Do We Put Too Much Emphasis on Children’s Gifts at Holiday Time?

Do We Put Too Much Emphasis on Children’s Gifts at Holiday Time?

The December holidays are no doubt a time for gift giving, but how much is too much? Jennifer Collins thinks our children are overindulged: the focus of Christmas should be on experiences and helping others. Kristina Cerise is trying to walk a middle ground between buying her children things they need and also things they want. Ellen Painter Dollar believes bestowing her children with generous presents at Christmas is a reflection of the holiday’s true meaning.


By Jennifer Collins

HolidayDebateYESIt has always been a priority to make Christmas just as wonderful and magical for my own children as it was for me. To make lots of memories and to spoil them a bit, too. But six years ago my husband and I decided to chase a job and move from Georgia to Maine, far away from our families. We were faced with the unique opportunity of creating our own holiday traditions anew.

In the beginning, our families overwhelmed us with gifts, because they weren’t there. They wanted the kids to know they were loved and thought of across the miles. I also overcompensated with things because I wanted the kids to have a good Christmas—to make up somehow for the distance away from their relatives.

But recently my husband and I have decided to scale back the focus on gifts. We notice the bins of toys the kids neglect, the puzzles that are never put together, the dolls that aren’t played with. Our kids have more than they need. More than they want. They really don’t even know what to write on their Christmas Lists this year.

A couple of weeks ago I asked my children if they could remember what gifts they received last Christmas. They could only name one or two. What did they remember most about our family Christmas traditions? My daughter said she loved going to the nursing home and singing to the residents. My son’s memories were about making holiday-themed cookies and wearing Christmas pajamas while reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” before bed on Christmas Eve. And of course they remembered the shenanigans of our elf “Cole” that stays with us from Thanksgiving to Christmas and reports their actions to Santa each night.

My children remember more about the gifts they’ve given others than the presents they received themselves—such as the customized pencil-and-crayon vase my daughter gave her first grade teacher and the glittery handprint ornament my son made for our tree. They’ve picked out special toys for children their age from the Angel Tree and have dropped coins into the Salvation Army’s red kettle. My children seem to understand intuitively that the true joy of Christmas is connected to the thoughtful and careful process of giving.

This year we are doing Christmas differently. We will give our children fewer things and yet enrich their lives with more of the holiday experiences they remember so well from the past. They will be receiving a few handcrafted gifts from us and some items that they have on their lists— a sword, Legos and pajamas for our four-year-old; craft supplies and books for our eight-year-old. But they won’t be receiving any of the extra “fillers” that always seem to creep in. Our kids seldom have lists that are miles long. We are the ones that over-do it each year. We are the contributors to their overflowing, neglected toy bins.

This Christmas we are also going to spend more time serving others and looking for ways to help out in our community. We will sing Christmas carols in the nursing home again. We will make a pet food donation to the local animal shelter. My daughter also wants to bake cookies for the local police and fire departments. We have one project for each weekend of the month leading up to Christmas. Our new tradition.

Yes, our kids enjoy Santa and stockings, and all the typical holiday fun. But ultimately, for us, Christmas is a religious holiday. And I am thankful that we have put the tradition of giving—not receiving—back at its core.

Jennifer Collins is a mom with a day job and she likes to write about her victories and messes along the way. She is living an adventurous life as a Georgia transplant learning to thrive in Maine. Jennifer’s writing has been featured on BlogHer, iVillage Australia, Daddy Doin’ Work, and Mamapedia. She blogs at


A Little Bit!

By Kristina Cerise

holidaycookiesMy Facebook feed is more divided during the holidays than during elections. On one side are those counting down the shopping weeks, days and hours until children charge expectantly into living rooms looking for parcels and cookie crumbs. On the other side are those who post links to simplicity challenges, bemoan outrageous holiday spending, and champion giving experiences instead of things.

The division isn’t only on my screen, it’s also in my bed. My husband’s holiday compass points to a different North than mine.

I come from a tradition of simple holidays. Exchanging practical gifts was what my family did. It exemplified our values. It showed we were too sophisticated to fall for marketing. It proved we didn’t need to keep up with the Joneses (or Bakers, in our case). The socks and underwear in our stockings were evidence that we were above it all.

Now, I see that we were just poor. And proud. But I also see the joy in the intimacy of those holidays. I remember selecting and distributing one present at a time from underneath the tree. I remember the slow reveal. The expression of gratitude. The passing around of the gift for admiration. The hug for the giver.

Despite having the means to give more extravagantly now, my siblings and I still choose to keep our gifts to each other simple. We exchange consumable gifts for each family to share: a jar of home-canned jam, a bag of special caramels. Some years even that feels like too much and, in the midst of the holiday madness, we call each other to say, “Wanna skip it this year and just know we still love each other?”

That would never fly with my in-laws or the sweet man who gifted me his last name.

My husband’s family distributes gift lists on Excel spreadsheets. They consider GPSs appropriate stocking stuffers. My in-laws start delivering gifts well before Christmas to try to disguise the fact that they won’t fit in a single car load.

The first time I witnessed the madness I felt physically ill and mentally confused. Their approach to Christmas was so different from anything I’d experienced that I couldn’t even recognize the holiday. I had thought I wanted to leave my own family and all its quirks behind, but that first shared Christmas made me long for second-hand gifts from Grandma’s garage wrapped in Sunday comics.

In the beginning years of our marriage, I raged against the consumerism. I touted the merits of jam giving. I fought the excess. But the joy from my husband and in-laws was greater than my judgment and I lost the battle and then the war. Admittedly, the Le Creuset stockpot helped ease the pain of defeat.

My childhood taught me that presents can either meet a need or satisfy a want and I want my kids to learn to be grateful for both types of gifts. So, I still give practical things: underwear, socks, math workbooks.

My husband’s family taught me the joy of receiving something you want but don’t actually need. Something frivolous. Something fun. So, I put practicality on the back burner and buy my kids some of the ridiculous things they ask for: more Pokémon cards, a platypus puppet. After all, I remember wanting a neon pink horse with a purple tail and glitter shapes on its haunches.

For me, the jar of jam approach to gift giving feels too small. But the Excel spreadsheet method feels too big. I am Goldilocks, still looking for the “just right” holiday experience.

Some people suggest that metrics such as a dollar limit or a maximum number of gifts can be used to ensure the right balance. For me, though, it is about ratios.

I want a holiday with more gratitude than greed.

I want a holiday with more wonder than wastefulness.

This is my tenth year of working with my husband to define “just right” for this family we’ve created by merging genes from two ends of the gift-giving spectrum. And each year I think we get a little bit closer.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle writer, editor and mom trying to find meaning in the madness. The mom she planned to be often shakes her head at the mom she has become. She caffeinates daily, blogs regularly ( and tweets occasionally @DefineMother. 



By Ellen Painter Dollar

unnamed-12Every year, my kids declare that gifts are their favorite part of Christmas. Does this make me worry that I’m raising materialistic children ignorant of the holiday’s “true meaning”? Not really. When I was their age, the thrill of a pile of wrapped presents under a twinkling tree was my favorite thing about Christmas too. I still feel that thrill, although now it’s less about what’s under the tree (mostly trinkets that my kids buy at the school craft fair) and more about anticipating them opening the gifts I have painstakingly chosen.

