By: Ted Peterson
Ian and I did an interview which will appear in the newsletter for the Alliance for Children’s Rights about some of the myths of foster adoption. Some of the myths were about whether it was difficult for same-sex couples to adopt (it’s not) and whether the biological parents can take the children away after the adoption (no, they can’t). Then the next myth we were presented with was whether children in the foster adoption system are damaged. That was a hard question to answer.
We wanted to say that the kids in foster care are just like all kids everywhere, but that’s not really true. Ask any social worker and they’ll tell you that the vast majority of kids in foster care were born with drugs in their system, crystal meth, cocaine, alcohol, and more, in some combination. Even if they weren’t born with those poisons in them, something bad happened to put them into the system. Their bodies suffered abuse, most often in the form of neglect. It’s dishonest to say these aren’t damaged kids.
We’ve been incredibly lucky with Mikey. He was carried to term with no drugs detected in his system. He’s in great health -mentally, physically, and emotionally -but he’s not even four yet. It’s hard to tell what effect having three different homes before he was two years old will have, but it’s unrealistic to think that there was none. He was developmentally trying to form bonds with people and they kept being broken.
Of course, the scars of that damage are all on the inside. Anyone who meets Mikey is not only charmed by his personality, but by his good looks. Not that he hasn’t suffered his share of bumps and bruises like any 3-year-old. The week before Easter, there was an incident while playing basketball where the flesh just below Mikey’s eye had unwanted contact with a fingernail. The timing wasn’t great for a bloody gash, with the photo op of egg hunting around the corner and school pictures the following week. Luckily (thanks Neosporin!), the scratch had faded away in time for the school pictures, and at Easter, it gave him a tough look which let the other kids know not to touch his chocolates.
After the child’s initial pain has subsided, I think many parents worry about these scratches and bumps and how it reflects on them. On one hand, we know that every kid who isn’t in a bubble gets them; on the other, we don’t want anyone to look at our kid, and then look at us, and think, “Child abuse!” I think that comes from the same part of the brain which makes you panic even though you’re not doing anything wrong when a police car pulls up next to you at a traffic light.
So those shallow scratches fade away, but sometimes an injury’s deeper. Sometimes, there’s a scar on the surface or deep inside, which very few can see.
The thing about discussing kids as being damaged is that it makes it sound like they’re a chair partially eaten by termites, or a scratch on a car bumper, or a hole in the bottom of a shoe. Kids aren’t objects which can either be repaired or are ruined for good, or things which lose their value when they’re hurt.
In Mikey, his early experience losing home after home has made him more empathetic. He watches everyone around him, at home and at preschool, and is the first person to give hugs when someone is feeling bad.
That damage has been done, and we can’t undo it. It’s fucking unfair, but it’s not all bad.
The cliché, of course, is that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Like so many clichés, it’s true.
By: Ted Peterson
Carpe Diem is the best advice you can give anyone, and that goes double for parents. If we can just enjoy and appreciate what’s happening today, this minute, with ourselves and our kids, we’d all be so much happier. That’s admittedly easier said than done. It seems we parents are always opining that our kids are growing up too fast or not fast enough.
Examples are legion. Last weekend, I was talking with the father of one of Mikey’s best friends in preschool, and the subject of martial arts classes came up. I never took any as a kid, but look up any dojo oriented towards kids in your neighborhood and you’ll hear the same spiel about how they promote fitness, honor, respect, and discipline … as well as the ability to tear your opponent’s spine out from his throat if that’s got to be done.
We took Mikey to one class at a karate school in Calabasas and he didn’t like it. Really, the problem was the kids were doing all kinds of routines he had never been taught, and he was expected just to imitate them without any particular instruction. That’s just a lousy class, but we heard about other, better ones. Interestingly enough, we heard about them from friends of ours with girls. Actually, as soon as I thought about it, it was perfectly sensible. Girls have even more reason to know self-defense.
I was discussing all this with Mikey’s friend’s father, and it quickly came out that he’s a real true believer in everything about martial arts. We were in a noisy bowling alley at a kid’s birthday party, but you could almost hear a distant gong sound out across misty fields of bamboo as he spoke of growing up in the karate tradition. He concluded his reverie by saying that he wasn’t going to put his son into it until he was 8 or 9 years old. He had taught younger kids and became convinced that they aren’t developmentally ready yet, and more often than not would get burned out quickly if put in too soon.
That’s good enough for me. Karate is just something I think my kid should try out. It’s not something important to me. Like the movies, which he must learn to love like I do.
Last Sunday, we took Mikey to the movies for the first time. There are all sorts of first time moments this summer. Swimming and diving for the first time, first sleep-over, coloring between the lines, unfettered pony rides, getting up on a surfboard … Every week, there’s something new. In a week, we’ll be going to our first baseball game. That’s the sort of thing most dads dream of doing with their sons. But for me, it was the movies.
