Friday, September 26, 2014

Happy Anniversary to Us, America!


Living in a foreign country is a lot like marriage. You enter with high expectations. You go through a honeymoon period when everything is magical. Then you begin to notice the little adorable differences. At first you embrace them, proud to be so tolerant, until you realize they are neither little nor adorable, at which point you either figure it out or you pack up and go back to your parents. Twelve years (and one divorce) later, I am still here. This was the first year I forgot my anniversary with America. Real marriage, I hear you say.

Back in Slovakia, I graduated with a Master degree in biotechnology. With two offers for PhD programs, I considered my options carefully before telling my parents I was off to the United States as a nanny. New York! Here I come! Having watched too many episodes of "Friends" and "Sex And the City" I imagined myself strutting down the Park Avenue all classy and chic, my (deeply) hidden talents for directing a play or designing a spaceship suddenly revealed, and my single status crushed with a number of smart and witty men fighting for my attention. (And hot. They were obviously all hot.)

I arrived to the United States through an au-pair agency. I was told that au-pair program was a cultural exchange experience through childcare. My first cultural experience is now known as a "toiletgate." The au-pair training school was located on the St. John's University campus in Oakdale, Long Island. We stayed in typical college dorm rooms, which meant shared bathrooms. After I got over the fact that the gaps between stalls were so large I could watch the person do her business, I noticed that the water level in the toilet bowl was dangerously high. Ugh, I thought, clogged. Great. I moved on to the next one. Same thing. Again, and again, and again. Jet-lagged, tired and grumpy, I mustered the courage to complain.
"Excuse me, but all the toilets are clogged. It's rather disgusting." I told the au-pair agency representative. She was horrified. She ran out and came back a minute later with a smile that is usually reserved for idiots.
"They are not clogged," she said. "This is the way American toilets look like."

While still in the au-pair training school, we took a trip to the city. After a guided tour of Manhattan we were set free to explore. I followed a group of girls to a pizza deli. Every one of them ordered like it was not a big deal. I was staring at the menu in panic, wondering how was I ever going to survive if a slice of pizza cost $2.75. Plus tax. Don't forget the damn tax. I came to the US with $100. This was an absurd amount of money for me at the time. I walked to the counter with my chin raised and my knees trembling and ordered.
"What do you want to drink?" the man behind the counter barked.
"Oh," I was caught off-guard. "I'll have soda."
"What kind?" the man barked again.
"Um...the sparkly kind?" I said and he looked annoyed. What is going on? I just want sparkling water. Because in Slovakia, we call sparkling water soda.
"Which soda do you want?" the man was clearly running out of patience.
I stared at him blankly.
"Coke? Sprite? Dr. Pepper?" he rattled off.
"I'd like...soda?" I tried one more time and then seeing his eyes narrowing quickly added: "Coke. I'll take Coke."

Europeans love to make fun of Americans labeling everything with instructions and warnings. "Your freshly brewed cup of coffee that is steaming up your glasses may be hot." Or: "Open box before eating pizza." However, when presented with a box of Pop Tarts by a 12-year-old, I learned to appreciate the instructions for stupid. Pop Tarts? What on Earth is that? To my astonishment, there were several ways how to serve them. I would have never guessed that you can eat them cold or hot. I would have never guessed that you can microwave them or put them in the toaster. I would most definitely never guessed that these can be called "pastry." What I also didn't guess was that one piece equaled 200 calories. I ate them throughout the day, hot or cold, toasted or microwaved, and then wondered why I gained 20 pounds in the first two months. 

Pop Tarts became my addiction mainly because of lack of decent candy in American supermarkets. Go ahead, call me a snob. I am a chocoholic and I carry that title proudly. The first week of my stay with the host family I found a Hershey's chocolate bar in the fridge. I was surprised it was in the fridge rather than in the pantry with all the other candy, but as soon as I saw it I had to have it. I took a bite and couldn't tell if I threw up in my mouth a little, or if that was the natural flavor of the chocolate. There was only one logical explanation - it was expired. I didn't know that such thing could happen, but we learn something new every day. I drove to the nearest supermarket and diligently picked a fresh XXL bar. I took a bite. There it was again, the aftertaste of a 24-hour stomach bug.

