Burb’s Eye View Columns

She crossed the line and changed a life

A few months ago, I wrote about an encounter I had on a train with a woman who was homeless. My decision not to get involved or offer to help her often haunts me, as I still wonder who, if anyone, will make a difference in this woman’s life. Back then, I thought: What could I do? With a baby on the way, two jobs and two little boys vying for my attention, I didn’t even know how I was capable of helping. It is why I am inspired this week to write about a young lady who crossed that line and changed a life.

The story begins with Angela Fuchs, a 30-year-old Hatboro woman who was on her way back from getting a manicure and decided to stop to help a stranger.

From her Volkswagen, she saw an elderly man, saddled with bags on each shoulder, inching along Warminster’s Street Road with a cane. She offered him a ride. But he didn’t need a ride, he told her. He needed a place to stay. He had a monthly income, $800 in Social Security checks, but could not find a place willing to take a 70-year-old single man. For nearly two weeks since leaving his previous apartment, he drifted from park benches to alleyways, catching catnaps and hoping for a break. He didn’t have family, and all of his friends had died.

He looked tired, but he also looked familiar. “After talking, I realized he was the janitor at my grade school,” she said.

He’s Mr. B, she said.

He told Angela that every night after 11:30 p.m. he sat at a local diner drinking coffee, eating toast and snoozing in between bites. She then knew where to find him.

Angela, a real-estate agent, went home, but the image of Mr. B couldn’t leave her mind. Before midnight, she drove to the diner and told him she would help. She owned an apartment below her home that wasn’t expected to be rented for another week. But she wanted her father to meet Mr. B before she took him in.

“My father saw that he was harmless, so we brought him home and got him set up,” she said. A week, she thought, would be enough time to find him help. She went down a list of agencies in Bucks and Montgomery counties that she expected would help someone like Mr. B. She called a few shelters and learned it could take up to six months to get in.

She called a homeless hotline — and got voicemail. “If you’re homeless, how are they going to call you back?”

She tried low-income housing, then learned Mr. B’s income was “too low.” “How are you too low for low-income housing?”

She spent three hours a day calling agencies, churches and non-profit organizations.

“Some people just didn’t believe my story. They thought he was a family member I was trying to pawn off on them. One woman actually said, “Do you really expect me to believe you picked a stranger up off the street?’ Then after she was convinced, she said: “You know, that’s really not safe; you shouldn’t do that.’

“I was ready to burst out in tears. They found it so hard to believe that there are people out there that help others when they don’t have to. Why is that so strange?”

It wasn’t a money issue, she said. Mr. B had money for rent. Still, no one wanted to give him the time of day since he had no home, no way to correspond, no friends left to serve as a reference.

A Warminster bank account and a P.O. box were all he had.

Now, he had Angela.

Just days before he had to move out, she called a landlord near where she lives and arranged an interview with Mr. B. The rent, $500 a month, was high for his income, but it would have to do. Angela turned to Impact thrift store for furniture and helped him move in. Mr. B told Angela of his plans to get a job to pay the bills. But she knows the odds of him finding a job at his age and with his limitations are slim.

Fortunately, she’s not going away.

She has a key to his place. She is still trying to find him a mattress to sleep on. And she continues to check in on him.

“I don’t think he’ll be out of my life anytime soon. But that’s OK with me.”

About the ordeal, Angela has no regrets. In fact, she’s grateful Mr. B. was walking on Street Road that day she drove by.

“That could have been me, you, my father, my friends or any of us after a week of bad luck. I would hope someone would help if I was in that situation. I don’t have a 9-to-5 job. I had the ability to take three hours out of each day and deal with phone calls. This all happened for a reason. I was supposed to be there.”

In Mr. B, Angela didn’t see a risk, a problem, a burden to society. She looked beyond his weathered appearance into the soul of another human who had a run of bad luck.

You see Mr. B didn’t see himself as homeless.

And on that hot summer day, neither did she.


Along Route 611, a dangerous, uneasy wait

Milk crates, boxes, grass, gravel, fence posts. That’s what some bus riders have to sit, lie or lean on as they wait for the 55 bus in Horsham, cars whizzing by them at 45 to 65 mph. Five commuters, on a small strip of grass sandwiched between an 8-foot fence and busy Route 611, talked about how they wish they had something to replace it — such as a bench, a slab of concrete, anything to rest on. One day, the milk crate was gone.

“They want to keep it clean, not comfortable,” one of the passengers said. “We stand here in the rain and snow and just hope something from the road doesn’t fly up and hit us.”

This was the scene captured in a story I wrote last year, a scene that I had witnessed over and over along busy Route 611, a scene I hoped would have changed by now. But it didn’t. And last week along the same stretch of 611, I saw a woman, standing and shivering on a steep snowy embankment — in the dark.

She, too, was waiting for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Route 55 bus. And this was her bus stop: No bench. No shelter. Not even a slab of sidewalk between the IHOP restaurant and Route 611 to rest her bags or buffer her from traffic. So I set out two days later to take the 55 bus from the same location.

No sign was in sight, but it was easy to spot. I just looked for the people waiting “in” the road. Much of the snow had melted, but patches of ice made the embankment too wet and muddy for standing or resting.

“When those crates aren’t under the snow, we can sit on them,” said 16-year-old James Washington, an employee of neighboring Regal Cinemas who depends on the 55 bus to get to and from work. “And shouldn’t they have a bus sign to tell us where to stand?”

Also waiting was Marvin Sims, 19, who waits tables at Ruby Tuesdays; he dug up one of the brown milk crates, wiped it off and took a seat. “I pay taxes, I pay the fare; it would be nice if we had something to sit on, shield us from the cold wind and the rain. … We don’t even have a pole here.”

Marvin spotted the bus making its way down 611 and stood up. Washington and his friend, Sharnay Graham, 16, inched dangerously close to the flow of traffic, approaching the bus. But it never slowed down.

“Wasn’t that our bus?” I asked. Marvin, James and Sharnay just stared in disbelief, their eyes following their ride home. Then we started to run. The bus kept going and then stopped behind a line of traffic at County Line Road. We kept running. James and Sharnay gave up. Marvin zipped passed me, made it to the bus and banged on the door. It opened. So I picked up speed, and seconds before the light turned green, I stepped on breathless.

“You missed us,” I belted out, forgetting to pay the fare.

“I didn’t see a sign or a bench,” the bus driver said. “I didn’t know it was a stop.”

And who would know, really. It’s not her fault. She doesn’t typically drive the 55 bus and she’s busy scanning the road for the stops that have signs, most of which offer no greater presence than a faded rectangular metal SEPTA plate nailed to a post or a utility pole. They are small and hard to see, like the one Reginald Napier, 32, waits by six days a week.

As we sat on the 55 that day, Reginald recognized me. Last year, we met at a Horsham bus stop, that treacherous strip of grass, sandwiched between a fence surrounding the Willow Grove airfield and 611. “It hasn’t changed … They don’t care about anyone who comes from the city to the suburbs — like they don’t want us here. And we pay extra to come here to work …”

I explained to him what I learned the first time I wrote the story, that SEPTA doesn’t own the stops, only the signs that mark them. Some townships put up shelters, but not many. Entertainment-giant Clear Channel builds many of those you see in the city. But they only put shelters in locations where they can attract clients to buy advertisements. Basically, the chances of getting a comfortable shelter to wait in may depend on how attractive their stop is to advertisers.

And Reginald’s stop is little more than a blur to drivers traveling the 45 mph commercial stretch.

He’s not surprised by this news, and asks, “What makes you think things will change? What makes you think people will care?”

My hope is that concern for people and the environment will trigger a change. Maybe, townships or businesses who rely on employees coming from the city will pitch in. But honestly, I don’t know where to direct my hope. Before wishing me the best and stepping off at an Abington stop, he entertained my optimism, adding that improvements would boost ridership.

