What Are We Doing to Our Children?

  BLOG- WINDOW2My 13 year-old nephew told me that his classroom is in a basement. No windows.

He doesn’t have gym, music or art.

He gets to school at 7am and returns home after 5pm.

As a teacher, I find this heartbreaking.

As a person, I find it inhuman.

This past weekend a piece in the New York Times, Best, Brightest and Saddest, reported that between May 2009 and January 2010, five teenagers in Palo Alto committed suicide by stepping in front of a train.

The article discusses the stresses (advanced placement classes, perfect SAT scores and exceptional grade point averages) that push teenagers to overachieve.

Teenagers often don’t get enough sleep and depression is on the rise.

Two weeks ago, on a Saturday night, my daughter, a junior in high school, came to me in tears. She was scheduled to take a practice SAT the following morning. She’d already taken countless tests.

My daughter wakes up at 6:45 every school day and commutes for over an hour in traffic. She comes home from school around 8pm after she’s completed soccer practice, or worked with her SAT tutor or gone to a friend’s house to study. She goes to sleep around midnight, which she claims is early in comparison to her friends. Over the weekend, she has hours of homework.

It made sense that she was stressed out.

“I’m so tired,” my daughter said, clearly upset. “And I have to wake up at 6:30 tomorrow morning to take the SAT again.”

Parenting requires we use our best judgment and the terrifying truth is that we’re not always going to be right.

But in recognizing that my daughter had reached her limit, that she needed empathy and support, I said, “Don’t take it.”

But I was unsure.

Was I teaching my daughter to expect less of herself?

Was I teaching her bad values?

I went with my gut.

Education has always been important to me and my children are aware of that. In fact, my older children like to tease me that I wouldn’t let them miss a day of school when they were young unless they were bleeding from their eyeballs and had 104 degree fever.

The thing is that even though education is an important value to me, teaching my daughter to value her well being, more than a test score, felt right.

Even still, I was relieved to see that in the NY Times article mentioned above a psychiatrist, Adam Strassberg, agreed that limiting the number of times a student takes the SAT is one way to reduce student stress.

The article points to a new awareness, “Want the best for your child, not for your child to be the best.”

Trust, Vulnerability and a Marble Jar

BLOG- VulnerabilityI’ve trusted people I shouldn’t have. I’ve opened my heart and been hurt.

I’ve expected loyalty but got betrayal.

At one time or another, haven’t we all?

Trusting someone requires vulnerability. What I’ve learned, the hard way, is that you can’t allow yourself to be vulnerable with just anyone. People have to earn your trust. I used to just give it away- no prerequisites.

My mother (I think I’ve mentioned) used to call me Tinker Bell. And it was mostly because of this- I was too trusting. I couldn’t fathom that someone would deliberately hurt me: repeat a secret I’d shared or make fun of me in a group.

I was wrong.

Brene Brown, a research professor, writes about trust and vulnerability in her book, Daring Greatly. She says that vulnerability is full of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. It is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experience. It is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.

In my defense, understanding that vulnerability was the road map to those gifts was the reason I opened myself up again and again.

But I didn’t know about the Marble Jar.

When Brene Brown’s third grader came home from school devastated because a girl in her class revealed her embarrassing secret to her entire peer group, Brene’ struggled with how to best teach her daughter about trust and connection.

She didn’t want her daughter to operate out of fear and become disconnected in an attempt to stay “safe”. Even though it makes sense that after a betrayal someone might disengage and stop trusting, it is heartbreaking to imagine that outcome because one of life’s greatest joys is connection.

Her daughter’s teacher kept a clear glass jar on her desk, and whenever the class did something positive she put marbles in the jar. Whenever the class did something negative, she took marbles out. That day, the class was so unruly she took marbles out of the jar.

Brene told her daughter to think of her friendships as marble jars.

“Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out.”

I’d say this marble jar idea holds up in any relationship: parent, child, sibling, friend, lover, spouse, co-worker.

I love the Marble Jar metaphor. It is a concrete reminder, one that is useful for someone who is 8 and someone who is 48, that trust is built one marble at a time.


Parenting Gone Well

-Peggy O'Mara.  

It was after 11 a.m. I’d been up for hours and already had two cups of coffee. I’d read the newspaper and worked on a blog post. I’d cleaned the kitchen and started dinner. I’d gone to the pharmacy and the grocery store.

On my way to the dry cleaner, with a list of more things to do in my hand, my phone lit up. There was a text from my 16-year-old daughter who was still on summer vacation.

TEXT MESSAGE: The air conditioning in my room does not work at all and so I couldn’t fall asleep last night till 2 a.m. and I woke up 20 times in a heat flash.

SEPARATE TEXT: And I’m dripping sweat.

If I had written back based on my initial reaction, it would not have been pretty.

Do you know what I’ve already done this morning and how much I still have to do? You slept until noon (when I’m upset, I tend to exaggerate) and you’re complaining? Is that text a nice way to start the day?