There’s no doubt our American Christmas is too commercial; I finish most of my shopping by Thanksgiving to avoid December’s hectic mall crush and focus on the home-centered activities I enjoy more. But as a Christian, I also believe that gift giving can be a meaningful reflection of God’s extravagant love and generosity, which is the holiday’s true meaning for us. While we’ve pared down gift giving among the adults in our family, we still joyfully present each child with a generous pile of gifts.

In addition to practical presents—pajamas, hats and gloves, lip balm, books, jeans, art supplies—I get each child one “big” gift, not necessarily expensive (though it might be), not necessarily physically large (though it might be), but something that, in their eyes, will be magnificent. These gifts are meant not only to fulfill a desire, but also to affirm who each of my children are and who they are becoming.

For example, two years ago, we gave our then 13-year-old daughter, who loves the outdoors and is unable to do most sports because of a physical disability, a real archery set. (What gratification I felt when I saw this email from her best friend: “YOU GOT A REAL BOW AND ARROWS FOR CHRISTMAS?!!” Yes indeed, she did.) My other daughter, a born caregiver, got a bed for her favorite doll. She placed it under a sunny bedroom window, where she lovingly tucked her doll in every night for months. My son, a nontraditional boy who gravitates toward sparkle and dolls and the color pink, received a Barbie dream house that I assembled ahead of time, so it would be ready for immediate play.

The happiness inspired by material gifts is fleeting, but it is also genuine. I hope that my kids’ happiness with their holiday presents goes beyond momentary captivation with something shiny and new, to a sense of belonging, an unnamed gratitude for parents who know them well enough to get them a just-right gift.

At their best, this is the function that gifts—even frivolous ones—can serve in our consumer culture. Thoughtfully chosen gifts reinforce the deep satisfaction of being loved by someone who knows what you need, what will make you happy. One Mother’s Day, I desperately needed something beautiful and unnecessary to lift me from an exhausted postpartum funk; my husband splurged on a watch that was far more than a time-keeping tool. The material illuminates the immaterial; a well-chosen gift can be a tangible reminder of intangible realities, such as love and grace.

Parental love is usually expressed in the mess of everyday life—school lunches made, dinners served, shoes tied, arguments refereed. Christmas giving invites me to take a step back from the daily muddle, to ponder my children’s talents, passions, and struggles, and what gift might offer the encouragement, inspiration, comfort, or distraction they need. I go to all of this trouble with Christmas gifts for the same reason I go to the trouble with the necessary, routine stuff—to show my children that I see them, know them, and love them just as they are, and am committed to helping them grow and thrive.

When my children thank me for their presents, I hope that somewhere in their gratitude, even if they might not recognize it, is thanks for all of the less shiny but oh-so-necessary daily gifts I give them. This season’s excesses need not be distractions from the essential meaning and joy of Christmas. Rather, they can kindle within all of us a renewed gratitude for the less extravagant, more fundamental gifts—food, relationships, warmth, beauty—that sustain us every day.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work explores the intersections of faith, parenthood, disability, and ethics. She is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012), and blogs for the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel. 

Solicited Advice

Solicited Advice

Spock w gray 2


How has parenting changed since our mothers’ days of parenting? Can research help defend our parenting choices?

A friend recently asked for my advice in dealing with her mother’s disapproval of her parenting. She asked if I knew of any good articles about why today’s parents do things differently than their own parents or research she could use to defend her parenting choices.

I was flattered by her request. I’m not typically the go-to girl for advice. My own children ask me to fact-check my answers to their questions on Google. Being approached for advice made me want to be worthy of the challenge.

But, the challenge wasn’t finding articles that addressed generational shifts in parenting paradigms or research to back up a particular parenting philosophy. The challenge was pointing out what my friend didn’t want to see—that articles and research would not provide the defense she was seeking against her mother’s criticism. Research is useful in convincing ourselves that we are making the right choices but there is, in my experience, little we can do to convince others to agree.

Today’s parents are raising kids in the shadow of an ever growing parenting industry. There are parenting books, seminars, magazines, and blogs. And marketing. Oh, the marketing. Like all good marketers, the marketers of parenting do their best to make us loyal to a particular brand—mindfulness, hands-free, emotional intelligence, natural consequences, etc. Our brand loyalty often manifests as a superiority complex. We dismiss other brands as outdated, gauche, or ruinous. For evidence of this phenomenon, just go to your neighborhood park and start a discussion with a stranger about the right approach to sleep training or the appropriate amount of supervision for first graders.

Yesterday’s parents have seen a lot of research come and go in their time. They have seen children flipped from front to back, suffered whiplash from the changes in formula vs. breast milk marketing, and seen a mom arrested for letting her kid walk to the neighborhood park alone. They are as comfortable scoffing at Dr. Sears as we are scoffing at Dr. Spock.

When strangers criticize our parenting, it gets our hackles up. It’s worse when our own mothers pass judgment on our parenting. So much worse. It’s personal—in both directions. Their disapproval of our best efforts is especially hurtful and our dismissal of their best efforts is equally so.

In these things, I think the best approach may be a heaping dose of gratitude for a job well-enough done, a sprinkling of empathy for just how hard of a job it is, and a bright red unconditional love and acceptance cherry on top. Our moms did their best. We are doing our best. They messed up. We mess up. The biggest difference between them and us is the verb tense in which we describe our efforts.

I grew up in a flawed family. My childhood marched to the irregular drummers of addiction and marital strife. There is plenty I want to leave behind and not repeat with my children. But, it wasn’t all bad. I’ve tried really hard to sort through the legacy of my family of origin and make sure I don’t throw out the good in my desperation to avoid the bad.

I want to throw out the harshness and judgment, but keep the high expectations. I want to throw out the violence, but keep the passion. I want to throw out the inconsistency, but keep the adventure. I want to throw out the fear, but keep the respect.

Today’s parents owe yesterday’s parents that level of analysis as we grow our families. Otherwise, we risk swinging the parenting paradigm pendulum too far just to be different, forgetting that different and better are not synonyms.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

The Whole Truth

The Whole Truth


“How often do you see your dad?” she asks casually.

The question is one of many questions we’ve volleyed back and forth this particular afternoon as we sit in the sun and let our children play on the playground.

How should I answer this question I’m sure she perceives as benign?

I could simply say, “My dad visits a couple times a year.”

That’s true. Or, at least, true enough.

Or, I could say, “I see my father’s shadow every day.” That’s also true but it takes some explaining.

I could tell her I see his shadow every time I pass a big rig on the highway and glance at the forearms of the trucker to see if they are connected to my father’s hub-cap sized hands.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the uneven gait of anyone in cowboy boots. And in every pair of Wranglers with extra slack where a butt should be.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the hand firmly gripping the upper arm of the whining child in front of me in the grocery checkout line. And in the neck swiftly turning to administer a fierce gaze and the promise of action to an off-task child at the park.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the red nose of the man in the bar who asks for another with eyes at once hopeful that the next round will bring relief and simultaneously sorrowful because he knows the amber elixir lost its magic years ago and the bottom of the glass is not where second chances hide. And in the father sitting across from his child at a nearby table holding up his end of a patchwork conversation, pieced together as good as it can be given the uneven stitches of court ordered visitations and shared holidays.

