Sometimes Three-Year-Olds Do Know Best

Sometimes Three-Year-Olds Do Know Best

By Alexis Wolff



These little people we’re tasked with raising, the ones who we’re supposed to teach right from wrong before releasing them to make their marks on the world, they come with lessons for us too.


It was the last night of our Disney cruise, a Christmas gift to my sons from their grandparents. After a final visit to the ship’s Finding Nemo-themed splash pad, then a decadent dinner capped off by Mickey-shaped desserts, my family of four was crowded together in our cabin. My five-month-old son slept sweetly in a Pack ‘n Play while his big brother, three-year-old Flynn, rooted through a backpack of books we’d brought, picking out a few for bed.

“So, what do you think?” I whispered to my husband.

“If you really want to,” he replied.

Starting in a few minutes was one final character meet and greet—something I knew Flynn would love. But, it was already well past his bedtime. And frankly, mine too.

“It’s vacation,” I decided after a moment’s thought. “I’m going.” I turned to Flynn. “Hey buddy, want to come with Mommy? Mickey’s boat has one last surprise.”

The backpack of books? Old news. Flynn’s green eyes sparkled as he nodded, grabbed my hand and raced for the door.

I started to pull the handle but then turned back. “Hang on small fry. Mommy needs to get her phone.”

I found it on the nightstand, shoved it in my pocket and headed out the door and down the narrow cruise ship corridor with my pajama-clad preschooler.

We arrived atop the stairs that led down to the ship’s Art Deco lobby, where dozens of characters were holding court. Flynn jumped up and down at the sight of them.

“Which friend can I meet first?” Flynn asked.

“Whichever you want.”

“Hey, this is like the Frozen stairs!” Flynn announced as we descended the regal staircase like Disney royalty.

“Mmm hmm buddy,” I replied. “Sure is.”

In the lobby, Flynn wandered over to Chip and Dale, who I wasn’t sure he even knew before our trip. We waited in a short snake of a line for his turn to hug each chipmunk and then squeeze between them while I shot a photo on my phone.

Next up was Cinderella. Snap snap. Then Donald. Click Click.

“Who now kiddo?” I asked.

Flynn looked up at me. “Can we not take any more pictures?” he asked, his voice even and calm.

“If that’s what you want, of course. Are you tired? Are you ready to go back up to the room now?”

“No!” he protested, stomping a foot to the floor. He was calm no more. “I’m not tired.”

“What then? I don’t understand what you want. Tell me what you want.”

“I want not to do any more pictures,” he whined. “I want to give Mickey and Minnie and Daisy big hugs and tell them bye-bye. Can we do that? Yes or no?”

Suddenly I saw that all around me, adults were clambering for perfect final photos—just like I had been. Turn this way, they were saying to their kids. Now that way. Smile. Say cheese. They stopped to assess the images on their screens. Another one, they would say. Let’s try again. And then time was up. The kids continued on to the next character hardly having interacted with the first. It was another parent’s turn to try for a photo that would be frame or Facebook worthy.

Why were they doing this? Why was I?

“Can we do that?” Flynn repeated, reminding me about his request for no more pictures. “Yes or no?”

“Of course we can do that,” I told him. I put my phone in my pocket for good. “Of course. You’re absolutely right.”

These little people we’re tasked with raising, the ones who we’re supposed to teach right from wrong before releasing them to make their marks on the world, they come with lessons for us too.

The unadulterated perspective of my three-year-old son reminded me: The point of pictures is to remember the moment, so when pictures become the moment, what’s the point?

For the rest of the night, I followed Flynn as he moved from character to character. Last up was his favorite friend.

“Mickey!” he said with an excited grin before wrapping his arms around the mouse’s leg. Then he took a step back and tilted up his head. He just stood there staring, his eyes wide with admiration.

“Photo Mom?” Mickey asked me.

It would have made a great one, but I’d made a promise. I shook my head. Mickey shrugged and let Flynn stare.

