It’s Not All Mary Poppins

The Giving Tree: Love it or Loathe it?

I love Shel Silverstein‘s poems. I own Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and Falling Up. I can recite any number of his poems for the entertainment of the tots.

But I have never, ever liked The Giving Tree.

Lots of people love it. I loathe it. It creeps me the heck out. It’s a metaphor, of course, for parental love. The tree is the parent, and the child is… the child. At first, the metaphor works just fine. When your child is very young, after all, you as the parent give far more than you get. Those sleepless nights, the exhaustion, the incessant demands… in return for which, in the first few weeks, you don’t even get a smile! There is no way it can be otherwise. A baby is a baby. You give more than you get because they can only be what they are.

And, really… unless you become incapacitated and live with a child who treats you with the love, patience and respect you gave him/her in their infancy as they change your Depends… barring that, you always give more than you get as a parent. On balance, over the course of your life, your parents have probably given you more than you’ll ever give them. Beginning with, ahem, your life. That much is true.

BUT! But at some point, and I would argue this should begin to occur in the late teens to early twenties, the child should start giving back. (Because we’re raising adults, remember?) The balance may never be even, that’s probably not possible, but as the child becomes an adult, there should be some return, some reciprocity of love, respect and giving.

When the child never, ever gives, but only takes? A parent should not keep on giving until it kills them. Good lord. That’s just sick. And yet the book suggests this is a good thing, it’s how it ought to be, it’s laudable, it’s sweet, it’s appropriate, it’s something parents should emulate, even.


Only this week have I stumbled across an alternate interpretation. Maybe my reaction was the point of the book. Maybe, rather than see it as something parents are called to do, we’re supposed to feel revulsion. Maybe we’re supposed to see it as unhealthy, gone too far, extreme. Maybe it’s even supposed to help children begin to grasp the giving that their parents have done.

Maybe. And you can be sure that, should I read this book to children old enough to understand, I’ll be making the point that the boy is being very selfish. It doesn’t seem many people have read it as a cautionary tale, though. They either loooooove this book — such a sweet thing! such parental devotion!, or they loooooathe it — such abuse! such selfishness!

I’ve always fallen into the latter camp. Though I would like to believe the alternative interpretation is the intended one, I really don’t. I think the majority interpretation is the accurate one. And in that case?

This is a co-dependent relationship that SCREAMS for an intervention. And who better to provide it than Sassy Gay Friend?


April 13, 2011 Posted by | controversy, parenting | , , | 25 Comments

A professional question

Any career nannies reading this? Not temporary or part-time nannies, not nannies who are doing this until they graduate, or until they buy their first house or whatever, but people who have been a nanny for at least five years, and — this is the important part — intend to be at it another 15 or 20 years from now.

I know a few nannies. Being professional childcare providers, we tend to meet up routinely, in the park, at playgroups, in community centres. When we meet, we talk, and, as with any group who share a profession, we often end up talking shop.

And when we do, I am always left wondering: Why would anyone choose to be a career nanny?

Oh, wait. That sounds horribly judgmental. It’s not meant that way at all. This is an utterly sincere question. I am not being sarcastic, I am not belittling the profession. I know that there are women who do choose career nannying, and I am honestly, genuinely curious.

I can certainly see doing it while you’re a student, making your way through university or college. I can see doing it when you’re living in an apartment. I can see doing it for a specific season of your life. None of the women I know want to be career nannies. They are all in transition from one thing to another, and nannying fits the employment bill — for now.

Which makes sense to me. Because I always wonder… when you have a home of your own, when you have an established life of your own — as opposed to the transitory nature of life as a student, betwixt your education and your future — why would you be a nanny?

And again, I know, if you are a career nanny, that question is going to sound so awful. It’s just that when I talk to nannies, you see, the downsides seem to overwhelm the upsides to such an overwhelming degree, I wonder why you’d do it once you had options. Even if, like me, you want to make childcare your life’s work: why as a nanny?

