My friends Noel and Michelle and I like to celebrate our birthdays at the beach or out for lunch. This wasn’t possible so we put together a little social distance party for Michelle’ birthday this year.
My family, just like millions across the globe, has been in quarantine for 29 days. In the beginning I wrote a blog with a few suggestions for how parents can manage the time shuttered at home with kids. However, real life is a little different than aspiration. Here’s how it’s really been going at our house and what I’m doing to keep my head up.
I say yes to almost everything.Can I make a banana cake with peanut butter frosting? Can I take apart your old computer? Can I dye my hair? Can I shave it off?Can I watch more television? Can I play more video games? Yes, yes, yes. Yes, to anything that isn’t dangerous that can be construed as an activity or fun or relaxing or just time consuming.
I’ve lowered my expectations. My house isn’t clean. My kitchen is a disaster. A friend mentioned seeing a list of things to remember to clean around the house. I told her not to send me the list. I can’t handle more cleaning. The dishes pile up faster than I can blink. Staying above water is such a fine line. I’ve had to stop caring about the way my house typically looks. Letting go feels better than trying to live up to standards that feel not worth the effort right now.
Keeping my eyes on my own paper. I always tell parents to worry about what goes on in their own house and forget about how perfectly it all looks at the neighbor’s house. No one has it all together all the time. Now more than ever we have to remember this. We’ve all seen pictures on Instagram of gorgeous breads and perfectly cleaned linen closets. Some people are incredibly productive at this time. Others are hanging on by a thread. Some people are both. I can tell you no one is winning the quarantine. We are all just trying to survive.
Communicating the ugly feelings, to someone. I tend to keep things inside until I’ve had time to process and deal a bit. But this isn’t possible or even recommended when confined to quarters with other people during a traumatic experience. I’ve confided in friends and family when I’m on the edge. I also found a way to politely ask my husband for a little more support around the house when I need it. Talking and reaching out has helped me face another day with a little optimism.
I cry. Despite best efforts to keep it together, I cry. I cry for the people who are sick or caring for the sick. I cry because people are running out of food and money. I cry because children are learning a horrible new normal. I cry because there is no end in sight. I cry because I’m overwhelmed and lost sometimes. I cry because I miss my friends and family and my old life. I cry because so much we have been looking forward to has been cancelled. I cry because I’m helping no one. I cry and I don’t feel bad about it.
Sunlight on my face literally feels like having my battery recharged. I know myself. I need nature to brighten my outlook on just about everything. Sitting in my back yard listening to birds and seeing butterflies and flowers makes me happy. If something will make me happy right now, I do it.
I make plans. Having something to do makes each day slightly different, in a good way. I made a date to play the ukulele with our old piano teacher. I made plans to make croissants from scratch with my sister and a friend. I met up virtually with two of my editors for a chat. I made a birthday cake for a friend and dropped it off at her house (from a distance). These activities shaped my days and gave me a purpose that I need so desperately right now.
I soak up the special moments. Even during a horrible pandemic, there can be joy. One day I sewed masks at the dining room table with my daughter while we binged Love is Blind. It was a welcome break from the bleakness of this time. I picked up my phone to memorialize the moment so when I look back and remember how hard this was, I will also remember how special it was to be home with my kids.
I make soup. Soup comforts me. Yesterday I made my great grandmother’s cabbage soup. My mom gave me the instructions, but I wasn’t sure it would taste like my hers. It came out just like I remembered from my childhood. Last week I made Matzoh ball soup. The week before it was pumpkin lentil. It’s the little things that help us get through. For me, it’s making soup.
I don’t care about school. I truly couldn’t care less what homework my kids are doing. They do their work, or they don’t. I don’t check. I have teenagers so I know this may not be possible for all families. But it works for us. Here are more of my thoughts about parenting teens and school during the quarantine.
I take space when I need it. There are times when I cannot be around anyone or I will burst. I’m a person who loves people and also loves a little alone time. There is very little alone time and that can get to me. So when I need it, I excuse myself and go to my room. I watch the Shahs of Sunset or I play Ruzzle (play me, I’m CatherinePEA) or I listen to a podcast. After a short time I’m ready for people again.
I love having a show to watch with my kids. It’s not just fun to watch with them. These shows bring up important issues to discuss and provide lots of funny inside jokes. Despite the bad rap for screen time, watching shows brings us together and closer. There is no better time to start a series with many seasons. Here are some of my family favorites to watch.
