The Power of a Hug

Mother and daughter embracing standing against white background.
Across the boards, bullying seems to be the new trend. Saturating the news are stories of people tearing each other down. Even Missouri’s Auditor and top Governor candidate Tom Schweich, who recently committed suicide, demonstrated that being a victim of harassment could be overwhelming.

A local Home Owner Associations last week refused to let a 10 year-old girl struggling with Leukemia get her Make-a-Wish request granted because the playhouse didn’t fit their guidelines. Unfortunately, it took more bullying from the public to humiliate this gang of HOA control freaks, causing them to reverse their first decision.

People, why can’t we all just get along?!

Once again, I must jump up on my granola box and shout through my poorly manicured hands, “Everybody stop being jerks!” Don’t you care that your kids are watching and learning from you?

The American Academy of Pediatrics defines bullying as, “A form of violence defined as repetitive, intentional aggression that involves a disparity of power between the victim and perpetrator.”

Perhaps the origin of this vicious circle-of-abuse is that the bullies’ parents are clueless they are partially responsible. Is it because the parent learned it from their parents and the generation before? Even if educators or other parents warn them of their child’s bullying behavior, astoundingly many parents won’t believe them.

“This is the fifth call from Y-Club and her teachers that Becky is displaying mean tendencies toward a group of girls. Can you believe that? She is always so funny at home and cracking jokes about her friends.”

Wake up and smell the high school detention room because according to an American Medical Association report, “…out of 15,000 6th-10th graders, approximately 3.7 million youths engage in, and more than 3.2 million are victims of, moderate or serious bullying each year.” That’s a whole lot of tormenting going on and it looks like there could be a GED with your kids name on it!

Are you sure your kid isn’t responsible for this behavior? I repeatedly question my kids to see if they are treating others poorly. Are they having problems with anyone in school? Pro-active teachings and reinforcements are needed to prevent this type of physical or mental abuse.

Bullying obviously gets my feathers ruffled, but this week when I was stressed because of mean girl behavior at the elementary school, I had the rug pulled out from under me. A Theatre and Film professor at the University of Kansas, Ron Willis, passed away. He had such an outpouring of love and support shown by all the students he impacted over his long career, and from all parts of the world. This wonderful man was doing something right.

When I described my love and respect for him to his family, I reflected on how he made such a profound impact in my life. Not only was he one of my first directors in musical theater, The Wizard of Oz, but he truly believed in me and became a second father figure to me.

Every time Ron would spot me from across the greenroom, his face would light up like Tinker Bells’ heinie, and we would worm our way through the crowd for the embrace, the same one that erased my worries or pain.

His hugs were powerful and loving. And he never let go until I did first. This was such a paternal and selfless act of kindness.

So I started thinking if all parents were to hug our children every day – and I’m not talking about the side hug with a lousy uncomfortable light tap-tap-tap on the back – but a REAL hug where you shut your eyes, breathe in your child’s hair and never let go until they are ready to release, we could possibly devoid the world of bullies. This would give children, whether they are the bully or the bullied, a sense of self-worth and respect. It isn’t until then that they can understand what love is, feel like they matter in the world, and what safety feels like.

My challenge is to start the parent hugging campaign. This is where you don’t let go of a hug, until your child is ready to be released. Let’s see if this simple act of love can change the psyche of our kids.

Thanks, Ron for loving me and taking care of me when I was away at college. The memories of your hug will stay with me.

Your legacy lives on forever in my heart, and hopefully will be passed onto my girls and the generations to follow.

Deep Thoughts by a Lunch Lady

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I have no memories of the lunch ladies from my childhood. I remember a large ice cream scooper slopping mealy mashed potatoes onto my plastic, segmented tray. Then watching others spuds mushed down with the back of the scoop so the next gal with a ladle-dripping helping of gravy could fill up the well.

But sadly I have no recollection of the hands (or faces) that fed me.

The lunch ladies were mere props to my friends and me – the scenery of the grand cafeteria stage. Maybe it was because they never left their positions behind the counter. Or perhaps they grew weary of trying to get students to say “thank-you” or “please.” Or maybe I was a regular kid and didn’t pay attention to them because they were grownups.