I took the bus to the end of the line, talking to a dishwasher at Applebees and a clerk at Target along the way. As I stepped off the bus, I thanked the driver, paid my fare and then thought about James and Sharnay, and wondered how they would get home. And then I thought about Reginald and wondered if he was right, that change was unlikely.

I know I’ll drive by that stop again. It would be nice to see a bench, maybe a sign.

It would be even nicer after waiting for a bus, to see it actually stop.

Life isn’t simple, and neither are its choices

There I was at Manhattan Bagel frantically tearing up bite-size pieces of my bagel so my then 9-month-old would stop trying to arch his way out of the high chair. Meanwhile, my 2-year-old stood wobbling on his own chair, licking butter off his toast while testing my patience.

Then she walked in — all professional in a pinstriped suit and the kind of heels I see only on mannequins.

I sat in my elastic-waist pants and slip-on sneakers watching with envy as she dashed in for coffee and dashed out effortlessly, carrying only a purse. No diaper bag. No double stroller. No container of fish crackers. And no blankies, rattles or toys that squeak. Only a purse.

And for a few minutes, I envied that working woman and thought … I bet she can take a potty break anytime she wants, alone. I bet she drinks her coffee while it’s hot. I bet she can make a phone call, uninterrupted. And I bet the anchor of her day isn’t a date singing nursery songs with an oversized, stuffed clown at Gymboree.

I questioned my place, my role, and longed for that “ideal” place for a parent. Going to work? Or spending days with your children? I’ve spent time working at home and in careers outside the home. And I still don’t know.

One thing is clear: Raising kids is rewarding but the hardest job yet. As a journalist, I’ve navigated minefields in Bosnia, dodged enemy fire in Kosovo and covered teen drug trades in the streets of Philadelphia. Yet nothing compares to the adventure or emotional highs and lows that come with being a stay-at-home parent.

I know. I’ve been there.

I’ve bribed. I’ve begged. I was a “Nanny 911” episode waiting to happen. I plunged to levels that attracted sneers at grocery stores. My crime: popping open a can of Pringles to buy me two more aisles of quiet kids. I’ve mediated mini-van backseat-screaming fights that spawned from giving out the wrong color fruit roll-up. Worse, I’ve stomached the piercing “I hates yous” that come after standing your ground.

I recall park-bench conversations, punctuated by dozens of demands for fish crackers and juice boxes. “Where was I?” seemed to be the way I started most conversations.

Not anymore.

Now, it is my husband dodging all things plastic, prying fossilized gummy bears from car seats, attending school orientations and bandaging scrapes and scratches.

Two years ago, my husband and I switched roles. Now, for the bulk of the day, he cares for our two boys (now ages 5 and 4), arranges play dates, packs snacks for the park, drives them to school and fields the dreaded “I’m-going-to-be-late” calls from me whenever a late story breaks. And he’s great at it – better than I was.

He’s good at what he does, though at the end of some days, I see the glazed look in his eyes and hear the vocabulary loosening, I know it’s mommy time.

Do I wish I could reverse roles? Some days. Do I miss being home with my kids? Most days. But life isn’t simple. My husband is a carpenter, a furniture maker, a craftsman – a career that works well around my crazy job, which pays our mortgage, health benefits and the plastic mountain of toys that creeps up in nearly every room. Plus, I love my job and believe I can be a good parent and work too.

But it’s never ideal. Part of me is always home with them, missing them, wondering what silly things are filtering out of their mouths, what they’re learning and how they are reacting to the myriad of new experiences that mold their early days.

For now, for me, and for many working parents, we’ll have to make the most of the moments we have, strive for the “ideal place” in the quality of time, not quantity.

Still, now, when I stroll into a restaurant and see a disheveled mother hurriedly packing or unpacking baby gear to attend to the needs of her child, it is I who am envious.

I’ve learned that “ideal” is all a matter of perspective.

The lure and the loathing of Chuck E. Cheese’s

There are some obvious rip-offs we surrender to in suburban life — $5 sodas at the movies, $4 two-minute pony rides at community fairs and the inevitable trip to Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Make no mistake, I am among you, dropping a chunk of my paycheck on tokens for games to get tickets to earn prizes like spider rings that will be inhaled by my vacuum or rolls of Smarties I’ll find crushed under a couch cushion a week later.

Still, we return, like we’re under some kind of spell: I call it the curse of Chuck E.

My husband and I actually flip a coin — to see who gets to stay home. It’s a code red on the Stress-O-Meter. No offense Chuck E.; it’s not you. It’s everything combined. The blinking lights. The screaming kids. The five birthday parties crammed in one room. And the tickets, the unquenchable Vegas-like thirst for tickets. They should hand out tickets at the door for adults to cash in for earplugs or a margarita.

I blame my admittedly irrational aversion to Chuck E. on my first frazzled impression, jaded by my own weakness and naivety. I was there with an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old. I hadn’t been adequately prepared or warned. I came alone, without adult reinforcements.

Mistake No. 1: I bought two cups of coins and expected my two boys to stick together. I was left sweaty, out of breath and red-faced trying to keep tabs on them.

Mistake No. 2: I actually thought I could meet friends there and have a meaningful conversation.

Mistake No. 3: I thought my 18-month-old would play the game after feeding it 12 tokens.

Mistake No. 4: I didn’t think prizes mattered.

The image of my kids converging on a prize counter for the first time will never escape my mind. It was like they reached the finish line of a race. And they were all in first place, starry-eyed and excited — ready to claim their winnings. They pulled tickets out of their pockets, all sorts of places, and emptied fistfuls, all wrinkled and soggy from their tight grips. (This was before they had those machines that count them for you.)

With 30-something tickets each, their world was wide open.

They stared at the prize wall, aiming their arms and little fingers at the stuffed animals, lights, basketball nets and other bulky Styrofoam toys, only to be quickly grounded by the 15-year-old behind the counter. She tried to redirect their eyes to the top glass shelf where their real fortunes lay. Stickers. Gum. And stamp-sized, wash-off tattoos.

They didn’t give up on the wall easily.

“I want the lava lamp,” my 3-year-old said. My younger one just jumped and pointed in the general direction of the toys that required 2,000-plus tickets.

But the teen simply sighed and tapped on the glass — pointing at the toys in their ticket range. As the line grew, my little boy stood puzzled, unable to make up his mind. He tried a few more times for the wall toys before collecting a Spiderman sticker and two mini-lollipops. Then, in typically not-going-to-give-up-fashion, he turned back to the games, asking for more tokens so he could get a lava lamp. I nearly lost it after my 20th “No.” My 18-month-old needed a diaper change. My friends were scattered, waging their own toddler, token-ticket battles.

Exhausted and tired, I made the “we’ll-be-back” promise that we so often do in multiple-meltdown situations.

And, like other fallen victims to the spell, we were back, not the next day, but the next month, the next year — and we’ll still go back.

What can I say? I’ve been cursed.

The politics of play dates, playmates

My first introduction into the world of play dates was a shocker.

Several years ago, I visited my friend with my first child, who was then 7 months old. It was exciting to bring our children together for the first time. I had been living overseas and wasn’t around to witness the parenting part of my friend.

About 30 minutes into our visit, her little girl belted my baby with a toy. My friend offered in her sweetest, gentlest, can’t-get-sappier-than-that voice, “Lucy? We don’t hit.”

Her little girl giggled and proceeded to swing again. I stepped in and said, “No, Lucy.”

Startled and annoyed, my friend responded firmly, “Marion, we don’t say ‘no’ in this household.”

I held my tongue and pulled my child away from the 2-year-old bruiser, wondering what the heck was going on. I’m not an advocate of hitting as punishing, but what about “time outs”? Or speaking in a tone the lets the child know, “You did something wrong.”

What kind of scarring do you think we’ll inflict if we say “no”?