100 Humans on Netflix Science and Nature – 13+ (16+ if squeamish about the idea of sperm being discussed vaguely)
A social experiment where 100 individuals are part of interactive research studies to understand complex sociological issues in a fun way. Every wonder which is the smarter sex? How does age impact ability? How does racial bias impact our decisions? There are so many questions 100 Humans works to answer. There are lots of methodological problems with the research but each study brings up interesting ideas about how we all operate and why. I promise this one will spark endless debate and conversation in the house.
Atypical on Netflix Family Drama, Autism, LGBT, College Life, High School – 13+ (15+ if worried about sex and relationships discussed)
Sam, an 18-year-old on the autism spectrum, decides it’s time to find a girlfriend, a journey that sets Sam’s mom on her own life-changing path as her son seeks more independence. This is a great family drama (like the movie “Parenthood”) with real-life themes for all families.
The Zoo on Animal Planet Science and Animals – Any age
The Zoo offers a unique behind the scenes look at The Bronx Zoo in New York City. This show is so much more than animals. They show their work on conservation, animal care, reproduction and more. It’s funny and sweet but also important.
This show is for people who like to bake, for those who like to eat and for those who cannot bake a thing. These British bakers are sweet, endearing, and they creating incredible edibles. Unlike many American shows, these competitors are all kind, help each other and are amateur bakers.
Cheer on Netflix Sports, Competition, College Life – Any Age
Cheer offers viewers an inside look into the lives of a highly competitive cheerleading team at a community college in Texas. You will come for the cheerleading (it’s an actual sport with highly skilled athletes), but you’ll stay for Jerry and La’Darius.
Gilmore Girls on Netflix Family Drama,College Life, High School – 13+
Cheesy but engaging mother-daughter drama about growing up, family and life.
The Good Place (from creator Michael Schur of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Parks and Recreation”) is a comedy about what makes a good person. This show is so much more than that. Every episode incorporates ethics and interesting philosophical concepts. There is so much to discuss after each episode.
Battlebots on Discovery Science, Robotics, Competition, Smashing stuff up – 9+
BattleBots like a mashup of mixed martial arts and a monster truck battle. Two remote controlled robots are put into a bulletproof cage and let loose on each other until one bot dies. There are fireworks and head on collisions, loose wheels flying, flame throwers and screaming and laughter and … I could go on and on.
I came late to this party but glad I got there. This historical family drama follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants in the family’s Edwardian country house. You will love them and hate them, then you will miss them.
With massive numbers of school closures beginning across the county, it’s important to have a plan. Most kids and their parents are not accustomed to 24/7 exposure for weeks on end. Here are some ways to get through with your sanity and even how to enjoy it.
Do School for set limited hours. Most children attend school for seven hours a day, but it really doesn’t take that long to learn the material. When working with children one-on-one they can learn much faster. Plan a few hours (2-3 for young kids, 3-4 for teens) a day to work on schoolwork and schedule it into the day. Have that time remain consistent and don’t negotiate this. If you have a non-negotiable time kids might fuss at first but eventually, when they realize there is nothing else happening until the work is done, they will get going.
Don’t recreate the wheel. There are millions of useful resources available online right now. You don’t have to have a lesson plan or become a teacher yourself. Most likely schools will offer guidance. But if not, there is Khan academy, Common Sense Media and loads of resources available by simply googling.
Be creative in how school gets done. School at home isn’t just about homework. Show documentaries, read books aloud, discuss news articles, download some audible books related to what your kids are learning in school. Whatever you do, think about how to make this enjoyable for your children and for you.
Break the rules. Living together, under one roof, in sometimes small areas, can be stressful. Be willing to change some of the rules to help everyone get along and find something to do. Have a picnic or a camp out. Make a fort and don’t bother cleaning it up. Have dinner with a movie (even every night). Bake a ridiculous amount of sweets and eat them. Play games for hours. Binge watch a show (but do it together). Sometimes keeping order is about breaking the rules in favor of fun and survival.
Don’t break all the rules. Chaos ensues pretty quickly when all rules are thrown out the window. Keep some semblance of order by having some rules that cannot be negotiated or changed. For example, keep up with bedtimes and wake times. Don’t allow phones and computers at all hours in the bedrooms. Limit screen time reasonably. Have mealtimes rather than everyone takes food whenever and wherever. Find what works for your family and stick to it.