When I talk to nannies, I hear about:
– parents who hover in the background, over-riding your decisions
– parent who come home from work, and ask you to stick around so they can… what? … putz around doing not much of anything, to hear the nannies talk
– parental micro-managing
– having to do housekeeping as well a childcare (beyond cleaning up after the children)
– not getting sick pay
– not getting paid if they cancel on you
– parents who come home later than agreed (and don’t pay overtime)

The list goes on. Though I would never ask directly about finances (to me, that’s bad manners), I do wonder about pay. It stands to reason I can make significantly more caring for five children than a nanny can caring for one or two.

Autonomy. I have lots. Ditto privacy.

The downsides of my kind of childcare? It’s in my home, so the mess is in my home. But then again, it’s in my home. I have no commute — and on a bleak and frigid February morning, that counts for a lot. Isolation — but nannies suffer that to the same degree. In fact, I can’t think of any other disadvantages of my profession that aren’t shared by nannies… but nannies seem to suffer quite a few negatives that I don’t share, or suffer to a much lesser degree.

I have four or five families, so if I lose one family, it’s not the end of the world. It’s significant, of course, but it’s not my entire income stream.

I think the biggest benefit, to me, is psychological. When I care for a child in my home, I am my own boss, and (most of the time!) all parties understand this. Parents, it seems to me, are much more likely to view their nanny as their employee, and, because they know they are the nanny’s sole source of income, there is a tendency to abuse their role. (My apologies to all the marvellous, considerate, nanny-employing parents out there. I know there are lots of you, and this post is NOT directed at you. I don’t want this aspect to be the focus of the post. I am only reporting what I hear — and I recognize it’s from only one half of the equation.)

I’m curious. Any career nannies reading this? Have I got it entirely wrong? Is there a big piece of the puzzle I’m missing?

What are the advantages to being a career nanny? Why did you choose it? Why are you happy to continue in the profession?

May 4, 2010 Posted by | controversy | , , | 17 Comments

Moms on Dads. A short rant.

shame_shaking_finger– “Oh, just look at you!” Mom scans her daughter’s outfit and rolls her eyes. “Pink stripes on the top, orange check on the bottom. Guess we can tell who dressed you this morning!” (Hint: It wasn’t mommy, and it wasn’t the daughter.)

– “I just have to check her bin,” says mom as she rummages through the shelf where her child’s extra clothes are kept. “Jay said there were a couple of outfits in here, but I know what he considers an ‘outfit’. He has no idea.”

– “You might want to wash his face and hands, Mary.” Mom nods her head in the direction of her son. “His dad cleaned him up after breakfast, and he’s just never thorough enough.”

Each of these statements made by a mother about her child’s father. Each of these statements made by a mother who believes “he’s a good dad”. Each of these statements made in public, to me and in the presence at least one other parent.

I find it shocking, you know. I really do.

These are all good dads. They are involved. They do half the drop-off and/or pick-ups. They cook some dinners. They bathe the children, the play with them, the speak respectfully and fondly with the kids. They take days off when the child is sick. We all know there are dads who don’t do nearly so much.

And yet, if I were to go by what I hear…

They dress the children — and do it wrong.
They help organize the childrens’ things — and do it wrong.
They feed the kids — and do it wrong.
They play with the kids — and do it wrong.

Some days I wonder why they try at all. Must be because they feel a lot of love and commitment to their child, because heaven knows their wives/partners don’t express a whole lot of satisfaction in their efforts.

Does it matter, does it really matter, if the child is wearing stripes and checks? Or colours that clash? Is it life and death if a child’s face is somewhat less than spotless?

Does it matter so much that it’s worth embarrassing someone in public? Is it so important that it’s somehow all right to undermine someone’s honest efforts and belittle their abilities… not just in the presence of other adults, but in the presence of their children? Are we so insecure as parents, we mothers, that we have to sweat the small stuff just to feel superior?

I very rarely hear dads doing this sort of thing to moms, but moms do it all.the.time.

And I, for one, would like it to stop.

Thank you.

July 10, 2009 Posted by | controversy, manners, parenting, parents, power struggle | , , | 20 Comments

Who’s on top?

“Daycare interferes with the parent-child bond.”
“If a child is spending nine hours a day with someone else, that will affect their relationship with the parent.”

There are those who believe these statements.