“Bye-bye Mickey,” Flynn said after a bit. “I had fun on your boat. I’ll see you later in your clubhouse. I love you. Bye-bye.”

Hand in hand, my pajama-clad prince and I headed back up the regal staircase and down the carpeted cruise ship corridor to our cabin.

“Shh,” I whispered before opening the door. “Your brother’s sleeping.”

“Okay,” Flynn whispered back. “Hey Mommy?”

“Yeah small fry?”

“I’m so glad that happened.”

A year and a half has gone by—a year and a half filled with cute soccer uniforms, dinosaur-themed birthday parties, ill-fitting snowsuits and other photogenic fun. And I have photographed some of it, but sometimes I make myself put my phone away. I make myself because: those hundreds of pictures I took on our Disney cruise? I never look at them. When I think back to that trip, the un-photographed final moments are the ones I remember most.

Alexis Wolff’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Mamalode and the Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, among others. She lives with her husband and two young sons in Mexico.

Photo: Getty Images

All The World’s A Stage?

All The World’s A Stage?

By Francie Arenson Dickman

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My husband and I had been played. I didn’t catch on right away, not until we were in the middle of our descent from the Bump N’ Grind, a hiking trail in the mountains of Palm Desert, California. We go to Palm Desert every Winter Break to visit my parents, and every Winter Break, my husband asks: “Does anyone want to climb the Bump N’ Grind?” He’s a nature lover, an explorer, an outdoorsman. My twin daughters and I are not. We always decline the offer—as well as his other one to visit Joshua Tree National Park—as during our stay in the desert, we like to sit. Sit and read. Sit and watch HGTV. Sit and play mahjong with my mother. So I was surprised when my daughter, now 13, an age at which I’d assumed sitting and sunning would be top priority, suggested we make the climb.

Before I could question, we were on our way to Sports Authority for gear (my daughters had only packed flip-flops), and then we were off. My husband was excited. He was delighted. “Their time spent at overnight camp is finally paying dividends,” he mused, as he loaded us up with water bottles and energy bars like we were doing the Pacific Crest Trail. We’d just seen Wild.

And our trek would have been exactly like Cheryl Strayed’s if Cheryl had selfie’d her journey instead of written about it. At first, I didn’t think much of the picture snapping. The day was beautiful, the scenery breathtaking. But midway down, in the midst of a tricky patch of rock (my husband had decided we should descend “off road”), while I struggled for footing, one daughter called to me, “Can you take my picture now?” Her sister echoed, “Mine, too.” From the edge of a boulder, they gave red carpet poses. Hair back, breezy smiles. As I watched this through the lens of my iPhone camera, the situation became clear.

I considered calling down to my husband that the hike was a hoax, we’d been had. No one but him was interested in the Bump N’ Grind for the Bump N’Grind’s sake. But I didn’t want to disappoint him. And I didn’t want to start a family feud while on the side of a cliff. So I kept quiet.

Until a few days later when we were half way up the mountain road to our next photo-op, Joshua Tree. My forehead rested against the passenger seat window. My daughters’ heads were down, their thumbs twitching repeatedly upwards, in motion as constant as the car, as they looked online at postings of their “friends” feeding lambs in Patagonia, floating in the Dead Sea, parasailing over Mexican beaches. I’d never seen a Joshua Tree before. I wondered aloud how it would measure up.

“The Joshua Tree isn’t really a tree,” my husband told me, “since it doesn’t produce a trunk with rings.”

“Our trip to Joshua Tree isn’t really to see Joshua Trees,” I informed him. “It’s to take pictures of them.”

My girls’ relationships with their iPhones are, I would guess, typical. The phones are affixed to their bodies unless I tell them to put them away, which I often do since I despise them. I’d actually been looking forward to Winter Break this year, figuring phone activity would naturally die down away from home. But, I’d miscalculated. The scrolling had reached epic proportions. Instagram and Snapchat went wild as kids across the country spent their vacations looking at everyone else’s. “And in doing so, missing their own,” I said to my husband as he navigated our way into Yucca Valley.