Ignore It!. One of a parent’s best defenses against poor behavior is to ignore it. Yes, sometimes things get better when we do nothing. It’s amazing, very freeing and it works. I wrote a whole book about this. But here’s the primer: Not every behavior has to be disciplined and sometimes giving it attention only makes it happen more often. Life at home in a quarantine is hard enough. Be willing to look the other way, let some small stuff go and ignore anything annoying. There’s no benefit to discussing every behavior and there is a gigantic one to avoiding it. Trust me on this. You can read all about Ignore It! here and here.
Separate. Too much together time is just, well, too much. Have breaks in the day when everyone goes to their own corner. Consider it rest hour. Read. Try to break a Guinness Book of World Records. Write letters. Paint. Sew. Make a movie. Work. Build LEGO. It doesn’t matter what people are doing during that time, just do it alone.
Disconnect, a little. There will be the temptation to check Facebook and email continuously to stay connected. That will be important. But too much of that will have diminishing returns. Have time in the day when devices are banned, for everyone (parents, I’m looking at you).
Find the fun and funny. There will be a lot of ridiculous moments when so much time is spent together at home. You will have to laugh or you will scream. Find the funny. Write it down. Share it with friends. Be silly in ways you aren’t normally. It will make this time more memorable and so much more tolerable.
Share the load. Being homebound means finding ways to share to chores. Assign every member of the house a workload. This isn’t permanent but everyone needs to pitch in. Here are some ideas to get you started. If there is another adult in the house, have a meeting to divvy up the work what children cannot do. This will help with resentment and also not burdening one family member.
Say thank you. Sometimes we forget our manners. This isn’t the time for that. Thank your kids for helping out and doing their homework. Thank your neighbors for leaving food at your door. Thank your partner for supporting you. Thank your employer for letting you work from home. You get the idea. Thank you goes a very very long way in keeping the peace and making everyone feel appreciated.
During the holiday season, we all tend to give a lot to our family, our friends, maybe our neighbors and our coworkers. That’s all good. But the thing is there are lots of people who don’t enjoy this time of year. It’s expensive. It can be extraordinarily lonely. It is often stressful with all the shopping and parties and planning. And there tends to be more depression and anxiety than other times of the year.
There is so much we can all do to help others as we would help our inner circle. And maybe doing it for a stranger will make that act more meaningful. With the holidays approaching, I’m ready to get back into giving business. I want to see if you will join me.
It’s been six months since I donated my left kidney to a man I’d never met. I feel great, and my tests show my one kidney is working as well as ever. Every morning when I look at my scars, I’m filled with the greatest satisfaction I’ve known in my life.
After I donated, I received an outpouring of supportive messages. It was completely unexpected and in a way that was what made them even sweeter. What struck me the most is how meaningful my donation was to other people. Many messages said some version of:
“My faith in humanity is restored”
“This story gives me hope” “This is what we need in a world filled with so much anger and sadness.”
It wasn’t that I donated my kidney that was meaningful to most people. It was that I did it for a complete stranger.
A few years ago I read about a study that divided people into two groups. Both groups were asked to rate their happiness. Then they were given an envelope with either $5 or $20. One group was asked to spend the money that day on something for themselves. The other group was asked to spend it on someone else or donate it to charity. At the end of the day both groups were asked to rate their happiness again. Who would you predict was happier?
The people who gave the money away were happier. It didn’t matter if the participants were given the $5 or the $20. Giving it away just made people feel good regardless of how much was.
This study taught me two very important lessons.
Giving also helps the giver and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Giving in small ways is just as good as big gestures.
In 2015, inspired by this experiment I decided to buy 20 $5 Starbucks gift cards and hand them out in a Target parking lot. The whole family joined in. I wanted my kids to feel the gift of giving even though it wasn’t their money. We all took a stack and wrote messages on the envelopes. Then we walked around the parking lot distributing our cards. I remember my husband walked past a car with two young women waiting to park. He handed one a gift card. She was incredulous and frankly, she was suspicious. She wanted to know why he was giving her the card. After explaining there was no reason, she was visibly shocked and elated. He gave another card to the passenger. There was a mom putting a baby and her packages into the card. I recall the exhaustion of those days well. We slipped a card silently onto the baby’s empty car seat and walked away.