I can’t wait to share all my favorite movies with him, and watch and discuss new ones together. Like Mikey’s friend’s father, though, I’m conscious of not pushing him too early. Mikey didn’t watch anything at all until he was two years old, and then gradually, he’d watch a few minutes of a cartoon on television or the iPad. His attention span just wasn’t long enough, and we figured that was fine. We didn’t want to force him into couch potatohood until he was ready.
He went to a theater for the first time when he was two-and-a-half, to see “Cinderella” in the style of the British panto, which means a lot of songs, dances, and audience participation. We made it through to intermission, and cut our losses and left. It was a success, but Mikey was obviously still antsy. The first play Mikey sat all the way through was another children’s play we saw in London when he was almost three called “The Tiger Who Came To Tea.” The following Christmas, we went to another panto, and Mikey adored it and became obsessed with “Snow White.”
He hadn’t been particularly into Disney before then. Of course, he had seen all three “Toy Story” movies and “The Lion King,” because every kid has, but we decided that we needed to go back to the classics after the success of the play version of “Snow White.” We bought the DVD of Disney’s original first animated feature, the 1937 movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” I believe Mikey can quote it almost word for word now, and not only the movie, but the Little Golden Book of it which became his favorite bedtime story.
It was only natural we followed “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” with the next movie from Disney, 1940’s “Pinocchio.” Talk about an alternative family. An elderly bachelor, Geppetto, with his kitten and his fish, is such a good man and brings so much joy with his woodworks that the Blue Fairy grants his wish that his new puppet is brought to life as his son. At that point, the puppet Pinocchio needs to prove himself “brave, truthful, and unselfish” in order to became a real boy, not a living puppet.
Mikey was musing on this the other day. “I think I’d like to be made of wood.”
That’s understandable. But while Mikey’s movie knowledge was growing, he had still not been to watch one in the theater. A lot of his friends have been, some back when they were babies. It’s common at Mommy & Me classes for there to be special screenings for babies and moms, where the lights aren’t brought down too dark. We knew that Mikey would sit still if the entertainment were solid, with lots of music and comedy, but I knew we’d have to explain that unlike in children’s plays and pantos, there was to be no interaction, no yelling and singing. You just sit and watch.
We decided that when Mikey finally saw a movie, it had to be a classic. We wanted something that generations of kids had already given their stamp of approval to. We imagined him talking to his friends years from now about their first movies, and we didn’t want him to have to confess to a modern, forgettable piece of dreck like “The Lorax,” “Mars Needs Moms,” “The Pirates!”, “Megamind,” “Kung Fu Panda 2” … So, we began combing the listings from revival theatres for new releases of old movies.
That’s when I heard that “Cinderella” was coming to the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. The El Capitan was built in 1926, a year before Graumann’s Chinese Theatre was constructed across the street. It has a deco “East Indian” décor and was originally a legitimate theater for plays. For that reason, the stage is deep enough that to this day before each performance, a classic Wurtlizer pipe organ rises up from a trapdoor in the center of the stage before the performance and descends as the curtains rise. In short, the El Capitan is one of the classic grand dame theatres of the age and a perfect location for Mikey’s first movie.
I haven’t seen “Cinderella” since I was a kid, and the only impression I had was, for better or for worse, it’s the girliest of the classic Disney movies. That’s fine, though. Better show it to Mikey now before he feels the pressure to only enjoy movies about cars, guns, and flatulence.
We took the Metro train down to Hollywood and Highland, which was another first for all of us. Like most kids his age, Mikey has a fascination with trains, so it was an easy decision to park for free in the Valley and spend $1.50 for the experience. We began bribing Mikey immediately, telling him that we would get him ice cream after the movie if he showed us what a big boy he is by staying in his chair and not making any noise during the movie.
We needn’t have bothered. As soon as the movie started, Mikey and all the other princes and princesses in the audience were transfixed. We laughed out loud at Cinderella’s mice friends Jaq and Gus, and held Mikey’s hand when Lady Tremaine’s evil cat came close to eating them. When Cinderella and the Prince danced at the ball, Mikey put his head on my shoulder and smiled. It wasn’t boring. It was wonderful. He was charmed.
Only after the movie was over, and we were having ice cream next door, did a frown cross Mikey’s face.
“Who did Cinderella marry, the Prince?” he asked.
“Oh,” he said, and took a thoughtful bite of his scoop of mint chocolate chip and shook his head. “Poor Snow White.”
By: Ted Peterson
I have avoided the subject of discipline, because it is a particularly treacherous subject even within the landmine-strewn subject of childrearing. A few days ago, however, a friend posted on Facebook a video of Bristol Palin, the loathsome daughter of the even more objectionable former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. One might’ve hoped that after 2008, the Palins would have entered the dustbin of political trivia together with other would-be vice-presidential families. But while you won’t find the Ferraros, Kemps, Stockdales, or Liebermans on basic cable, you will find the Palins.
