The Thought That Counts

As some of you already know, my kids have the ability to earn a set amount of allowance each week, but come “pay day”, it may not all get paid to them, depending on infractions during the week.  For example, $1 off if you leave your plate on the table, $1 off if you leave shoes in the living room, $1 off if you don’t do your chore-of the-day—we keep a white board on the side of the refrigerator to keep track.  My youngest child does pretty well with this and carefully saves her allowance each week in a plastic bank with a combination lock; my oldest child rarely earns much allowance and quickly spends anything she manages to get. There is also a list of “paid jobs” posted on the refrigerator, extra tasks like yard work, and she doesn’t usually do those, either.  For a long time, I’ve been wondering, “Why do I do this allowance system at all?” for her, since I put more effort into keeping track of infractions than she puts into helping out. But Love and Logic thought keeps going through my head: the natural consequences will teach her a life lesson.  In other words, when she really needs money, she’ll be sorry that she didn’t earn and save, and maybe she will do things differently in the future. 


It hasn’t quite worked out that way.  Because whenever she’s gotten to the point of really needing money, somehow she always manages to get by.  A friend pays her admission to a show; a grandparent’s birthday card, with cash inside, arrives in the mail; a lucrative babysitting job comes along…She once sold her American Girl doll—to her sister—in order to finance a shopping spree. ‘Drats! Foiled Again!’ I think to myself, like some cartoon character. 


Finally, a week ago, it didn’t look like things were going to go her way. She was flat broke, but really wanted to buy Christmas gifts for everyone.  “So you really won’t buy gifts for me to give, like you did a couple years ago?” she asked. “No way,” I said, reminding her she’d had plenty of opportunities to earn allowance, and added that I didn’t know why she was concerned, that we’d celebrated all the family birthdays this year without presents from her and she hadn’t seemed to mind. “But this is Christmas, “she said.  “Everyone else has put gifts under the tree, and there are gifts for me.  That would be bad if there’s nothing there from me,” she said.

“Well, maybe you can plan better for next year,” I said.


Not to be stymied, she announced she was going to tackle The Paid Jobs List.  With a week off school before Christmas and unseasonably warm weather in North Texas, working in the yard didn’t seem so far-fetched.  She had it all planned out. “I’ll do a few things each day and by Thursday afternoon, I’ll have enough money to get something for everyone,” she said. While I don’t like her habit of waiting until the last minute to accomplish things, I did like the thought of having that yard work done before Christmas visitors came…and the fact that she wanted to earn money to buy gifts for others.


Unfortunately, her teenage habit of staying up late and sleeping late kicked into high gear once the holiday break began, making productive daylight hours slim to none.  Raking leaves and scrubbing the bottom of her bathtub were deemed too difficult by her and were left half done; the only thing she’d finished by Thursday was to spread a bag of bark mulch on a small flower bed.  “How about if I wake up early tomorrow morning and get everything else done?” she asked on Thursday evening.  “Can someone take me shopping then?”
“It depends on if someone is available,” I replied, reminding her that stores closed early on Christmas Eve and that in order to go out anywhere, her bedroom also had to be clean.  So, as it turned out, she decided to watch movies and TV with Cleo (our foreign exchange student) until the wee hours of the morning, then decided to clean her room. By the time daylight came on Christmas Eve day, her room was spotless, she was sleeping soundly, the weather had turned cold, and rain was imminent. “I think you’re going to have to scale back your Christmas list,” I told her several hours later when she woke up,  “but it’s the thought that counts.  Just get everyone something small.” 


She would have nothing of that idea.  Still determined to earn enough money to buy what she wanted, she headed out around lunchtime in the cold rain, shovel in hand, to dig weeds in our vacant vegetable garden and trim down Lantana bushes. She wore a hooded sweatsuit, but no raincoat and no gloves.  (Was she trying to earn more by getting the sympathy vote?)  I reminded her again, as I left to run my own last-minute shopping errands, that no one may be available to take her anywhere even if she got everything done.