Recently, I volunteered again to assist in my kids’ cafeteria for one shift. That’s six grades of hungry, loud children filing in-and-out for three hours. Sound like sensory overload? Yes, but I remembered from previous years that I was up for the challenge.

The first year I volunteered, my young girls and I had just completed reading “Junie B. First Grader…Boss of Lunch” for our bedtime story. Barbara Parks’, “Junie B. Jones” books always made us laugh. In this one, Junie befriends the lunch lady of her elementary school. “Gladys Guffman” was an affable character, who was mentioned in several other books. Any child who had loved this popular series knew of her.

Dressed for the part, I donned an apron, reading glasses and a hair net. I was what they call in the food service world, “One hot dish.”

“Ma’am, parents don’t need to wear a hair net,” whispered the head cook from the kitchen.

“I’m Gladys Guffman, the lunch lady.” Crickets began their faint song. “You know the gal from the Junie B. Jones books?” Still nothing.

Apparently, the staff had never read the books, so I skulked over to clean tables and spills for the remainder of my shift. However, there were a few of the library lovers who recognized my character immediately. Extra brownie points for those kids.

This year, I decided be more present with the children. I didn’t really know where that was going to take me; but I knew if I closely observed their patterns, a story for my Goofy Bucket List was bound to arise.

I was assigned the condiment cart. This is an area where all the children come after purchasing their food – if they need ketchup, butter, salad dressing and/or utensils.

After watching what every child grabbed, I thought I would speed up the process by making “packets” for the kids, consisting of a plastic spoon and fork, a straw and an extra napkin. This way I could interact with each child.

As I handed them their packet, they looked up at me surprised and thanked me for their disposable gift. What a fun experience this would be!

That is until the Kindergartners arrived.

Such sweet, darlings they are at that age. However, little did I know the youngest of the students would dis me. Not one of the Kindergartners would take a packet from me.

“Would you like a packet?”

Without acknowledgment, they would forage to find a fork before hustling away from me.

“Do you need a straw or napkin?” I asked in my sweetest tone to the back of their heads.

Not even an answer. They clammed up, maneuvered around my extended hand to take the same things I was trying to hand them. Perhaps these kids were well taught to avoid talking to strangers. Maybe they had to stay on task like their teacher asked of them. Possibly they were demonstrating their independence by giving me the cold shoulder.

Damaged and betrayed, I turned my frown upside down and quickly added more “fun” to my job. I started charging the older kids for napkins and ketchup. A little cafeteria humor couldn’t hurt anyone, right?

However, I quickly learned not to use sarcasm unless the child is in third grade. Many younger kids shot me the evil eye. A few yelled at me that it wasn’t fair or constitutional (or something like that). And then there were the sweet things who rolled their eyes at me, to show off their superior adolescent skills. Much luck to their parents in middle school!

By the end of my cafeteria experience, I had learned some important life lessons. No two kids are alike, sporks need to make a comeback for being the greatest eating utensil, and never order the mashed potatoes.

Other than that, I was glad to get out of there after my three hours. Also, I’m thankful there are people willing to take on these tedious roles. Because for them…it’s all gravy!

Making my Daughter Cry was a Cinch

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One of my munchkins gets blocked tear ducts. She usually wakes up with it, and startles the family every time because she resembles Rocky Balboa. Young moms at Target run the opposite direction, shielding their babies from my daughter. We have to avoid the ER for fear of being assigned an abuse caseworker.

For most people who get repeated duct problems, you apply a warm washcloth to the affected area, and whatever is blocking the duct will fall out from the dilated hole. Doesn’t take much to fix this problem. Sounds easy enough, right? Genetics sometimes slaps you in the face. But as long as there isn’t an infection, it’s easy breezy to take care of.

The other morning my daughter came downstairs to show off her fat eye.

“Mom, my eye hurts again,” she complained.

Looking at it closer, I check to make sure she doesn’t have pink eye, a sty, or blue eyeliner. She’s eight, so I’m fairly certain the latter isn’t an issue. It’s just the nurse in me, covering all bases.

