Thursday, May 19, 2016

Walking the Line

Every parent wants to believe their kids are talented in some way, and I am no exception. Part of the process of growing up and away, after all is finding out new things about yourself and your kids.  

But there's a difference between actively encouraging your kid to develop his own interests (good) and pushing them to succeed because you've got issues (bad). What that difference actually is, in practice, though, is turning out to be rather difficult to discern in real life. 

Kidlet has always been a motorhead, a gear monkey, a car nut--you get the picture. If there's a motor on it, he'll love it. He loves watching the lawnmower--the lawnmower--as it does laps around our building, cutting the grass.  He could quite literally sit at a construction site for hours if there's an excavator and a bulldozer.  I harbor a secret fantasy of bringing him to Schipol and relaxing for three hours while he watches planes.

But his real love is driving.  

He got a push-car for Christmas two years ago and he's still coasting with that damn car all over the apartment.  Ever since he discovered the battery-powered cars at the Brakkefort I've been shelling out for the god-damned tokens so that he can get a drive (now up to two) in each time we go.  And pedal-carts--if it weren't for the fact that we go mostly at the non-peak times, there would be a lot more screeching kiddos at these places.  And he is...surprisingly good at it, able to wrestle huge steel contraptions that weigh more than I do  through hairpin turns and s-curves like I'd pushed one of those suckers out with him.  

It's easy to see where this is heading: dreams of Formula-1 glory, like Max Verstappen, the kid who's just won one of the Grand Prix's in Spain.  Of course, I know this is a long shot, at best. And odds are he'll never get past just a few turns on the go-kart track for fun when he's fourteen. I would be okay with that--and that's what makes walking the line between letting him drive as much as he can and making too much of it so damn hard.  I mean, what is "too much" for a kidlet? I mean, if he likes it, what's the harm, right? And isn't the whole point of parenting teaching a kid to get up again when he falls down? Where's the line between encouraging a kid and pushing them?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Buses and Cars and Trains, Oh My!

Kidlet has always been a good traveler.  I feel like I have to start this post with that because everything that I'm going to write afterward depends on keeping that in mind.  Whether it's an afternoon or a morning in town, or a weeklong jaunt to Luxumbourg, he's never had a (much of) a problem sleeping in different situations and he simply loves riding in buses, trains, and cars.  And I've never been the kind of mom to carry around a ton of extra diapers, an extra outfit, twenty snacks, three packages of wipes, and enough toys to fill a daycare--what can I say, I'm lazy.  

Laziness is also the driving reason why I'm an absolute minimalist when it comes to packing kidlet's things for trips.  This is all I'm bringing with us for a 5-day trip to Maastricht:  it includes clothes for me, clothes for him, all of our toiletries, snacks for the train (it's a two-hour ride), toys for a week, a grocery bag, diapers for night-time and emergencies, my planners, and my electronics (my laptop, tablet, phone, chargers).  

There's nothing must-have about my travel things.  I don't use packing cubes or anything like that, I don't have special games or toys, and I won't even have a stroller with me. A few things that I do to cut back on the bulk:
  • I don't use separate kids' and adult shampoos and body washes.  Really, it doesn't make a difference, and the ingredients are exactly the same, except for the coloring and perfumes used.  So if he smells like coconut-cream instead of little stinky Minion (I did get him a Minion body wash, but that was only because the bottle was a Minion), well, it's not as if anybody else is going to get close enough to tell.  And anyway, as long as you rinse them off well, you don't have to worry about irritation.  
  • I make him carry his own damn toys and snacks.  This week was a bit of an exception, because we'll be gone for a week and the apartment that I'm using doesn't have stuff for kids. But even so, between the stuff in his little red backpack and the smaller compartment of mine (it's an LL Bean backpack, and yes, the brand really does last for-f*cking-ever), he's got enough to keep him busy for a week.  
  • For my end:  I wear skirts-and-legging outfits.  Leggings are compact.  Skirts don't get too dirty.  So all I really need is enough tops, and even there, I use one jacket and just change the t-shirt underneath. I'm wearing my jeans today and on our way back.  
  • I haven't used a stroller since kidlet turned 2.  Seriously.  Yes, it's a bit of a pain to get him to go when he's tired.  But it means he'll fall asleep without issues in the evening, and it saves me a headache from having to lug a stroller everywhere.  Win-win-lose is still winning, overall.  
  • I've made plans to rent a bike with a kiddie seat on the back when we get there.  Seriously, if you're ever in a Dutch city and you have a toddler, forget the stroller, just rent a bike.  Well, unless you're in Amsterdam--riding a bike there is just a death wish.  But Maastricht is so nice to bike in, and renting a bike will save you a small fortune in transit fees.  
But really, the most important thing isn't a thing:  it's confidence that you know your kid and what they can handle.  It's being able to accept that sh*t happens to the best-laid plans.  It's treating a long trip like an adventure that it is rather than something to be endured.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Decisions, decisions