When I returned, I was surprised to see her still working in her soaked sweatsuit. The bushes looked great, and the garden was almost all dug up.  The leaf piles had been put into bags.  By 2:45 p.m. as I headed to the grocery store, she was finished, and managed to talk her dad (amidst his protests) into taking her out to shop, just before the stores closed.  (She also managed to badger him into kicking in an extra $15…)

Yes, she did do some needed work, she did earn money, and she was happy to have presents under the tree for everyone in the family…but were any “lessons” really learned, or values instilled?


I’m not sure…my head is spinning from the cartoon thought bubbles trying to crowd their way inside…

Mare E Kriz Muss

Several years ago for a newspaper story, I interviewed a Dallas mom named Sue about the great lengths she and her family go to every year to come up with a crazy family photo for their Christmas card—often complete with costumes, props, and backdrops. In one memorable photo, her family is seen atop a fake “snowcovered roof” dressed as Santa and other holiday characters.  The youngest child, a baby, is wailing mightily, one of the dogs is sliding off the roof, and Sue is laughing.  Obviously things didn’t go quite like they’d planned, but Sue told me the card was a huge hit, and “friends of friends” began asking to get on their card address list.  At the time of the interview, it numbered around 250… I think a lot of people liked that card not only because it was funny, but because Sue’s family had the guts to do what many don’t —show off (and celebrate) their real family.  In addition to “Happy Holidays”, it sent an underlying message that not being perfect is okay.  If only we could all chill out and remember that, especially during the holidays. 


Because there’s a lot of striving for perfection that goes on this month, whether it’s having perfectly wrapped presents, or a perfectly decorated tree, or perfectly iced cookies…I remember so well when my kids were younger, worrying that they’d goof up or do something embarrassing in the church Christmas pageant, and I noticed young parents fretting about the same last week.  But—what was the absolute best part of this year’s pageant? The smorgasbord of mishaps, from Joseph not wanting to hold Mary’s hand as they plodded along the carpeted “streets of Bethlehem”, to lots of “sheep” wandering away from their “shepherds”, to kids singing at the wrong time—even an angel who burst into tears and had to be carried out right as the show was beginning.  It was beautiful, it was wonderful, and it was kids being kids.  I can’t remember if we gave them a standing ovation or not, but they deserved one.


The sweetest notes played at the “Beginning Band Winter Concert” last week were the sour ones; the best-dressed kid at the 6th grade class holiday party yesterday was the one with ice cream on his face; and the best gift we can give our family, our friends and ourselves this season, or any season, is grace.


Just please remind me of that when the high school 1st semester final grades come out next week…


Celebrating the First Year– Excess is Okay

There’s a long-standing debate about birthday parties for kids who are turning 1—one side says keep it low key or don’t even have one, don’t waste your money because the child won’t remember it; the other says, have a big blow out.  And as I watch my niece and her family prepare to have the latter for her son (yep, yet another family birthday falls during the holidays!), I must admit I’m in the latter camp.  Because, as I saw it when I did the same for Allison, it’s not so much whether the child will remember any of it, or will any of their pint-sized guests—it’s about the parents, especially the mom, being excited to have a child, and to be able to throw a party for a child for the first time. 

And I say, for all that we moms (and dads) go through during that first year, let the celebration begin.  Bake that cake (or order it) and get party hats; blow up those 16 inflatable guitars or put together those child-safe noisemakers; take a lot of pictures and have a great time.  And don’t worry that if you have another child, the “first” celebration may not be as grand.  That child won’t realize it, at the time, nor will they suffer mental damage when they look in the family photo album and compare parties.   Just explain to them that the first party also celebrates parents getting through the first 12 months of sleepless nights, dirty diapers, projectile food, nervous doctor visits, and the aches and pains from  toting car seats and strollers every day.  (And that by the second child, you’re “pros”, not to mention that you’re juggling so much that it’s hard to even think about planning a big party!)

So Happy Birthday, my great nephew Evan.  And Happy, Happy First Birthday Celebration to my niece and her husband!!!!!