Of course, one never forgets their first visit to Starbucks. There I was, unable to recognize what a normal cup of coffee was called. After hesitating for 15 minutes, I finally walked to the counter and ordered Americano. To my great disappointment, I got a regular sized paper cup with a spit of coffee at the bottom. I took a sip. I dragged myself back to the counter and explained. The barista smiled and handed me a tall coffee. I asked him how much I owed him.
"Oh, don't worry about it, that's fine."
Um...what? I looked around for a hidden camera. Surely I couldn't just walk away without paying. Surely no customer service representative would ever let me do that, without yelling at me for messing up the order, without rolling his eyes about the extra work, without loudly telling his coworker about the stupid cow that didn't even know what she wanted to drink! I was moved to tears.

There were many other things that left me speechless. The ability to read a magazine while drinking a cup of tea in a bookstore (in Slovakia you were not allowed to even look through a magazine unless you paid for it first). Driving a car that was for my use only, knuckles white and my stomach turning noticing the sign with a minimum speed limit of 40mph. Do they want me to die? How can I ever drive that fast? Houses built out of wood instead of brick, people smiling at me all the time, low fat or no fat yogurts only, and so many more differences. Little and adorable. Big and scary. We have been through a lot together, haven't we? Happy 12th anniversary to us, America!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Misconception of Spanking


I am not a NFL fan. I don't watch football. I am European. But the recent headlines of domestic violence hit home nevertheless. First, Ray Rice's contract was terminated as a result of him punching his fiancee unconscious (or should I say the public outcry over the video led to his termination). Then Adrian Peterson was indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. He punched his four-year-old son in his scrotum, and beat him with a switch on his back, buttocks, ankles, and legs, leaving cuts and bruises.

Charles Barkley defended him, saying that corporal punishment is the way of life among African Americans in the South. “Whipping — we do that all the time,” Barkley said. “Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.” Ruben Navarrette, a columnist, wrote in an opinion piece for CNN that spanking is not child abuse but common sense. He says: "Fear is essential to respect. Children won't do what we tell them to do, unless -- at some level -- they fear the consequences that will come from not doing it."

The problem with spanking starts right with its definition. Every parent has a different idea of what is acceptable. Navarrette gives you a manual on how to hit - only use a palm of your hand, only hit through clothing, only one swat. Peterson caused his son to bleed, yet still believes he is a good father doing the right thing for his son. All people who support corporal punishment have one thing in common - they think today's generation of children is spoiled and can't behave because of lack of spanking. This is a truly ironic statement considering that up to 90% of Americans spank their kids.

Children need discipline. They need boundaries and they need a consistent message. They need to know that "no" means "no", not that it means "yes" after they ask 20 times or scream for five minutes. Boundaries can be set without spanking. The real problem is that setting boundaries without spanking requires patience.

Children are inquisitive. They want to know things, they want to try things, they want to explore and do things on their own, in their own way. This sounds admirable on paper, but is plainly annoying and tiring in real life. Even if you try to answer their "why" question the first 300 times, eventually you will default to "because I said so!"

When you have to get out of the house to make an appointment and they refuse to leave, when you want to finish what you are doing and they keep interrupting, when you want them to go to sleep so you can finally take a break and they keep yelling at you from their room - then hitting is the easiest way out. They are misbehaving. They are not listening. They deserve it. And it works. Of course it does - your child is afraid.

The problem is that it only works short term. Sure, they might grow up just fine. But the chances are that if they are spanked regularly and fear their parents, rather than understand their parents' reasons, they will either grow up to be too afraid to stand up for themselves because they will forever doubt their right to do so, or they will grow up to believe that they are allowed to hit to get what they want.

It does not mean that you can't punish your child for bad behavior. It does not mean that they won't learn what not to do unless they are beaten. But it does mean that you as a parent will have to work twice as hard. Not only because you will be required to explain why what they did was wrong, over and over again, instead of simply hitting and saying "don't ever do that again", but because you will need to stay calm and composed, and that - for me as a parent - is the biggest challenge of them all. Because I said so, damn it!

You are raising a child, not an army. If you want everybody to line up when you bark an order, then you should reconsider your parenting gig and head over to national guard. Children challenge your opinion and your world view. Adults challenge you in the same way, but you can walk away from them, or ask them not to bother you again. You can't do that to your child. You are stuck with them for a couple of decades. You should be proud of them for challenging you. And yes - you should send them to their room if they cross the line that was clearly set by you. You should let them experience the consequences of their poor choices. But if your default answer is spanking, then it is not the child who is doing something wrong, it's you.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Kids Are All Right


Modern parenting is in crisis. We are raising a generation of selfish, lazy, arrogant, self entitled losers. British nannies seem to be subject matter experts.