I could tell her I see his shadow in the Vietnam vet on the corner and hold my breath while I check to make sure that the stranger is indeed a stranger and that the remarkable resemblance is only just that.

I could tell her all this and reveal myself to be a not-so-well-adjusted, not-so-resilient child of divorce. I could reveal myself to be the dented can somehow placed on the shelf alongside all the unblemished cylinders that made it through similar journeys without permanent damage.

There are plenty of other moms on the playground that appear normal and self-actualized. Friendship with me will cost the same as friendship with one of them. Surely she would prefer to invest her time in building a friendship with someone else. Someone not standing in the long shadow of what could have been but wasn’t. Someone who won’t tense when she hears kids whine. Someone who won’t weep when she sees the easy affection of a father for his child. Someone who won’t speed up to overtake a semi on the off chance she knows the driver. Someone who won’t lose her train of thought when she sees a bearded man at the off ramp with a Sharpie plea written on a cardboard remnant.

I could pose as an undented can. I could turn my best side forward and hide the imperfections. I could pretend to be unaffected by the bumps and sharp corners of my journey.

I could say, “My dad visits a couple times a year.”

Or, I could reveal the scars of improperly healed wounds and say, “I see my father’s shadow every day.”

I look at her and realize that I’ve taken too long to answer what she thinks is a simple question.

The Backpack Hall of Fame

The Backpack Hall of Fame


Cheerful robots accompany my son to school each day. They adorn his backpack and welcome his homework folder, library books and lunch box each morning. They stand guard in the cubby room while he learns and schleps home paper airplanes and monster sketches each afternoon without complaint. They are lovely, well-behaved robots that add a bit of whimsy to each school day. They never smirk when we forget them and have to rush home again or gripe when they are thrown unceremoniously on the floor at the end of a long day. I love the robot backpack.

It is not the first backpack I’ve loved. I have a collection of old loves in the basement. I don’t need them, but I can’t bear to let them go. This is strange because I can be shockingly unsentimental about things. Grandma’s china? I’ll pass. Childhood report cards? Recycled. Wedding dress? Donated.

Old backpacks? Those are different.

When I look at my old backpacks, I don’t only see things I have carried; I see things that have carried me. Carried me from crisis to calm. From confusion to clarity.

Each backpack is like a before and after snapshot comparing the person I was when I put it on to the person I was when I took it off. When I finger the outdated fabric and fraying straps I am transported back to earlier versions of myself.

There was the version of me facing down college graduation with no idea what to do next who crammed the essentials into a purple and gray backpack with an impractical diagonal zipper and boarded a plane desperate for a rite of passage. When I look at that backpack, I see a girl experimenting with new versions of herself in each country visited, trying to tease out who she is and who she is not. I see a girl hesitating at the airport gate months later not sure she’s ready to go home but ultimately boarding the plane with the courage to go after what she wants and embrace parts of herself that might disappoint her friends and family. I see a girl who puts her seat back in the upright position understanding that the world is full of nuance and some of life’s greatest adventures lie in the gray areas.

During times of looming transition, the siren call of my backpack and boots has been nearly audible. The black backpack is the one I was wearing on the curvy trail in the thin Rocky Mountain air where I found the courage I needed to walk away from a relationship. I wore a mauve backpack on my 27th birthday as I carried my firstborn up a river in Zion National Park—deep water baptizing his toes into a life of adventure and my hips into the reality that my life had changed forever. The pink ultra-light pack kept me company on a 45 mile trek through Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness and helped me feel slightly more ready to shed my SAHM status in exchange for a paycheck with each step taken.

The blue backpack is the oldest of all the packs on the shelf. It was my first real backpack, purchased for me by my big brother. The plethora of pockets, extra straps, and ridiculously heavy fabric mark it as a relic of a different era. An era before my brother and I began finding creative and uncomfortable ways to shave weight from our packs. An era before kids and spouses and other complications made time together so rare.

I carried those backpacks and they carried me. I carried them up steep hills, through dense forests, and across rushing rivers; they carried me toward new versions of myself. For that, they have my gratitude (and the top shelf of the basement closet). I have no desire to go back. I don’t want to be the person I used to be. I don’t want to walk the same paths again. But I do want to leave room to honor the former versions of myself who needed to walk those paths.

I look at my son’s robot backpack and see the toll of two years of daily wear. It is the backpack I applied to his shoulders on the first day of kindergarten knowing all too well that a backpack is a promise—a promise that the person who puts it on will not be the same person who takes it off.

Next year, my son will start second grade. He will have a new teacher, new classmates and a new backpack. Some day soon, in a quiet ceremony that only matters to me, I will induct the latest (and smallest) member into the Backpack Hall of Fame on the top shelf of the basement closet.

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Friday Morning Sing

Friday Morning Sing


Friday Morning Sing-1I have heard and forgotten a lot of sermons in my life, but one has stuck.  It was about the power of the Sabbath in modern times, and how dividing our lives into sevenths was an old but effective strategy for keeping life manageable.  The pastor asserted that seven days was essentially the Goldilocks of life rhythms—enough time to fit in competing priorities, but not so much time that procrastination flourishes.

Thinking about the Sabbath as not just a single day for rest but a measurement for balancing life has been especially helpful to me in these early years of motherhood.  While a given day may not provide the time I need for a certain priority, each week provides windows of opportunity for the things that matter most.  There is time for work and play. Time for family and friends.  Time for thinking and action.  Time for togetherness and solitude.  Time for exercise and, yes, even time for rest.   Weekly calibration and accountability help me make sure I’m never too far out of balance in any one area.

Fridays are an important part of my weekly cycle.  There are all the obvious reasons to love Fridays—the looming promise of the weekend, the salty popcorn that accompanies movie night, the ability to stay up late because it isn’t essential to set an alarm for the next morning. In addition to all this, Fridays also provide my weekly dose of singing.

Every Friday morning the children at my son’s school meet first thing to raise their voices in song.  Parents and siblings sit scattered amongst the children and clustered on the fringes as Mary K strums her guitar or plays the piano.

The songs range from silly (“I like bananas because they have no bones”) to serious (“Question anyone who tells you who you should hate”).  There are songs about pizza and songs about making a difference with peace and compassion.  There are lyrics that are nonsense and lyrics that capture great truths.  The kids sing songs that honor nature and life and the power of intention alongside songs about betting on the ponies.

When the kids sing about a twig on a branch and a branch on a limb and a limb on a tree … I ride a wave of nostalgia back to summers spent singing camp songs of my own.  When the kids sing about the power of light in darkness I am filled with hope for the future and comforted by the promise of a new generation.  Mostly, when they raise their pitchy little voices I am filled with joy. Hearing a group of children sing with gusto and watching them sway while they claim to be “feelin’ groovy” is just so much fun.

At the end of each Friday Morning Sing session, the kids are sent off to their classes with a few rounds of “Happy Trails.”  It is the perfect song to capture the promise of another respite to come. Another time to gather, to rest, to acknowledge truths big (we can make a difference) and small (bananas do not have a skeletal system).

It is the promise to meet again for this Sabbath of sorts.

