Social Skills

"How was camp today?" I ask, forgetting to ask a more specific question.

"Fine," she says, true to script.

I am going to ban that response. That and "boring."

"Did you already know any of the other kids?" I try again.


"Are they nice?"

"Not really. They all know each other and played together and didn't really include me," she says glumly looking out the car window.

"Huh," I say, tamping down the platitudes that are rising in my throat, trying instead to come up with a response that will make her feel heard and supported. "That sounds hard. I know I don't like feeling excluded."

"Yeah," she mumbles and slumps deeper into her carseat.

We ride home in silence while her little sister sings "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to her stuffed dog.

At home, she wants to read a book, curled up in my lap, draping her tan limbs over mine in an unusual display of cuddliness.

I want to grab her in a bear hug, snuffle her hair, look deep into her eyes while I extoll at length about her beauty and brilliance but get a hold of myself and let her lead. I sit still.

And I close my mouth.


When we take walks around the neighborhood, I see the same people over and over again. We live in a small town, we have our favorite routes.

This happened sometimes when we lived in California, but our city there was much bigger, it was easier, possibly even safer, to just avert one's eyes and feign invisibility. In California, even when I unexpectedly saw someone I knew well, I often ducked into the crowd to avoid having to say hello. I'm just not good at those unexpected moments. They make me anxious and weirded out. How long do we need to chat? Do I have to have a long time to talk if I approach them to say hi? What do you even talk about?

It's taken me three years of living in Virginia to start saying "hi" to everyone we pass. Or "good morning" or, even, "lovely day, isn't it?" I still mentally rehearse and rehash what I say and how I say it. I still duck out of chance encounters sometimes.

But not always.

I'm cultivating a new habit: friendliness. I guess I've grown weary of good friends telling me they didn't like me when we first met, that I seemed cold or bitchy from afar.

I'm not cold or bitchy. But I'm shy and awkward (bloggers unite!) and my girls have some of my shy awkward blood in their veins and they are watching and learning from everything I do.

When we walk and I greet a neighbor, the girls ask, "Who are you saying hi to? Do you know them, Mama?"

And I say, truthfully, "I don't know them well, no. But it's good to be friendly."


Later that night, I tuck Z into bed and she curls against me, asking if she has to go back to summer camp tomorrow.

I've managed to drag out of her that she liked the teacher, she liked the class, she's just feeling socially out of step with the other girls. I am struggling mightily to not project or judge or feel I have to fix everything.

"Do you want ideas about how to try to make friends with some of these girls?"

"I guess."

"Well, think about what makes you feel good, what makes you want to play with someone else, and do that. I like it when people smile at me and say hi. I like it when people compliment me on something I just said or ask me about my favorite book or ask to join in on something I'm enjoying."

"There is this one girl who had a dinosaur shirt on that I liked."

"Exactly! You can compliment her shirt and then follow up with a question that keeps the conversation rolling."

We role play a little with her as herself and me as the dinosaur shirt girl.  Then we switch and she's the dinosaur shirt girl and I'm her and we wind up laughing hysterically into her pillows.

Her laugh is like a sparkle volcano and I want every one of those girls to love it.


Calm Down

7:43 pm. Z has her heart set on finishing a water bottle cozy that she saw on the box of her loom kit. It's almost bedtime and the cozy is taking longer than we both thought and we won't have to time to both finish it and read a chapter from On the Banks of Plum Creek.

This is just one of many challenging moments we navigate daily, one of many moments that could be resolved with a reasonable conversation, but instead often becomes a tumult of emotion.

"NooOOOooo! I want to do both!!! YOU SAID WE COULD DO BOTH!!"

I said we could do both if we had time. We no longer have time for both and must chose one. Such rational explanations are of no interest to her.

"I never get to do what I want! I'll never FINISH it! I'll never get to read my BOOK! AHHHH WAAAA!"

I am tight as a drum now, every muscle in my body is as taut as her emotional spiral. I want so desperately to press a magic pause button, to STOP THIS MOMENT and make her see how much she is overreacting.

"Z. CALM. DOWN." I am stern, much too stern but I can't stop myself, I'm suddenly just so tired. "You are overreacting and we can't resolve this when you're so upset."

She looks defeated and then so do I. 


I'm not sure where I first heard about the concept of a Calm Down Corner, either Pinterest or a blog or some combination of those internet wormholes. Wherever it was, I immediately latched onto it and set up our own in an unused corner of our living room.

In our Calm Down Corner is a soft sheepskin that was given to Z when she was a baby and a basket filled with different activities that might possibly calm a pint-sized person down: a finger labyrynth, a couple of calm down glitter jars, books about yoga, meditation and silly animal pictures, a pen and pad for writing or drawing, a jar of therapeutic putty with hidden gems and buttons, an empty plastic water bottle for scrunching up tight and then blowing back to normal and assorted other fidget toys to release and refocus emotional energy.

The girls both use it but Z uses it most often. Sometimes she will excuse herself in the middle of an intense encounter and head over there to calm herself down.  Often, when she is at loose ends, I'll ask her if she'd prefer a hug, a time out in her room or some time in the Calm Down Corner.

I don't know if I'm doing this right, this teaching her how to handle her challenging emotions. It is our biggest struggle and shows no signs of relenting. Sometimes, I feel such deep empathy, such compassion for her struggle. And sometimes I would give my eye teeth to see her display calm disappointment or offer a mildly upset shrug.

As I've mentioned previously, we all have been working on labeling our emotions. I've grown comfortable with this, especially debating precise word choices, something that I happen to enjoy immensely.

"I'm not really feeling grumpy, per se, I'm more irritated."

