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Serena, sleeping, originally uploaded by MzMuze.

Has it really been two years since you were born? It’s hard to imagine a time you weren’t here. And yet so much has happened: how did we cram a move and a career change and school and travel and nibbling your cute little cheeks into just two years?

Finally sweet pea, you are still a baby. I know you’ve long since given up diapers and morning naps and crawling. More and more of your babble is becoming intelligible. You’ve moved into your own bed to sleep in, and recently started dressing yourself (I love the backwards bathing suit look, and the two-legs-through-one-pant-leg approach is charming).

But as long as you’re made of dimples and golden curls and big blue eyes you’ll be my baby. I hope that’s a good long time.

Two of my kids are participating in Somerville’s Open Air Circus this summer, a local circus produced by and for kids. My teenage stepson is taking a leadership intensive and teaching classes in everything from unicycling to juggling, while the five-year-old in my life has become an instant expert at balance beams, tumbling and running around like a maniac in “circus pants”.

This is all practically free for me (we paid a $20 membership fee at the beginning of the summer, for six weeks of classes). It’s gloriously disorganized and fun, and the kids are learning a lot. Not only about how to perform in a circus, but how to be in a class or teach one. We love it.

The Open Air Circus is the progeny of a grown-up circus called the ExtraTerrestrial Circus Experiment. They would love it if everyone came to their benefit show this weekend. Here’s their information about it:

ExtraTerrestrial Circus Experiment is putting on a benefit performance on July 10th at The Armory in Somerville. Advanced tickets are on sale now at http://www.openaircircus.org/benefit.asp at $8/child (5-18 years old), $15/adult, and $40/family (admits 2 adults and 2 children). Tickets at the door will be $12/child and $20/adult. Please let all your friends know about this opportunity to enjoy a spectacular performance while helping support the OPENAIR Circus.

Please consider coming in a green fashion (public transportation, walking, biking, skating, etc.). We have some directions on the above page of how to get there but are glad to help you figure out a your particular path if you email us with your starting location. If you do come by car, please remember to park in the lot behind the Armory to try to avoid street parking congestion.

I would like my cape and tights, please. In size extra-awesome.

Menstruating? Check.
Laryngitis? Check.
Solo parenting for the week? Check.
Sudden increase in workload with both my day job and my freelance writing? Check.

Did I manage, in the past 24 hours, to conduct an interview for a magazine, run a preschool day, learn how to use my new camera, pick up our farm share, take the kids biking in spite of a light drizzle and show up at a Canada Day party with fresh-baked banana muffins? Yes, yes I did.

Now I am going to collapse, so I can do it all again tomorrow. Possibly without the banana bread, but hopefully also without the laryngitis.

(What I really mean here is: how do you single parents do this day after day? I have had more help than I will probably ever admit to this past week, so much that it hardly feels honest to say I’m goin’ it alone, and I still feel like I’ve been hit by the baby train after only a few days. How do you survive? How do your kids? Does it get easier or do you just get stronger?)

Lost: my voice

Found: two deer ticks, one on Rio and one on me. Happily, the on site doctor let us know that deer ticks have to be attached to your body for at least two days before they can “do any mischief” (ie: transmit Lyme disease). So we all had a thorough “tickle check” before bed, and it looks like we made it out unscathed.

Taken: photos. many, with the amazing new-to-me camera that was placed under my care in the midst of the weekend.

Serenazilla!

Serenazilla!

Today, Serena and I had a rare opportunity to take a nap together, one I eagerly jumped on. Or, more accurately, flopped on. I quickly dozed off with my sweet little girl snuggled close in my arms. Rio and I used to nap together almost every afternoon, and laying down with Serena brought all that lazy sweetness right back to the present.

Rio used to fall asleep with me, though. Serena lay quietly until I passed out, and then wiggled out of my embrace and went exploring. She can’t climb off the bed on her own yet, but she explored the wide world of my bed until she found my cell phone.

I was not deeply asleep. I knew she’d gotten up, and was sitting quietly on my feet. I heard her fiddling with something.

Still, I was surprised when I heard her godfather’s voice saying hello at the other end of the line. So was Serena. She eagerly held the phone up to her ear, nodding and looking very sage and serious while he chatted with her for a few minutes. “Say hi,” I suggested. She said hi, and hi again, and hi louder. Hi! Hi! HIIIIIII!

Then she moved the phone away from her ear, looking curiously at it. She shook it, turned it over, clearly trying to figure out how John got in there. Finally, she waved bye-bye. “Bye! Bye! BYE-BYE!” Waving enthusiastically at the phone.

I had totally forgotten kids do this. I remember Rio as a toddler, signing to the phone. Of course if they can hear you they can see you, in toddler-logic. This is the same logic kids use to “hide” from adults by covering their own eyes. Gotta love it.