Though we were a sample of only four, we can completely validate the results of the study. Once on a road trip someone treated our family to a meal. We never saw them. They just paid the bill. I almost cried. I wondered why they picked us. We immediately paid for someone else’s meal and walked out doubly happy. Giving and receiving feels good. We should do it more.
Now comes the big ask. For the next three months let’s make the world a better place by being nice to strangers. I mean make an actual concerted effort every day to do something nice for someone outside of your friends and family. Go big or small. Spend money or don’t. All you have to do is find ways every day to do something nice for a stranger until Valentine’s day.
Why stretch this giving thing way past the holidays? Because lots of people help out during the Thanksgiving to Christmas stretch. But often people feel more alone in the dark days of January and February. Valentine’s day stinks for a large portion of the country. So, let’s do this all the way until the promise of Spring is upon us.
I’m going to be using the hashtag #strangerkindness to keep track of our good deeds. There is no need to let me know if you’d rather stay private about your good works. But I’d love to see if we could log 1,000 acts of stranger kindness by 2/14/2020. If you use the hashtag and tag me on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, I’ll count it. My dream would be for this effort to spread far and wide to everyone you know and all the people we don’t. So if you feel comfortable, please share this campaign.
What do I get out of this deal? I get to feel warm fuzzies on a regular basis knowing people are out there being kind to each other. Selfish? Sure. But we will also do lots of good so what’s so wrong with that?
Below is a list of my favorite ways to make a stranger’s day. Some cost money. Many don’t. If you’ve got more ideas, let me know. I’ll add them to the list. Thank you for reading this far and considering being kind to a stranger.
* Give someone a smile and ask how his/her day is going
* Offer a compliment
* Treat the next person in line at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts to a free drink (this is my husband’s favorite)
* Buy gift cards to CVS, Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target to keep in your car. If you see a person who might benefit from a card, give it.
* Become an organ donor (donating at the time of death can save up to 8 lives)
* Go to your local nursing home and ask to visit with someone who doesn’t receive many guests
* Make a cake and deliver it to a neighbor you don’t know
* Bake cookies for a local soup kitchen
* Donate fruit growing on your trees or help pick for someone else’s fruit that would be wasted
* Go serve or volunteer at a shelter or food pantry
* Offer a kind word to a parent of a screaming baby on an airplane and/or offer to help.
* Read to kids or teach English to second language learners at your local library
* Buy stamps and stand at the post office offering them to people
* Give blood through the Red Cross
* Let someone have the parking space you are waiting for
* Let someone go ahead of you at the supermarket
* Take back someone’s shopping cart for them
* Write a kind note to someone’s boss about the good work they are doing (this is really meaningful in the service industry)
* Teach an elderly person to use a cell phone or computer
* Pay for someone’s gas at the station
* Share your umbrella
* Buy extra movie tickets and pass them out
* Tell a parent in the middle of dealing with toddler meltdown “You are doing a good job.”
* Offer to get a snack or treat for someone working overtime at the hospital
* Make cards for to thank veterans for their service
* Call a dialysis center and offer to decorate or even throw a party for people receiving treatment
* Offer to babysit for a single parent or any parent
* Go to a nursing home and offer to give manicures for the resident
* If you see someone having a hard day, ask if they could use a hug
* Go to a LGBT center and offer to be an adoptive parent for someone whose own parents have disowned them.
* Hold the door open for people
* Leave tampons or pads or condoms in a public bathroom with a sign saying “take one if you need one”
* When it snows go around an shovel/plow someone’s driveway for them
Lately I’m considerably more conscientious about preparing my children to successfully launch into adult life. Maybe that’s because my children are 13- and 16-years old and college is around the corner. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen in my practice and in the literature that young people are just not as ready for real life when they leave for college or start work. When I grew up, adulting wasn’t even a word, now the lack of it is an epidemic and a syndrome (check out this fascinating look at the rise of the actual term adulting.).
A few years ago, I saw Julie Lythcott-Haims speak to a large group of teens and parents. I read her book (How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success), and I consider myself fairly up to date on parenting and child development. But during her talk, Haims said something that resonated so deeply. She said, “Our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job.” That was it. So simple. It was like being hit over the head with a cast-iron frying pan and suddenly, my mindset shifted.