“Honey, looks like you have another blocked tear duct,” I say reassuringly.

“Well get it out, already!”

Patience is something we are working on.

After several attempts to get the bugger to pop, I try to remember what I had done the last time to cure her. Pushing Momnesia aside, I remembered she had a stubborn one that lasted five days. But what had been the final therapy to get her eye back to a normal size?

She cried.

Hard.

So my snarling child, who was irritated that she had THIS again was more mad than sad. Could I, as her mother, make her cry without any reason to punish her? She hadn’t done anything wrong yet. It was 8:00am.

I couldn’t order a cranky, tired girl to take a shower, producing several types of waterworks. She was well rested and smelling clean from bathing the night before.

I could pinch her hard or pull her hair. But I gave that up on the playground in 1975. The thought of hurting a child was bringing ME to tears!

What if I lied to her, telling some horrific story? Would I be forgiven later and how much would the therapy bills set me back? She had to cry and I was the only one who could help my poor baby.

After considerable contemplation, I knew what I must do.

“I have something to ask you,” I meekly said. “Have you ever thought about what would happen if you couldn’t see me every day?”

I have no idea where this stupid question came from or what direction I was going. I just let it sneak out of my mouth and quickly regretted my decision.

“Or Daddy? What if you could only see him every other weekend?”

Worst Mom ever. I totally suck! WTH?

My sweet sensitive girl looked up at me with her long eyelashes, and I flashed back to when she was the perfect baby in my arms.

“Why would you say that?” she painfully asked.

Wanting to take back my words, I said, “It won’t happen to you. But there are some kids who have to divide their time with their parents. Wouldn’t that be hard?”

Seriously, I was going to pay for this damage; but at least she wouldn’t lose an eye.

I watched tears slowly appear. Then to my surprise, she threw her head back and wailed. An excruciating noise which if in a Greek tragedy, would have turned me deaf until the end of time.

At this point, I was rooting for crocodile tears. “Tsk, tsk-ing” and “I know-ing” until she produced the real deal.

She sobbed, “How do kids do that? If Daddy couldn’t kiss me goodnight every night, it would be the worst thing ever!!”

Knowing she had produced enough tears and watching the blocked duct open up like Mt. St. Helens, she continued to drown the collar of her shirt.

“Now you know this will never happen to you, right?” I said in my most convincing tone. “Your Daddy and I love each other too much to do that to you girls.”

“Really? (sniff, hiccup) You promise?” she begged.

What have I done here? For the love of jumbo-sized tissue boxes, I’m scaring the crap out of her.

After she calmed down and I rocked her on my lap, I realized something. Geesh, it hardly took any prodding to get this child to produce real tears! Less than 15 seconds.

What a talent! Give this girl her close up, Hollywood. This Mama is prepping her munchkin for her starring role.

I guess I could have turned on the movie Steele Magnolias or Terms of Endearment.

Huh. Didn’t think of that one.

Memories of Poop Water are a dirty tale

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Several years ago, bath time at our house was mostly a fun time. Splashing, giggling and a creative outlet for our energetic Munchkins. There were water fights, contests to see who can pour the most water on the floor and my personal favorite adding bodily fluids into the tub.

A parent never forgets the first urination in the tub. Unless you are a big drinker at dinner, then your fogginess is to be expected. But this one night, a Munchkin fessed up to it. She and her sister were sitting in a large pool of their own devices, which turned both parents into screaming idiots and acting like fools. We tried to hose down the girls, remove all contents of the bathtub and clean it out before we actually had to re-give them a bath. I wasn’t about to let them splash around in it before putting on fresh jammies!

Now if you think “tinkle-tub-time” was disgusting, you should have watched us on “turd-tub-time” night. This time, the responsible child at least tried to rectify (poor word choice?) her error. When my husband looked up and found two nicely formed stool chunks in a plastic yellow cooking set, he hollered for help. The guilty child was about to place the lid on the plastic skillet to hide her blunder, but she was caught.

Once again, Harpo and Groucho entered the bathroom passing wet children around, getting buckets to remove all the toys for a serious bleach cleaning, and I’m pretty sure we used the entire bottle of body wash on the kids after we cleaned the tub.