“Who cares,” my husband said. “At least they are off the couch.”

I suppose this was one way, the positive way, to spin the effects of social media on my children. But I’m not a positive person, or maybe I’m more private. Or less secure. Or more old-fashioned. After all, I still miss the busy signal. And, I’ve never had the constitution to keep up with Joneses. When I was in middle school, I would duck my head down from the car window when my mother and I would drive by a group of my peers. True, I didn’t want them to see me with my mother but also, I didn’t want to see them. Knowing you are not doing the cool thing and seeing it are two different things. “Hold your head high,” my mother would tell me. I liked to look the other way.

Not so with my kids. As I marveled at the size of the tumbleweeds, my daughter wondered why her ears were popping.

“Look out your window,” I told her. She did, long enough to appreciate how high we were into the mountains, and of course to snap a picture of them.

Later that night, I used my own phone to take what I considered to be a somewhat “artsy”—and therefore post-worthy—picture of our mahjong tiles. “If you must post a picture, why don’t you use this?” I said, showing them a touched-up version of the tiles. “It’s a more authentic representation of our vacation than a Joshua Tree.”

They both looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. My suggestion to post pictures of our game was nothing more than a modern day version of my own mother’s command to hold my head high. Mothers across the ages have been trying to help their daughters find peace of mind and comfort in their skin. Except now we’re up against the evil of the smartphone. The intrusive device that’s turned family vacations into photo ops, and the concept of a break into an anomaly, and an impossibility—as where can anyone go these days to get a break from anything?

It turns out, Joshua Tree. About thirty minutes up the mountain, we lost cell service. The phones went down. Heads went up. We rode. We watched. We talked. We climbed. At the top of one of the other-worldly rock formations, we stopped and took in the panoramic view of the mountains and the valley, from the wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass all the way to the Sultan Sea. It was a site that even my girls couldn’t help but appreciate.

And you can, too. On Instagram.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.


At Home

At Home

By Kris Woll

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Our blue Ford extended van, a rental, broke down about 10 miles outside of town. We—my big brother, my three older sisters, my mom and dad, our temperamental terrier, and myself—were on the way home from our second and final vacation as a family. It was the summer of 1985. The big kids were 19, 18, 16, and 13; I was the 7-year-old baby of the family.

The van had carried several coolers, stacks of suitcases, piles of pillows, and a steady stream of Mom’s Salem Lights across South Dakota, into Wyoming, through the Rocky Mountains, and back through Nebraska and along the edge of Iowa. We’d just made it into our little corner of Minnesota when it broke down—in the dark, in the heat, the shimmering lights of our small prairie hometown visible, so close, but so far away, on that vast horizon. My father swore. My sisters complained. My mom smoked. I am pretty sure I cried. The dog whined, and my brother took her for a walk in the ditch to go pee.

On that night, in that moment in time, home seemed to be a pretty clear-cut place. From the vantage point of that broken-down rental van, it was somewhere in the middle of the low row of lights shining in the distance: the white two-story with brown shutters in the center of town, with crab apple trees in the yard and a basketball hoop on the garage and a blue metal swing set out back and wood paneling in the hallway and crowded upstairs filled with kids. It was the place where we all lived, together. A bum engine might delay our arrival, but we all knew where we were headed.

And thanks to a kind soul who stopped and brought Dad into town and to our garage so he could pick up our Caprice Classic station wagon and come back to get us, we got there. That night my brother and sisters and I climbed, tired and relieved and one by one and as we had for years and years, up the soft brown carpeted stairs to the second floor filled with bedrooms, four for the five of us. We all brushed our teeth crowded around the one small sink the bathroom we shared, littlest in front, five strikingly similar faces—those cheekbones, that nose!—gathered in the medicine cabinet mirror.