Photo by Suesan Henderson

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I Need Faster Shoes

I Need Faster Shoes

April photoThis is the second time my son has left me behind in a race, but the first time my shame was captured in the local paper.  When he pulled ahead at the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, there were only a few friends in the immediate vicinity to witness my lameness.  This time, my lameness was featured in a slideshow.

We’ve been running Seattle’s St. Pat’s Dash as an annual tradition since my son was born.  Well, before that actually.  My husband and I ran this race together before we were even dating and have been running it every year since.

We ran the race in the early days of our relationship when, despite our different running paces, we ran side by side and crossed the finish line together.  We ran the race later too, when our relationship didn’t require the same level of coddling and could sustain an honest revelation of one partner’s superior running ability.

There was the year I felt dizzy the whole race and couldn’t figure out why I was so winded.  Turns out, I was growing a human.  We count that as our son’s first 5K.

Since then, we’ve run the race pushing strollers of the single and double variety; carried toddlers; and coaxed kindergarteners from the start line to the finish.

The race is a marker in our year—a chance to reflect on where we were at the same time in years past.

This year marks the year I was left behind by my husband and my son.   I adjusted to my husband’s superiority years ago, but being beat by a first grader was hard on my ego.

Somewhere in the final third of the race, my son kicked up his heels and began to weave through the crowd without so much as glance over his shoulder to check on me.  As his lead grew and my hope of catching him diminished, I mentally flipped through the images of the journey to this winded moment.

I saw my son’s first steps toward my outstretched arms that were tense and ready to swoop in at the first sign of falling.  I watched a slow motion clip of his drunken toddler run that was really just a prolonged version of tipping over—with his feet trying frantically to keep up with an out of scale head that insisted on leading the way to every destination.  I saw picture after picture of his giant smile, ruddy cheeks, and sparkling eyes at various finish lines of rigged races on the sidewalk outside our home where, against all odds, the grown-ups always came last.

But now, the faking was over.  This grown-up wasn’t pretending to lose.  She was losing.  She was trying her best.  She was sweating.  She was huffing and puffing.  And, she was still losing.

When did it turn from pretending to struggle to keep up to actually struggling to keep up?

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Or, was it?

Sometimes, when I see my kids take a big developmental leap forward, my first instinct is to wince a little.  There is pain associated with their transformation from dependence to independence.  Cutting ties is emotional surgery and it leaves tender places.  So, I wince.

But then, I smile because I know that these are the moments that say I’m doing it right.  Moments of successful independence in my children are the equivalent of a positive performance evaluation.  Moments of growth and achievement mean I did what I set out to do.  I taught my kid what he needed to know, encouraged him to grow his skills, and set him on a path to do things better than I did.

And, it worked.

Somewhere between the mental film montage of precious childhood moments and the finish line, I understood Emelina’s words from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams just a little better:  “It kills you to see them grow up. But I guess it would kill you quicker if they didn’t.”

I found my radiant son at the finish line, congratulated him on his achievement, and gratefully accepted the bottle of water he offered.  I congratulated myself (silently) for accepting defeat with humility.

I really thought I had.

Until the next day, when my colleague sent me a link to local coverage of the event—complete with pictures.  The picture that caught her eye was the one where a photographer captured the very moment my son began to leave me in the dust.

Am I proud of my son?  Yes.

Do I realize there will be many more of these moments?  Yes.

Do I hope this is the last of such moments memorialized on film? Yes.



Six Parenting Vocabulary Lessons

Six Parenting Vocabulary Lessons

image-1Friends warned me that parenthood changes everything.  I understood and accepted that parenthood would change me, but I didn’t understand that parenthood’s influence was even greater than that.  Parenthood has transformed my parents, my vacations, my house, and my relationship with coffee.  Parenthood has even transformed words I formerly considered synonyms into words that mean drastically different things.

Parenthood changes everything.

Quiet vs. Silence

Before children, silence and quiet were relatively interchangeable.  Silence just meant deeper quiet.  Now I believe the difference between quiet and silence should be taught in every pre-natal parenting class.  Putting a diaper on wrong or forgetting to burp the baby can lead to trouble.  But, that trouble is nothing compared to the trouble that mistaking silence for quiet can cause.

Quiet means children are focused.  Quiet means children are sleeping.   Quiet means the cartoon you are letting them watch is having the desired effect.  Silence, on the other hand, means there is a gooey substance being spread somewhere in the house. Silence means something rolled, stacked or organized is being unrolled, toppled or jumbled. Silence means crayons or paint are being applied to a non-paper surface.  Silence means a child is pooping in an isolated corner.  Quiet is a treat. Silence is trouble.

Click vs. Snap

Before children, click and snap were just two words in a long list of available onomatopoeias to describe life’s soundtrack.  Now, I know that a clicking sound and snapping sound are not the same.  It is essential to know the difference between click and snap during the “some assembly required” phase of a new toy.

Click is the goal.  Snap should be avoided at all costs.  Click indicates you have accurately interpreted the cryptic graphic instructions and lined up two pieces that were, indeed, intended to fit together. Snap indicates you are about to make a kid cry and will be required to plug the tear dam with promises to replace the now-cracked piece of plastic that no longer feels like a bargain.

Going to Bed vs. Going to Sleep

Before children, I thought you sent kids to bed and that was the end of it.  Oh, the bliss of ignorance.  Now I know that the time you send children to bed has no correlation with the time they go to sleep.

Going to bed means entering the bedroom and putting oneself in a horizontal position on the mattress.  Going to sleep means actually closing one’s eyes and entering a period of slumber.  Those two events are separated by lots of interim steps.  Requests for water.  Requests for another hug and kiss.  Claims of being scared that are delivered with a wide grin and a surreptitious glance at the living room TV in a never ending quest to crack the mystery of grown up television.  A trip to the bathroom.  A knock-knock joke sibling session.  Another trip to the bathroom.  And, finally, sleep.

Snack vs. Meal

Before children, I thought a snack was a small bit of food eaten between meals.  Now I understand that it is sometimes food between meals but mostly just a marketing trick that transforms unacceptable foods that will not pass a toddler’s lips into delicious treats.

Carrots served on the go between a park excursion and home?  Delicious!  Carrots served at home as a side dish to the main course?  Unacceptable.  Green beans grabbed from the garden on the walk to the car?  Delicious!  Green beans grabbed from the garden and served on a plate?  Unacceptable.   Hummus at the zoo?  A tasty and exotic dip!  Hummus with dinner? Unacceptable.

Trip vs. Vacation

Before children, trip and vacation meant the same thing to me.  Now, I understand that parents do not take vacations (periods of exemption from work).  Parents take trips (voyages, journeys). Travelling with children requires the same amount of work you do every day, only in unfamiliar setting with less comfortable accommodations.

Vacations involve reading trashy novels with your feet in the sand.  Vacations involve sipping adult beverages with colorful umbrella accessories.  Vacations involve drifting in and out of sleep in a sunny lounge chair while you try to figure out what day of the week it is.

Trips involve hauling luggage filled with enough board books and plastic toys to start a daycare.  Trips involve contorting your left arm to reach under the seat for the dropped sippy cup.  While it is possible to lose track of the date on a trip, it is always clear when it is meal time or nap time.

Trips are exhausting and leave you in need of a vacation.

My Parents vs. My Children’s Grandparents

Technically, my parents and my children’s grandparents are the same people.  They inhabit the same body.  But, that is where the similarities stop.

