The Vietnam War and Critical Thinking for Kids

June 24, 2013 at 4:39 pm (Kids, Politics, Uncategorized) (, , , )

Setting: The parking lot in front of a Vietnamese restaurant, with posters in the window advertising colorful mixed drinks.

Dramatis Personae:

Emma: Forty-ish mother of three. Possible commie; certified elitist, liberal
Riley: precocious ten-year-old. Reading obsessed.
Henry: precocious eight-year-old. Baseball obsessed.
Lucy: near silent five-year-old. Obsessions as yet undetermined.

Scene 1

Henry: Hey look! A new smoothie place!

Emma: No that’s the Vietnamese restaurant. I haven’t eaten there yet, but we should try it.

Henry: Vietnam! There was a war there that lasted for 19 years.

Riley: Yeah, we didn’t win.

Henry: What was it about?

Emma starts to answer, despite not having ever had a history class ever that made it all the way to the Vietnam War: Well…

Henry: OH!!! I know. Freedom!



Emma, recognizing that a smarter person might avoid these deep waters entirely, but dipping a toe in anyway: Can you explain that answer a little bit more?

Henry tacit

Riley, with the assist: Part of the country wanted a different form of government. Communism, I think. We went over there to stop it, but we didn’t.



Henry: Oh yeah! Communism is really bad.



Emma, clearly possessed by the spirit of Socrates: What’s communism?

Henry: It’s when the government can tell you what to do.



Emma: Can’t our government tell us what to do?

Henry: Yes, but it’s bad when they do.

Emma, wondering when her son became a Republican and going ahead and opening the can of worms: I don’t know about that Henry. But we were talking about communism. Listen. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who came up with the theory that communism was based on? They looked around and saw rich people with a lot and poor people with a little, and they thought it wasn’t fair.


Riley, Henry and Lucy: That ISN’T fair!



Emma, thrilled that the kids appear to be paying attention in church, and really getting rolling: Some people don’t think that the government should be in charge of distributing wealth, and they think that communism stifles ambition. And we can talk about that. But maybe another question is, why should one country get to decide what kind of of government another country has?

The thinking from the backseat is palpable.



Emma, en fuego now: Here’s the most important thing, you guys. Listen up. I can tell you to go to school. I can tell you to do your homework. I can tell you to practice your instruments.

Henry: we get it!

Emma, enjoying the soapbox: I can tell you to go to church. I can tell you to sit down for dinner. I can tell you to go to bed.

Henry: WE GET IT!

Emma: But I can’t tell you what to think. People will try and try and try to tell you what to think, but you have those good, big brains in those enormous heads for a reason. And you have to listen and learn and make up your own minds. It is just so super-duper important that you use your good brains to decide for yourself. I can’t even tell you what to think. I can share my opinion with you if you ask me, but you have to have to have to make up your own minds about things. So when you learn something in school, fine, you maybe have to put it on a test, but I want you to really think about it, and realize maybe it’s not the full story.

End Scene 1

I was thinking about this conversation on my way home from work the same day, and feeling bad that I don’t make things easier for my kids, when I had a revelation: that’s not my job. It isn’t my job to do the heavy lifting for them, unless we’re talking about actual, not metaphorical, heavy lifting, in which case it totally is my job, especially for the five-year-old. I want them to grow up to be critical thinkers, so it is in fact my job to challenge them. They can do the heavy lifting themselves.

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Porch Time

June 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm (Uncategorized)

This one is from deep, deep in the archives. Seriously, it’s twenty years old. And other than the fact that I am now one of those “matrons” rushing around, the horror! my opinion hasn’t changed in the slightest.