A year later, she came to visit me. This time, young Lucy pushed my son down half a flight of stairs. My friend didn’t witness the assault, but my husband and I did. My friend refused to believe her daughter would do it on purpose but offered, again in a gentle voice, “We don’t push.”

Positive discipline, she called it, a product of modern parenting. She touted her approach as a way to empower and boost confidence in her child. She offered me a book and some suggestions. I offered back: “How about at least handing your kids some boxing gloves to soften the blows?”

Does positive discipline mean no discipline at all?

Is there some kind of Geneva Convention code for punishing the politically correct way? I’m more of a do-the-crime-get-the-time kind of parent.

Kids, especially toddlers, are not perfect, not self-monitoring and certainly not ready for 100 percent empowerment, nor are they ready to negotiate their own punishment. My children both have their “Rocky” moments. But I send a clear message that hitting, punching, hurling toys and spitting are off limits. I tell them the truth. If they behave like that, they’ll lose friends. They’ll lose toys; they’ll spend half their childhood warming the “time out” steps.

Who knew play dates would be so tough? I’ve had friends break up with play dates over clashing discipline philosophies. There is no easy way to tell parents their child is a hazard or that get-togethers resemble more of a “Fear Factor” episode than a positive social experience. But if a kid intentionally bites, spits or knocks another child down a set of stairs and the parent offers “Oh, silly Johnny” or a sweet-toned “we-don’t-sink-our-teeth-into-flesh” talk, I cringe and run the other way.

I now know better than to put my child in a situation where he may get beaten to a pulp or, just as bad, get the impression that this kind of behavior is acceptable.

My friend and I still get together, and both of us are aware and respectful of our differences in discipline. Our oldest children survived the turbulent toddler years. And we seem to be surviving the puzzling parenting years — friendship intact.

I’ve kept the books she sent me and actually pulled some good advice from them. I think she’s reading new ones, too. A few years after our first play date when her little girl bopped my younger son on the head, I recalled hearing the word “no” slip from her mouth.

There’s hope for us yet.

Standing up to overpriced school fund-raising drives

Just say no.

I’ll take heat for this one, but someone has to be the first to put her wallet down.

And just say no when your little child unzips his backpack, hands you a stack of catalogs and pleads with you to help save the playground or after-school program. I know there is a place to sell $19 pumpkin spice candles or $12 heavyweight, reversible gift-wrap. But it’s not at school.

My kindergartner hasn’t even settled into the routine of school, and he’s already being shipped home with order forms.

I know the money goes to a good cause — playgrounds, dictionaries in classrooms and a refrigerator for the teachers lounge.

And the school fund-raising season could be better timed. Looming atop a stack of papers cluttering our kitchen table is the ominous school tax bill — the biggest chunk of change we’ll drop at once for the year. So forgive me if I don’t have the incentive to indulge in a $15 tin of nuts.

When I thought my kindergartner had it rough, I turned to my niece.

Along with three catalogs in one month, my niece felt pressured to compile a list of out-of-state names and addresses for magazine mailers. Now, we’re pawning off the names of friends and relatives to mass-marketers. Too honest to make up names, such as Rip U. Off, she combed through mom’s address book.

I caved in, spouting out a few family members in Florida. I’ll have some explaining to do, but I’ll tell them what I tell you:

Just say no.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about a decent, honest fund-raiser. I have no problems with coupon books. I applaud the bake sales and craft fairs that engage kids in the making and selling of products. But the glossy catalogs filled with pages of overpriced products send mixed messages about financial responsibility. Sure, there are gifts for less than $10. But what are you going to do with an $8 Viva La Diva porcelain hand-shaped ring holder.

I’m not questioning the quality of the products, and I’m sure some people value “heavyweight” and “reversible” gift-wrap. If it rained money, I would buy it. Unfortunately, the pressure to buy doesn’t disappear for the dozens of area parents who can’t afford such products. So why pressure kids to pressure parents to pressure relatives and work colleagues to buy things?

Obligatory spending leads to dread. And anyone who has kids in school, lives near kids in school or works with someone who has school-aged children has made the guilt purchase. Knowing it doesn’t stop with one fund-raiser, one purchase, one charity, I’m pressing the pause button – and taking the non-politically correct route.

And just saying no.

Taking time to stop and feel the heartbeat

It’s no surprise that several recent economic polls show that Americans are working more today than in previous decades. They blame our compressed lives and dogged work habits for the demise of family life.

The reports are nothing earth-shattering. But the timing of one recent radio report couldn’t have been worse.

It was my day off, yet I was racing to catch a train to my second job, teaching at Temple University, while punching the keys of my cell phone at a red light to find a substitute for a third job, teaching a Sunday aerobics class. My daily juggling act had every job in mind, but not the one that mattered the most. Every once in a while I would pause to lament on the job I wasn’t doing at home, the time I wasn’t spending with my family, yet I convinced myself these jobs were something “I had to do.”

Unfortunately, my body stopped me before my common sense did. In early stages of a pregnancy this fall, I began having contractions at 7 weeks. My doctor told me I was likely miscarrying and sent me to the hospital for an ultrasound. He asked me if I was under a lot of stress. I wanted to lie.

During the hours preceding the ultrasound, my world stood still.

In the waiting room, I sat alone, with a magazine opened to the same page, for an hour. My mind was racing; tears were flowing. And I prayed.

Life was no longer dizzying, no longer pulling me in so many directions that I didn’t have time to think. For the first time in a long time, all I could do was think. I thought only about my family and the baby I prayed I still had inside of me.

I thought about how lucky I was to have two children and a husband, watching them at home, forgiving my hectic life. And I regretted not giving them more of me. I pledged then I would change, that I would never take on four jobs — like I had the previous year — and I would shed one of my current three jobs, the one at Temple University. I would slow down and learn to say “no” to opportunities that promised more money or a boost to my resume.

I wanted to scream. Why did it take this to teach me the value of time? Why does clarity come only in a time of crisis?

The time spent in that waiting room seemed endless. The nurse finally called me in, offering me a tissue and a compassionate smile. The lights dimmed, and the ultrasound began. As I braced for the worst, thinking of the dozens of friends and relatives who have felt this pain, I saw a small light flickering on the monitor.

It was the heartbeat.

We were both given a second chance. My doctor never gave me a reason as to why the contractions began or why they stopped, although he did advise me to slow down. I am now down to two jobs, one of which is for my health and only absorbs an hour a week. I have put freelance editing and teaching on hold.

I’ve had to cut back on a few expenses and luxuries. I’ve surrendered the idea of an island vacation, a new van or the digital camera that I’ve been eyeing for two years. Of course, I still want it all.

But not as much as I want a healthy and happy family.

The disappearing act of a magic blanket

It was a typical night, the boys were tucked in their beds, and I was sitting on the floor between them. With work, school and all sorts of shows and gadgets vying for my kids’ attention, nighttime is my sliver of quiet time to find out what’s on their minds. I just wasn’t prepared for what I heard.

My youngest son abruptly announced the surrender of his “Bob the Builder” blanket. “It’s for little boys,” he defended to my silent, wide-eyed expression of disbelief. At the ripe old age of 5, he decided it was time to move on. The next day, the blue and yellow cotton blanket was tossed atop a heap of clothes tagged for Goodwill.

This blanket that absorbed tears and calmed tantrums; this blanket that built forts and ships that journeyed across imaginary seas to treasure-packed islands and back; this blanket that he clutched tightly and dragged from room to room until the stuffing fell out and threads detached; this blanket that was big enough to wrap around him and his family of stuffed animals for nearly every night of his young life was no longer a part of my little boy’s world.

In one swift, decisive action, it was gone.

He wasn’t emotional about it; I was. I remember the debut of the blanket, and the sweat and tears that went into bringing it home. It was a Saturday morning, and I was at a yard sale, checking out a bike. My son, then 21/2, fixed his eyes on this faded, cartooned blanket. He wanted no part of the bike, and I wanted no part of this blanket, which was $8 — pricey for something used — and simply not necessary. The bike was $5, nearly new and working. I took the bike and left the blanket behind.