My parents forbid soda, chips and cookies.  My children’s grandparents sneak them an extra spoonful of brown sugar in their oatmeal.  My parents required regular cleaning of dishes, rooms, and bodies.  My children’s grandparents think chores and baths can wait until the block castle and all its outbuildings are complete.  My parents insisted on respect for elders.  My children’s grandparents barely hide their chuckles when my kids roll their eyes at me.  My parents taught me that if I couldn’t say something nice, I shouldn’t say anything at all.  My children’s grandparents tell stories about my childhood that set a less than stellar example for the next generation.  I wish my parents had been as cool as my children’s grandparents.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  My friends tried to tell me that parenthood would change everything.  I just didn’t understand that everything meant EVERYTHING!

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Love In All Sizes

Love In All Sizes

couple w valentine w gray and redLike all long-term relationships, Valentine’s Day and I have had our ups and downs. But, we’ve made our peace with each other and I’ve decided I’d rather have it around than not.

In the beginning, a brown paper sack full of pre-printed admiration and sweets was enough to make my heart beat quicken. I loved everyone and embraced the opportunity to show it with heart-shaped doilies emblazoned with my best crayon signature.

Eventually, love grew more complicated. I thoughtfully selected the sentiment that best communicated my love for that year’s crush from the four feline themed options in the box from the drugstore and signed it with care (though not so much care as to be impossible to dismiss as random if he thought the third “r” in “purrr-fect” and the heart dotted “i” in my signature was over the top). The factory valentines never had the right mix of messages to match the mix of children in my class, so I employed a complex triage system in which the most (and least) lovely children were identified and matched with the appropriate talking cats first, followed by the second most/least lovely, third, etc. The kids in the middle of the pack sometimes received a more generous or stingy compliment than I would have preferred based on the remaining stock.

In junior high, Valentine’s Day became an angst-filled competitive awards ceremony. Egalitarian recognition was no longer a priority. Existing no longer secured your status as a receiver of valentines. Receiving a valentine required attracting the attention and admiration of a member of the opposite sex. How boys could have missed me in my neon ensembles or failed to admire the gravity defying height of my bangs is an unsolved mystery. But, they did. Other girls paraded through the hallways with chocolates, balloons, and flowers while I carried only my textbooks. Other girls snogged against lockers long after the bell while I walked to class for another on-time arrival.

My high school boyfriend was admirable March through January but February highlighted his weaknesses. He was not prone to grand gestures, was seemingly immune to the traditional Valentine’s Day trappings, and preferred swapping spit in my basement to public displays of saliva. I pretended to be enlightened enough not to need roses to be sure of his affection but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that I finally had the missing ingredient but still wouldn’t be one of the girls arriving late to class with a combination lock shaped indent in my back.

My Valentine’s Day experiences have varied since then. I’ve bitterly shunned the holiday. I’ve embraced stag events with gusto. I’ve eaten fondue in an evening gown. I’ve been proposed to on a beach. I’ve gotten pregnant. I’ve enjoyed a homemade dinner by candlelight with a toddler. I’ve gone to a comedy show. I’ve spent the wee morning hours gluing together Pinterest-worthy valentines for preschoolers. I’ve watched a chick-flick alone while my husband took the kids to story time at the public library.

On balance, I’ve spent more years than not joining the chorus of cynical voices that dismiss Valentine’s Day as a Hallmark Holiday. The first Valentine’s Day with a shared bank account, I cringed at the cost of the flower/vase combo delivered to my office. But, I’ve come around to the idea of overpriced flowers in mid-February. Not ridiculously overpriced florist flowers, but slightly overpriced grocery store flowers.   

My husband and I have been together more than a decade. I haven’t taken a formal survey, but anecdotal evidence suggests he is more thoughtful, kind and patient than the average husband. Fatherhood only magnified his charming qualities. I feel truly, deeply, and completely loved.

When I think about his loving gestures, I think a little about the mushy cards tucked in my sock drawer and about the flowers that arrive home at intervals just irregular enough to be delightfully unexpected.

But mostly I think about chocolate. And coffee. And sack lunches. And socks.

The love that sustains our relationship isn’t showy love. It’s a late night trip to the grocery store to satisfy the other person’s chocolate craving. It’s packing the kids’ lunches to make the other person’s morning just a little easier. It’s a pot of coffee brewed exclusively for the other person before leaving for work. It’s volunteering to be the one to go into the creepy basement to switch the laundry. It’s not pretending to be asleep when the children cry in the middle of the night.  It’s allowing your belly to be used as a foot warmer. It’s crossing the finish line together even though one of you is significantly slower than the other. It’s cuddling on the couch and pretending you didn’t already watch this episode of Homeland. It’s bringing home a Jane Austen movie for that day in the 28-day cycle. It’s intertwined fingers on a walk to the park. It’s being the one to fill the car with gas when the tank gets low. It’s putting your socks in the hamper. It’s being the one who responds to “I need a wipe!” It’s not making the sound the other person hates when you turn the pages of the newspaper. It’s making breakfast while the other person sleeps. It’s returning the wanting kiss even though you’re tired. It’s not telling a single soul that the other person secretly loves The Bachelor.

Little love—small but frequent acts of kindness, consideration, and compassion—sustains us.

But, little love can’t carry all the weight. We still need big love. Over-the-top, frivolous, cheesy love. Junior high hallway love.

Today is a day for big love. Mushy cards. Fresh flowers. Dark chocolate. Passionate kisses.

If I had to choose, I’d choose a pot of coffee made just for me on a random Friday in May over a dozen red roses on a specific Friday in February.

But, I don’t have to choose.

I can snuggle on the couch tonight watching terrible television with my husband, surrounded by a sock-free floor, eating chocolate cake. And then, we can snog like teenagers in the flickering shadows cast by our unity candle and the mushy cards on our dresser.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

A Letter to My Seven-Year-Old Son

A Letter to My Seven-Year-Old Son

BJ sittingDear Son,

I remember when you first entered my life. I spent hours holding you close, smelling your head, and gazing into your eyes. I lived for your smiles; even the gas-induced ones brought me joy.

Seven years later, not much has changed.

I still love the way your head fits perfectly between my chin and collarbone, though the sight of your legs extending beyond the couch sometimes makes me sad. I still love to breathe in the scent of your hair. Not necessarily after a soccer game, but when you are fresh from the bath. Your smiles—even the fart-joke induced ones—still bring me joy.

I don’t spend as much time gazing in your eyes as I used to. Your eyes have always been expressive.  I see the world in them. Lately, I see the weight of the world in them. The apprehension in your seven-year-old eyes makes it hard to look at them for long.  Your eyes are full of questions.  What if you fail?  How much is enough?  When is the right time?  I see you looking to me for answers, but I don’t have answers to give. The answers used to be easy. When you were younger, it was a multiple choice test every time you cried: milk, sleep, or clean diaper. Now the questions and answers are more complicated.

I remember your milestones. Learning to sit. Learning to stand. Learning to walk and talk. I checked the boxes on those easy-to-define achievements. I even charted your pre-milestone progress. I used to sit you upright and count how many seconds it took for you to tip over. Of course, that was proof not of your progress toward independent sitting but of the existence of gravity in our living room. Nevertheless, I soaked it all in and my new mom heart swelled with pride and relief as the evidence mounted that you were gaining the skills you needed to survive in this world.