I am tired of it. I am tired of reading about how I failed "the sippy cup test." According to the British nanny, the only reason I would take the cup filled with milk and pour the milk into a different cup that my son requested is that I am terrified of the upcoming tantrum. Who is in charge? she asks. Seriously? I am. I make my son do a hundred things he does not like, or does not feel like doing at the moment, every single day. He has no say in leaving for daycare in the morning, going to bed at night, running errands with me, leaving the park, or stopping an activity he is thoroughly enjoying. Half the time the only explanation I provide is: "Because I said so." He is bossed around all day long. Why wouldn't I let him make the call once in a while, especially if it's about a sippy cup? It takes five seconds to pour the milk. How many times do you put a shirt or a pair of shoes on, only to switch them for a different one five minutes later? And the tantrum? Kids throw one anyways. Anyone who ever parented small children knows that even if everything goes according to them, there is still a reason to throw a tantrum. Or more accurately, there is no reason, yet there is a tantrum.

Our kids watch too much TV and play evil video games. They should be playing outside, like the old generation used to. Somehow it is omitted that the parents were nowhere near while that old generation played outside. Somehow it is overlooked that today you get arrested if you let your child play in the park alone.

We are failing because we use electronic devices to entertain our kids. Don't use them in a restaurant. Teach them patience. Kids need to learn to sit at the table quietly and eat sage infused asparagus. Imagine you sit at the table with a bunch of people who only speak Dutch. You don't understand Dutch. You try to smile politely every time they burst out laughing, but really - would you agree to go to another dinner with them the next time they ask, or would you rather make up an excuse that your goldfish looks lonely and you should spend some more quality time with it? Do you know what the older generation did when their kids got too antsy to sit at the table? They sent them outside. To play. Alone. See the previous paragraph.

I hear it all the time. "We used to be respectful. We used to listen. We used to teach our children how to listen and to be respectful." I know, I know - I was one of those listening and respectful children myself. I also grew up in fear. I was constantly dreading the consequences of doing something wrong. My parents never hit me, but they threatened to do so quite frequently and I believed them. The fear of being hit was real, whether it happened or not. I stopped asking questions, because I was afraid my teacher would point out how dumb the question was in front of the whole class. There was a village, a real one, and the adults made sure they stuck together to keep us quiet and obedient all the time. Don't jump, don't run, don't yell, don't laugh so loud, don't ask, don't bother anyone, don't spill, don't dare! Just don't even dare!

And yet - there were still bullies, and kids that threw tantrums, and kids that broke windows, and kids that talked back, and kids that dropped out of school, and kids that were disrespectful, and kids that grew up to be adults that could not be held accountable for anything in their lives. I could take the British nanny seriously if this was not the case. I could consider the modern parenting crises if we were seeing the toddler tantrum for the first time since the dawn of time.

On one hand, we say that we want kids to be inquisitive, curious, playful and smart. On the other hand, we want them to be the little soldiers that obey without questioning. We want them to do what we tell them to do. Now.

I yet have to see the generation that will think the younger ones are better than they were. I yet have to see the older generation saying: "These kids are so much better than we ever were! Holy criminy! Lucky us, to be surrounded by these youngsters!" In the history of the world it has not happened. Skirts are always too short, or hair too long, or tattoos too vulgar, or music too loud, or language too WTF, or opinions too liberal...the next generation is always the lousiest one that will drive this world to its grave.

Which gives me comfort. We are doing fine. And the kids are all right.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Get Your Kids Eat Healthy (Just Kidding!)



We reached that stage when my newly one year old won't eat anything. Anything healthy, that is. I love all the advice out there about how to turn your children into little gourmets who devour arugula salad with figs, blue cheese and sherry vinaigrette, and politely chit chat about the nutritional value and the symphony of flavors, while sitting still, with endearing smiles on their innocent faces. I mostly see this advice shared by people who either don't have kids, or their kids are old enough to be AARP members, or they are the lucky parents of those three kids in this world who prefer kale to cheese sticks.

I used to think the same. I mean - it's logical, isn't it? You breastfeed them exclusively for the first 6 months, then you introduce rice cereal (to avoid allergy reactions), vegetables (to avoid spoiling their palate and setting them up for a lifetime of chocolate cravings) and fruits (to offer them the perfect snack, just like Mother Nature intended). Then my son came along. I did everything I was supposed to. Admittedly, I was so overwhelmed by the whole motherhood deal (say what?!) that I fed him jar food. From supermarkets. Sometimes not even organic. (I know. I am a terrible mother.) And he ate it. At first. Until he didn't. Today, if we let him, he would happily live on carb and cheese diet for the rest of his life.