Now, I was a SAHM, a homeschooling SAHM, for years. If a family decides they want a parent home with their children, if a parent decides that’s what he/she wants to do? I’m totally onside. I loved, loved, loved being a SAHM. It was, without doubt, the time in my life when (awful marriage aside), I was happiest and most fulfilled.

(Another aside: I don’t believe ‘parenting is the hardest job in the world’. I think it’s one of the most important, and certainly not without its challenges. But not the hardest.)

And, for many years while I was a SAHM, I would also have ascribed to those beliefs. How could I possibly give up so many of the hours I spent with my child each week and not have it impact negatively on my relationship with my child? It only made rational sense.

Thing is, love isn’t always rational.

I am fond of my wee charges, and they of me. We toss around the L-word freely. There are hourly hugs and kisses and snuggles. There are shared smiles and pats on heads and unexpected gifts. There’s a lot of love in my household, and it’s wonderful.

However, in the grand heirarchy of relationships, I come a solid second to mom and dad, and everybody knows that. Heck, I’m probably well down, after grandparents, aunts, uncles, and maybe even certain neighbours and family friends.

Which is why I’m not surprised when, now and then, I’m compared to mom or dad … and found lacking. Sometimes, we know, they’re totally trying to scam me. But sometimes it’s quite sincere. And mostly, since they’re supposed to love mom and dad best and it’s totally no skin off my nose, I agree with them. Or, if it’s a matter of discipline, I simply remind them that I’m not mom or dad, and it’s okay to do things differently.

Usually, it’s an occasional, passing thing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had a child who did it chronically.

Until Timmy.

For the last few weeks, every single day, that boy has been delighted to inform me of the multitude of ways in which mummy does it better, stronger, faster, smarter, nicer… than me. I like Timmy. I like his mother. But this? Is getting old.

We are walking through the park. We see the small floating dock that juts out into the river, perfect for sitting on and dangling your feet, just about the right side to step into a canoe. It’s a nice dock. A friendly dock.

Don’t know who that woman is…

“Mary?” Timmy looks up at me. “Can we go out on the dock?”

“No, sweetie. I can’t safely take four children out there.” (Well, I could if they were all three- and four-year-olds, but not with a four, two almost-twos, and a one-and-a-bit. I’d give it 12 seconds before someone was in the river.)

“MAMA takes me out onto the dock!” He’s not angry. He’s just informing me of the wonderfulness of MAMA, and particular, MAMA’s superior parenting prowess. As he did already today, about half a dozen times. As he has done, many times per day, for weeks.

“Yes, I’m sure she does. How many children am I looking after today, Tims?”

He does a careful count of himself and the three others. “Seven.”

“And how many children does mama have to take care of?”

He looks around himself, considering. “Me! One!”


We proceed along the path. Point made, I feel better.

“CAN we go on the dock, Mary? MAMA takes me.”

See? Parents have nothing to fear! Nothing!

June 23, 2009 Posted by | controversy, daycare, parents, Timmy | , , | 9 Comments

Good, Bad… and nothing in between?

tearsYou’re not nearly as rational as you think you are.

That’s okay. Neither am I. None of us are. Even those who are sure we go through our lives guided by only the most rigorous of analytical thought have merely suppressed their emotions. Just because they don’t acknowledge them doesn’t mean they’re not influenced by them. In fact, given the suppression, I’d say it’s more likely they’re affected. They just don’t know it.

But really, that can be said of any of us. Research proves over and over that “feeling actually happens prior to any conscious thought and because it comes first, it shapes and colours the thoughts that follow.” It’s what we all learned in Psych 101: we have the emotional reaction first, and then we plug our reasons into it. This happens at an unconscious level, mind you, which is why some of you out there are even now denying this with firm assurance that YOU are a rational person. We’d like to believe this — I know I do — but we’re just not so reasoned as we’d prefer to think. Our conscious mind is blissfully unaware it’s being emotionally manoeuvred.

Moreover, if our Gut response is “Yeah! Good thing!”, we minimize all risks associated with it. If it’s “Boo! Bad thing!”, we exaggerate them. The idea that something can be unpleasant but beneficial is as foreign to our Gut response as it is to the toddler you’re trying to siphon those antibiotics into. In our Heads we know better, but Gut steers the psychological ship far more than we’re aware.