In summer, every neighborhood has one perfect porch, one place to which the whole flock of friends migrates. Perhaps it is the coolest, being conveniently shaded on three sides by artfully planted trees. Perhaps it is the most comfortable, boasting two easy chairs, a sofa, AND a hammock. Or perhaps it is the most central, the point where all the radii converge and no one is more than five minutes away. Most likely it is a combination thereof, with an indefinable x-factor thrown in to confuse the issue. It has something to do with whose porch it is, although one is never quite certain to whom the perfect porch belongs. Somewhere in the menagerie of sun-browned skin, sweaty limbs holding sweatier beer bottles, and plastic debris from a carton of flavor-ice popsicles, lurks a host or at least someone who answers the phone, but it is enough that the porch be provided, and questions of ownership are relatively unimportant, as are questions of aesthetics. Some of the most perfect porches I have known were much less appetizing than the Better Homes and Gardens model across the way, yet that one porch on the block always attracts a gathering of friends, no matter how homely it is.

Porch utopia has something to do with the way lazy talk, and lazier silence, float on the fan-made breeze; the way people drop by to say, “hi,” and six hours later bashfully shuffle down the steps, mockingly shouting to one another, “what a waste of a day/afternoon/evening,” all the while aware that they will be back tomorrow. This is no gathering of stiff-assed matrons who wait to be offered tea before politely declining and rushing off to the next destination on their list of things to do. This is summer in a college town, and none of us has anything better to do, or any place better to be, than the front porch.

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Teaching the Kids to Cuss

June 13, 2013 at 1:03 pm (Kids, Silliness) (, )

My ten-year-old had lice during Easter break. It was kind of funny actually, by which I mean not funny at all, but rather skin-crawlingly gross. But I did have to laugh when I described it to a friend as “biblical” and then went, “No seriously, it’s biblical! Lice was one of the plagues during the Passover.” So Riley’s timing continues to be impeccable.

Anyway, we had a good decade of kids before having lice in the house, so I feel like we had a pretty decent run. Riley found a louse right before bedtime on the Wednesday before Easter. Sam ran out to get stuff to deal with it. I’m pretty crunchy, but when he called from the store asking whether he should get a treatment with or without harsh chemicals, I yelled into the phone, “We’re going nuclear here, Sam!” I hate to toot my own horn, which is awkward for a blog-writer, but I quickly became a lice expert, and while I can’t guarantee my methodology for anyone else, it certainly worked for us.

This blog post wasn’t meant to be about lice, but in case you have to deal with it, here’s what I did. I used the nuclear-strength treatment, which annihilated all the living lice in her hair. This was the worst step by far, one. because it was really expletive disgusting combing dead bugs out of my child’s hair, and two, because the chemicals are really strong and they hurt her scalp and stung her eyes. Then I combed out all the eggs using a special lice comb and the crunchy organic non-chemical lice treatment. Then, and this was my own innovation, I flat-ironed her hair. I just thought, “What can it hurt? I’m going to try and fry those expletives.” The next morning, I went through with the comb and the crunchy stuff again, and then the flat-iron again, and by the next morning she was lice-free.

Ok, back to the regularly scheduled blog post. This whole process took a really long time, and since we started at bedtime, Riley was up really, really late that first night. She was weeping with exhaustion, but she’s such a good kid, she couldn’t help but see the humor in the situation. She’d cry a little, and then crack a joke, like “Oh, no big deal, my mom is just combing dead bugs out of my hair at 11 pm. Hair’s dead anyway, so she’s combing dead bugs out of my dead hair.” I was DYING, she was so funny. Come to think of it, I may have been a little slappy too, but I think I probably would have done what I did anyway, even if I hadn’t been. Poor Riley sat there in the bathroom, while I picked through her hair for nits, and she was so unhappy…I said to her, “Riley, this is why God invented swearing.”

“Mommy, God didn’t invent swearing.”

“Fine, this is why people invented swearing, and God invented people, so basically God invented swearing.” This is of course terrible logic, and will probably get me into horrible trouble later on with my steel-trap-mind of a daughter, but as I’ve said, it was late…and gross. “So which swear words do you know?”

Her brown eyes, squinty with tiredness, opened wide. “The “s” one?” she asked.