Bristol’s new show features her and her equally vapid little sister Willow bopping around Los Angeles, occasionally with Bristol’s three-year-old son Tripp. Tripp was, you might recall, the subject of a scandal when it was announced shortly after John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his vice president that the family values conservative’s daughter was having a child out of wedlock. Bristol quite rightly bristled at the idea that being an unwed teen mother made her a whore, and then went on to do Dancing With The Stars and this new show to demonstrate what really makes her one.
Tripp is an adorable little moppet, even in the scene from the reality show which is getting the most recent buzz. In it, Bristol, Willow, and Tripp check into a hotel, and they notice that there’s a pool. Tripp immediately wants to go in, but for whatever reason – the late hour, the lack of energy, the logistics of schlepping a full TV crew down to the deck below – Bristol nixes the plan. I can empathize as the father of a three-year-old water baby myself.
“I hate you!” Tripp snarls, thwarted. Mikey’s never said he hated me, but I recognize three-year-old hyperbolic anger when I see it. Bristol and Willow look to the camera and titter. Not a great sound bite for their show, they’re thinking. Bristol meekly suggests that it’s not nice to say, and Willow throws out the idea of a time out as punishment.
“Go away, you faggot!” Tripp screams at Auntie Willow.
There’s little question how Tripp’s three-year-old vocabulary includes such invectives. Auntie Willow Palin herself called a classmate a faggot for posting disparaging remarks about the Palins’ last reality show on Facebook. Monkey see, monkey do.
There’s been a fair amount of discussion about Tripp’s word choice, but a side discussion among some of my friends on Facebook was about Willow’s suggestion of a time out and Bristol’s subsequent confession that she’s not great on discipline. Folks less amused and more angry about Tripp’s behavior, conflating his bombast with homophobia, have fumed that the child is due for a spanking, not a time out.
If it’s not clear from what I’ve written above, I’m no fan of any of the Palins, but neither am I a fan of spanking. Also in my corner on this is every modern, respectable pediatrician and psychologist in the civilized world. The jury is in and has been in on spanking for a long time, folks, and just because you survived it doesn’t mean you need to inflict it on the next generation.
There are worst things you can do than to spank your kid, but that doesn’t make it right.
People don’t know what to do with this information. In our foster parenting classes, it was explained that particularly because so many children in the system have been physically abused, any kind of corporal punishment was verboten and grounds for having the child taken away.“But after the adoption,” one fellow asked, “then we can spank?”
What a happy adoption day that family’s child must have had. Welcome to the family officially, kid. And now, drop your trou and get ready for all the whipping we’ve been storing up for months now.
The problem is what to replace spanking with. We’ve been ahead enough of the trend that my parents didn’t spank me, and their parents didn’t spank them. Considering we were good middle-class Midwestern Republicans, our whole rule system was a bit haphazard for the first couple years of my life. One of our family’s stories was in kindergarten, the teacher was talking about class rules. She asked the other kids what rules there were in their families. As they went around the circle, other kids volunteered what they could do, couldn’t do, with all the hows and whys and ins and outs you might expect.
When the teacher got to me, I couldn’t think of any rules in my house. She pushed a little more to have me think of something I knew I was absolutely not allowed to do.
“I am not allowed to … pee in the living room?” I finally suggested.
My mother who was present thought that was a pretty good rule. She was glad I had signed on.
Mikey knows that rule and a handful of others, but for the most part, we try to be flexible. When he’s at home, for example, he knows that he has to ask to get down from the table after dinner, and we may add some additional requirements (“Yes, you can get down after two more bites of spinach, and one more bite of chicken”), but when he’s having pizza with his friends at a birthday party and half the kids are already up and playing, we let it slide. The one thing we don’t let slide is when we’re the recipient of the corporal punishment we don’t indulge in ourselves.
It’s happened the last couple of days, usually late in the day, now that Mikey is weaning himself off naps. He’s a little more emotional when he would previously be philosophical about life’s little disappointments and annoyances. Mikey gets angry, and responds quickly with a smack, kick, or spit. We quickly take away whatever privilege he is or is about to enjoy – a cookie, a movie, a swim in the pool, a book. This turns the petulance into a full-blown tantrum, at which point, we walk away. No negotiating. Our only rule is nothing reinstates that privilege once it’s been taken away, even after the tantrum has passed, and apologies have been given and accepted, and we are all laughing again.
Frankly, we have it good. We have a son who is cool and happy so much of the time that when he melts down, it takes us a moment to wipe the grins off our faces and get to our battle stations. Part of the reason I didn’t want to talk about discipline is because I know the pro-spanking crowd will want me over their knee, but most of the reason is that I don’t want to jinx what’s been working well so far. Ever since we took one of her classes for credit towards keeping our foster license, we get Heather Forbes’ email from her Beyond Consequences group aimed at the parents of aggressive, violent kids. The emails always have guilt-inducing subjects like “Ted, Does Your Child Ever Scare You?” “Just Making Sure You Are Safe” and “It Isn’t Supposed To Hurt To Be A Mom.”