At the time, my son didn’t ask for too much and rarely showed enthusiasm for any item that didn’t have wheels. I didn’t think a faded blanket at a yard sale would tug at a little boy’s heart. But it did.

The ride home was quiet. When I stopped the car and looked at him through the rear-view mirror, his eyes were red and swollen, his freckled cheeks wet from tears he tried to hold back. At home, he didn’t erupt into a meltdown but just sat quietly on the stairs and asked, “Please?”

So I loaded him and his brother in the minivan and headed back to the neighborhood yard sale, hunting for the house in this cookie-cutter development that had the blanket. I circled around cul-de-sacs, inched down streets and even rolled down my window to interrogate a few home vendors closing shop. I was convinced the blanket was gone. We gave it one more loop; that’s when I spotted the woman.

The blanket was still there, still $8 and a bit wet after a light drizzle. I swallowed my pride and coughed up eight singles — after making one last-ditch effort to bargain for $5. But now I know why she wouldn’t drop her price. Attaching a value to it wasn’t easy for her either.

In a strange sort of way, we weren’t saying goodbye to a cartooned swath of cotton; we were trying to hold on to the memories of an age when comfort was so easily found and given.

My little boy is growing up and calling the shots on what he wears and, now, what he wants around him. “Star Wars” figures and Pokemon cards have replaced anything truck-like or toddler-like.

And the fate of the blanket? He suggests we sell it at his own yard sale — for $30. Recalling how I balked at paying $8, we laughed.

In retrospect, though, I would have paid double.

Temper tantrums: Losing the battles, but winning the war

Caving into tantrums in public places is common. We all do it. It’s why we sometimes break open a pack of gummy bears in line at the grocery store checkout counter.

It’s why we stop in the mall to feed more change into quarter-operated kiddy rides.

It’s why we justify paying an arm and a leg for a box of Snowcaps at the movies.

We’re out in public with the intention of having fun, not waging a war with our young ones. So we swap some common parenting sense to avoid the hassle of a few tears, and save the tough stance for another day, another lesson.

Then you hit a point; either your wallet is drained or your patience. The naughty becomes the norm, and you begin to question who is really in control.

A day of reckoning looms, and public or private, you know you have to stand your ground. You can only hope those around you will have your back when the standoff with your pint-sized one escalates.

For one friend, an ice-pop was the catalyst. It was dinner time and her three children were selecting desserts – either a cookie or an ice-pop. All three chose the cookie. One of her children then asked for an ice-pop. Her answer was clear: “No.” The child, age 4, proceeded to scream until she was sent to her room. When Dad came home, she got her ice-pop. Mom, exhausted and deflated, surrendered, undermined again by someone who simply didn’t like the loudness attached to the lesson. Interestingly enough, the 4-year-old child summed up the chilling result of the experience in advice to a sibling on how to get an ice-pop: “It’s easy, all you have to do is scream and cry.”

No question, kids know their power. And in public, they dip in to their arsenal of weapons, combining a strong will with a high volume to get what they want, whether it’s a quarter for a gumball, permission to buy that “have-to-have” Rescue Hero or another 30 minutes of park time.

Parents don’t want a critical audience as they grapple with an irrational, mind-numbing, hair-pulling meltdown.

One of my children used to drop to the floor, screaming, refusing to budge. The stares from onlookers, piercing through you like a sword, would typically follow. I’d hold my ground, keep a calm voice, take deep breaths and try to convince those passing by that I had it all under control, though the screams, flailing arms and streaming tears told another story. Inevitably, I’d leave, head hanging low, apologizing incessantly and half-expecting a scathing “you are a bad mother” citation from social services.

Never though would I expect the cops to show.

For one friend, they did.

It happened in a Doylestown grocery store parking lot. At the tail end of a shopping trip, her 3-year-old girl wanted a pretzel. It was nearly dinner time, and her mother said “no.” The toddler proceeded to throw a fit, screaming and crying on the way to the car. My friend was not going to cave. Her child began arching and wiggling her way out of the car seat and refused to sit down until she got a pretzel. My friend held her ground, despite the barbed stares from onlookers strolling past her with their carts. Not the type to force her child into a car seat, my friend stood by her car and attempted to ride out the storm.

Someone, however, was disturbed by the scene. Instead of approaching my friend, he or she called the police.

My friend was shocked and embarrassed to see a patrol car inch up to her SUV. An officer stepped out and my friend calmly explained that her little girl was throwing a tantrum because she wanted a pretzel, and she is not allowed to have snacks before dinner. My friend said she was simply waiting for her child to get into her car seat so they can go home.

The police officer then approached the young girl and began to negotiate a compromise. “If you settle down and get into the car,” he offered, “you’ll get your pretzel.”

Appalled and shocked, my friend loaded up her child and left the parking lot, practically in tears, wondering what her 20-minute standoff had accomplished. The police officer sent a message, but it was an unsettling one: Throw a tantrum, and you’ll get what you want.

From the police officer’s perspective, the idea of my friend staging a standoff in a public parking lot over a pretzel seemed ludicrous and downright silly. But for a parent who doesn’t want to capitulate to the every whim and impulse of a child, these hard-fought battles are anything but petty or trite.

In the end, persevering through such standoffs can only mean better behavior from our children in the future and more peace for all of us – and maybe even less work for that cop down the road.

War and the confession of a mainstream journalist

I was in line at the grocery store when my 5-year-old son, who is learning to read, asked for help deciphering a few big bold headlines from surrounding tabloids. Feeding his curiosity, I began to read — internally mocking the ridiculousness of the stories: “A baby for Brad and Angelina?” “How Star Jones Lost 150 lbs.” “Prince William: Cocaine Shocker.”

I summed it up as silly nonsense, adding that there are more important things going on in the world. I looked around to prove my point, but all I could find were more references to celebrity pregnancies and bitter divorces.

Not that I expected to find world perspective in the checkout line of an Acme Supermarket, but I had hoped to find a hint of news about the war in Iraq, a mudslide that buried hundreds in the Philippines, something that would explain the much bigger events happening in the world beyond our slice of suburbia.

I felt ashamed that it took me this long to realize that this major war happening on the other side of the globe — that once commanded front page headlines and regular TV news coverage — was nearly invisible in suburbia. Not that I expected the flags to stay on the cars for very long or the yellow ribbons on trees to become neighborhood fixtures. It’s only natural that interest — in any topic — wanes. But I never realized how much insignificance would overshadow it.

And I, as a hurried mom and a member of the mainstream media, am a guilty subject, investing more of my time catching up on “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” than exploring how more than 130,000 of our troops are coping. Opinions on the war aside, I feel helpless to make a difference. Maybe that’s why I escape in reality TV and my hectic schedule.

Work absorbs my days, and my kids get my nights. By the time I get them to bed, I zone out. Somehow, I find it easy to allow things happening on the other side of the globe to fade from my mind.

Now, I find myself a glowing example of hypocrisy as I attempt to explain what is important and what is not important to my 5-year-old standing in a grocery store. I’m torn by questions that I don’t have the answer for: Why don’t I care more? Why don’t I invest more of my free time on world politics instead of “Survivor” and “24”? Why do I find myself poring over the very same tabloids instead of my husband’s Economist?

Not very long ago, I remember what it was like to be on the other side of this quandary, reporting in a post-war environment in Kosovo, where people were counting on American soldiers to mend their country and their economy. I spent most of my days embedded with U.S. troops as they patrolled refugee tent camps, de-mined streets so locals could drive to work and solved disputes with utility companies so electricity could be turned on and businesses could open their doors. I was fascinated and I thought everyone back home — in the United States — cared and waited for updates and news of progress.

When I did get home and met my friends for dinner, they knew little of the situation — only that Jessie Jackson had helped free a few soldiers being held hostage in Serbia for a few days. “Sex and the City” was the big topic of conversation. Not Kosovo. I remember thinking: How could they not care? I know now that’s not a fair question.