The milestones from here are less defined. There are no checklists.

It’s no longer about knowing how to sit or stand, but when to sit or stand. Courtesy—easing another’s burden, putting some else’s comfort ahead of your own, offering a small kindness, showing that you see others and deem them to be of value—is a gift the world needs.  You need to know when to offer your seat to another.  But the rules for doing so are not based on a simple algorithm of gender and age.  They are complicated.  You need to know when offering your seat would wound fragile pride. You need to watch for situations where a person’s need to be perceived as capable exceeds the need for comfort. It’s tricky.

It’s no longer about knowing how to walk, but where to walk. Someday, you will sit in class and your teacher will introduce you to Robert Frost’s poem about two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Your teacher will tell you that what Frost wrote is true. Our choices matter. You will think you understand.  It will be my job to tell you that Frost was writing about the best case scenario. Life’s intersections are rarely simple forks in the road with two defined choices. Life’s intersections are crowded and the road less travelled is overgrown and easy to miss. Choices don’t announce themselves. Defining moments camouflage themselves in our daily routine. Seemingly small choices are turns: to smile or not, to speak or stay silent, to stay within or stray from your comfort zone, today or tomorrow.

It’s no longer about knowing how to talk, but which words to use. Words have power and must be used wisely. They have the power to hurt and the power to heal, although those powers are not equal. The hurt caused by words is rarely able to be healed by words. Even sincere apologies can’t fully erase the damage. The best an apology can do is ice the swelling. Apologizing for hurtful words is like painting over graffiti. The new paint never quite matches the original color; the shadow of the vandalism remains.

There are so many milestones to come: wisdom, courage, discernment and more. None of these have clear metrics to let you know when you’ve arrived. But, you will make progress if you practice. Like a baby taking ten seconds to tip over instead of four, you will slowly learn.  You will learn which battles are worth fighting and which are best served by pacifism. You will learn which risks are likely to yield rewards and which are simply an excuse for an adrenaline rush.

You will learn so much in the years to come. Trial and error will be your greatest teacher. You will be bruised. You will be scraped. You will get bumps that swell to an alarming size. That’s part of the growing. Skinned knees mean you’re doing it right.

Along the way, you will look to me for answers. I might not have them.

But, I still want to hear the questions.



Photo by Benton J. Melbourne

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

In Search of Symmetrical Stick Figures

In Search of Symmetrical Stick Figures

This is the fifth post in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. 

image-1FLAW: A defect in physical structure or form; an imperfection or weakness and especially one that detracts from the whole or hinders effectiveness

I come from a typical family. You know, the kind with more than one dad contributing to the creation of the children but less than one dad sticking around to raise them. Typical. Flawed.

I grew up aware that there was a defect in the physical structure of my stick figure drawings. My family only had one peak. We were lopsided. One adult. Three kids. Two hands for guidance. Six hands for mischief.

It turns out that families like mine weren’t as rare as I perceived them to be. In recent decades they have become even more common. But, the general demographic trends hadn’t reached our corner of suburbia in 1985 and the one block sample size that defined normal for my childhood years said our family was anything but typical. The official diagnosis was “broken.” I was from a “broken” home.

Even as a kindergartener, I knew broken was not the desired state of anything. Broken crayons were inferior. Broken toys went to the dump. What did you do with a broken family?

Our family was broken. Other families were fixed.

Our family was shattered. Other families were intact.

Our family was in pieces. Other families were whole.

My family didn’t look like the others on our block and for years I let the differences define me.

I wasn’t just a kid working in the yard. I was the kid without a dad to mow the lawn or trim the hedge.

I wasn’t just a kid enjoying a backyard BBQ. I was the kid who had to ask the dad across the street to open the pickle jar.

I wasn’t just a kid making a Father’s Day card to deliver with this year’s bottle of Old Spice. I was the kid whose dad didn’t fit in Hallmark’s box.

I was the kid who had to save up fourteen days of greetings for a man who pulled into the driveway every other Saturday.  Sometimes he arrived with a new truck. Sometimes with a new girlfriend. Sometimes with bourbon on his breath. Always with a cowboy hat and a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

Every other Saturday I hopped into trucks of varying colors hopeful that an eight hour visitation would scratch the itch.  Satisfy the longing. Fill the void.

And when my mom inquired, I pretended it had.

I pretended to be satisfied by an afternoon of John Wayne movies in a cramped apartment filled with secondhand smoke.  I pretended not to care that another little girl was getting the daily greetings from my dad that I so desperately craved. I pretended it was funny he couldn’t remember my birthday. I pretended sixteen hours a month was enough.

I became good at pretending.

I pretended not to notice the signs for the Daddy/Daughter dance in the high school hallway.

I pretended to be satisfied with a prom send-off from my brothers.

I pretended it was enough to have my mom cheering on the sidelines.

I pretended not to notice the “S” on the campus parents’ weekend flyer.

But then I stopped pretending.

I met a man I loved and told him about my deepest desire to have a symmetrical family. I told him I was worried that a broken home had broken me. I told him my fears of messing things up for another generation.

And together, against the odds, we built a symmetrical family.

My kids draw stick figure drawings with two tall people. My kids never have to cross the street when they want a pickle.  My kids enjoy a highly ritualized nighttime routine of daily stories, piggy-back rides, and back rubs from their father. My kids wake from nightmares and call out for “Daddy” with no trace of doubt that their calls will be answered. And, when they hear the word “camel” they think of an animal with humps.

I’m not as smug as that comparison makes me sound. Parenthood is a great humbler and I have been humbled in more ways that I can count. I’ve also learned a lot about love. I understand now that love between parents is a bonus but has nothing to do with love between a parent and child.

My kids are deeply loved.

So was I.

Love can be lopsided. Love can be imperfect.

Symmetry is overrated and perfection is unattainable.

When you think about it, making a family is a lot like knitting a holiday scarf.

Sometimes pieces need to be unraveled to fix a fundamental flaw. Sometimes flaws can be fixed by stretching the piece into shape after the fact. Sometimes flaws can be camouflaged with a button or embellishment. But sometimes, you have to make a choice. You can either start over or embrace the flaw as proof that the scarf was made by a real person.

Sometimes families need divorce. Sometimes families need therapy. Sometimes families need permission to laugh at their quirks and failings. Mostly, families just need to embrace who they are and get on with life.

The family I come from is full of real people. People with flaws. People with addictions. People with dreams. People who left. People who stayed. People who loved.

Mostly, just people.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle writer, editor and mom trying to find meaning in the madness. The mom she planned to be often shakes her head at the mom she has become. She caffeinates daily, blogs regularly ( and tweets occasionally @DefineMother. 

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

The Mom I Used To Be

The Mom I Used To Be

0-13Sometimes, the mom I used to be shakes her head at the mom I have become.

The mom I was when my children’s field of vision barely extended past their hands holds fast to her principled stance on screen time while the mom I have become uses a Wallace and Gromit video to carve out the uninterrupted hour necessary to meet tomorrow’s deadline.

The mom I was when I sent every bottle through a formal three stage washing process looks haughtily on as the mom I have become slaps together PBJ and throws it in a mostly clean lunchbox with baby carrots and yesterday’s leftover water.