I know how lucky we are. But Dr. Forbes doesn’t advocate spanking, even for these most vicious of children. She advocates keeping yourself safe, and listening. Letting your kids know that it’s okay to be mad, but not okay for them to hurt us, or us to hurt them with words or fists.
Sounds like a plan -for you, me, and even Bristol.
By: Ted Peterson
Getting older is a major point of discussion around our house. For a few months now, Mikey’s been asking everyone -family members, waiters, homeless people, other children, perfect strangers, “What’s your name?” Now, less delightfully, he’s been asking, “How old are you?”
He can only count up to 20, so any numbers outside that don’t compute. But Mikey asks anyhow.
Mikey understands that some things are for grown-ups and some things are for kids. He understands now more that some things are for kids of a certain age. A super soaker water gun he saw at Target for example is plainly marked “4 and Up.” He recognized that number, and now the toy is an even greater object of desire.
“Remember, I will have that toy when I am four?”
He throws out predictions: “I will swim better … when I am in kindergarten.”
“Maybe I will tie my shoe when I am five?”
He realizes that as he gets older, he gets bigger, and so one of his pronouncements was, “When I am one hundred, I will be so big!”
Our friend Robert Ell’s grandmother Raisa is turning 102 years old, and she joined other Pasadena area centenarians in a video project that debuted at the Pasadena Museum of Art. We were lucky enough to be invited to a private showing. Mikey sat on my lap while we listened to stories of life in the early years of the 20th century and words of wisdom.
“I have all my own teeth, and not in a jar by the side of my bed. And I don’t need glasses for reading,” Corrie Harris, one of the subjects of the project said, and then paused. “And I have given up complaining about my knees. I figure they have done a good enough job, carrying me around for 101 years so far.”
Raisa and her sister went to dinner with us after the party, and Mikey kept us all entertained. Then he attempted his famous Dizzy Gillespie with a mouthful of milk routine.
This has been a regular part of his boundary-pushing behavior for about eighteen months now. He will fill his mouth with milk (or water or juice) and stare at us with big eyes, while we issue dire warnings that he better swallow or face severe repercussions. Finally, he swallows it down and the game is over.
One time about a year ago, we were at a pub in England, and he decided to do it to amuse and delight the locals. As I wagged my finger and told him to be careful, I couldn’t help noticing that his cheeks were wider and more tremulous than usual. He had overfilled them and had not anticipated a cough. He spewed. The locals stared. We wiped up best we could and beat a retreat. Mikey didn’t need much punishment: he was plainly mortified.
He hasn’t had any accidents since then, but we warned him every time he played the game that he better be careful. The odds were that he would slip up again.
And that dinner, it happened for a second time. His eyes bulged, he tried to swallow, and then the milk sprayed.
Most good dads say they would take a bullet for their son. I would, and I probably would even take a shot of milk, but since Mikey was in my way, that wasn’t an option. I angled him to soak his own projectile midflight.
No one was hit but Mikey and the table. Everyone stared, including Mikey, and then Ian, just as silently, picked him up and carried him off.
Raisa chuckled and shook her head as I mopped up the mess. She’d seen it all before.
By: Ted Peterson
In more ways than I can count, becoming a father has improved me as a person. I’m laughing all the time. I am reminded to look at the small miracles, like rainbows in the lawn sprinklers, which fascinate my son. I get regular and real cuddles and kisses. My partner and I have discovered new depths to our relationship. And yet, occasionally, there’s evidence of the less attractive signs of parenthood.
I think I’m avoiding so far the worst one, being the helicopter parent who frets over development milestones, skinned knees, and every minutiae of every danger that could face Mikey. I am guilty, however, of the cousin of that psychosis, where all my adult conversations – even with people who don’t even have any interest in having kids – turn back to stories about my adorable boy. And, worse, I am in danger of becoming a stage dad.
Everyone thinks that their kid is the cutest, most talented, most brilliant, and funniest creature yet spawned. Those of us who live in the vicinity of Hollywood have to live with the temptation that this wonderfulness needs to be and easily can be shared with the world. In Dayton, Ohio or Billings, Montana, parents love to hear from friends, family, and kind strangers, “Your kid is amazing. He could be a star.”
Only here do we then think, “Oh, yes, let’s do that.”
When our favorite boys’ clothing designer, Fore!! Axel and Hudson announced an open casting call on Facebook, we submitted a couple photos of Mikey on a lark. They replied back immediately that they wanted him for the photo shoot.
It went pretty well after he understood about standing on a mark and why Daddy and Papa couldn’t be in the picture with him. The biggest direction he had ever been given when taking a photo was to say, “Cheese.” A couple of the shots they took will probably be in their Fall “Look Book,” so evidently they got what they were looking for.