My husband says people do care about Iraq, but there is a feeling of helplessness and frustration as the number of casualties continues to rise and no end appears in sight. The war is far, far away, and we have the luxury of getting lost in distractions. Some local people, however, don’t have the luxury of getting lost in distractions — families of the soldiers.

I was encouraged to stop by a local bagel store and see a sign advertising a concert to pay tribute to soldiers and their families. Money raised will pay for phone cards so soldiers — some on their third tour of duty — can spend more time speaking to their families in the area.

An event organizer said he wanted to do more to show support than simply putting a bumper sticker on his car. He got my attention. And I’m grateful to know others feel the same urge to “do something.” I’m still not sure what I can do or what I can tell my children to do — other than resist the urge to shape our impression of the world by what’s immediately around us — especially when you’re in line in the grocery store.

Now, I have no plans to give up my Monday “24” ritual nor my “Grey’s Anatomy” time. But I will pick up my husband’s Economist and read more about subjects that could very well one day hit much closer to home.

 Good moments and bad moments bond us all

The other day on the sidelines of my son’s soccer game, I ran into a woman who looked vaguely familiar. I offered a wave and a smile; then she approached me, reminding me of a day that I had long since put out of my mind.

It was the first day I ventured out of the house with all three kids; my daughter was about 2 or 3 weeks old. And it was a scorching 100-plus degree day.

My responsibility was simple: Drop my two boys off at swim class at Fanny Chapman pool in Doylestown and pick them up 50 minutes later — because parents are not allowed to stay. Upon my return, cars were backed up in a line that snaked out to the road. By the time I made it to the edge of the gravel lot, I was late — by about five minutes.

Carrying a newborn in one arm and the slew of gear to go with her in the other arm, I ran through the swim club to a water fountain, our designated meeting spot.

But my boys were gone.

I looked in the pool, where a few kids from their class were still splashing around. No sign of them. I then yelled into the boys’ bathroom, assuming they were changing into dry clothes. Not a sound. Then I calmly turned to a few familiar moms, asking if they saw my 5- and 6-year-olds. The scene was chaotic, as parents scurried in and out, picking up or dropping off their own kids. No one saw them.

Still, I didn’t panic. I assumed they went to the adjacent playground with friends.

My eyes began scanning the swings, slides and series of ladders and tunnels at the playground. They had to be there, but they weren’t. There was no place left to check. Now, it was time to panic. Screaming their names was no longer enough. I needed to make my problem public — fast. That was the hard part — letting everyone around me know that I lost, not just one kid, but two.

“Please, help. I can’t find my little boys,” I yelled, half crying and half trying to compose myself. Humiliation isn’t a deterrent when real fear sets in. My heart raced, my eyes filled and I felt an anxiety that I hope I’ll never experience again.

Some parents stopped and asked me what my boys were wearing; others just stared.

My voice seemed faint as I kept screaming their names. I was dizzied by the flurry of activity still happening around me. My cries were muffled against the laughter at the playground and drone of SUVs still circling the pick-up loop. I wanted everyone and everything to freeze, so I could hear my little boys if they were in trouble. I wanted an instant search party. I wanted a helicopter with search crews hovering over the parking lot. I wanted all chaos and activity to come to a screeching halt.

Then my friend spotted me. She could see I was falling apart, and she stepped in, getting lifeguards to announce the boys over the loud speaker. She recruited her friends to help, and she grabbed my baby so I could move faster throughout the park.

Then, this woman spotted me, the same woman who I saw last week at my son’s soccer game. This woman who I had never met before. But she stood by me, walking with me to my van — the one place I didn’t check, the last place I would expect them to be because it required my boys to navigate a nightmarish parking lot. Ever play that game Frogger? That’s what this parking lot looks like, minus the snapping gator jaws.

Yet somehow, my boys made it across the sea of vans and SUVs.

When I opened the van door, they were sitting with their towels wrapped around them and sipping juice boxes.

Before I could lash out — issuing a decade-long timeout — I just cried. And this woman just stood by me until I calmed down, assuring me that losing a child — or two — is not a sign of bad parenting, only normal parenting. A few ground rules were set after that day about meeting places and contingency plans. I thanked the woman, hugging her before heading back to the pool to get my infant. She suggested I write about the experience. But at first, I was too embarrassed and ashamed. And plus, I was sick with guilt, imagining what could have happened.

But on the sidelines of last week’s game, she didn’t just remind me of a day I wanted to forget. She reminded me of a few women I wanted to remember. Good moments and bad moments bond us all. That hot summer day, I was at my worst.

I’m grateful to those moms, who without judgment or hesitance, responded at their best.

 Mother’s tale of vex, lies, video games

It starts with stories, traditional lies that warm a child’s heart and nurture the soul.

Harmless lies about magic blankets, wish-granting fairies and, well, you know the rest.

Somehow, the power of your position as a parent sinks in, and you realize: These young impressionable minds will buy anything.

So you stretch the truth, for the sake of convenience, to calm a tantrum or get your wee one to take a few more spoonfuls of potatoes. “Stop screaming or you’ll lose your voice,” or “If you don’t eat your veggies, you won’t grow.”

I wish I could say I’ve taken the high moral ground and simply steered clear of these convenient untruths. But all too often, I’ve caved into the cheapest of parenting ploys — lies, rationalizing them by insisting desperate meltdowns call for desperate manipulations.

Take video games. Ever try to pry a 6-year-old boy off a Game Cube or Play Station II? Not a mission for the mild-mannered mom. At times, it takes more than the truth to shake a child from the hypnotizing clutches of a GameBoy. Question them while they are in the midst of a Star Wars Lego battle or a Mario adventure, and you’re lucky if you get so much as a blink or a grunt for a reply.

So, you restrict video games to certain days. The fallout is harsh: “Why?” they challenge. “But (so and so) gets to play all the time!” Well, citing the scientific journals’ explanations of video game’s cerebral effects doesn’t even prompt a momentary pause from their outbursts. So you take the easy way out. You lie.

“Play too much and your brain will turn to mush.” Somehow, that silences them.

Victories like that make you realize the short-term value of a lie — especially during the holidays. When the pressure is on and a confrontation is imminent, “Santa’s watching” is a sure fight-stopper. But the expiration date on that ploy is approaching. Last year came the logistical questions, “Well, where is he?” “Can he see me all the time?” “How can he see me if he’s making toys?”

Never did I expect to weave a web of lies about his surveillance methods. Fortunately, that’s a seasonal scapegoat and only influential three months out of the year.

For nine months out of the year, I must rely on either the truth or what I like to call creative diversions of the truth. I remember the days shopping with my boys as toddlers; at times, they would just dart off in two different directions. And I’d have to make a quick Sophie’s Choice right there in the middle of Target. I’d tell them stay close or a stranger could take them away. I used to wrestle with the idea of slipping a strange guy $5 to scare my kids back into their stroller.

Scarring? Yes. Effective? Probably. But I never did it. (Sort of disturbing in retrospect).

But the point is, lying doesn’t feel like such a deplorable fallback when you’re losing control of your kids. Of course, I learned that lesson from my mom. She used to tell me not to swim into the deep end of the pool because an alligator lived in the drain. What’s crazy is that the truth might have served its purpose: “You go into the deep end, you’ll drown and die.” That fits the scary bill.

But no, my mother felt death wasn’t a sufficient disincentive. A hulking, giant, razor-tooth gator yanking me down to the pool’s floor and tearing me to shreds was a much more effective deterrent. That might explain why alligators freak me out to this very day. My mom strongly defends her fabrications, telling me, “They were for your own good.”

My husband laughs when I tell him how my aunt left my uncle: “She went out for a gallon of milk and some cigarettes.” I never did get the real story. Or how my dog died. “It was old age,” she told us. The truth was later revealed at a cousin’s wedding when my relatives laughed: “Remember that time your dad sprayed Raid on the dog to get rid of the fleas …?” My response: “Uh, not really.”