One of the most nerve-wracking and head-achey decisions you have to make as a parent in the Netherlands is which basisschool to send your kid to.  First of all, it doesn't help that they start during the academic year during which your kid turns 4, so for a November baby like kidlet that means he gets to start at the ripe old age of 3.  Secondly, it turns out that there are at least 4 different teaching principles that different schools can follow, so there actually is a big difference between the schools and therefore the only way you can tell which school has what available is to go see the school itself.  Most schools have an opendag, where parents can come in for a quick talk about the education principles of the school (Jenaplan, for instance, or Brede plan) and take a tour of the facilities.  So that's what I've been busy with this past month, visiting every school nearby and taking in the pros and cons of the places.

In Nijmegen, at least, you're allowed to pick six basisscholen, ranked in order of preference.  You fill out the form online, and then in a few weeks or months you get a letter in the mail telling you which school you can send your kid to. And the problem, at least from a "which school is better" standpoint, is that all Dutch schools have to guarantee that your kid will become literate and know how to add and subtract, at least.  One school is not "better" than the other, educationally-speaking.  This actually sets a lot of worries about picking the "right" school away and lets you focus on picking, well, the right school.

The part that makes this such a headache is that there are a lot of schools.  In our area (meaning within a 3-mile radius) there are at least 8 schools we could theoretically send kidlet to. Some of them are much farther away than others, and obviously distance factors into the decision quite a bit.  Most of them are ordinary schools, meaning that they follow a standard curriculum, but some of them follow the Jenaplan system and there are a few Montessori schools as well.  So it really does depend on what you think is best for your kid.

Things that I've discovered about myself:  diversity matters a lot more to me than I thought it did.  I mean, I don't mind kidlet attending the peuterspeelzaal where literally every child is some shade of blonde except kidlet.  It's a good peuterspeelzaal and the teachers are patient and kind, and kidlet's Dutch is improving in leaps and bounds, but he's still not speaking Dutch 100% yet and it's getting down to the wire as to whether or not he needs logopedie (speech therapy). But the proportion of blonde versus non-blonde kids is highly indicative (at least so far, in my experience) of whether the school has experience dealing with bilingual kids.   I would mind a lot less about the lack of diversity in some schools that I've visited if they were able to give me a shred of confidence that they had the experience of dealing with bilingual kids, but one of them just point-blank told me, "We don't have any facilities or experience with that."

And, well, frankly--there is something to be said about attending a school with kids from all kinds of backgrounds. I mean, okay, I get that this is the Netherlands, that most people are white and and tall and blonde.  But a lot of the issues and microaggressions and finer points of not-being-racist would be greatly mitigated if people grew up in a diverse environment, I think.

Friday, January 8, 2016

There's this prevalent notion floating about on the Internet that we are in a "post-racial" era.  That declaring,"I'm colorblind! I don't even notice race!" is the same thing as saying, "There's no such thing as racism!"