Some friends with contacts at model agencies have taken some of the pictures we’ve given them, and we might be getting some representation soon for more work.
Immediately, of course, one’s mind goes to all the True Hollywood Stories of child stars with unhappy lives – Corey Haim, Dana Plato, Brad Renfro, Mackenzie Phillips, Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, the list is long. Worrying about the dangers of superstardom, though, is like fretting about a lightning strike. It’s a million percent likely not to occur, so there’s no reason not to get out and have fun.
If doing the photo shoot was serendipitous, and sending photos to agents is simply logical, it’s hard to come up with a good reason for the most recent, goofiest of projects. Perhaps you’ve seen the commercials yourself: Tyson’s Chicken Nuggets want you to submit a picture of your kid eating their product. The winner gets, not money, but fleeting fame, with his or her mug in ads in various magazines and a billboard in Times Square.
It’s a blatant attempt to sell product to vain parents. I was unable to resist.
In addition to being absolutely adorable, as I’ve mentioned, Mikey is funny as hell, so as creative photographer, I thought I’d get him to sing some songs, mug for the camera, and generally try to be as silly as possible. In that I succeeded, and we had a great time. The actual pictures, however, just look like I’m documenting some kind of tragic, involuntary seizure.
Check it out:
We picked the least weird one and submitted it. Near as I can tell from Tyson’s “Wall of Smiles,” every single daft parent of every single halfway presentable child in America submitted one. It’s worth a visit just to see multiple spellings of Addison, Chase, and Jayden. Oh, and if you want to see Mikey’s picture and vote for it, I suppose I shouldn’t stand in your way.
Now, excuse me while I practice my rendition of Rose’s Turn from “Gypsy” in the mirror …
An Interview with Ted Peterson by The Next Family
TNF: How has it been blogging for TNF?
The horror, the horror. Heh heh heh, I’m kidding, of course. It’s been great, but challenging. When I started blogging three years ago, there was a lot of drama going on: becoming a foster parent, getting our first placements, dealing with the new experience of being a parent, and finally adopting our son. Since then, we’ve established our routines and the dramas are thankfully few and far between. That’s good for my life, but not great for finding subjects to write about. I’m getting more comfortable now, telling our stories which are really just everyday stories. One of my friends says -I think kindly- that I’m sounding like Erma Bombeck.
TNF: How is your family like every other family and how is it different?
All the ways we’re different aren’t so unusual one by one, but when you add them up, we are the weird. We’re a same-sex couple who adopted a biracial son, for starters. My partner Ian is British, though he’s recently picked up American citizenship as well. Culturally, he’s a super-Brit, and has taught our boy to love Marmite and bangers. I am a Midwesterner boy with a close, loving family, but when you dig a little deeper, we’re pretty eccentric and quite proudly so.
When we get together with any other family with a three-year-old, we speak the same language. Potty training and preschools, stubbornness and sleep deprivation, toys, books, Disney this, and Disney that.
TNF: Did your family accept you and your lifestyle? If yes, explain and if not explain what you have done to help them to accept your decisions and your lifestyle.
When I came out to my parents, the first thing my mom asked was if I was seeing anyone special. I told her no, and she said that I should try to find someone, because life is so much better with someone to share it with. They would know, my parents are best friends. When I met Ian and brought him home, they treated him as one of us immediately – which on recollection, is pretty strange. In a sense it was a test to see if he could hold his own, and he passed with flying colors, and that was the end of that.
My parents eloped, and even though I think they were puzzled that we felt the need for a big party to celebrate our marriage, of course they came. They weren’t at all puzzled by our decision to adopt, and they cried along with us when we lost our first two placements. Now that we have Mikey, he forever wants to see Grandma and Grandpa, and of course the feeling is mutual. It’s too bad they’re on the east coast and we’re on the west, but we manage to see each other a couple times a year.
TNF: How do you juggle the work at home with your jobs?
I was lucky enough to be able to take off the first four months we had Mikey, which was so important for bonding. When I went back to work, Mikey went to daycare, which he loved, but I predictably was guilt-riddled about. Now, we’re at preschool and we have a routine, which includes two alternating nannies who pick him up from school. It’s tough though, because my industry demands I put in more than 40 hours a week, so I often will just see Mikey first thing in the morning when we bring him to school, and dinner and bedtime.
Juggling work and home is a work in process, but the one thing I’ve figured out is that when I’m home with Mikey, unless I’m in my office, I am 100% there for him. No checking email or texts while we play. I am happy to let the phone go to voicemail.
TNF: What lessons do you feel are the most important to teach children in this day and age? Are there any lessons they, or perhaps we as parents should unlearn?
It’s funny, I never think about lessons. I believe that play and learning are the exact same thing – ideally throughout life and certainly in childhood. Playing with Legos and setting up train tracks, dancing and singing nursery rhymes, trips to the zoo and the beach and the theater, all are all about learning.