If I have extracted one lesson from my childhood revelations, it’s this: I’m a bit more selective with my lies.

For example, I don’t go as far as some of my friends do. One friend used to tell her son to behave or “the police would come take him to jail.”

I don’t begrudge any mom for pulling from her coping arsenal tools that temporarily defuse tension — especially when the lie is used to buy some time to simply figure out what is the best way to get the truth across or secure the immediate safety of her little ones. I learned a long time ago to stop judging other parents, especially when I don’t want to fall under the microscope myself.

I know the day will come when I have to come clean and own up to the facts, that video games don’t kill brain cells, that kid-snatchers aren’t lurking in “every” aisle of the grocery store and that maybe, just maybe, a kid can grow big and strong on Pop-Tarts or Tastykakes.

Conquering maternity materialism

In less than two weeks, I’m expecting a baby. And while I’m scrambling to get what I need in these days before my baby is due, there is one pre-baby ritual that I still can’t endure — the walk through the baby superstore.

Before my first child was born, I was briefed by friends and family about what I “just had to get.” The superstore visit was non-negotiable, a necessary preview of what was to come, a precursor to a well-prepared motherhood.

Yet the memory of my first procession down the aisles with my sister and friend felt anything but maternal. I was dizzied by the displays of plastic toys and gadgets that were as foreign to me as quantum physics. I was daunted by the dozens of bottles, nipples and pacifiers to choose from, all claiming they were best for a happy, healthy and safe baby. And I was downright frightened by the electric breast pumps — with suction cups — that were expected to transform me into a dairy the first few weeks of motherhood.

I made my way down two or three aisles, marking off this checklist of “essentials,” which included safety products, educational must-haves and, of course, entertainment capsules — $50-plus plastic, bulky items that consumed milliseconds of my children’s life. Then, there were black, red and white flash cards (a brain-development tool for the under 6-month-old), a vibrating bouncy chair, a colorful floor mat, aka baby gym, something called a Diaper Genie, a trash bin for diapers, and more. Halfway through the stroller and Pack-N-Play aisle, I had to call it quits.

What I needed at the time was not in the store.

This trip to gear me up for baby only magnified the uncertainty and anxiety I felt as a mother-to-be.

I need a breast pump to feed, a gym to entertain, a vibrating chair to soothe, not to mention a set of flash cards to boost brain power. What was I supposed to do? What was I in control of? Where were the aisles in this mega-mom store that sold patience, an extra week of sleep or a cry translator to distinguish between the got-a-wet-diaper wail and the need-to-be-fed scream?

Two kids later, I’m not so overwhelmed, though I know better than to venture into a baby superstore without a list of what I know I need, not what others say I should have. Just a few months ago, I returned to such a store. I didn’t last for very long. This time, my trip was cut short for other reasons; I had two restless boys with me. But I did notice a few additions to the aisles, namely baby wipe warmers and grocery cart liners. I opted to save my money.

Since that first visit, I’ve learned all babies are different and all parents are different, and I realize that what one person finds invaluable, you might find useless. I may knock the baby bouncer, but I loved the swing. I may mock the baby wipe warmer and crib piano, while someone else may roll their eyes at the vibrating bassinet I have.

The essentials, well, are a matter of perspective, budget and common sense.

Still, somehow I managed two baby boys without a Whizz Kid Weeblock, basically a $10 sock, padded with a wee-wee absorbing sponge, designed to fit snug between the little legs of your baby boy for protection during changing time. Will this product spell the end of “wee-wee attacks”? I doubt it.

Do I feel my children are victims of neglect because I failed to flash black, white and red brain infant stimulation cards above their cradles? Not at all.

And somehow, I think my next little one will get by without a luxury infant spa kit, frizz-reducing baby hair polish or the infant laptop I see advertised on the Internet. And maybe I’m assuming too much, but I also have this hunch that we’ll make it through that first year without the removable Gucci fabric bottle cover.

Call it a mother’s instinct.

Why is doing too much never enough?

Days before returning to work full time, a mix of anxiety and sadness set in, knowing my time at home with my two boys and baby girl was diminishing. I turned to the pages of “Working Mother” for some comfort and was drawn into an article about a mom who does it all — works full time, volunteers at school and is on the soccer sidelines — and then decided to launch a side business, putting my two-job schedule to shame.

“How does she do it all?” I wondered while I quickly scanned the story for this Holy Grail of motherhood secrets.

The answer was revealed in details — like having her groceries delivered. Her nanny and cleaning lady picked up more hours. And naturally, her laundry was sent out to be washed and pressed. Super mom had backup and bucks.

For those moms who don’t have a money tree growing in their backyard, keeping a work schedule and a kid schedule isn’t so picture perfect. Cynicism aside, I don’t knock her ambition or the choice to outsource chores.

But in the real world — for the vast majority of us — such luxuries are the exception, not the norm. Yet we idealize about this elusive “model mother” role that we try to assume. My friends, both stay-at-home parents and working parents, are equally stressed, their schedules nearly as packed. And, when we hit the wall, drop from exhaustion or fall into tears, we turn to each other with the same clichéd phrase: “You can’t be everything to everybody.”

This, of course, I know. “Then why on Earth can’t we stop trying?”

How do you make a conscious effort to do less without feeling like you are turning your back on your children, compromising your work or slighting yourself? Another friend, reflecting on the same issue, said: “If you’re a working mother, you either sacrifice your standards or your children.”

So what gives?

A clean house, for starters. I could stuff a pillow by simply scraping the layers of dust off my kitchen floor. Gone are the days when I could sink into a novel or take a morning jog. The days of reading a magazine cover to cover are gone. And fancy meals? Forget it. Oatmeal and Cheerios are not just for breakfast anymore.

And friends? They are either just as busy or just as forgiving, since nine out of 10 conversations these days start with “I’m sorry. Oh, I forgot … I wish I could be there … Uh, can we reschedule?”

At night, when I’m feeding my baby, I’m reading to my sons. When I’m eating, I’m wading through mail or piles of paperwork my kids bring home from school. At work, some lunches are spent on a school visit or a doctor visit. On some weekends, I’m parading my kids through the newsroom, promising a dip in the candy drawer if they allow me to make quick edits to a story. Last week, I had my baby in my lap while I finished up a weekend story on drugs in the suburbs.

But at times, the daily treadmill is moving too fast, and I stumble.

Last week, I missed picture day for my kids’ soccer teams. I felt horrible.

Then, the other day I caught myself in a hurried fashion passing my 4-month-old to my husband with a “can you take this?” I spoke as if I was unloading a third bag of groceries, not a baby girl.

And then, in my worst moment of weakness, after repeated pleas to get my kids out the door one day, I yelled, unlike I’ve yelled in a long time. And one of my kids just crumbled. Naturally, I did, too.

I’m not complaining or crying out for a sympathetic ear; I’m reflecting on this frenzy that has become normalcy in this kid-centered, work-pressured world.

And keeping me sane and encouraged are those gestures of understanding and patience that make me feel less alone. Like the occasional “it will get easier” comments from people watching this madness unfold. (The lady behind me at the grocery store. The driver awaiting my spot while I pile kids into a car. The friends and family members who forgive all the things I forget.)

It’s like they understand we can’t possibly do it all.

But they don’t blame you for trying.

 Sensible Mom vs. Roboraptor: Who will win?

The worst part about Christmas is kids don’t know the value of toys.

The best part about Christmas is kids don’t know the value of toys.

Let me explain: Last year, my 3-year-old’s must-have item was a $5 pocket-sized blue lion. My then 4-year-old son wanted a $12 crocodile dentist game. The result? A Merry Christmas and a balanced checkbook.

This year, the wish list isn’t so forgiving.