The mom I was when my kids ate only organic pureed vegetables I’d steamed myself frowns while the mom I have become hands out the second processed cheese stick of the day to keep the peace while dinner finishes cooking.

The mom I was when my children were clothed in outfits selected for maximum cuteness cringes as the mom I have become escorts her daughter down the front steps in socks, pants, shirt and sweatshirt selected based on four-year-old logic that all stripes match regardless of color, thickness or orientation.

The mom I was when I painstakingly taught my kids to use sign language to communicate “please” and “thank you” for the smallest transactions disapproves when the mom I have become responds to less than pleasant barks for her attention or assistance.

The mom I was when children’s birthday parties were a novelty and invitations to such festivities were received with delight and anticipation looks on sadly as a gift is shoved unceremoniously into a brown paper sack because the mom I have become can’t find where she put the wrapping paper when she finished the preparations for last weekend’s string of parties.

On and on it goes.

The mom I have become plods through another day while the mom I used to be shakes her head.

Admittedly, the mom I have become should listen to the mom I used to be every now and again.

I should insist on politeness and I acknowledge – begrudgingly – that there is such a thing as too much cheese.

But mostly, the mom I used to be should just shut up.

She’s haughty and idealistic. She holds the future version of herself to an unrealistic standard and passes judgment on things she has no clue about yet. Her convictions and ideals have not been tested in the lunch packing, shoe tying, laundry folding, dinner cooking, homework completing, sibling refereeing parenting crucible.

Sometimes, her voice is worth heeding.

But typically, her voice is best responded to with the use of a particular finger and a self-satisfied smile from the mom I have become:

A mom who chooses her battles.

A mom who balances her own needs with those of her children.

A mom who realizes the impact of one more book is greater than the impact of one fewer dust bunny.

A mom who wants to tell the mom she used to be: you just wait.


Illustration by Christine Juneau

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

Cracks in the Sidewalk: Urban Children and Nature

Cracks in the Sidewalk: Urban Children and Nature

0-8She can’t help it, she’s addicted. Her pockets are full of pebbles, petals and pinecones. She fingers them, inspects them closely and returns them to her pockets for safekeeping. They remain hidden for a minute or two before the ritual repeats. She reminds me of the teenagers I see on the bus compulsively checking for messages on their phones. But, the messages she’s reading have the power to transform.

She’s reading about beauty in imperfection when she inspects the rent edges of trampled flower petals. The lesson will serve her well as she grows up in an airbrushed world. She’s reading about endurance when she thumbs the jagged edge of a pebble worn but not yet weary of holding its shape against the forces of wind, water and tires. I pray she keeps her sharp edges and refuses to be smoothed into sameness by her peers. She’s reading the mystery of Mother Nature in the spiraling symmetry of pinecones precisely crafted by an unseen hand. I hope she remains captivated by the mystery until the last exhale from her lungs.

Nature is my daughter’s teacher, even in the middle of our urban neighborhood. The lessons she learns along the sidewalks are deep, even where the tree roots are shallow. In fact, the lessons may be deepest there. For it is there she sees nature prevail over human intrusion. Every time her bike bumps over the broken sidewalk, she is absorbing humanity’s drive to conquer and nature’s drive to endure.

When we escape the city to stand at the base of a waterfall, canyon or sequoia tree, my daughter’s face is full of wonder. Endless landscapes filled with the pebbles and petals and pinecones she loves so dearly. She’s awed by the sheer gluttony of it all.

Someday, I will break it to her that the landscapes aren’t endless. That beaches full of pebbles in various stages of the stubborn struggle for rough edges are inundated with trash. That the bees that pollinate imperfectly beautiful flowers are dying in alarming numbers. That the fire cycle of the forests and ability of her beloved pinecones to fulfill their destiny is being altered by humanity’s need to protect vacation homes.

Someday I’ll tell her that.  But, for now, I’ll embrace her wonder.

It might just be the key to saving the world.

The world is becoming more urban. Though the definition of “urban” varies, in 2008 the scales tipped and more than half of the world’s population was living in cities and towns. Some see this as a deficit, evidence that we are losing touch with nature. But, I embrace the shift.

I predict urban children like mine who grow up with an inexplicable pull toward the small bits of nature they find scattered about man-made metropolises will be outspoken advocates of protecting the wild places their parents and grandparents have not yet desecrated in the name of commerce, productivity or ownership. Urban children grow up knowing in small ways—libraries with more books than a personal bookshelf could ever hold; a corner park with a zip-line and merry-go-round instead of a backyard swing set—that it is better to share a pie than own a crumb.

And, a world where more than half the children understand that basic truth may just be the radical change we so desperately need.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle mom trying to find a little meaning in the madness.  She blogs at, tweets as @DefineMother, and talks to anyone who will listen at the local coffee shop.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Consequences: Then And Now

Consequences: Then And Now


0I rarely catch the news, but when I do there is usually a segment featuring a poor-quality cell phone video with evidence that kids these days are rude, off-task, and foolish. The commentators tsk-tsk and act like this is new. It’s not.

Growing up, I was considered a good kid. My report card was brought to you by the letter A, my afterschool activities were primarily team sport or church related, and I dependably completed my weekly chores. But, I still did bad things. Naughty things. Dumb things.

I skipped school. I snuck out of the house late at night. I kissed boys I shouldn’t have. I skipped school and snuck out of the house late at night for the sole purpose of kissing boys I shouldn’t have.

I vandalized homes, cars and public signage (with toilet paper, plastic wrap, and frosting respectively). I picked on other kids.

When I was caught, I faced the consequences—consequences in scale with the crimes. I wasn’t featured on the news for everyone to judge by a single act or moment.

I was judged by my parents, teachers or neighbors—people who knew me and could put my acts of stupidity, cruelty, and mischievousness in perspective. They could weigh the evidence of my wrongs against what they knew of my character. They could dole out punishment for a moronic moment or make me right a wrong without labeling me a moron or a bully.

Now days, when a kid does something stupid or wrong and is caught, it’s usually on video. Then, the video is viewed by strangers with no context. Strangers are quick to judge, quick to label and quick to blame the parents.

When I was a kid, if you misbehaved, you were reprimanded and punished by the nearest adults. If you were at someone’s house, you were punished according to house rules. I learned quickly that our house rules were more lenient than the neighbors and adjusted my behavior accordingly. When my mom caught my friend Becky and me TPing one night, she required us to reimburse her for the toilet paper we had used (roughly $3 worth). When Becky’s mom caught us egging the neighbor boys (Not the neighbor boys’ property…the boys themselves), she grounded us. It was the first and only time I was grounded.  It’s funny to think about now. I didn’t question her authority to ground me for a moment. She said, “No playing after school for a week” and I complied. I didn’t consider it an option to do otherwise.

I don’t think my mom ever told Becky’s mom about the TPing and I don’t think Becky’s mom ever told mine about the eggs. I think each woman realized that we recognized her authority and that nothing else needed to be done.

It’s the flip side of the modern behavior coin. So many adults are ready and willing to judge but too few are ready and willing to reprimand.

I see it at my child’s school. I see it at the park. I see it on the city bus. Kids and teenagers behave inappropriately while adults remain silent. There are plenty of glares but nobody says, “That language is not appropriate here,” or “That belongs in the garbage,” or “Your music is disruptive.”