I was talking to a friend of mine about whether everyone should challenge authority, or whether childrens and teenagers should learn to do as they’re told. I said I think children and teens should especially challenge authority, and they do whether you want them to or not. The word “challenge” makes it sound like an aggressive, confrontational act, but I take it to mean a variety of actions – question authority, engage with authority, ask “why” of authority, et cetera.
Children and teenagers should grow into independent adults capable of critical thinking, and the only way to that goal is generally polite, thoughtful, practical, but unrelenting challenging of authority. Including us, I might add. Our job is not to avoid conflict but to help our children win arguments with us.
TNF: Any words of wisdom to pass on to our readers?
I think the chief secret of my relationship with my partner and my son is that I find them both incredibly interesting. I want to be with them all the time and ask them what they think, whether I agree with them or not, and I feel them doing the same for me. The result is that even though we’re a family that laughs a lot, we’re also a respectful family in the best sense. I think that’s the most solid foundation you can build for relationships.
By: Ted Peterson
I decided to take Ian out for dinner and a movie for his birthday on a Friday, and I asked my brother Michael if he could watch our son Mikey. Mikey technically wasn’t named for Uncle Michael – our son already had that name when we took him into foster care at 20 months old — but they are definitely as close as any nephew and uncle. Michael’s wife, Mikey’s Aunt Kelly, and his daughter, Mikey’s cousin Natalie, are just as dear to him, so they were ideal babysitters for a couple hours. Instead of just agreeing to watch Mikey for a couple hours, Uncle Michael threw out the suggestion that Mikey spend the night at their house so we could have a real night out and a sleep-in the next morning.
This would be the first time for Mikey sleeping away from home and parents. A pretty big deal. We said okay, let’s give it a shot.
On Friday, after we dropped Mikey off at preschool, I drove Ian to work so we can have one car that evening. I got home at about ten in the morning, and began making my list of things that I need to try to squeeze into an overnight bag.
At 10:15, I got a phone call from the preschool.
“Mikey might have swallowed something he shouldn’t have,” his teacher explained.
Evidently, he was in the play kitchen with a two inch solid plastic bunch of grapes and popped them in his mouth. His teacher told him to spit them out, and when she got to him, they weren’t in his mouth anymore. Nor were they anywhere in the play kitchen to suggest he had obediently spat them out.
By 10:45, I was at the school, and my 10:50, we were at the hospital emergency room which is conveniently right across the street.
A set of x-rays later, it was determined that the obstruction had moved past his esophagus and would probably “pass on through” in a couple of days. Something to look forward to!
By 1 o’clock, Mikey was back at school, having lunch and getting ready for a nap, and I was at home, wondering if a kid who swallowed plastic grapes should really be sent off overnight without us.
While I debated with myself and then brought Ian up to date on the phone, I packed the overnight bag. Some snacks he might miss from home – roasted seaweed for one, and peanut butter and chocolate cereal (no, not together). Shark jammies. Multiple underpants, shirts, pants, socks. Buzz Lightyear blanket. Hop On Pop book. We only had room for two small stuffed animals, so I went with the pink tiger and the penguin “Pillow Pet.”
About 3 o’clock, I fired off an instructional email to Uncle Michael about Mikey and the potty. I explained that at night time, he’ll remember some time, and wake up sometime, but it can be iffy. If Uncle Mikey really wanted to be safe, I said he should pick him up two or three hours after he’s been sleeping (not two or three hours after he’s gone to bed, which is very different), carry him to the toilet, and make sure he pees before putting him back down into bed in a 90% unconscious stupor. To be doubly sure, I added one other item to the overnight bag – a big absorbent pee pad to put under him in bed.
I picked up Mikey at preschool a half an hour later, and by five o’clock, we were pulling up into the movie studio lot where my brother works. He met up with us in a golf cart, and in true Hollywood style, we drove us around for a sight-seeing tour. At his office, there were piles of snacks, and the indulgent uncle steered Mikey towards the donuts, while I pointed out the bananas and apples, but said he could have whatever he wanted. He went with the banana and a cutie orange.
Back in the parking lot, we exchanged bags and installed the child seat, and I said to Mikey as soon as I had him buckled down, “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow. Have fun!”
Mikey burst into tears. “No, Daddy! Stay with me!”
I guiltily ran back to my car, and got the text from Uncle Mikey less than five minutes later: “We’re fine. No tears. Having fun.”
And so they did. They went out to dinner, to a playground, and then out for ice cream. While Ian and I were out for dinner and then to a movie, we got a stream of texts and photos of our boy having the time
of his life.
Late the next morning when we picked Mikey up, we got the rest of the story. Yes, there had been an accident in bed that night, but no big deal. Yes, he had cried for us for a few minutes that night and then
again that morning, but again, no big deal.
Everything was no big deal, which is a very big deal.