Here’s an example. Crying. Crying, particularly the tears of our children, is a Bad Thing. Therefore it is Bad for the child, and there is no benefit to be had from it. Therefore, tears are to be avoided at all costs.

And where does this “reasoning” lead us?

To the idea that children are psychologically damaged if they are allowed to cry now and then. To the idea that the parent-child bond can be torn asunder if a parent doesn’t always leap to close the floodgates. To the idea that anyone whose child cries is a Bad Parent.

But what this reasoning completely and utterly misses is this ironic fact:

If you avoid your child’s tears at all costs… You create children who cry more.

I have a lot to say on this topic. I’ll be back!

February 20, 2009 Posted by | controversy, parenting, power struggle, tantrums | , , | 9 Comments

One of the first parenting challenges

troubletagNaming the baby.

A reader is panicking because everyone hates the name they’ve chosen for their still-gestating baby. Perhaps because family and friends loathe it so, they don’t share it with us. The columnist weighs in with a measured — and entertaining — response, just full of quotable lines.

I rather liked this: “If five people tell you you’re drunk, maybe you should lie down.”

My friend Cindy was partial to this: “When it comes to parenting, opinions are like stinking, steaming, full diapers: There’s no shortage of them, and no one wants to change them.”

Go, read the article. Which line made you give an appreciative snort?

And what do you think about the wisdom of giving your baby “a challenging and unusual” name? Is your creativity empowering your child with a name that will never be forgotten, or dooming him/her to a lifetime of humiliation and inconvenience?

January 12, 2009 Posted by | controversy, individuality, parenting, peer pressure, pregnancy and delivery | , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

On Junk Praise and Self-Esteem

It is just about lunch time, and, as is our routine, the children have been directed to put their clutter toys and games away. This was a while back, and I had just started a three-year-old. This is unusual. Generally I get the children as babies, fresh off mummy’s maternity leave, but this little one’s mother had opted to stay home until this year, so here she is, fresh into daycare at the ripe old age of three.

After I’ve set the table, I look around at the room. The two-year-old has put his toys away, one of the three-year-olds has hers away, and the third? The newbie? She sits beside the block bin, and has put perhaps three blocks away. Hm.

“Why aren’t you putting the blocks away, like I asked?”
“You didn’t say ‘Good job!’!”
“And I won’t until you do a good job. Away you go! Tell me when you’re done.”

Her eyes widen. This was not the reaction she’d been expecting.

She’s obviously been fed a steady diet of “junk praise” by her loving parents. Of course she has. We’ve all been taught to do that: to build a child’s self-esteem, you feed them lots and lots of praise. You note their small accomplishments, you give positive feedback routinely.

And what do you get?

Praise addicts. Kids who can’t do anything without being stroked constantly. They’re like a car with a leaky gas-tank, constantly needing replenishing. You can’t get half as far as you should on the fuel you put in.

What you don’t get is healthy self-esteem. What you don’t get is kids who can see a task through to the end — not without a steady input of praise and admiration.

I’ve been reading “The Self Esteem Trap” by Polly Young-Eisendrath. It’s clear, well-written, thought-provoking, and, if you’re a parent of children under the age of 25 or so, probably provocative. It might even anger you, because it rebuts some of the noblest parenting ideals of the last three decades. It’s a terrific book.

I’d recommend it to all parents. Being the thought-provoking work it is, it’s spawned at least four posts in my mind. This is the first. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of being part of a conference call with Ms. Young-Eisendrath. One comment she made stuck with me: “Self-esteem can’t be injected from outside.”

This is not to say you never praise your child, of course, or that you don’t take genuine pleasure in them. But when you’ve created a child who, at the age of three, can’t put away 30 blocks without four or five injections of praise and encouragement, what you have is not self-esteem, but praise dependence.

A child who is raised on a steady diet of constant praise for non-accomplishments can certainly gain an inflated view of themselves. This is not healthy self-esteem, however, for what happens the first time they bump up against something that doesn’t come easily, against something that takes a little perseverance before they’ll see success?