I worry that we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that the cell phone videos featured on the news capture the essence of today’s youth. As a result, we treat the kids around us who are behaving badly as lost causes—not worth our time to reprimand or redirect.

My kids are only six and four, but they know the difference between right and wrong and the difference between truth and lies. Nevertheless, they sometimes push the limits. They do something wrong just to see how it feels or try something mischievous because they are bored.

They are good kids who will continue to do bad things. They are smart kids who will continue to do dumb things. They are kind kids who will continue to do cruel things. They are kids who will continue to be a lot like their mother.

So, I’m asking you—friend, neighbor, teacher, stranger—to reprimand my kids if you see them doing something they shouldn’t.

I’ll do the same for yours.

Our children are not lost causes.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle mom trying to find a little meaning in the madness.  She blogs at, tweets as @DefineMother, and talks to anyone who will listen at the local coffee shop.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

What I Want To Teach My Daughter About Kissing Frogs

What I Want To Teach My Daughter About Kissing Frogs


pOI_gmpDekM9BudWnVhxh6qTY-qWVdJBMOX-tGa5uTo,nIzZ3TIvwit3Lf7uPO_W9bL7QLo2rNlxR-2PMVJklTUAs the parent of a young daughter, I am on the receiving end of frequent “Wait ’til she’s dating” comments. The implication is that I should be dreading the day she is ready to date. But, the truth is that I want Daughter to date. In fact, I hope she dates a lot. A lot of people. A lot of times.

I want her to practice getting in—and out—of relationships.

I want her to learn to identify the personality traits that bring her joy as well as those that bring sorrow.

I want her to learn how to heal a broken heart without growing the scar tissue of bitterness.

I want her to learn that “something is better than nothing” is faulty arithmetic.

I want her to learn to be comfortable alone and how to make the most of the periods of solitude.

I want her to have epic tales of horrible first dates with which to entertain her friends and family.

I thank every one of my ex-boyfriends for the fact that I am happily married today. Sure, most of the gratitude is rightly placed with Husband for being the kindest man on the planet, but the boys who preceded him deserve a little credit too. You see, they each moved me a little further down the road to understanding the attributes that were endearing in an enduring way. Making some bad boyfriend choices helped me make a great Husband choice.

Trial and error worked for me.

Let’s fast forward through the elementary and junior high “dating” scene to a time when the term meant more than wearing a boy’s coat at recess, calling each other on the phone, or playing spin-the-bottle.

My first real boyfriend was in high school. He was every parent’s dream—smart, kind, and Baptist. He wanted to be a preacher. Catholic guilt has nothing on Baptist discipline. Dating him, I learned a lot. I learned that intelligence, kindness and integrity were important to me. I also learned that I get bored easily if someone is too good.

I was a straight arrow in high school but I knew that I needed a little edgy in the mix for long-term interest. I still had (have?) some crazy to get out of my system. At one point in Anne of Green Gables, the heroine explains that she doesn’t want a man who is truly wicked, but would like a man who could be wicked and wouldn’t. Amen.

I over-corrected when I got to college with a boy full of edgy. Through our short but tumultuous time together, I added humor, fun, adventure, spontaneity, flowers and dancing to my list of must haves. Excessively flirtatious was added to my list of traits to avoid in the future. But, I think the most important lesson I learned was that not all friends make good boyfriends.

Fast forward again through a string of dates and relationships that helped me test my theories of what was and was not important to me.

A fantastic salsa dancer whose other interests were fast cars and football. An outdoor enthusiast with atrocious table manners. A brilliant man with stunted social skills.

Another great dancer who looked like Robert Redford in The Natural on the dance floor but somehow transformed into Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer when he picked me up for dinner. To his credit, he looked appropriately alarmed by the three decade age difference neither of us had noticed on the dance floor.

There was the guy that failed to mention he was married. Hell hath no fury like a duped Irish woman. Then, the musician with no money management skills.

A clingy Brazilian. A misogynistic Australian. Another flirt (some lessons need repeating). A spoiled rich kid that was so obnoxious it wasn’t even worth sticking around for a few weeks to attend dinner at the White House. A nudist. A garage sale enthusiast. And, the guy who attended black-tie fundraisers with ease but pitched a fit when he received a mosquito bite.

Great stories, but not great suitors.

Through the corrective lens of hindsight, I can now see how each and every bad date and doomed relationship helped prepare me to identify and value Husband as my Mr. Right.

I want the same thing for my daughter.

I am a big fan of dating. Kiss a bunch of frogs, I say.

Hear that, Daughter? I said kiss. That is not a euphemism.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle mom trying to find a little meaning in the madness.  She blogs at, tweets as @DefineMother, and talks to anyone who will listen at the local coffee shop.

Photo by Benton J. Melbourne    

Ten Things I Didn’t Fully Appreciate Before Children

Ten Things I Didn’t Fully Appreciate Before Children


0-7Ten Things I Didn’t Fully Appreciate Before Children:

1. Ziploc Bags. I’ve abandoned all environmental principles and fully embraced these plastic wonders. Peed in underwear. Wet swim suits. Snacks. Toys for road trips. The possibilities are literally endless.


2. PBS. All the entertainment without the requests for plastic crap or sugar cereal. For years, Cat in the Hat was the only reason I was able to take a shower.


3. NPR. Another acronym I appreciate deeply. The “news and information” allow me to participate in adult conversations I would avoid if I was forced to rely on newspaper articles I had time to read.


4. Drive-Throughs. Getting kids out of the car is a pain. Motherhood has turned this previous champion of all things local, urban and walkable into a fossil-fuel burning maniac who will drive out of her way to visit the coffee stand with a drive-through window. I curse my high-minded snub of the mega bank with a drive-up ATM in favor of the local credit union with street parking.


5. Dinner and a Movie. Before children, this seemed like a lame date. I judged “dinner and a movie” types as lacking creativity and initiative. Now, the idea of a leisurely dinner back to back with a two-hour movie seems positively indulgent.


6. Hand Sanitizer. Kids are gross. They touch gross things. They do gross things. The ability to sanitize after nose picking and before sandwich eating is a must.


7. Handicap Bathrooms. Children are a legitimate handicap. It takes a lot of space to assist a child with emptying his/her bladder. It is helpful to have some elbow room in which to undress, squat, lift, position, cajole, wipe and re-dress. It is also nice when it takes your kids a few steps to cross a stall. That way, you have a fighting chance of buttoning your own pants before they start selling tickets for the peep show.


8. Slip-On Shoes. By the time I’ve brushed three mouths full of teeth and three heads full of hair, the last thing I need is three pairs of shoes to tie. Slip-on shoes dramatically increase the likelihood of timely arrival at our destination.


9. Other People’s Cooking. I am an enthusiastic acceptor of dinner invites. I would rather eat boxed macaroni and cheese at your house than caramelized root vegetables and steamed salmon at mine.


10. Grown-Ups. I love grown-ups. Their conversation topics. Their voice volume. The fact that they can go to the bathroom by themselves and usually flush without a reminder.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle mom trying to find a little meaning in the madness.  She blogs at, tweets as @DefineMother, and talks to anyone who will listen at the local coffee shop.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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