Uncle Mikey showed us that Mikey had found a photo of us at Uncle Mikey’s and Aunt Kelly’s he wanted to sleep with. That’s the only thing we didn’t think to include his overnight bag.
Next time, I’ll remember.
By: Ted Peterson
I’ve been an Anglophile for at least thirty years. The first Brit I fell for was James Bond, and I’ve remained true through his six incarnations. To this day, no one can beat me in Bond trivia, and I specialize in the worst of the movies, like “Diamonds Are Forever,” “The Man With The Golden Gun,” “A View To A Kill,” and … okay, whatever the second Timothy Dalton movie was. After him were a series of literary icons and Merchant-Ivory film actors, men with fabulous accents and lovely hair, and names like Rupert, Simon, Hugh, and Jeremy. My last British crush was Ian, who I married.
Our son, in addition to being biracial and parented by a same-sex couple, gets the additional gift/complication of having multiculturalism right in his home. Ian has embraced his adopted American culture in so many ways, not the least of which by becoming a citizen last November. But as Mike Myers, who grew up in Canada with a father from Liverpool, once observed, “No one is more British than a British man abroad.”
We have a pillow with a Union Jack on the sofa, and at least two cufflinks which also show off the British flag. We have a signed photo of Princess Diana on the shelf together with tea cups commemorating the crowning of her mother-in-law. And there’s Pimms #5 in our liquor cabinet, which we drink with either lemonade or ginger ale in the summer.
There’s the language. Mikey’s had to learn that when Papa asks for a torch, it’s the same thing as Daddy asking for a flashlight. He frequently answers a question in the affirmative not with a “yes” but a snappy, insouciant English “of course.” The first adverb that Mikey ever uttered was “properly.”
Not that he’s fluent. Last week, we’re driving in typical horrible Los Angeles traffic, and Ian growls that the people ahead of him are idiots.
“Don’t say ‘idiots’!” Mikey cries from the back. “That’s not very nice.”
We agree, but I decide to use British slang to get around it. When someone seemingly won’t let us merge, I mutter, “Come on, wanker, let us in.”
“He is a wanker?” Mikey calls from the back. “Where is the wanker?”
“That guy in the Escalade ignoring our turn signal, he’s the wanker,” I reply.
“He’s letting us in now,” Ian observed.
“Oh, that’s nice, let’s give him a thank you wave,” I say.
“Thank you, wanker!” Mikey cries.
Just so you know, a wanker is more or less synonymous with douchebag.
There’s the food. Those of you who haven’t tuned into Hell’s Kitchen and the hundred other shows featuring Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver may be under the impression that British food is still synonymous with bad food. You may not know that thanks to the likes of Ramsay and Oliver, as well as Marco Pierre White, Nigella Lawson, Heston Blumenthal, Raymond Blanc, Gary Rhodes, Marcus Wareing, and others, there are few more interesting cuisines in the world, particularly when you start combining it with the “colonies.” In my house, all things British belong on our table. Mikey knows that coffee is for grown-ups, but sometimes is allowed some tea, in a 20 to 1 milk to tea ratio.
On a recent Sunday, Mikey began the day by demanding Marmite on toast and then helping me to make sure I did it right.
If you don’t know what Marmite is, it is – seriously – a byproduct of beer brewing, thick and black, salty and bitter, and so questionable that the best the English ad agency that handles it could come up with for a logo is “Love it or hate it.” You smear it on toast and hope for the best.
Here’s Mikey slathering it on:
That same Sunday night, we had friends over, and served onion tarts, mashed turnip (called swede by the Brits) and carrots, and steak and kidney pie. After he devoured those kidneys, I’m at a loss about what we can serve Mikey and he’ll refuse.
What, you may be asking, is the American culture I’ve given him? I think that’s pretty obvious. Being excited about other cultures. Until fairly recently, that was understood by everyone to be the American way.
By: Ted Peterson
It’s universally acknowledged that the favorite word among all children from 18 months to four is “No.” The term for this among people who like five-syllable words is negativism, and it’s a normal, healthy part of development, as the docile infant discovers that he or she has some amount of independence. Degree of annoyingness varies by child, but it’s grating enough that it’s a central feature of the period accurately called “The Terrible Twos.”
Of course, the echoes of No are imitative as well as rebellious. Last week, after we put him to bed, Ian and I had a conversation about something – exactly what escapes me – that made us both start to laugh. From Mikey’s bedroom, we heard a stern reprimand: “No laughing! I already told you once!”
Once the vocabulary expands and the child can express an occasional “Yes” –to, say, Disneyland, ice cream, watching Dora the Explorer for the twentieth time, potato chips, not going to bed yet, and so on – then you realize that, in Nancy Reagan’s words, sometimes we should just say no after all. After all, the goal isn’t to raise a child who’s obedient, but one who makes smart decisions, and sometimes that decision is to refuse.