The Boston Globe today published a detailed, caring essay on What to do if your child has superpowers?, written by an expert in pediatric heroism. While the main goal of the piece seems to be to reassure parents who have recently discovered superpowers in their young children, he does offer some practical tips on the raising of young heroes, like how to handle discipline with children who control magnetic fields.

His best advice for all of us, though, comes in his closing, where he helps us lay aside the natural fear that our teenagers will grow up to be supervillians:

“My experience has taught me that being intent on world domination is a phase that everyone goes through. If these feeling persist, however, consider allowing them to control a small region populated by self-aware robots.”

All parenting advice should be this useful and entertaining. Are you reading this, Parenting Magazine? Less fashion advice, more superheroes!

I have this friend. Let’s call her M. M has a daughter a little younger than Rio, who we’ll call N.

M and I like to do a lot of things together, and one of our favorite games is Bad Plan Theater. That’s when we come up with a plan so crazy it just might work – like flying to California on a whim or walking down the abandoned railroad tracks just to see where they go.

On this week’s episode of Bad Plan Theater, we decided to indulge our daughters in the slumber party they’ve been asking for since last summer. What could go wrong?

So many things. The mamas could be tired and a little cranky. The pizza could be cold. The clean laundry basket could get ‘discovered’ by the kids and turned into a vehicle that spews laundry around the house. Storytime could mysteriously take 90 minutes. Little N could find it impossible to sleep with a guest in her room.

But what actually had us packing our bags at 9:30 at night to head home was Rio, my big, strong, independent child, breaking down into tears for just one little moment in the dark and saying, “Mommy, I want to sleep in my bed! I want my Daddy!”

This lasted only a moment. I said yes, of course she could go home. Slumber parties are never required. I finished the story I was telling to N, while Rio bounced up, said a tender good-night to her friend and fled downstairs. I ran into her at the door, where she was slipping her sparkly-silver-Wizard-of-Oz slippers on over her PJ feet and cheerfully saying goodnight to our host.

“Good-bye, M!” she said. “I’m going to go home and sleep in my own bed. Thank you for the offer, though.”

Thank you for the offer? That child has better manners than I do.

I’m proud of her for being polite and collected and clear about her needs. I am also secretly relieved that sleeping over at a friend’s house for the first time turned out to be a scary prospect for her. She’s so tough, it’s easy to forget she’s also a small girl still. I’m glad she can still be vulnerable with me when she needs to, and that she’s not really 5 going on 30.

Rio's allowance jars

Rio's allowance jars

This post at the Simple Dollar got me thinking about kid’s allowance money. It got me thinking too much for a blog comment over there, so you get to read all about it.

Kid’s allowances are one of my most regular cash expenses, along with groceries and gas for my car. All the frugal living tactics I know of would tell me to cut them out, just like I’ve canceled all my magazine subscriptions and club memberships. They’re a recurring weekly expense that is not strictly necessary, and they’re not helping me pay down my debts. That’s not a line item I want to see in my budget.

But I keep giving the kids an allowance. Why?

I want my children to share in the wealth of the household. Everyone who lives here gets a bed, clothes to wear, food to eat, time and space to do work they love and to pursue a social life, and the loving support of their family members. Everyone also gets a little pocket money, that comes from the income brought in by the adults in the house. I don’t consider this stuff everyone has a right to, it’s just the contract we’ve made within our family about how we run our household.

There aren’t any restrictions on getting the allowance. It is theirs whether or not they do chores, behave themselves, or spend it wisely. Just like the expectation that they will help clean up after meals and treat everyone in the house with kindness is there whether they’ve had a bad day or the other sibling really started it or they just don’t want to. It’s part of being in this family.

I understand that many people also use allowance money to teach kids about how money works, and if mine learn something from getting theirs, so much the better.

Here is how we do it: everyone over the age of 4 gets a weekly allowance equal to one dollar per year of their age. If you are a child, that allowance is divided into four categories: Savings, Spending, When I’m A Grown Up (this is known as Investing to adults) and Giving. Trent from Simple Dollar calls this approach The Money Savvy Pig Philosophy. I first read about it in a magazine where I think it was simply called “a good idea”.

We started giving an allowance to my older daughter when she started asking me to buy things for her that I did not want to buy – in particular a replacement for a pair of sparkly sequined shoes that had been given to her as a gift, and which she wore till the sequins rubbed off and the soles gave out.

When Rio began getting her allowance, she saved carefully for those sequined shoes, and after about two months was able to buy them. She was thrilled to buy them with her own money, but hasn’t saved up for a big purchase since. She has nearly worn out the new pair by now, and has plenty of money saved up to replace them if she wants to.