Except a) we're not in a post-racial world, and b) if you truly "don't notice" race, then you're either deaf, dumb, and blind, or an idiot, because everybody notices if the person they're talking to is different.  Especially if the answer she gives to the question, "So where are you from?" is not what they expect it to be.

Granted, racism these days is not expressed by burning crosses and telling black people to GTFO of wherever it is they're "not supposed" to be.  Not usually, anyway.  And in Europe, it's conflated (especially now) with religious animosity against Muslims, and in the Netherlands, the yearly Zwarte Piet debacle.  I'm not going to offer any solutions; as an expat, my understanding of local politics is limited to "Well, that's dumb" and swearing at the IND every time they demand that I cough up 228 euros for an ID card that's apparently no longer valid once you get a Dutch passport.

But I can tell you what racism looks like, since a lot of people don't seem to realize that they are committing these "microaggressions" when they're "just making small talk." And honestly, I know that they're trying to be friendly, but unlike most Chinese people in Europe (I would imagine--I haven't met that many) I actually possess the vocabulary to spell out exactly what's so wrong about and why it's so horrible.

I'll give you 2 examples:

  1. Karel's friend is really big into traditional Chinese medicine and yoga and Eastern medicine.  Whatever. That's his thing. If he wants to talk a blue streak about it, well, I'm cool with that. I'm not a believer--and frankly, acupuncture is just creepy to me. And he said, "I never thought I'd have to argue for TCM with someone from China." Which is just irritating, even without taking into account that he knows me well enough to know that I grew up in the US, attended a medical school, worked in biology, and don't cook Chinese food and instead make a mean stamppot
  2. I was at the printer's, getting something printed out in preparation for a client meeting, and the guy who's helping me...actually doesn't start up with the whole "So where are you from?" line of questioning.  Nope, instead he seems surprised that kidlet speaks a mix of Dutch and English, and asks me what other languages I speak.  I tell him that we speak Dutch and English to him.  And then he asks me what my mother tongue is.  I tell him it's English (because it is). And then he asks me if I speak Chinese to kidlet.  And then he makes a comment about kidlet's big eyes, somehow completely missing the fact that kidlet's hair is definitely brown, not black, and assuming that he's Asian rather than a halfie.  (I mean, okay, kidlet definitely takes after me in terms of facial features, but how do you miss the fact that his hair is brown?  Especially when I'm right next to him for comparison? I know I'm going gray but I swear it's not that bad yet).
Do these incidents mark the end of the world? No. But here's the thing that white people don't get:  we can't talk about racism without dealing with all of the subconscious baggage that you guys have about what someone is "supposed" to be like.  And that's the thing with subconscious baggage--you can swear on your life, and even believe, that you don't see color/race, but subconsciously, things register, and slowly but surely they color the lens through which you perceive the world. And you can swear on your life that you don't hate [race] people, but hate isn't the problem. It's the thousand invisible things that you guys do that grate on our nerves, but woe be the one who says anything about it, lest she appear "too sensitive". 

But every time you do one of those things, you're feeding a machine that tells people that they are limited by the color of their skin and their ancestry, telling people like me that being born somewhere determines who I am rather than the effort I've put into making something of myself.  You're telling me that you're only interested in my story if it fits your preconceived ideas of what an Asian person is doing living in the Netherlands. You're telling me that you, whom I've just met at the bus stop and am making idle talk to while we wait, know me better than I, who spent 34 years living my life and working out all the shit in my life, do. And maybe I'm presuming--but at least I'm aware that I'm doing so--but I do think that you'd be fucking pissed if I were to do the same to you.

And yet, every time this happens, I feel bad for the person I'm talking to.  I feel like it's my job not to let them down, or at least do so gently. I mean, I get it--they don't mean to be nasty, not like the jackholes who scream, "Konichiwa" at me as they ride by on their bikes (would that eye rolls be translated into bowling balls). And being polite has always been second-nature to me.  But still--why should I have to be the only one swallowing my discomfort just so the person I'm talking to--the one who started this--doesn't have to feel bad?  