Putting Cheer (and Maybe Even Love) Back Into Kids’ Holiday Parties and Gift Exchanges

If the holidays and holiday parties are meant to be infused with joy and cheer, it’s ironic that sometimes, thanks to gift exchanges, people can leave those parties feeling kind of…well…mad, or at least a bit sour.  Kind of like Jim Carrey’s Grinch when he receives a used electric shaver at Whoville’s Present Pass-it-On…I’ve seen these emotions a few times at adult parties and a LOT at kids’ parties.

First of all, most gift exchanges I’ve seen or participated in have gone like this: Everyone brings a gift and everyone participating in the exchange grabs a piece of paper with a number written on it, usually from a bowl that the host passes around.  The person holding #1 goes first and gets to open an unwrapped gift.  The person holding #2 gets to either steal the gift from #1 or unwrap another unclaimed present. If they steal #1’s gift, #1 gets to unwrap another present.  Then #3 goes, and #3 may steal a gift from #1 or #2 or unwrap one.  Usually the host or the “game-meister” sets a limit on the number of times a gift may be stolen before it’s “frozen” (unable to be stolen any more). And the “game” continues that way until all the numbered guests have taken a turn and all the gifts have been unwrapped.  Sometimes with adults, this kind of gift exchange can be hilarious, especially when everyone has had to bring a “white elephant” gift, i.e. garage sale-bound junk found around the house. The laughs continue as people drink more wine and steal more tacky gifts that somehow have become desirable.  But when it’s a gift exchange where everyone has to buy something new (usually worth a pre-set value, like $10), things can get kind of ugly when the stealing starts.  And some people, especially kids, just aren’t mature enough to “roll” with it. They end up mad with what they end up with, mad at the person who stole their treasure, and envious of everyone else’s cool gifts…


Interestingly, yesterday I participated in a gift exchange and observed another (both were the kind where there’s a pre-set spending amount), and both were conducted so sensibly, I just had to pass on how they were done.  At the first party, we all just grabbed a gift from under the tree and opened our gifts, and kept what we got. Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and Hasta La Vista! I loved it.  At the next one, everyone with gifts stood in a circle.  The game-meister had me read a fun story about “Lefty the Elf” which involved multiple uses of the words “left” and right”, and every time I said either of those words, the gifters passed their gift to the left or right, and when the story was over, they kept what was in their hands.  There were lots of laughs as the “lefts” and rights” came faster and faster and the gifts got passed and re-passed, like playing “hot potato”.  While I’m not sure if everyone liked what they ended up with, I’m pretty sure everyone had so much fun passing the gifts that I don’t think the gift mattered. 


Later when I got home, I Googled “Lefty the Elf”, and it turns out there are lots of left-right gift exchange stories that can be used—here is the link to the one I read at the party last night.  While it won’t prevent all gift exchange disappointment or “gift envy” among kids and teens, it at least takes away the “stealing” aspect.


Of course, kids usually get presents from their families anyway, sometimes plenty, so eliminating gift exchanges at kids’ holiday parties isn’t such a bad idea, either.  What about everyone bringing a new or gently used stuffed animal for a local children’s charity? Or bringing school supplies, candy and small toys and assembling gift boxes for children in other countries? Operation Christmas Child is a good option for this (even though their national shoe box collection week is in November, they take mailed-in boxes year-round).  Or, every child could bring 1 or 2 items of used clothing to give away, and divide into two teams.  Have team members put their clothing donations into their “team pile”, and have a dress-up relay where each team has to figure out a way to get the lead person on their team dressed in the items (on top of what they’re already wearing) without hurting the items, then they run across the room (or grass, or gym) to a certain point and come back, take off the clothes, then the next person has to get dressed up and run. Depending on what the team has brought to contribute, the “dress up” can be pretty crazy.  (All shoes? Underwear? Hats? Baby clothes they have to hang on their arms or tuck in their shirts?) Then after everyone has had fun, all the items are donated to Goodwill or the Salvation Army or another charity that takes clothing.  How fun would that be? And if it becomes an annual tradition, people can plan ahead and contribute even more “challenging” clothing items for next year’s relay… 


Definitely a party even a Grinch would love.