And then summer turned into fall and everything changed. Well, not everything. The stairs still had soft brown carpet; the second floor kept all four bedrooms; the metal swing set remained firmly cemented in Dad’s neatly mowed backyard. But the oldest two—my brother and one of my sisters – packed up their (Billy Joel) records and (Toto) posters and moved away. To college, two hours away. I was asleep in my bed—the top bunk, in the room I shared with the sister closest (at 6 years older) in age—when they left. My brother stopped into my room and kissed my cheek. I pretended to be asleep, too sad to say goodbye.

Despite vacated space just across the hall, I refused to change my sleeping arrangements. My parents tried everything—new bed linens in pastel plaid, a relocated Barbie Dream House and bookshelf for my Little House on the Prairie books—but I would not comply. My Cabbage Patch Kids rested on my undisturbed comforter each night while I wandered back into the room I had shared with my closest sibling, a sister 6 years older, since my parents set up my crib in her corner. She kindly put up with my presence. For years. For her teen years. I filled my sticker book with scratch-n-stiff stickers and snuggled my stuffed Smurf while she studied the periodic table and wrote papers on Fahrenheit 451. We listened, together, to the “Top 9 at 9” on her clock radio by the twinkling light of the reading lamp clipped up behind her bed.

Two years later, the next sister left for college, leaving behind yet another mostly-empty room.

I continued to cross the hall to share a room come bedtime.

Until one day, five years and two months after the van broke down south of town, my roommate left for college. I helped my parents move her into her dorm room, carrying in her new comforter and a mauve plastic milk crate filled with microwave popcorn and towels and apple-scented shampoo into the low brick building where she would now live. On the ride home in our four-door Buick—a downsize purchase when our Caprice Classic hit the skids—I had the whole backseat to myself. That night I slept on my own, surrounded by empty bedrooms that I would, eventually, colonize and then, six years later, leave.

My parents sold that house a few years ago. By the time they did, we all had families and houses of our own; the old house’s upstairs filled only on a couple holidays each year. Its rooms featured minimal furnishings—cast-offs from downstairs, the few items that none of us pillaged for our first apartments, the bike and treadmill Mom and Dad bought for the free time and space they had after we all left. Even that one back closet—the one that once held a vast collection of old prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses and piles and piles of dyed satin shoes—was empty, thanks to a big donation to the high school drama department. (Now you know why every production there looks remarkably like a 1990s special occasion.)

Before my parents moved, they hosted one last family cookout. I expected it to be an emotional event. The 20-and-a-half (I was 6 months pregnant at the time) of us gathered—some from close by, others of us from a bit further away—in the big back yard on a hot, sticky June evening. We said our goodbyes to the place in a rush when a summer storm blew up quickly, as they often do in that prairie town. We didn’t have time to walk back up the soft brown-carpeted stairs together one last time. Instead we abruptly gathered our bags and our Pyrex bowls of coleslaw and our children, and ran through the wind and thunder to our own cars—vans and sedans parked in a row in the driveway. I teared up a bit as we drove away that night, as my childhood home faded into a blur of rain and night, but my sadness only lasted a few minutes …

Which was about how long it took us to drive to my brother’s house, a recently restored old gem in the center of my hometown where he now lives, and where my siblings and our partners and our children reconvened. We sat on his porch and watched the lightening and wind. We told stories, like the one about the blue rental van that broke down at the end of our second-and-final family vacation, the summer before the oldest kids left for college. And we were, on that summer night, as at home together as ever.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer. Read more of her work at

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How to Use Scrapbooking to Recreate the Perfect Family Vacation

How to Use Scrapbooking to Recreate the Perfect Family Vacation

By Lisa Haag Kang

0-2What I love about scrapbooking is its potential as a brainwashing device. Given enough stickers of children cavorting in the surf, it’s possible to make it appear that we had fun, say, on Sanibel Island in 2001. See the picture of my six-year-old son sliding gleefully down a fantastic slide in the shape of a chambered nautilus? You can’t even tell that moments before he hit his sister and then ran up the steps to escape retribution. Then there’s the photo of the baby toddling in the surf. The sea foam curls around his chubby ankles; his eyes dance beneath his white sunhat. There’s no indication that he cried incessantly for five days about the sand in his swim diaper. This is the beauty of scrapbooking.