Do they have the inner resources to say, “This isn’t easy, but I know I can do it, a bit at a time?” Or are they more likely to say, “This is stupid!” and drop it, or blame the teacher for being boring, or declare the task irrelevant? Or, when they’re older and faced with a task they can’t drop, are they more likely to say, “I’m a failure!”?

It’s true. Over-praise a child, wilt in awe at their every burp and hiccup, and you actually undermine the development of their self-esteem.

I’d planned on more, but the tots will be through the door any second, and I want to get this posted today. Chew on that idea for now, let me know what you think, and be sure we’ll be back for more!

September 24, 2008 Posted by | books, controversy, Developmental stuff, health and safety, individuality, parenting, socializing | , , , , | 11 Comments

Extracurricular babies

Today, you can find me over here, writing about the why’s and wherefore’s of toddler ‘extracurricular activities’.

If you have a Work It, Mom! account, feel free to leave your comments over there. If you don’t, you might consider it: WIM is a terrific community. Otherwise, do come back here and tell me what you think!

February 19, 2008 Posted by | controversy, Developmental stuff, parenting | 3 Comments

Rote vs Real: A non-contest

“Malli, you shouted at Suzie, and now she’s crying. You need to say sorry.”

Suzie’s mother quickly intervenes. “Oh, I never force apologies. They don’t understand at this age, and it only encourages hypocrisy.”

I’ve heard this before, of course. The intervening mother disapproves of my draconian ways and is confident of her moral superiority. If I continue in my emotional manipulation, Malli will grow to become a moral cripple, drilled and skilled in the social forms but lacking any comprehension of the substance, of the meaning of the exchanges. A hypocrite, as Suzie’s mother would have it.


Those who hold this position re: rote apologies don’t understand the agenda behind the expectation. Yes, at first the child has no idea what’s really going on. You tell the aggressor tot to say “Sorry”, and the victim chimes in, too. Clearly, no one knows what they’re doing, or why. So why bother?

We bother because the form does matter. If we wait for true empathy to emerge, we could be waiting a while. One can, however, encourage true empathy to emerge through these rote exchanges. Encouraging emotional development is not the entire reason, however. I’m not even sure it’s the primary reason to insist on rote social behaviours, not at this stage, anyway.

The basic reason is that we want these things to be reflexive. We want them to be automatic. Do we want them to be mindless and insincere? Of course not. But we do want them done!

When you drive, you put on your signal light at every turn. You don’t just put it on when there’s a car behind you. You do do it at every corner, necessary or not, because you want it to be automatic. You don’t want to have to think about it at every intersection.

Similarly, basic social interactions — please, thank you, I’m sorry, excuse me — are much more likely to occur when they’re rote.

Tone of voice matters, of course. Eye contact matters. A smile to accompany the words matters. These things take it from rote to real — but if we haven’t done it in the first place, the “real” is never going to happen! So many of these interactions have to occur in a split second. There is often not time to evaluate and consider. Just as you flick on the signal when you approach an intersection, you flick out an “excuse me” when you inadvertantly bump into someone on a crowded sidewalk.

You do it without thinking — but does that matter to the other person? No. They just want the acknowledgment of their person. Rote is fine.

So, yeah. Rote.

See, empathy takes a while to develop. Rote can be learned much sooner. In order for a skill to become automatic, though, the earlier we start, the better. It is not hypocrisy. The goal is certainly sincerity and empathy — and that will come.

When integration was occurring in the south, studies consistently showed that attitudes changed when behaviour changed. When the kids were taught about the other group, prejudice stayed strong. When the kids were thrown together in classrooms, prejudices broke down. (Not all at once, and not easily, perhaps, but it started.)

Attitudes follow actions. The real will grow out of the rote.

You want an empathetic kid? Encourage them to act like they are. It’s not hypocrisy, it’s training. If it’s rote during toddlerhood, it’ll be real by school age, and automatic all their lives long.

And that, my friends, is a good thing.

February 6, 2008 Posted by | behavioural stuff, controversy, individuality, manners, parenting, socializing | 21 Comments

I’m not here today

Today, you will find me over there, waxing eloquent on the perils of toddler teen-ification.

January 22, 2008 Posted by | controversy, parenting, peer pressure, socializing | 5 Comments