The stakes are higher thanks to the $120 sore spot of my holiday season, the Roboraptor – a plastic remote-controlled dinosaur robot that is unlikely to grace the sales ads until Dec. 26. It would be easy to explain that “Santa can only make so many toys,” but not when it’s the only item on my 4-year-old’s Christmas list.

Plus, fresh in his memory are the haunting words of his older brother. “My dreams didn’t come true last year. Santa forgot my Scooby Doo Gummy Machine.”

What my sulking young son failed to mention were the 20 other gifts he did get, including a Hot Wheels Slimecano Racetrack that held two weeks of his attention and left behind sticky cars and crusty patches of dried slime on our carpet. I swore then: no more pricey, plastic presents.

That self-proclamation was short-lived.

It was time to think strategy. We appealed to his inner greed, encouraging him to add more toys to the list, so if Roboraptor didn’t appear, other presents could distract him.

The plan backfired. We asked, “Isn’t there anything else you want?” With wide-eyes, he added: “Yes, two Roboraptors.”

Now, two internal forces are at odds: My maternal voice coaxes me toward the raptor. Neither of my boys asks for much. But then, my economic sense chimes in: “What for? That hulking piece of plastic will mix with dozens of other plastic remote-control items packing the toy bucket.”

As parents, we all make decisions during Christmastime that we would consider downright crazy during the year. Some people spring out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to wait in line for that Xbox 360. Others scan eBay listings and pay double for that sold-out, must-have toy. I don’t begrudge them. Before kids, I was puzzled at the desperate measures parents took to get Tickle-me-Elmo and Cabbage Patch kids.

Now, I understand. And for reasons that are economically senseless and completely maternally driven, I will cave.

In this war against consumerism we as parents constantly wage, I will surrender this battle. Practical or not, my 4-year-old has one wish, one item on his list.

For now, the Roboraptor has won.

Struggling to keep the propellers still

Their intentions are good, but their practices are questionable.

I’m talking about the growing trend of parents who continue to micromanage their children when they are in college, some of whom attend job fairs for their children and a few who go as far as to manage roommate disputes or call employers to ask why their son or daughter didn’t get a job.

Helicopter parenting is the term used to describe this “hovering” tendency among some parents. Now, a growing number of school officials and employers say it’s an “epidemic” that may be hampering more than helping. Michael Ellis, director of career and life education at Delaware Valley College, said one father brought his daughter to a job fair and handed out her resume.

“When the recruiter tried to redirect the questions to the daughter, the father would jump right in to answer them,” said Ellis. “He was acting like her agent. And it’s getting worse and worse every year.”

Mae Sakharov, a local college coach and adviser, recalls an experience she had with one parent who insisted her son apply to an Ivy League school:

“… My new client proved to be extraordinarily less ambitious then his parents. I most often found him fast asleep when I arrived. His mother explained he had been out the night before, and she had been unable to rouse him. … This mother was the prototype of what today is referred to as a helicopter parent, though, with one exception. She did not hover over her son. No, this parent took it upon herself to do the work. I often felt as if she were applying to college.”

Some colleges, she said, are so alarmed by this trend they have issued statements outlining “proper parental behavior.” She cited a University of New Hampshire newsletter: “Unproductive involvement is when a parent condemns our actions when a student has misbehaved or when a parent gets involved when there is disagreement about a grade in class.”

How does a parent get to that point where involvement hurts instead of helps? Psychologists say this “hovering” behavior doesn’t happen overnight. Some say it’s a byproduct of this overscheduled, over-managed childhood.

Scary thing is: I can relate in some ways. The micromanaging starts early in this culture. I’ll never forget when I went from full-time working mom to stay-at-home mom. The transition was jolting, going from a packed work calendar to this empty one at home, not that I wasn’t busy. But my schedule didn’t reflect the diapers changed, the laundry washed, the lunches made, the toys cleaned, etc. I felt like I needed to fill a calendar to give my life some credibility, some purpose, some incentive to get showered and get out of the house by noon. Plus, I felt that if I was going to do this stay-at-home mom thing right, I’d have to “enrich” my children. So at the ripe old age of 19 months, my son was enrolled in Gymboree, kinder music, gymnastics and had a permanent slot on the play date circuit.

But resistance was rampant. He didn’t sit still for music. Gymnastics was more about the Popsicle he got on our way out. And after a couple of months in Gymboree, I realized I was the one doing all the work, singing songs and jumping up and down with Gymbo the clown, while my son was a constant flight risk, toddling out of the room with his sippy cup every chance he had.

Truth is he had more fun at home picking up leaves in the backyard and hunting for bugs and frogs near a local pond. It didn’t take long before I traded the frenzied schedule for the free one. But it didn’t come easy. With parents around me “enriching kids” with language lessons, multi-sport day camps and karate training, I stuck with the park playing, backyard scavenger hunts and nighttime firefly chasing. Every once in a while, I would wonder if they were missing out.

Now, as they’re school-aged, the sports and activities are seeping back into their schedules, some triggered by their initiative, and some, I admit, by mine. We all want to give them a taste of all that life has to offer. But when do we let them decide? And how do we gradually surrender that control? How do we stop hovering?

My “helicoptering” slips out in subtle ways, like when I’m trailing my son on the playground, or more obviously, when I’m shouting on the sidelines of his soccer game. That’s usually when I get an outside view of myself and shamefully cringe and take a few steps back. When I slip into “hovering” mode, I put on the brakes. But it seems so natural to let the propellers turn, ever so close, and so unnatural when it’s time to let go, letting them work out the pecking order at the park slide or fight their own battles when someone takes a toy or, in later years, earn a better grade or interview at a job fair.

We want to shield them from tears and disappointments that in the short term we have the power to prevent. But at what cost in the long term?

This week, Mr. Ellis reminded me of what can result from too much coddling, too much hovering.

“Some parents have inserted themselves so deeply in the lives of their kids, they don’t know how to back out. And we end up with a generation of highly educated students who — once they graduate — are functionally illiterate.”

Father Nature has lessons, too

Being environmental, for me, was always a battle between convenience and conscience.

Growing up in a typical slice of suburbia in South Florida, clueless on how to be “green,” convenience usually won. I grew up in a middle-class development surrounded by strip malls, ball parks and, well, more developments. About the only open space in the vicinity was up — in the sky.

We could grow food year round, but we preferred the packaged kind. I never grew a plant or a flower, nor did I understand the concept of recycling. And the only reason I walked Coke or Pepsi bottles to the store weekly was to get money. Compost was a foreign concept, and I thought clotheslines were backyard fixtures for families who couldn’t afford dryers.

Fast forward 20 years.

I meet a guy on vacation in Europe who grew up on a farm in Doylestown. He doesn’t have an air conditioner or a clothes dryer. And when I observe him in his kitchen for the first time, I see that very little ends up in his trash can. He recycles paper, plastic and soda cans. Even apple peelings and egg shells have a designated bin that empties into a spot in his garden.

All I could think about was: All that work? For what? We don’t see the energy saved. How do you measure the benefits versus the hassle factor? We don’t profit from it — not immediately at least. And why bother when so many others don’t? The more I pondered, the more embarrassed and self-critical I became. Yeah, I learned about composting and multiple-bin recycling, but I also learned a bit more about myself. I had very little respect for the world around me. And this man essentially opened a window that I couldn’t close — at least not without a guilty conscience.

Well, I married this guy — not for his green thumb, but for the dozens of idiosyncrasies and characteristics that make him who he is. But I must say his love of the earth is something that always makes me smile. I love that for birthdays or holidays, he prefers wind-up radios and flashlights — that you shake to light — over electronic gadgets. I love that his favorite gift from me was a $10 compost machine that I waited two hours in the rain to buy. I love that he’ll pay double for fluorescent light bulbs because they last five years and save $44 per bulb in energy costs. I love that when an opportunity comes to get free manure to fertilize his garden, he’ll make multiple trips, fill truckloads and spend hours shoveling it onto our property. And I love that he’s a regular at Starbucks — not for the lattes, but for the bags of coffee grounds they give away to nourish gardens.