A Couple of Updates

Not just a dash— now it’s a mad dash

Remember my September post about the passing period between high school classes, about how at our kids’ school it’s so quick, kids don’t have time to use the restroom or go to their lockers any more?  Well, I did bring up the subject to the Director of Health for our school district, who chairs a committee of which I am a member.  He told me he would bring it up to his supervisor and get back to me. In the meantime, our high school initiated a new tardy policy in early October called Bell-Lock-Sweep, and if female students weren’t “holding it” before, their bladders surely must be busting by the time school lets out nowadays (and they’re no doubt stocking up on Super Plus Plus tampons as well).  The new policy is so strict that kids are literally running scared (well, more like walking VERY fast) to class.  If they stop to catch up with a friend or (worse!) pause for a drink of water, the time lost could be devastating. Now, there is no way they can use the restroom (and wash their hands) unless it just happens to be next to their classes– and even then it’s iffy.

Basically, with Bell-Lock-Sweep, when the bell rings after the five-minute passing period, all the classroom doors lock. Anyone who doesn’t make it into their class is then “swept” (herded) by a hall monitor or assistant principal toward a computer located in the hall, where a tardy slip is printed out and an email and computer-generated phone call are immediately made to a tardy student’s home.  The classroom doors are not unlocked until seven minutes have passed.  After three tardies (total, not per class), detention is given.  First a three-hour after-school detention, then two three-hour detentions (one on a Saturday morning), and after that, one, two, and three days of in-school suspension, which is basically all-day detention where a student is not allowed to attend any of their classes.  

Since this policy is so different than at her school in France, our exchange student, Cleo, has had a tough time with it. She recently hit the 6-hour detention mark after being required to shut down a computer after one class ended, and then she rushed to the restroom before another class started. As she headed to class with the bell about to ring, she saw her teacher in the hall, also walking to the same classroom, and thought she might be safe.  “I’m sorry, but you’re going to be swept,” the teacher said.  “There’s nothing I can do.”  An obvious question is, “Can’t students use the restroom after the bell rings?” And the answer is, some teachers allow it, and some don’t. With only 50 minutes per class period, some get pretty stingy. (Our 16-year-old, Allison, has one teacher who gives students only two restroom passes for the entire semester!) 


The school district Health Dept. chair recently got back to me on the issue.  He’d gotten feedback from several people, including a principal (from another high school) and the district director of school nurses, and basically they said that if the short passing period was a problem, they weren’t aware of it, that they’d received no complaints about it.  And the head of district security said that if passing periods were lengthened, it could cause security issues, that kids were more likely to get in trouble. The principal said that kids could at least use their 30-minute lunch break to use the restroom. But Allison says most of that time can be easily taken up by waiting in the long lunch line, and that ever since the new tardy policy’s been in place, she’s seen some students go through the line and frantically stuff food in their mouths as they rush to class…

Maybe things have to get worse before any other parents complain…maybe parents are just ignoring how much influence troubled kids have on some schools, and how the schools adopt ridiculous prison-like rules as a result, for all students.  Maybe Depends should start marketing to teens…

My eyes were opened even more to the idiocracy of it all when I recently took a tour of Dallas ISD’s Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts. There, classes last 90 minutes, a block schedule much like at college, where M-W-F classes are different from Tues-Thursday. The passing periods were generous and their lunch break was a breath of fresh air. Literally.  A jazz combo was setting up on an outdoor patio and my friend and tour guide explained that students could each lunch outside if they wanted, while listening to music. The whole atmosphere at the school felt like the students were treated with more respect, and given more freedom.

What a concept, huh, for kids who are about to be on their own?


More Fundraising Fun

Remember the post about how kids need to get more involved in their fundraisers? In late October we told Allison we would require her to sell at least 15 poinsettias in order to go on a planned spring choir trip. I didn’t think she’d try to sell even one, but she ended up selling 30.  Wow, huh?! Only I never thought about who would have to deliver those 30 poinsettias!  Since she doesn’t drive yet…the delivery van driver is me! And she can’t go with me, ‘cause she’s been involved in mandatory after-school activities until 10 p.m. every night this week, and the flowers will die if I don’t get them all delivered pronto…