But I also know I was triggered by her discomfort. Honestly, when things don’t go right for her, I feel it. I took a deep breath and reminded myself I’m not responsible for everything, and that I didn’t have to fix the situation immediately; we’d both survive.

Parenting is not science; it’s an art. Our communication doesn’t always go well; but on that morning, it did.

MY TEXT: Good Morning, Love.

No lecture. (Admittedly, there was a bit of sarcasm but tinged with affection.)


Mommy, When Did You Turn Jewish?

I wrote the essay below after visiting Israel in 2005. It was published in North American Review, January/February 2008.

I stared at black-and-white photographs at the Holocaust Museum in Israel the week Jewish settlers were forced to leave their homes in Gaza. I was overcome by sadness as I read how Jews felt connected to Germany, their motherland, and yet were required to leave during the Holocaust. I pictured myself in either one of these situations and felt frightened.

I thought back to a conversation I had with Mark just after we married. He was 24 at the time and asked, “So are you an American first or a Jew?” I was 18 years old and not yet prepared to answer this question of identity. Mark argued that we had to consider ourselves Jews before anything else because our future safety was precarious. I told him that he was ridiculous to think that anything like the Holocaust could ever happen again. But given my age and limited experience, I had little understanding of intolerance or my role in educating future generations.

I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and attended Sunday School at the reformed synagogue that my family belonged to. My earliest memory takes place in my kindergarten class where we discussed our concept of God. I internalized someone large, omnipresent, and male. In my heart, I believed God listened to my prayers and could answer them. My ideas about religion and my relationship with God stemmed from love, not fear.

In sixth grade, my Sunday School teacher taught us about the Holocaust. She told us that six million Jews had perished. In order to grasp just how much that was, she asked us to make tally marks on loose-leaf paper. Each mark represented a Jewish life. The class filled sheet after sheet with tally marks and she lined the classroom walls with these papers. I think we reached about 100,000 marks, and then we were asked to stretch our imaginations to ten times that amount, and then six times that number. As far as I was concerned, nothing this horrible could ever occur again. At 12, it is difficult to understand how something that took place 30 years before, in a country as foreign and far away as Germany, could ever happen at home, in America. So, at 18, only six years later, I believed Mark was wrong. Over the years, Mark and I have had many discussions (or, more honestly, battles) over religion.

Mark and I met when my family moved from New Orleans to New York. Both of my parents had been raised in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, but after they married they moved to New Orleans for business reasons. When I was 16, they believed it was time to move back to New York because, in keeping with tradition, they wanted me to marry a Syrian Jew and be part of the Syrian community. Even though three out of four of my grandparents were from Aleppo, Syria, making them Sephardic Jews, my maternal grandmother was from Europe, making her an Ashkenazi Jew, and she had a profound influence on my life.

The transition from New Orleans to New York was difficult for me. Besides leaving behind the South, I left behind a reformed lifestyle sprinkled with Ashkenazi influence and moved into an orthodox community with Arabic roots. Passover went from being a large dinner party with a customary Sedar plate in the center of the table to a two-hour reading of the Haggadah.

Mark is a man of conviction, someone who sees the world in black and white. I, on the other hand, see shades of gray. From the beginning of our marriage, Mark and I struggled with our religious differences, trying to understand each other and create peace in our home. Mark insisted you couldn’t have a haphazard approach to being Jewish. He believed you had to act on it. You had to do things like keep Kosher and observe the Sabbath. I thought of Lynn, my best friend from New Orleans. Her family was Ashkenazi, and they were the nicest people I knew. Her mother was a caterer and an active participant in a reformed synagogue. She made a birthday party for her husband once and invited the rabbi. She served shrimp and crab. Lynn’s family believed that being a Jew had nothing to do with what you ate.

Immediately after Mark and I married, his grandmother, a traditional woman who had her reservations about me being raised in New Orleans away from the Syrian community and distant from what she considered Jewish life, pulled me to the side and sneered, “Anyone can get married, not anyone can have a baby.” I was 20 when my first son, Jack, was born.

Three out of five of my children eventually attended secular schools, but when they first entered school, they attended Yeshivah (an orthodox school of Jewish learning). While Mark was elated because he didn’t go to Yeshivah and felt strongly that his children be afforded this privilege, this was difficult for me. My sons had to wear tzitzit and a yarmulka and my daughters had to wear a skirt. Again, I found myself in a strange world, and when my children came home with questions and ideas regarding organized religion, sometimes I couldn’t relate. And so Mark and I continued to debate how to live our lives and how to best raise our children. Mark said he wanted our family to be religious, and I claimed that we were. We found ourselves discussing what it meant to be religious. I argued that Mark was substituting the word religious for observant, and that they were not the same.