Around the same time when I was writing Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction I stumbled across a flyer from the Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock. It reads “If you are dropping off your son’s forgotten lunch, books, homework, equipment, etc., please TURN AROUND and exit the building. Your son will learn to problem-solve in your absence.” Yes, Yes, Yes!!! The universe was telling me (and every other parent) that something had to change. We’ve got to stop enabling our kids to sit back and have their parents solve their problems.
With my parenting brain realigned I understood there were lots of things I was doing for my children that needed to stop. Out was checking up to see if they did their homework. Out was making sure the gym uniform was washed, dried and returned in the backpack. Out was cooking every morsel of food that was to be put into their mouths. Additionally, I made sure to give the kids several chores in the house that they were required to do on a daily basis. When my kids instinctively ask for help opening a cheese stick (yes 13- and 16-year-olds still ask this) or how to spell astronaut I now tell them to figure it out.
With Haims’ phrase and the Catholic school’s flyer in mind I’ve mostly avoided overparenting. Recently a teacher approached my high schooler to say, “Your mother sent me an email about your grades. Let’s talk after class.” My daughter looked at the teacher and said with complete confidence, “There’s no way my mother sent you an email.” She was 100% correct. There was absolutely no way I would send an email to my daughter’s teacher about her work or grades. I would have recommended my child email the teacher directly if he/she wanted to get some extra help. If the child chose not to get the help, then that child would have to deal with the consequences of not be prepared for the next test. Turns out the teacher was speaking with the wrong student.
And so it’s been going until I was forced to decide how far this adult preparation was going to go. This morning I allowed my son to miss his bus so we could have breakfast out together before school. This is normally my husband’s weekly special time with my son but in his absence this week I took over. I was planning on dropping my son at 8:30 am and meeting a colleague at 9 o’clock. Everything was going perfectly. We were enjoying each other’s company. We were discussing life and important topics over a chocolate almond croissant. When I mentioned the Say No to Drugs Red Ribbon Week campaign at school my son looked up in a panic and said, “There’s a Halloween costume contest at lunch today.” At 8:11 he’s realized that he did not have a costume. He forgot. Now I’m faced with a choice. We are two minutes from school and at least 10 minutes from home. We really didn’t have time to get his costume and for me to meet my coworker without being late. Morosely, we got up and ambled to the car.
On the way there I’m muttering about how we really don’t have time for this. My son is muttering as well. He’s saying, “It’s ok. We don’t have to get it.” But my heart is breaking. He’s such a good kid on all fronts. He’s generally responsible. He does take the dog out and empty the dishwasher with a minimum amount of complaining. He’s self-directed and above all, I know he would go out of his way to help me in an emergency. It all comes down to one question: Is this one of those times I should not rescue him and let him suffer the consequences for forgetting something?
I don’t want this question. I just want to enjoy my breakfast with him, drop him off and arrive on time to my next appointment. And I really really don’t not want to reinforce any kind of disorganization. However, I looked at the kid in front of me. He absolutely loves Halloween. School is mostly boring and lame, and this is one of the fun days (even if it has nothing to do with actually preventing drug use). Do I want him to miss it because I have a principle to uphold?
It turns out that I didn’t. More than I wanted to teach him a lesson, I wanted him to have his costume today. I’ve taught him many lessons, and I will continue to do so. But I realized there isn’t an all or nothing in this parenting gig. Consistency and following through are important. I made a video on this exact topic yesterday. But there are times that instead of being the parent I need to be a human being who has empathy for another human in distress. I’ve had plenty of moments when I’ve frantically called my husband because I’ve forgotten something important. It happens to the most organized among us.
So, I quickly turned the car around and started driving toward home. If this were the 10th time my son forgot something for school this would have turned out differently. But it wasn’t. It was the first. My son and I said nothing for a few blocks, and then he said, “I think we can make it.” We caught every green light on the way home, and I took the toll road (expensive but fastest route) on the way back to school. Because my son knows that I don’t normally rescue him if he forgets something, he was unusually grateful. A block from school he rushed out of the car flashing a smile. I rushed back to the highway.
I arrived at exactly 9 o’clock on the dot. My son was right. We both made it. Still thinking about if I made the right choice, I looked down at the floor of the passenger seat to see my son’s pencil case laying there. In his rush to get his costume on in the car he must have dropped it. I will not be dropping them back at school.