But most of all, I love that my children learn from him.

This week, I came home from work to see the three of them, garden gloves on and shovels out, planting trees, blueberry bushes and rows of potatoes. Another night, we picked weeds together — my 5-year-old helped me distinguish between weeds and flowers. My little guys, 5 and 6, know what compost is; in fact, when I head to the garbage with a banana peel or handful of egg shells, they remind me: “Mom, compost.”

Now I still don’t claim to be the glowing example of an earthly mother. If there’s a yogurt container in the trash, I’m the one to blame. If the clothes are in the dryer, it’s typically because I lack the time and energy to hang them up. And in the summer, when I know my family is fine without air conditioning, I insist we turn it on.

Convenience still drives a few unearthly decisions, but my conscience and all that I’ve learned from my husband guide the everyday actions that make me proud each year Earth Day rolls around.

Technology costing us bits of our humanity

They’ve disappeared into the landscape of our lives.

Cell phones, iPods, GameBoys, Palm Pilots; they’re more than just convenience accessories; they are part of our daily wardrobe, an extension of our lives that some of us feel almost inadequate without.

A few weeks ago, I forgot my cell phone en route to Philadelphia for school, and I felt its absence the entire night, though I had no reason to dial a number.

And when I do have my phone, my husband sometimes wishes I left it at home because conversations go something like this:

Me: Hey, you miss me?

Husband: Uh, you just left.

Me: So what’s up?

Husband: (baby screaming, boys fighting) What?

Me: So what’s going on?

Husband: I’ll talk to you (in person) when you get home.

My husband doesn’t have a cell phone. He doesn’t want one.

And when I use mine to interrupt his busy day because I’m bored at a red light, have a random thought to share or have time to fill on a train ride, he gets annoyed.

And rightly so. I’ve fielded pointless calls like mine, and I just want to blurt out, “And you’re calling me, why?”

Because we have these technologies, we often feel programmed to use them — and sometimes abuse them.

Now I’m not getting Isaac Asimov on you, predicting our iPods and BlackBerry devices will spell the dehumanization of mankind. But I find it ironic that we have a plethora of technologies that make communication easier and faster, yet they tempt us at times to be less social and more isolated.

E-mail seems to be the mode of choice for my friends to organize get-togethers. It is what some co-workers use, even though we are only a cubicle away. And though I know e-mail’s convenient, I miss having conversations.

I’m not a technophobe who preaches doom and gloom, but I’m growing increasingly concerned about what we lose by overusing new technologies that often diminish face-to-face contact.

I’m torn, almost unsettled by each new gadget that gives us another way to keep in touch without actually having to face someone in person.

I’m even more bothered by the self-absorbing use of devices during certain social situations. About a year ago, I had a few people over for poker and one player was text-messaging her friends while we were playing.

Another time at a grocery store, I overheard a woman chatting loudly on her cell phone during her wait on the checkout line. She didn’t even break for a considerate silent pause to pay the cashier. Ironically, she was talking about how rude some driver was for cutting her off.

And just the other day, while I was looping slowly around the parking lot at the Doylestown post office, a man wearing phone headgear nearly walked right into my van.

How is it possible to be that clueless?

But I think I know. Regrettably, I am sometimes that techno-zombie, that droid-like mom at the park pushing a kid on a swing with one hand and pressing a phone on an ear with the other hand.

And just a few months ago, while I was rounding the Starbucks drive-through, my phone rang. And, I answered it. I knew I was being rude to the employee handing me my coffee, but my impulsivity took over.

The result: complete and utter dysfunction. My mind couldn’t absorb the total of my coffee tab and my friend’s conversation at once. I mindlessly handed over the wrong amount of money, dropped my phone and sunk into my seat with red-faced embarrassment.

That day, I was haunted by a message my 8-year-old niece shared with me. It came from a children’s book based on a Leo Tolstoy novel, “”The Three Questions.” It’s about a young boy’s quest to understand the best way to live his life.

After dismissing self-absorbed answers from a dog, bird and a monkey, he turns to the owl who offers: “Remember that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing by your side. … This is why we are here.”

Did Tolstoy realize our minds would be increasingly absent with each emerging technology competing for our limited span of attention? Did he realize that despite evolving technologies, we’re still human and can only give so much of ourselves?

Did he realize that our technological climb to progress would, at times, diminish what it means to be human?

In this race to give more of ourselves, we sometimes end up giving less. Yes, technology helps us multitask — work while we run errands, catch up with relatives while we endure commutes and catch our favorite shows during “quality” time with kids.

But we are fooling ourselves if we think we can really “be” at two places at once.

Winning parenting for losing children

Let’s face it; learning to lose isn’t fun.

Rejection hurts. So does failure. We know this, which is why we want to shield our kids from experiencing the same hurt. So we insulate them as much as we can from disappointment. We give them trophies, and we tell them they did well — even when they didn’t.

Who really wants to watch their children lose? Their confidence could shatter. Their self-esteem may plummet, the positive-discipline pundits warn. Let’s face it: It’s so much easier to give in. Success means dry eyes and big smiles, at least for the moment.

The force of our rewarding culture is against us. Today, winning and getting prizes is a part of daily life. We get stickers at the doctors, toys at the dentists and prizes for simply rounding the McDonald’s drive-through. Why bother earning? No need even to play a game and risk losing to get rewards.

I had this “everyone wins” philosophy in mind when I planned out one of my son’s birthday parties a few years ago. I was geared up to host a slew of games — birthday bingo, hot potato, musical chairs, the usual. We never made it past the first round of freeze dance before the tears started to flow. I had it perfectly orchestrated to make sure everyone walked away with a prize. “It’s all good,” I explained, hoping their eyes would dry up. “Everyone wins.”

But the volume got louder. You see, they all wanted to win — at the same time. This pint-size herd wanted to deplete my toy stash in a matter of milliseconds. Confronting multiple meltdowns, I surrendered the bucket of prizes and told them to dive in. In retrospect, I gave in too easily. I needed backup. I was clearly overwhelmed and outnumbered. But a birthday party wasn’t the time or the place to teach the kids how to lose or the value of losing. I think the only lesson I taught that day is if you whine enough and shed enough tears, the rules that the rest of us play by become mere suggestions.

I offer no pearls of wisdom from my corner of the ‘burbs. I’m still trying to sort this learning-to-lose lesson out myself. It seems like just yesterday, I was rearranging the card deck from Candyland so my kids wouldn’t get stuck with the plum card, reversing them to the starting line. And during Old Maid, I would go after the maid, practically encouraging them to cheat. Well, that got old and my message convoluted.

We started to explain that part of playing a game “by the rules” is learning how to take a loss, stomach the Old Maid or watch a sibling win without swinging fists. Playing fair and playing for real were the only options. And in that process, I had a brief moment of enlightenment: Kids don’t shatter.

Of course, we had our share of tears, meltdowns and periodic cave-ins; it certainly wasn’t a picture of family perfection. But somehow we reached a point where playing together is fair and fun. Nearly every other night, we play UNO Attack, chess or — our latest board game — Piranha Panic. And whether they win or lose, at the end, we all offer a “good game” handshake.

I understand that we’re soft on our children for a reason. We don’t want them to get discouraged by failure. Though scoreless games, gradeless classes and this “everyone wins all the time” attitude is only prolonging one of the most invaluable lessons of life — success is about learning from a process, which may entail doing a great deal wrong before getting it right.

Who catches a ball on the first try? Who hops on a bike and rides without falling first? Most professional athletes experience failure far more than they experience success. The common thread is they don’t give up. And they look at mistakes as opportunities to learn.

My hope is that through this rocky journey we call life, my children will learn that we have as much to learn from losing as we do from winning. So when they do stumble, they’ll know how to get up — on their own.

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