozen). I'm not a religious person, but I believe throwing away good, healthy provisions constitutes a grave sin.

Even if my kid isn't old enough to grasp that there are children starving in Africa, and going very hungry in the United States.

No more. I'm not ready to parachute onto an aircraft carrier in front of a banner proclaiming, "Mission Accomplished" (because I harbor an aversion to jumping from perfectly serviceable planes), but I am nearly giddy with the results.

I have a good little meal eater. His diet is more balanced, his attitude is better since his blood sugar no longer yo-yos from intermittent hunger strikes, and meals are actually a pleasurable event in our house, for the first time since the pre-Grape era.

Some might say I've swung too far the other way. That I'm too rigid. To which I say, we can always loosen up as time wears on. But for now, I believe the best way to form new habits is to stick with the program that's working. And to those who say it's mean to deprive the kid of dietary autonomy, I offer two points.

First, given complete dietary freedom, my kid would eat 90 per cent dessert items, which he would ingest at the rate of one bite per seven minutes, through all his waking hours.

Second, the Grape may not stay waifish into adulthood. Should his metabolism decelerate after puberty, he'll be glad to have good and mindful eating habits. Ask any weight loss expert, and they'll say that many overweight people struggle with mindless eating (also known as eating to combat boredom).

I was hesitant to believe that a drastic change, implemented cold turkey, in how we dole out food could make such a significant positive impact so quickly.

But I'm encouraged and inspired by the results. Because of the success of the War on Snacks, I'll be more confident making drastic course corrections next time something in our lives isn't working.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

In Which Mamma Fails to De-Throne a Small Despot

It has come to my attention that the Grape, at the ripe age of 2 1/2, is a little tyrant.

I've had suspicions of his despotic tendencies all along, but I've done a decent job of rationalizing them away. He is, after all, a toddler. In his view, everything he sees, touches or thinks about is his. All his. This proprietary disposition extends (among many other things)to toys, foodstuffs and other people's time.

Fine. The phrase "terrible two" clearly has roots in some universal truth. Toddlers stink at sharing and have only the faintest recognition of the concept of delayed gratification. Two-year-olds seem disinclined to take chances. Having or doing something NOW always trumps the abstract idea of having or doing something (even something better) at some hazy later time. Two-year-olds are the ultimate personification of the old bird-in-the-hand bit.

The Grape's powers have eclipsed his diminutive stature. It's time the little tyrant faced a coup d'etat.

This revelation came into focus Friday afternoon. The Grape was outside with the lovely granny lady who's helping us out while I recover from surgery. She's gentle, affectionate and indulgent to a fault. While I'm gimpy, she picks the Grape up from pre-school three afternoons a week and takes him to a playground or park so he can run around in the fresh air.

Nice, right?

Friday she was half an hour late getting home when we spoke by phone. The problem (which I could hear loud and clear) was that the Grape was throwing a full-on, screaming, thrashing, hurling self on the ground tantrum because he didn't want to leave the playground. The sitter, being new and generally a soft natured sort, was afraid to force the issue and wrangle his apoplectic little person into the stroller.

I had what I later characterized as a Captain von Trapp moment. "You are in charge!" I exhorted her through the phone. "You are the boss. He needs to understand you mean business." The Grape screeched a piercing shriek in the background as I cheered on his reluctant chaperone. "I placed you in command!"

I left unsaid that I don't indulge tantrums - ever, and I'm scared that during my period of cripple-dom, we're all veering into a bratty direction.

Then I asked to speak to the Grape.

Me: "Grape, you need to listen to Sitter. She says it's time to go. I know you've had a fun afternoon at the park, but you need to get in the stroller to come home and see Mamma. Right now. And I mean right now."

Grape: "Noooooooooo!!!!! I want the slide! One more time!" (Cue sound of sitter's phone hitting the ground with force.)

They made it home, a full hour later than the agreed-upon time, at which point the sitter confessed she didn't feel comfortable stopping the tantrum (i.e. disciplining her charge) because she's so new to our family.

And she was afraid that passersby would shoot her evil looks and perhaps even interfere.

When I frowned disapprovingly, she added that he was having so much fun. Which I get. But the little generalissimo had just cost me an additional hour of sitting time. More alarming: his tantrum had worked; he set their schedule.