I just finished reading "Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child" by John Gottman and like many of the parenting books I read, I find it simultaneously comforting and terrifying. Comforting because I agree with so much with his thesis: when your child is in an emotional upheaval, they need you more than ever. Simply sending them to time-out over and over again doesn't help them learn how to label, understand and express their emotions in ways that don't involve splitting the eardrums or draining the will to live of anyone in a 20 yard radius.

Terrifying because this is MY job? It's SO HARD. HALP PLZ.

Terrifying too because it lays bare some of my own issues with control and my own hypersensitivity: I get so wound up and want so desperately to just STOP her behavior.

I want "calm down" to be a supportive invitation, rather than a judgmental imperative.  I want my girls to freely chose the Calm Down Corner, and eventually, to have a calm down corner inside themselves.


8:14 pm. Officially past bedtime.  Water bottle cozy finally complete. Book chapter unread.

"I'm sorry, Mommy, for throwing a fit."

"Thanks. I'm sorry too, sweetheart. I didn't handle it very well."

"You didn't?"

"No, I didn't. I could have just told you what I knew you were disappointed and frustrated that we couldn't do both. I could have helped you work through your upset a little better."

"It's okay, Mommy. We're both working on this."

Yes, yes we are.



I am hiking with Sweet Dog at dawn. The trail signs say "Open from dawn till dusk", but I forgot that dawn is still quite dark, especially under the leafy canopy. It is so quiet I can hear very little, mostly the dog and me panting rapidly in time with each other.

As the trail narrows, I find I am covered in the gossamer strings of spider webs that criss-cross the path. They quickly give way, lacing my arms as if they were trying to catch me but of course they are no match for my power and size.

There was recently a big storm here and there are freshly fallen trees all around. As I navigate around them I lose the path for a moment and it gets darker and I hear noises and I am suddenly scared because, of course, I am a woman alone in the woods with only my ferocious attack dog to lick someone to death.

And then I am angry that I am aware of this, that I'm mentally replaying in my head all the ways I can protect myself, that I'm imagining the angles and speed necessary to successfully connect knee to scrotum. Men don't have to think this way, do they? But as women, we do. We fear.

Suddenly, every twig breaking in the distance becomes not a deer, not a fox, but a homicidal maniac. Every bird song is a reminder of just how far away I am from other people, good people.

Why do women have to feel afraid? Why do women have to worry about the safety of their bodies and psyches? There is nothing new about this realization, of course. This is Women's Studies 101 anger I'm feeling here.

But I'm angry anew for my daughters.

For surely they will experience this feeling at various points in their lives. Whether walking home late at night from a night club or hiking through a forest enjoying a beautiful dawn, suddenly their attention will be taken away from fun, solitude, or peace and toward fear. As the wisps of spider webs trail behind me like invisible streamers, I am saddened by how quickly hard work can be undone. Careful intricate preparation destroyed in a moment by a bigger, more powerful organism.

I find a turtle on the trail and marvel at its compact disappearing act. I envy his shell; he can pull his squishy sensitive bits inside and protect himself from anything scary at a moment's notice. It's so efficient; as soon as the danger passes - POP - legs and head all come out again as if nothing ever happened. If only it were that easy for us, if only our hard protective shells built of fear and pragmatism could be carried with us, used when needed but then we could just as easily, just as quickly, emerge.

As I continue to hike, I am angry at vague ideas and broad sections of humanity but also at myself. I'm angry that I read all those true life crime books in high school, for they now fuel my nightmares and day-mares. I read them obsessively, as a way of shocking myself with the absolute worst case scenarios. I spent my allowance on cheap paperbacks with grainy black and white photographs of women with Farrah Fawcett wings and men with blank eyes. One in particular that I reread numerous times was called something like "Lady in a Box" about a man who kept a woman trapped in a box under his bed for years. I was amazed that somebody could do that. And by "that" I mean both keep someone in a box under the bed and survive. But of course, people do do that, don't they? People keep other people in boxes. And people survive.

I've been wondering lately how to broach the topic of safety with my girls. Through books, I guess, as that's always my go-to answer for everything. (Though definitely NOT "Lady in a Box.") I have some books but I haven't shown them to my girls. I am having a prolonged ostrich moment about this, as if I can just put my head in the sand and the rest of the world will go away and I will never have to tell Z and E about people who might want to scare them, hurt them, take them.

At six, Z is still very innocent. She's a first child, she doesn't have many older friends and she has parents who are very protective of her and closely monitor what she sees and hears and experiences. Once I was trying to get some money from the ATM and she wanted to stay in the car. I would only be a few steps away but you're not supposed to do that, right? There are laws, DO NOT EVER LEAVE A KID IN THE CAR EVEN FOR A MOMENT. She was five at the time and starting to become a more reasonable and mature human being and I thought, I'll just leave her in the car for a minute, and lock the doors.

"Why do you need to the lock the doors?" she asked.

I paused and answered "For your safety."

"Oh I know," she said seriously and I froze, afraid of what she might 'know', "like burglars! They might steal my doll!" I smiled and nodded my ostrich head and didn't say what else strangers might do.

When I hike, I like to get to a particularly nice spot and stand still and close my eyes for a few long moments. Sight is by far my strongest sense and when I hike I'm mostly focusing on what I see. With my eyes closed, I can hear so much, every breath of wind, every bird call, every cracking leaf. Before I do this, of course, I look around to make sure there's no one lurking in the bushes. After checking, even when my eyes are closed and I'm finally hearing, really hearing, the intricate bird calls, I'm also, in some small corner of my mind, listening for footsteps and imagining what I would do if I had to.

We just got Z out of being afraid of strangers. "Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet!" we'd chirp at her a few years ago when her natural wariness when meeting new people turned to frightened avoidance.  Now there is no stopping her. She will chat with most anyone. Everyone is a potential friend.

"Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet!" she's repeated to her little sister a few times recently.



Blog Designed by: NW Designs