We got a phone call this week from our adoption agency about two girls, one a little older than Mikey and her two-year-old sister. They had no relatives except their mother, who was terminally ill. All stories in foster care are sad, and it’s never easy to say no to a placement, but we had to do a reality check, imagining us in our 1200 square foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house, with three toddlers all under four years old.
“Ah,” said my mom when I told her. “Two little girls would be so darling. I think you should have said yes.”
We didn’t. I still think about seeing one of the guys in our foster-adoption class, before Mikey came to us but after we had lost our first placement. He was sympathetic to our story and when we asked him if he had a placement, he informed us that he and his partner had been placed with siblings, an eleven-year-old, a six-year-old, and a two-year-old. I looked at his blank face as he added that his partner, an actor, was in Canada, so most of the time, it was just him with the three kids.
It sounded like the sort of horrible idea that turns out to be wonderful, but he was forcing me to ask, “So, how is it working?”
“It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Nothing else has come close.”
The lesson is, kids are great, but don’t be stupid. Learn to say no.
Negativism is also marked by a competitive “I can do it myself!” streak, which doesn’t show any signs of abating in our child. It may be that this has passed being a developmental stage and is now a personal trait. Grabbiness is another feature of the age, and there we’ve been lucky. Mikey has long been a good sharer, even when deep in the grip of the Terrible Twos. That’s great, but just like there’s a time to say “No,” there’s also a time not to share.
Case in point, something you don’t want to share in today’s email from his preschool: “We would like to inform you that there is a case of lice in the Two’s Room and Preschool Room that was found as of yesterday.”
By: Ted Peterson
It’s been understood in our house for some time that the way to motivate Mikey is to appeal to his sense of competitiveness. He’s not a morning person, and will remain under the sheets, eyes closed, resistant to gentle nudges and more forceful shakes, until you say, “Hey, I bet I can get to the bathroom faster than you.”
“Nooo,” comes the zombie-like groan.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m faster than you. I’m super fast.”
Eyes open. “But I’m fast like a cheetah!”
“I don’t think s-”
And he’s off, blankets and sheets flung aside, down the hall, jammie bottoms flying off in his wake. He has all sorts of things that he likes, movies, books, toys, music, but none of these will make him go from 0 to 60 mph like winning a competition. Mikey has no fussiness when it comes to his food, because the moment we say we don’t think he’ll like something we’re eating, he’ll plead for a bite and insist that he loves it. He likes to dance, but it became an obsession at a holiday party when some older kids were playing the video game “Just Dance,” and Mikey asked for a Wii remote so he could play along.
“I won! I won!” he yelled afterwards, fortunately oblivious to his actual score.
Now, I could point out that this behavior is totally in line with his age developmentally, but 90% of the stuff about developmental milestones is, I’m convinced, just an excuse for a different kind of competitiveness. That is, one of parents, which is clearly much less adorable. The fact remains that parents have long known that the best way to get a three-year-old to clean up after himself, better than chanting the horrible and ubiquitous “Clean it up, clean it up,everybody, everywhere” song from Barney, is to simply say, “Hey, who can get the most toys back into the box?” And then duck as the toys come flying.
It’s also probably worth pausing here to acknowledge the simple fact that competitiveness is historically considered a masculine trait, and therefore both desirable and encouraged. Not only by parents, but by the general public. I hope that should we have a daughter, we’ll be equally amused and indulgent when she wants to show off.
The best kind of competitiveness, of course, is the self-motivated kind. Sure, it’s effective when I declare some mundane activity to be a game which Mikey is inspired to win, but there’s twice the power when Mikey sees his friend doing something and becomes determined to master it as well. One evening, he came to us with a serious expression and said, “I don’t want to wear diapers to school anymore.”
And that was it. His friends were using the toilet, so he was too. Potty training more or less accomplished.
Today, we were pressing our code to open the door to preschool, and Mikey pressed the pound sign as usual as the final button to unlock it. One of his buddies came up behind us, and pushed in all the buttons himself. Once inside, we signed Mikey in on a computer using a passcode. Again, Mikey’s buddy, just behind us, punched the buttons on the keyboard, signing himself in. Two separate number and letter codes, and Jimmy knew them both.
Mikey whispered to us, urgently, “You have to show me how to do it too!”
And we will, and he will master it because in his mind, he has to.
That sorta touches on the negative side of this competitiveness. It can lead to an unhealthy peer pressure. And when something that’s not a good thing like getting up, eating healthy food, using the toilet, or learning numbers and letters becomes the object of the competition, it can be hard to turn it around. At Mikey’s school, there’s been some name-calling which they’re trying to nip in the bud. My friend Susan, who has a son Mikey’s age, says that at her school, a couple of the boys have been punching each other in fun – she calls it “preschool fight club” – and the habit shows signs of catching.
I don’t know where Mikey gets his own competitive spirit, but I hope that if it shows a dark side, we’ll be able to handle it. Actually, I know we will. Because we’re awesome. You know.