“Let it rip,” I said.

“SHIT!!!!!” she hollered, and fell apart giggling. “Oh my gosh Mommy, that felt amazing!”

And like that, my daughter learned a little more about the power of the spoken language, and the timing of a good four-letter word. So, you know, I’m teaching the important stuff over here.

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The Coach Gaveth, and the Mother Tooketh Away

June 12, 2013 at 12:55 pm (Community, Kids) (, , , )

I feel like the worst mother in the world. Henry got the game ball at his baseball game last night, and I made him give it back. But you know what? If I could rewind, I’d do it again.

Henry’s in his second year of playing Little League. Henry loves baseball like the Pope is Catholic. He reads the sports section over his breakfast in the morning, looking both like my husband and my father as he pores over statistics. He watches Brewers games on TV when we let him, and listens to them on the radio as he goes to bed. He has it all planned out – he’ll play baseball at Notre Dame and then in the minors and then in the majors. (I looked up the 2013-2014 tuition at Notre Dame when he told me that. Let’s just say we’re going to need that baseball scholarship money). I had this bedtime story I’d tell him of how the Yankees would want him, would pay any price for him, but he’d want to play for his hometown team, so he’d stay a Brewer. He liked that one, and so did I. He’ll play outside in the backyard with the neighbors for hours, and when they’re done, he’ll keep playing on his own, throwing up high balls and diving for them, pitching grounders and running to scoop them up. “Mommy/Daddy/Baba will you play catch with me?” is his incessant refrain from when the snow melts to when it flies again.

Henry got in trouble once this year at school for getting into it with a classmate on the playground. He was mortified when the recess monitor didn’t believe his account of what happened. His teacher was sympathetic, but banned him from playing team sports for a week or so, because he just “cared a little too much.” (Luckily for Henry, that week coincided with a bout of bad weather and indoor recess). He is uber-competitive, and he cares deeply about whatever game he’s playing, but especially baseball.

Henry plays for the Durham Bulls. It is a great group of kids, and a great group of parents, and a great group of coaches. They move the kids around quite a bit at this age so they get experience all over the diamond. Henry played the last two innings last night at first base. These kids don’t know what they do to us – I couldn’t sit still on the bleachers and wandered over to the fence next to first. I guess I’m glad I did, but I saw some things I didn’t want to see while I was there. A kid threw wide to him, Henry couldn’t grab it and he got visibly frustrated with his teammate. And then it happened again on a couple of plays he wasn’t involved in.

His team won, though really I shouldn’t even write that, because it doesn’t matter. Henry plays baseball because he loves it, yes, but also because his father and I believe that playing team sports can teach you important life lessons. You have to work together, because no man is an island. (Who’d a thunk John Donne was a baseball fan?) You have to work hard, because other people are depending on you. And you have to be a good sport, fercryinoutloud. I get it, I promise I do – it’s hard to be a good sport when you feel it so, so much. It’s especially hard when you give your all every single time – perhaps Henry’s finest quality – and you suspect others aren’t doing the same thing. But that’s a rotten way to live. I want Henry to assume that the people he meets are doing their best, even when it seems…unlikely. A quote made the rounds of the interwebs a while back: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It was attributed to Plato, but I couldn’t find it, not that you should imagine me exhaustively reading my Greek. I don’t care who made it up, it’s one of my favorite sayings ever, and I want my son to believe it with every fiber of his competitive being.

Anyway, after the game and after the team meeting, when the coaches gave Henry the game ball, I pulled him aside. I asked him if he’d been a good sport during the game, and I asked him if he deserved the game ball. My brave boy answered no to both questions. I told him he could earn it back, not by playing well – he’s a decent little ballplayer, and that’s not the point – but by being a leader on his team. By cheering on his teammates. By setting a good example. By being a good sport. It was a tough talk, but he took it on the chin…I was proud of him. He’s a good kid, and he can learn this. He has to.

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