I got four glass milk jars from a local dairy and labeled them Spending, Saving, When I’m a Grown Up and Giving. Rio helped by decorating the labels with watercolors. Then I began giving her four dollars a week with the caveat that she needed to put one dollar in each jar. Now that she gets $5 a week she can choose where to put the extra dollar. Mostly she uses it to buy bubblegum.

Like Trent plans to do with his son, I started out giving Rio her allowance in Sacajawea dollars, but stopped when she got upset by that and said she wanted to get paid in “real dollars”. I may start again because someone gave her a Sacajawea dollar for her birthday and now she’s fascinated by them.

My teenage stepson also gets $15 a week, one dollar per year of age. This feels like a lot to me, but is also about what he spends on bus fare and a few trips to the cafe around the corner to get some quiet time away from his sisters. Unlike with the little ones, I don’t restrict how he spends or saves his allowance. I do model what I hope is good behavior with money, and talk openly with him about frugality. The other day we built a bicycle together out of spare parts so he’d have a summer ride, rather than buying him a new bike. I think he learns a lot that way.

Is he too old to just be handed money? I don’t think so. Right now he has perfect grades, a weekly volunteer gig and a heavy load of summer reading for his fall classes. I don’t want him to sacrifice any of those things to a summer job because he feels a want of pocket money, so I give it to him. I worked a lot in high school, and I don’t think it taught me anything useful about managing my own money or helped me build any career skills for my future. My time would have been better spent doing more volunteer work and creative skill-building, so that’s what I want my kids to focus on.

Serena, the toddler, got in on the allowance action when she saw me giving money to the other kids. She wanted to be part of that ritual so badly she actually learned to say the word “Money”, or something like it with fewer consonants and more insistent hand gestures.

For Serena, I created a single allowance jar, also using an old milk bottle. I give her a few coins from my wallet each week. We put the coins in her jar together, and a few times a week when she wants to play with it, we take her jar out and she gets to dump all the coins on the floor and carefully pick them up again and put them back in the jar. She gets real value out of the money I give her – as a toy! And she doesn’t feel left out of the allowance system.

I’m sure our system isn’t perfect, but we haven’t run headlong into any big problems with it so far. Except the recurring expense issue, and I can happily afford $20 a week for my kids’ allowances. Because I’ve learned to live frugally myself in so many other areas.

What do you do with kids and money? Do your kids get an allowance? How much? Under what conditions? Let me know in the comments.

My mother gave Rio a bicycle for her birthday. A purple bicycle covered with Disney Princess decals. Safe to say, this was her dream bike, long awaited. She spent many winter afternoons sitting on Nana’s lap fantasizing about the bike that would magically appear to her when she turned five. So of course my mom made it happen. It’s in her grandmother contract, I’m sure.

Since I sent “Santa” a letter last Christmas asking “him” to go easy on the beeping, blinking Stuff, we have received nothing battery operated for the kids. Instead, the bike came with a bright pink, princess-logo-sporting, made-in-china air horn. It might be the loudest thing either kid has ever owned. Conveniently, it was not attached to the bike, so the kids were able to bring it in the house and blare it at the breakfast table for a few days.

A word about my mother. When Rio entered the world, I laid down the law: give nothing to this child that you would not give to a child of the opposite sex/gender. Ah, that was the sweet, naive week when I imagined that child was mine, not a free agent in the world. My mom’s response was to show up at my house the day we brought Rio home with about ten pounds of pink lace and an innocent look. “What?” she said, before I could mention the dresses. “I would have bought these for a boy!”

Of course you would, Mom. And you were surely powerless against the waiter who gave eight-month-old Rio her first Oreo cookie while I was in the bathroom. I love you. Never, ever start listening to me about my kids. You totally know better than I do.

I actually do love that my mom gives the girls Disney schwag, and jelly beans and access to cable TV. That’s a huge part of the world they’re growing in, and they get none of it at home. Somebody has to do it, and Nana is the perfect choice. (She also taught Rio how to slide down staircase bannisters, but that’s another story…)

Most recently, she gave Rio this bike. The bike has a row of princess faces emblazoned on the handlebars. As she climbed onto the bike, Rio looked thoughtfully at the princesses, and pointed to Belle.

“Belle looks very princessy there, Mama,” she said. “This must be after. You know, after those photos we saw yesterday.”

Not sure what to make of that, except to say that I’m grateful to Ms. Dina Goldstein for inviting my daughter to think about the prettiness of her princesses.

Snow White, as seen by Dina Goldstein

Snow White, as seen by Dina Goldstein

What parent has not worried about the impact of Disney’s princess marketing juggernaut on their young kids? It’s ubiquitous, poisonous and almost impossible to avoid.