I explained to a defiant little Grape that next time sitter took him to the park, she would count down the time until they had to go home. And if he didn't go quietly, she would remove him.

"Time out in the stroller!" I warned him. The sitter looked at me, wincing with uncertainty.

I thanked her profusely for her troubles, foisted a fistful of bills into her hand and wished her a restful weekend.

As soon as the door closed behind her, the Grape smiled his most disarming, don't-kill-me-I'm-adorable grin.

"No way time out," he said simply, then closed the matter. "I'm going to play with cars now."

We had company arriving. I had to figure out dinner. The tantrum, at an hour old, was too far in the past to address.

The little tyrant's rule lasted yet another day.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Grape Goes to Restaurant Boot Camp, Parisian Style

Regular readers know I don't read parenting books. I don't own them, buy them, borrow them or even peruse them in waiting rooms.

It's not that I don't read. On the contrary, I plow through four to eight books in the typical month (mostly novels, spiked with the occasional work of narrative nonfiction). If I need to look something up (say, how to kill head lice), I can always consult Dr. Google.

I pass on parenting tomes because I don't wish to support a self-help industry that preys on women's insecurities.

And also because I've got a dirty little secret the self-help folks don't want you to know: there's nothing intellectually hard about parenting a (healthy) small child.

Yes, it's a frustrating, tiring, emotional roller coaster, featuring the full spectrum of human emotions, often presented at hyper-speed.

But the Grape and I manage just fine without outside "expert" input. I like to think I possess at least an average level of common sense, and I'm quite certain I'm in the top percentiles when it comes to trusting my instincts.

Apparently this makes me un-American. At least that's what the Wall Street Journal's excerpt from Pamela Druckerman's upcoming Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting led me to believe. Geopolitics aside, I wanted to stand up, applaud and whistle (loudly) when I read Ms. Druckerman's piece (link below). I liked it so much I might even break my rule and buy her book.

She had me at the restaurant scene. I've often wondered why European toddlers sit like little angels in restaurants. Without iPads or other iDevices, even (letting kids watch movies in restaurants is a HUGE pet peeve of mine).

Contrast the Grape.

One night not too long ago, we left our favorite neighborhood eatery in disgrace before the entrees arrived. The Grape, annoyed at the backed up kitchen, was literally standing in his highchair, flinging grated cheese with a spoon in a manner reminiscent of a priest flailing incense. It was, as R. commented, "a bottom 20 per cent experience."

A good friend of mine characterizes dining out with toddlers as follows:

60 per cent of the time, you get through eating out and it's fine but not fun.

20 per cent of the time, the kids are little angels. You get dessert, you order another round of drinks, you beam with pride.

20 per cent of the time, it's a disaster, you over tip and beat a fast retreat after making a lame and utterly disingenuous offer to help the waiter clean up.

The thing is, I'd like to visit mia famiglia Italiana this summer. And I'll be damned if I'll either a) hide in the hotel and eat takeout three meals a day, or b) allow the Grape to shame us in a favorite trattoria.

What would the French do? It's so simple, I'm stunned I never thought of it myself: ban snacking at will. The Grape has never been a big eater, and I confess I've operated under the misguided principle that I should feed him whenever he asks. How could I have missed something so obvious?

No more. Three meals. One snack. That's it. We're going to have a rough first week with our new regime, but my eyes are on the prize.

Sabatini's here we come.

Another big point in the excerpt - one that surprised me - referred to a survey done about five years ago, in which European moms placed far greater importance than their American counterparts on teaching small children to play by themselves. Druckerman goes on about French play dates, where the children play amongst themselves while adults enjoy kid-free conversation over adult beverages.

Sorry, but that sounds exactly like the play dates I arrange for the Grape. Or maybe I've subconsciously selected like-minded friends.

Call me un-American again, but I don't expect to have to spend a "play date" crawling on the floor, inserting myself into the children's games and refereeing tiny disagreements. Why? It's not fun. If you insist on parenting this way, that's your right and I respect it. Just don't expect us to visit often.

The Grape has a much better time with his friends when they're allowed to run off and play in his room, while the adults hang out in the kitchen. We smile when we hear squeals of delight. We might intervene if we hear the bathtub faucet turn on.

We let them be kids.