Answer: because nobody wants to be "the supersensitive" wilting flower that can't take a comment the right way. Even if it's the one making the comment who could do better.  

Monday, January 4, 2016

Yes, he's allowed to say that

As long as we're dredging up my list of parenting fails, there's this:  

Kidlet tells me, "I don't like you," at least once a day.  Sometimes many times a day.  And you know what?  I'm cool with it.

Because, if we're going to be honest, I tell him that, too.  Not quite as often, and usually when he's in the preliminary phases of pitching a fit, those moments after me putting my foot down about something but before he's totally lost control.  Because, in those moments, I don't like him.  He's yelling, getting worked up--it's a 50/50 chance whether he's able to listen.  If he is, then he can usually be talked down.  If he isn't, then it's a toddler-drama-rama all around.

Here's the thing, though:  I don't tell him, "If you do this then I'll like you again." I do tell him that I love him, frequently and on a whim.  He'll eventually work out that liking someone isn't the same as loving someone, and that just because you love someone doesn't mean they can't annoy the bejesus out of you once in a while.  

And I like to think that he's going to internalize that it's OK not to be liked.  When he tells me, "I don't like you," I tell him, "You don't have to like me.  You have to pick up your cars," or whatever it is that I asked him to do that prompts the declaration of not-liking mommy.  That it's OK to stick to your guns even if people don't like you.  That it's OK to tell people that they're being jerks.  

He doesn't have to like me when I tell him to pick up his trucks, and he doesn't have to like me when I tell him it's time for bed.  He's free to express his discontent verbally, which I think goes a long way towards not having it expressed in a screaming fit.  Because honestly, who in their right minds likes to be told where to go, what to do, what to wear, when to potty, how to do things, to keep quiet, not to yell, etc. all day?  So yeah.  He's allowed to not like me. 

Because when he comes to our bed at an ungodly hour of the morning; when he snuggles between us with a contented little sigh as he waits for me to get up; these and a thousand little things through all the days is love.  He loves us, we love him. Plain and simple.  That's always true, all the time.  Even if we don't like each other much at that moment.  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

I Give Zero F*cks

There's always a lot of talk about regulating screen time, how you shouldn't let your kid stew in front of the TV all day and so on and so forth.  And I agree with that, for the most part: watching TV all day every day is a terrible waste of time.  But playing with a tablet?  That's a little more nuanced.  Most people agree that it's impossible to keep a kid away from them, and that a strategic retreat is needed:  they set limits (30 minutes) or take them away for not doing chores or what-not.

Me?  I give zero f*cks about whether kidlet wants to spend his entire day playing with the damn iPad.  And here's why: I trust him to be smart enough to know when he's bored.  My only rules are:  1) no screens when eating (this is a family-wide thing, and it applies to Karel as well) and 2) no crying or whining when I tell him to put it away (i.e., when we need to go out, or when it's time for dinner).  If he does, then he loses the iPad for the rest of he day and the entire day thereafter.  It's a simple system that doesn't involve timers or some arbitrary limit.  And it works.  Yes, there were a few fits the first few days when he got his own iPad with new games, but after he worked out the rules for himself he's been pretty good about it and I don't have to fight with him to put it down.

I'm sure someone out there is having a heart attack reading this right now.  But here's the thing: after the first few days, when he spent close to 4 hours watching YouTube movies and playing with his apps, his using the iPad dropped, the same way it did with my phone. And now he spends maybe 30 minutes a day playing with the thing before he decides to pull out his cars or rediscover his "microbots" (hematite stones carved in a shape that resembled the microbots seen in Big Hero 6).  Or he'll ask us to fill the bathroom sink so that he can play with the water.  Or he'll get his crayons out of the closet.  Or ask me to take him to the playground.  Or...well, you get the idea: kid stuff.