Today, a good friend sent me this link to Fallen Princesses, a photo exhibit by Dina Goldstein. She is, apparently, a mom and a photographer, and these photos are her answer to the dark questions the Disney princesses stirred up when her three-year-old became besotted with them.

Because it was sent to me with no warning about what it was, I happened to look at it with my five-year-old daughter on my lap.

Let me tell you, we had some fascinating conversation about what those princesses in those pictures were doing. I was only a little dismayed when Rio cooed at Snow White, “Look, Mama, this is when she has babies! And a husband! And a dog!”

uh…yes. To her credit, a little later Rio looked more closely and said, “They do seem to have a lot of babies.”

After we’d looked at the whole series, Rio wanted to know what was going on with these princesses. Especially with Belle, who is depicted having plastic surgery.

“She’s having surgery on her face,” I said.

“Why?”

“To make her look like a princess,” I said. I did not want to be having this conversation. I don’t want my five-year-old to know about plastic surgery, or the desire to be someone else, or the beauty industry.

“Why would she do that?” This is one of those moments, I realized. One of the moments when my daughter asks me hard questions and I owe her real answers.

“She doesn’t know how beautiful she is,” I said. “She’s confused.”

And then I told her that real women sometimes have surgery on their faces to try to be prettier. That real women sometimes do all the things these princesses are doing – get sick, have babies that no one helps them care for, get sad, grow old and lonely.

Rio expressed the opinion that princesses are great, and she understands why any woman would want to look like one. On cross-examination, she agreed that I am beautiful, and don’t look like a princess. That’s because I’m not one, she explained.

“I wish I was a princess,” Rio said. “But I can’t do anything about that.”

“You are better than any princess to me,” I said.

“No, I’m not,” Rio said very matter-of-factly. “Princesses are better than me. Because they are prettier.”

um…

Deep breath. What to say? This is the textbook Disney-is-evil stuff I’ve read about but never expected to encounter in my own home. Lost, I repeated myself.

“You are better than any princess to me.”

“Even the world is not better than princesses,” Rio explained patiently, the way one talks to someone very slow. “Princesses are the best.”

After that she wanted to know if princesses are real. I showed her a picture of Princess Di, and talked about how hard her life was. Rio wanted to know if Real Princesses are real, and I assured her that all of Disney’s princesses are entirely fake.

I’ve always been a bit of an apologist for Disney. I don’t buy that stuff, obviously, and we don’t watch TV at home. But I haven’t worked to keep it away from my kids either.

Very early in my parenting, a mom I admired made a case for princess-worship as a little girl version of goddess worship, in which young kids deify images of beautiful, magically gifted, powerful young women. I liked that reading, and clung to it when my two-year-old became obsessed with the Little Mermaid.

Beyond the female divinity argument, I’m an avid fan of Bruno Bettelheim. I’m sure he wouldn’t defend Disney; they whitewash fairy tales in exactly the way he advises against. But I think one of his most basic points is that children experience stories differently than adults do. They are drawn into a story for reasons opaque to their parents, and are satisfied by elements that elude us. This should be obvious to anyone who has ever let their preschooler pick the story at bedtime and then been stuck reading a Clifford book aloud for the 37th time. So while the princess schwag looks appaling to me, I’ve rested happy in the knowledge that I am not the target audience, and can’t know what my kid is getting out of it.

Finally, like most of my peers I survived a childhood riddled with Barbie, GI Joe and Strawberry Shortcake, and still grew up to be a self-lovin’ hippy feminist. Rio will do just fine no matter what crappy gender stereotypes she plays with as a kid. By the time she’s old enough to read this, I’m sure the fact that she ever wanted to be a Disney princess will be an embarassing footnote on a glorious life as a self-possessed, beautiful, brilliant young person.

That said, hearing my own daughter (who, let’s face it, has had a pretty sheltered life when it comes to media) say that she thinks princesses are better than her because they are prettier cost Disney all their credit with me and then some. Rio will be fine, but they are not helping. They are hurting.

Why am I posting about this? It’s not because I’m all riled up about how Disney is undermining my daughter’s self-esteem. I do plan to write them a letter, which I expect them to ignore. Whatever.

I am posting about this because Rio asked me to. “Mama, can we put these on your website?” she said. She wanted everyone we know to see these princesses. Because, you may recall, princesses are The Best. I agree with her. I want everyone we know to see this – both the photos and the discussion they provoked – in the hopes that a few more of us will wake up and stop turning a blind eye to what Disney is doing to our girls.

Flickr Photos

Holding hands

Emerson graduation smiles

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More Photos

A little bird told me…

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