When there's no one else around, the Grape, age 2 1/2, excels at entertaining himself. Before reading Druckerman's piece, I never paused to think how important that is to me. His imagination works harder without micromanagement.

Besides, doesn't our culture adore independence and individualism? How the heck are kids supposed to develop those qualities if they're never allowed to play without adult intervention?

Here's the link to the WSJ piece:

Friday, February 3, 2012

Never again

I'm not a very forgiving person. Someone can cross me once, and I might move past it, but the offending party gets bounced out of the metaphorical "Circle of Trust" - yes, the same one that made me laugh out loud when described by Robert DeNiro in Meet the Parents.

If my lack of trust can be construed as a character flaw, I'd like to believe my charitable tendencies compensate for it. Ever since I took home my first pay check, I've supported causes in which I believe. Some years, I put my year end donations on a credit card when my checking account balance couldn't handle the assault during the month of December. You could say that I'm a soft touch.

Many friends (and a lot of acquaintances) have known for years that I'm a sucker. If you want to run the marathon for homeless dogs, academic scholarships or bone marrow transplant kids, or bike for a week to protect the Amazon rain forests, or jump in the ocean in January for lung cancer research, you know I'm not a bad target to hit up.

Like most donors, I confess to having a handful of favorite charities. I prefer causes with low administrative costs and high ratings from independent reviewers like Charity Navigator. The Susan G. Komen Foundation was never on my list of must-support charities, but if a friend participated in one of their events to raise funds for breast cancer research, I'd open my wallet and give generously.

Never again.

Unless you live in a sealed box on the moon, you've heard that Komen yanked its support of Planned Parenthood after many years of fruitful partnership in the area of breast cancer screening.

Why would Komen do this? Officially because some wing nut Senator from Florida wants to investigate Planned Parenthood, and Komen's grant rules disallow its funding of ANY institution facing a government investigation.

Fascinating side note: Komen is still giving $7.5 million to Penn State this year, despite the active government investigation of the university's child sex abuse cover up.

Many observers rightly smelled something off about Komen's logic. Several prominent Komen board members have resigned in protest, rightly saying that the foundation shouldn't play politics with women's health. Today, Komen foundation founder Nancy Brinker was all over the media, struggling to think of an alternate excuse for the foundation's reactionary behavior, and coming up pretty empty.

Another side note: When the leader of an organization keeps changing her story, that is not a good sign.

Planned Parenthood is a favorite target of the right wing lately. Of course they provide abortions, but they also, and far more frequently, provide a range of health services to under served populations of women - a demographic that trends Democratic in national polling. Planned Parenthood also provides millions of citizens with contraceptives. In many rural parts of the country, Planned Parenthood is the only dispenser of the morning after pill for hundreds of miles around.

One in five American women has been a patient at a Planned Parenthood clinic at some point in her life. Most of those visits aren't for abortion services.

Planned Parenthood provides check ups and screenings for breast and cervical cancer. Both cancers have encouraging survival rates if caught early. They provide poor women with referrals for mammograms. Anyone who's ever had health insurance knows that referrals for expensive tests like mammography and ultrasound are ESSENTIAL if the patient seeks reimbursement.

I would wager that the Komen Foundation will bow (soon) to popular demand and re-instate its donation to Planned Parenthood. Heck, as a good will gesture they might even sack the new board member they hired.

Final side note: She was previously an advisor to national joke and intellectual feather weight Dan Quayle. As if that experience qualifies her to serve on a board packed with doctors and public health advocates from the country's top universities.

Back to the main point: I'm not a forgiving person and I have a long memory. If a friend ever asks me to sponsor his or her participation in any event even remotely connected to the Komen Foundation, I will politely decline. I'll explain my reasons, and offer to donate the desired funds to Dana Farber, Planned Parenthood, or some other cancer charity.

I'm sorry Ms. Brinker lost her sister to breast cancer. Her dedication to fighting the disease that cut short her sibling's life is admirable. But the Komen Foundation has lost its way. Its willingness to throw millions of poor women under the bus to appease a few right wing nut jobs within its donor ranks forever disqualifies it as a charity I can support.

THIS JUST IN (11:43 a.m. EST): Komen has reconsidered its insane decision and will allow Planned Parenthood to APPLY for future grants. I'm glad they're (sort of) doing the right thing, but I still will never trust them again.