Kids aren't stupid, and they'll work out when they've had enough.  Of course a new tablet, filled with fun apps, is going to absorb all of their attention, but it won't last.  It can't last--they just don't have the attention span or the ability to sit still that long.  It may take a little longer before they figure out their own limits, but there is a life beyond a tablet.  And of course you can use time with the tablet as a carrot as opposed to a stick, or set a time limit. But that doesn't teach them their own personal limits--it reinforces the idea that good things are scarce in this world so they need to have all the good things, all at once. And I know Freud has long since been discounted as a quack, but you have to wonder whether the (uniquely American) inability to moderate has something to do with this.

I wonder when we stopped listening to kids telling us what they want/need.  I mean, sure, they don't always know what's best for them, so it's up to us to make suggestions and make sure they know the rules.  But discipline isn't about teaching kids blind obedience to authority; it's about providing them with an appropriate frame in which to live their own lives. And that's the key, the "living their own lives" part, that I want for my kid.  It's not his job to make me happy.  His job is to grow up, my job is to give him what he needs to do that.  And part of that is really listening to him, accepting that sometimes that means pears and olives for breakfast instead of oatmeal, or taking him to the HEMA for a lunch date, just because.

I'm an atheist, but I do have faith:  that kidlet knows himself, and that as long as we continue to provide him with a bedrock of unconditional love and mutual respect, he'll turn out all right.  I wonder when people lost this faith--and what it will take for them to find it again. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Hello Fresh!

I'm the penny pinching one in this household. Kidlet doesn't know what a penny is, yet, and Karel...well, I love the guy but tracking spending is not his forte.  Suffice it to say, then, that when Hello Fresh debuted in the Netherlands two years ago I laughed and told the guys selling subscriptions to fuck off.  

This is because they charge €39.99 for a box of 3 meals for 2 people.  That's €13.33 per meal, €6.66 per serving, folks. And they don't even come over and do the dishes for you. For someone who typically drives down the cost of dinner to €2-3 per person, it's ridiculous.  

But if I were to be completely honest...I can't deny that I wasn't tempted. Setting asid
e time every day to go grocery shopping is a bit of a drag, and that goes double if Karel isn't home to babysit kidlet while I run out for a carton of milk. 

These sort of subscription-boxes have been popular on both sides of the Atlantic for a while, now: they're supposed to simplify your life (or at the very least, your grocery shopping) while providing a good, homemade meal for the cost of a Value Meal at McDonald's (yeah...the Value Meals where I live...aren't, exactly).  You get all the ingredients you need, pre-measured in the quantities for however many people you're cooking for (minus a few basics, like olive oil, flour, milk) and then you just follow the directions on the menu card.  In their perfect world, you'd get a box every week, but forty euros a week for 3 dinners is obscene by any standard except Parisians'.  Fortunately it's easy to log onto the website and tell them when you want a box delivered, and with Hello Fresh, you're only obligated to buy two boxes at full price.

The good news is that Hello Fresh, at least, has really big portions, which works out well because we're two adults and one hungry kidlet.  The four measly potatoes you get for a stamppot might not look like much, but add a package of saurkraut and a couple of sausages and you've got an all-out meal.  There are vegetarian options as well, and they're tasty, too.

The bad news is that you kinda-sorta-hafta know how to cook first before you can make anything really tasty with it. For our box last week, we had mackerel wraps, saurkraut stamppot, and a vegetarian lasagna.  None of these required any special skills to make, but I can imagine that, if you're not used to cooking it would be kind of daunting, especially when it comes to making a roux for the cheese sauce with the lasagna, or some of the fancier cooking things that are required of you.  You don't  need a lot of kitchen utensils, and the ones that are recommended are the sort of things that most people would have. But then again, there was a time when we didn't have a baking sheet.  That being said, the recipes do taste something splendid--it says a lot when a three-year-old will eat eggplant and spinach without whining. 

I'm still kind of divided on whether it's good value; I feel like if they'd drop the price to 30 or even 35 euros I'd probably get the boxes a lot more often.  I mean, things like fresh pasta and smoked mackerel aren't exactly cheap at the supermarket, either, and after the peace of mind afforded by three days of only having to shop for things like milk and cat food, I can definitely see the value in having someone else do the thinking for you.