It is moments like these when parents know they should remain calm and not raise their voices.

BUT COME ON!!

My spawn were passing around a skillet of excrement! The anxiety and pure grossness of what was occurring was too much. My husband stays much calmer than his counter-part…but REALLY! Ew. I did have to take Microbiology in college and as an Engineer, he didn’t!

Looking back on the chaos, it probably was time for us to clean the bath toys anyway. Luckily, we still had our baby bottle dishwasher case (the one you place on the top rack of the washer and clean baby bottle parts). I couldn’t think of anything better than giving the bath toys a good, HOT cleaning. OK, I really wanted to toss them, but the Hubby thought sterilization would be fine.

Oh, sweet, sweet memories of my little darlings. For some reason when they were acting like turds after school, this story came to mind. Isn’t it fun to reminisce like this?

Did your kids do anything like this or do you have any poop war stories?

Embracing Your Weirdness is What Makes You Awesome

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Mama, I can’t do that! I don’t want the kids to think I’m weird.

My daughter’s words struck my abdomen, like a knife plunging into my soul.

“Weird!” She said the “W” word.

The first time I heard my child fearing others’ opinions, similar memories of mine were stirred up. Childhood fights on the playground, bickering in the girl’s room, or even worse … debating whether “Babe” cologne or “Love’s Baby Soft” was the best fragrance. It could get nasty.

Recently, I read a quote by Meryl Streep, which struck a nerve.

“What makes you different or weird — that’s your strength.”

Seriously, if I’d heard that advice when I was young, I might have avoided 25 percent of my childhood angst. I was a professional weird kid. If they had turned our fifth-grade spelling bee into a standing Weird-Off, I would have gone to Nationals. I was that proficient. In college, I tried to major in weird, but was denied. Theater and Film was an adequate backup.

With Halloween around the corner and people’s gory, graphic yard art popping up, one starts to ponder weirdness. (Oh, and thanks for my kids’ nightmares. I really enjoy a tiny foot in my face in the middle of the night.)

My journey of weird started at an early age. Lip-synching to Donny Osmond, into my purple hairbrush, with a red sequined tutu on my head. This was standard fare at my house. The kids in the neighborhood came to expect it, as did my parents.

Although the only day I could parade my weirdness was Halloween. Costumes mandatory? How glorious!

My costumes started off innocently. A bunny, a witch with a big rubber nose, and a picturebook-perfect Raggedy Ann, complete with a full wig constructed of red yarn. But those costumes don’t sound so weird, do they? It wasn’t until I had the choice of what to be, instead of my parents choosing, that my flair flew.

In the fourth grade, I was Phyllis Diller. Yes, I teased my hair high, put on obnoxious makeup and hot pink-framed glasses. I was a dead ringer for the comedienne. The best part was the reaction I would get at neighbors’ doors.

Trick-or-treat!

(gasp) Oh, my. What are you, honey?

Phyllis Diller.

The answer was either followed by laughter or absolute confusion as to why a young girl would choose this over a cute pumpkin or ghost outfit. A boring ghost uniform would have been booed from my bleachers.

Junior high was a time for many kids to bow out of costumes in my town — but not for me. I still wanted to take my younger brother around to houses, so I could steal his candy later. What was his costume? A werewolf, of course. And living up to high standard “weirdo” expectations, I was a full-term pregnant ballerina.

There were countless kooky costumes, too many to list. But those were the years I embraced my weirdness. However, at some point I began to worry what others would think of me. I’m certain this is a developmental stage that all humans face. It’s how you react to it and learn from that uncertainty that defines your character.

So when my munchkin said she was afraid of what the other kids would think, I pulled her over to my computer to teach her about Meryl Streep. I wanted my daughter to see someone who is famous — a great role model — and learn that a woman of that caliber knows being “weird and different” is awesome!

I never imagined Ms. Streep would help me with my parenting skills. Makeup and acting tips, maybe. But her lesson is being practiced in my house now.

Mama, I don’t mind being weird, if when I grow up, I like myself.

Standing ovation, my munchkin. Standing ovation!

previously printed in The Kansas City Star October 29, 2014