When we reminisce about the past, I show photos to the children and say, “Look. You adored the children’s museum, especially the water table and the Under the Streets of My City exhibit.” Specific examples lend an authoritative air. Occasionally, one of the children will remark thoughtfully, “wasn’t that after you screamed, ‘you WILL get into this van; you WILL shut up, and you WILL have fun at the children’s museum. That’s why we paid so damn much for this damn vacation!” When this happens, it’s important to look puzzled and suggest they are confused. “No, I think that happened on an episode of Malcolm in the Middle,” you can say.

Failing that, I plan to use the vacation scrapbook for my defense at the therapist’s office. “The problem is that my childrens’ recollections are slightly skewed to the negative. I’m certain you will be able to help with that issue. It runs in my husband’s family. See how much fun they had at the children’s museum? They especially loved the water table and the Under the Streets of My City exhibit,” I will say.

That’s why cropping is such a useful skill.  You can preserve your daughter’s enchanting smile and crop out the background where her brother is crying because the incoming tide destroyed his sand castle (and not hers). You can retain the half of the photo showing your daughter triumphantly displaying a large lightning whelk, perhaps mat it with two shades of brown to highlight the seashell’s elegant swirls and the child’s tawny glow. Then, throw out the background image of her brother sneaking up behind her with a dead horseshoe crab.

On a side note, it is possible to crop postcards down to the size of a 4″ x 6″ family photo. Once they are matted with cardstock and ensconced behind the scrapbook page’s protective plastic shield, no one will be able to tell. “Wow! You are a very talented photographer,” people will say. I like to shrug modestly when this happens.

Photos that can’t be strategically cropped can be dealt with in other ways. Keep the arrival photos of the beautiful condo you rented. Discard pictures of the disheveled double bed all six of you slept in night after long, painful night because the children said it was too scary to sleep apart in a strange place. Burn the photos the kids took of you and your spouse in the mornings, especially the one where you are shouting, red-faced. No one will ever know.  If this event took place years ago, don’t forget the negatives.

It bolsters your case to include authentic artifacts from the trip, so long as you handle them skillfully. For the page about the children’s museum, I incorporated a full-color brochure. The smiling faces of children on the cover lend credence to my assertion that my sons and daughters enjoyed it immensely. Clearly, children of every race and creed traveled from the ends of the earth to visit that museum and had a lovely time. Why should my kids be any different?  Plausibility. That’s the key.  If you mat a copy of the room service menu, complete with food stains, maybe add an enthusiastic caption about each child’s favorite food, it will obscure the fact that the children refused to eat anything. Ben absolutely loved the chicken nuggets! They were just like the ones at home, except they cost twelve dollars for four, you can write.

Like any weapon of mass instruction, a scrapbook must be handled carefully, lest it turns its awesome analgesic powers against its creator. One day, I sat paging through the vacation scrapbook. I studied each page with weepy nostalgia. Maybe it was that fourth glass of Merlot. I summoned my husband and said, “Look.  The kids were so cute on this vacation. Why don’t we go to Sanibel Island again?” He sat down and studied the scrapbook, a bemused look on his face, and said, “I’ll call the travel agent tomorrow and see what it would cost.”

Lisa Haag Kang is a mother of four who lives in Missouri with her children, three dogs, two birds, and the occasional hamster. Her poetry chapbook, Recombinant Loves, a family history in verse, will be published this summer by Main Street Rag Publishing.

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