When my daughter was born, I was not going to make the same mistake. I knew everything there was to know. I was on it! I could push the vacuum cleaner around with my right hand, while rocking her in my left. I could deal with a diaper blow out in the middle of the shopping mall and not bat an eyelid. Jar food? Not for this little one! And so I stocked up on fresh fruits and veggies, bought a new Ninja blender, made room in our freezer and got to it. She loved all the food! Sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, squash - you name it! It took a little bit longer to get her to eat fruit, but I would make fruit and veggies medleys and she would pound it down like I pound down Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Therapy. It worked!

Until she turned one. What changed, you might ask? I'll tell you what changed. She did. She wants to do everything on her own. But she can't aim, so even if she managed to dip the spoon in her bowl (and who are we kidding, that bowl goes flying across the room before any dipping has a chance of happening), she would either poke her eye out, or stick it in her ear, or smear it all over her head, or find a million other uses for it, from which not one equals actually swallowing the food.

She can eat finger foods, and for about five minutes she ate her veggies and fruit cooked and cubed. Then she stopped. She would not eat it. She shudders, spits it out and starts to wave her hands in the air like she just don't care. And she doesn't care. I know, I know, I can hear you all the way here - "just let her go hungry until she eats what's in front of her". Seriously? Have you ever met a hungry baby? Do you know what happens? They completely lose their shit. There is screaming, crying, flailing, hitting, biting (of anything but food). There are tears. There is snot pouring out of their noses and into their mouth, which gives them just enough energy to keep going. Once you cross that line, you won't be able to calm them down even with a bag of cookies and a pound of premium Swiss chocolate. Game over, man. Game over.

This would maybe not be the end of the world, but here is the hitch - you have other things to do. In real world, chances are you can't stay in your cave until your baby figures it out. You probably have to get out every once in a while. Would you go out with a raving rabid crazy maniac? Of course you wouldn't. Especially since you know what is wrong with her - she is hungry!

So there. That's how it happens. That's how you slowly cave in and pull out bread and cheese, Goldfish crackers, graham crackers and waffles. At least those are whole wheat, right? It's not that you give up. Well, not completely. You keep trying. On good days, they might eat a piece of apple. On a bad day, that same apple will make them gag. Should you keep pushing them when they are gagging? I thought maybe that's a perfect payoff for those 9 months of nausea and vomiting they both put me through, until I remembered I am still the one who would have to clean up the mess. This is when you start googling "how do I sneak in vegetables into mac and cheese" and "will they notice it's not pizza, it's cauliflower?"

My son is four now and while he prefers fried cheese and fresh baked bread, he eats some vegetables and he eats them regularly, and he loves fruit. His diet is not perfect, but it is also not horrible. My daughter...well, we will get there. I hope.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

It's The Little Differences (or Not In Slovakia Anymore)

Stereotypical or not, this is how I know I am back in the United States (in no particular order):

1. I can chit chat with random people in the supermarket without them being surprised, shocked, embarrassed or horrified.

2. As a driver, I might occasionally get tailgated, but the chance that the driver behind me will honk, flash his lights, attempt to push me out of the lane and/or finally show me the middle finger when passing me (while I am driving 15 miles/hour over the speed limit) is close to zero.

3. As a pedestrian, I do not have to wait for 10 minutes before finally throwing myself under the wheels of a moving vehicle in order to cross the street.

4. While it is perfectly acceptable to gift a child with a kid-sized rifle, kinder eggs are banned by law, because they are deemed dangerous.

5. The copay for my kids' previously scheduled pediatrician visit costs about the same as the final bill for a middle-of-the-night emergency room visit with suspected (but not confirmed) appendicitis.

6. Coffee is served in a paper cup, intended "to go" wherever you go, instead of being served in a small porcelain cup, with an extra amount of boiling water, cream and a cookie, intended "to sit" wherever you take a break (Americans might need to google the term "break").

7. "How are you doing?" is answered by cheerful: "I am fine, thank you!", not despairing: "Oh, just horrible...where do I even start..." It is a polite exchange of formal greetings rather than an invitation to an hour long monologue about the catastrophe called life.

8. It's not that you can't find good bread or decent pastries in the US, it's just that any Slovak supermarket or general store sells better baked goods than a 5-star-rated bakery over here.

9. When contacting customer service, the representatives in the US are actually trying to help.

10. And last but not least - no matter which continent, Fiona is always referred to as a boy (even when fully dressed in pink).

Now where is that mayo for my french fries and fried cheese...