One Purim, I sat at the kitchen table with my children. Hamentash (cookies traditionally eaten on Purim) baked in the oven while we made paper-bag puppets of King Ahashvarosh and Queen Esther. We designed a pictured Megillah (a scroll telling the story of Purim) and wrapped the drawings around an empty paper towel roll. We decorated toilet paper rolls and filled them with beans to make groggers (noise makers used to drown out the sound of the evil Haman’s name when the Megillah is read.) As my children worked on their projects, I got up to check the hamentash. My son Richard was around eight at the time, and he looked across the room and asked, “Mommy, when did you turn Jewish?” I was stunned and felt judged in my own home, by my own child. I wondered how I’d let things get so far. I needed Richard and the rest of my children to know, I’d always been Jewish. I wanted them to understand what I believed it meant to be a good Jew, and ultimately that meant they needed to know what it meant to be a good person.

Almost a decade later, my father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Over the nine months that followed that diagnosis, until the day he died, he was surrounded by family and friends. Community members visited and prayed. All six of his children and their spouses, his grandchildren, and his wife did what they could in the hope that he would survive this disease. His children made him fresh juices that he couldn’t even drink, helped him put on tefillin when he couldn’t do it himself, and administered medicine. His three sons, his three sons-in-law, and his older grandsons took turns giving him a coffee enema to relieve his discomfort. This was a terrific ordeal that took at least three men to carry him through the process. His bedroom became an amazing place, bustling with activity, ironically filled with life and energy, hope and prayer, and the exact opposite, his imminent death. The cohesiveness of family and community was astounding, and I felt proud to be part of it.

The last few days of his life were painful to watch. I asked my mother-in-law if she thought it was appropriate for my son Jack, who was then 18 and very much involved with what was happening, to participate in giving the enemas or to watch his grandfather deteriorate. My mother-in-law turned to me and said, “There are so few things that people can look back on in their life and feel true meaning. Let him have this.” And so I watched Jack unflinchingly link his arm through his grandfather’s as he helped carry him to the bathroom again.

As a parent, I find that sometimes there are these flashes of light, rays of sunshine. Those are the times I look around and think I’ve done something right. For years, Mark and I worried that our different approaches to life and Judaism would confuse our children. But in the end, I believe what we both honestly wanted was to raise good people; people with conscience and commitment; people with heart and soul. We wanted to give our children a safe place to learn and question, discover and share. Through the years of negotiating and compromising, with any luck at all, our children have learned to have respect and tolerance for people with different points of view, because ultimately if you can’t achieve peace in your living room, how can you expect peace on earth?

And so, after all these years, I still can’t answer Mark’s original question about identity. I don’t believe I am any one thing. I am a fair-skinned Jewish woman of Arabic descent who now eats mechshe instead of crayfish, and who now says inshullah as readily as I used to say y’all. And while I haven’t embraced every Judaic tradition, as an American I have choice, and there is nothing matter-of-fact about how I light my candles every Friday night and pray to a loving God for peace on earth and in my home.


Braces: The New Chastity Belt

At lunch the other day my friend sipped a glass of white wine and announced that she’d convinced her daughter’s orthodontist to lie. She’d persuaded him to tell her daughter that her braces wouldn’t come off in June, as he’d promised. They’d need to stay on until September. “She’s going to sleep away camp and I don’t want her kissing any boys,” she explained.

“Genius,” the friend across from me laughed.

“What!” I almost choked on a piece of bread. “You can’t do that to her.”

“I can and I did,” my friend said with assuredness.

“I’m going to write about this,” I said as if the threat would knock some sense into her.

“Go ahead,” she said unfazed.

This is why I don’t go for lunch, I thought.

As I sat there, I remembered the summer of 1976. Camp Blue Star, the year of the bicentennial. I was twelve. I had a boy’s haircut and braces. At camp that summer, I cupped fireflies in my bare hands and roasted marshmallows around campfires. I swam in the lake and did macramé. But what I waited for all season was the dance, The Social.

Two days before camp ended, the night of The Social, I borrowed a new friend’s jeans and wore a bra for the first time. This was not a small leap, this transition felt gigantic, and as anxiety producing as if I were face to face with a hungry lion. At the dance, I was nervous and self-conscious. I stood on the side watching until Roller Coaster of Love played and a really cute boy asked me to dance.


My parents were somewhat conservative (although at the time my father drove a red motorcycle; and my mother, a petite Jewish woman, grew an afro) and so in a way sending me to camp that summer was an act of faith. In me. I had to take care of myself. I had freedom.

After the dance, that boy walked me back to my cabin. And behind a bush, the most exciting thing happened. We kissed.

I experienced a lot of new things that summer. On a hike, I saw a snake for the first time and near a blackberry bush, a bee stung me. I got a high fever, and in the infirmary, alone, I missed my mother.

Wanting my friends to know that controlling their children wasn’t a good idea, I said, “You can still make out with braces.”

But they wouldn’t relent. To them, kissing was a gateway drug. They had their beliefs and I had mine. I wouldn’t trade my experiences at sleep away camp for anything in the world, not even the moment I found out my trunk didn’t arrive, and amongst strangers, I had no clothes. I built muscle. I figured it out.

There are times you have to let go: with your children and with your friends.