You Need to Stop Being Stupid, Mom!

Does that get your blood boiling? Well, mine did. Today.

How lovely to have teenagers. Honestly, I have a draft in my blog dashboard titled “Ode to Teenagers” in which, believe it or not, I was going to extol the virtues of teenagers, because no one usually talks about them. But now that just moved down about ten lines.

I know I’m just fishing for your sympathy here, but I’ll tell you the story anyway. What got it started, I admit, was a screw-up on my part. As usual, I was trying to fit too many things into my schedule and, by extension, the kids’ schedule. Which mother doesn’t? Car repair first thing in the morning and orthodontist appointment for the boys at 12:30. It all would have worked out, had I not learned at the last  minute of an award ceremony at school at 10:00 where Zax was about to receive an recognition for his math performance.

Which mother doesn’t want to be there when her son receives an award, even if it is only acknowledged with eye-rolling?

So I dropped off the car, had them deliver me back at school, made it to assembly just in time for the awards piece (with everybody staring at me as I entered with a banging door, which didn’t exactly help me gain any bonus points with my son), then received a call from the car place that my new brake pads would be $1500 and should they go ahead?

Holy cow, how was this possible? No, I didn’t want them to go ahead just yet. I got busy calling other places, trying to get a better quote, and of course living here in South Africa none of this was either quick or efficient, so the orthodontist appointment, for which I’d have to take the boys out of school early, was inching closer and closer. But of course I didn’t have my car. And then the dealership informed me they wouldn’t have someone available to pick me up before the afternoon.

I called a taxi company and they also were booked until the afternoon. This is Joburg, after all, not a hotbed of public transportation. But wait, how about the minibus taxis? And this is where I have to admit I’m a big chicken. I did not dare take the minibus taxi. Not because I was afraid of accidents, even though it seems every other minibus taxi is involved in one, but because I don’t know how they work. How would I know where they actually go? It’s some kind of weird signalling system I’ve never understood. Of course I  never had to, because everyone knows only black people take minibus taxis in Joburg. I was afraid, I admit, of standing out like a sore thumb and making a fool of myself. Even though this would have been such a great story for another Joburg Expat blog post. And yet I tell my kids to step out of their comfort zone and try new things and not be concerned about what other people think. So maybe I deserved what followed, just for being a hypocrite.

What followed was that I had to call the orthodontist to cancel and then sent messages to both boys informing them of the change of plans. Now I know that they are supposed to have their phones off at school, but honestly? They never do. Sure enough, Zax got it and sent an SMS back, but it was vicious. This is where we get to “You need to stop being stupid, Mom!” What I didn’t know was that the school had recently implemented tougher rules on leaving school early, making the kids collect signatures from every single teacher whose class they’d be missing, then taking all those to the front office to get an excuse slip that then was to be handed into the security guards at the gate. Both boys had already collected all their signatures, using up their entire break for it, and Jabulani never even got my message, so that you can imagine they were not happy to have to go back to their classes with a sheepish “never mind, my mom changed the appointment to tomorrow.”

The thing is, Jabulani takes those things in stride. But not Zax. Never has, and never will, and that is why his name is Zax, as in The Prairie of Prax. To make things more complicated, Zax had asked me to bring his hockey stuff when I was picking them up. He should have taken it himself, but was running late in the morning, so asked me to bring it later. Which now meant I had to walk it to school, seeing as I had no car. And which I would gladly have done, had I not just been called stupid.

I’m a patient mom, I really am, and I don’t have a problem admitting mistakes, but that’s where I drew the line. At stupid.

A lengthy debate via SMS ensued over who was at fault for what. I’m glad to say that I eventually “won” by getting an apology for the “stupid” comment before delivering the bag. This is a kid who lives to debate and who will never, ever, relinquish the last word. As you can imagine, I was drained of all energy before the morning was even over. Needless to say, I still had to get those boys to the orthodontist, and my car still greets me with a loud beep for  faulty brake pads every time I turn it on. Nothing whatsoever for me to check off my long list at the end of the day.

The moral of the story? How about this:

Never schedule car repair and orthodontist appointment on the same day.

Or: If you must debate your teenager, do it via SMS.

What I’d like to know, have you ever been called stupid by your teenager? And what did you do?

Education Around the Globe

Shortly before we moved to Johannesburg, South Africa about two years ago, a friend gave me the book The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education
by Maya Frost, and said it was a must-read before our upcoming adventure.

And wasn’t she right. Not only did it give great insights about the value of an international education, it also  made me immediately feel much better about what some people thought was utter folly – taking our four kids out of one of America’s finest school districts and dragging them all the way to South Africa, a country of suspicious educational credentials, let alone a reputation for muggings and smash-and-grab attacks by the hour, or so we we were led to believe.

Why leave our Johnson County bubble? Where everything ran like a charm, and where the kids were on the road to a good high school education, good SAT tests, and hopefully admission to a good college?

Well, I’m so glad we did make that leap away from our comfort zone. As Miss Frost describes in her book, getting away from that typical American rat-race of SATs and AP classes can be a godsend for your children. There are so many things that are good for our kids here in South Africa, and being allowed to be kids is one of them. Learning values in school that have nothing to do with academics. Having succeeded in an entirely new environment. Getting to know different customs. Learning entirely new sports from scratch, and discovering that they can be good at them. For the first time truly understanding how very privileged their lives are. Having time to play several musical instruments, on top of having time, daily, to play with friends, because our school days are so much shorter here. And much, much more.

You could argue that they are learning a bunch of stuff no one needs, like Zulu and Afrikaans for starters, and yes, South African schools may be behind academically, as we’ve recently been able to put to the test by sending our kids to a German school for a very brief exchange program (read all about that and a point-by-point comparison here) , but that is a small price to pay in exchange for an otherwise life-changing journey I am very grateful we’ve been able to embark on.

Note: I just learned from a friend that if you want to study at Oxford – and probably anywhere in England – you are out of luck, because a South African matric is not recognized there. Meaning you might have to add another year or even two at an accredited school (such as one with an IB program, or one that follows the English curriculum) before you will be admitted. As I gather more information I will be blogging about university admission on Joburg Expat, because this is a topic that will be at the center of our own family not so far from now.

Too Many Birthday Cakes

I’m a third child, and I’ve always resented the fact that by the time I came around, my mother didn’t seem to have the energy to invest much time in me. As a teenager I’d look at old photo albums and have a hard time finding pictures of myself as a baby, treasuring each and every image of my early self for the unique specimen it was, whereas my brothers seemed to cover the pages. The same was true with information – telling me what was going on  always seemed to be an afterthought, and I’d mostly hear about family plans or even gossip second-hand. I never knew what was going on.

I now realize that much of that was probably a blessing more than a curse. I was left to my own devices from an early age and learned to entertain myself, becoming fairly independent, unburdened by too much attention or pressure. What’s more, I also now understand why it had to be that way. My mother, you see, was simply running out of steam, something I’ve only been able to understand by becoming a mother myself.  It is a “been there, done that” kind of thing. After you’ve painstakingly cut and pasted baby mementos in a scrapbook and written entire diaries about your toddler’s first steps, and especially after you’ve done it a second time, you cannot be blamed for losing interest. Add to that the development of new technologies that either keep you busy (Facebook, anyone?) or render things like printing and cutting out photos completely obsolete, and you will have at least a good excuse for  slacking off with numbers three and four.

But tell that to your children! I recently went through old pictures of birthday cakes I’d made for my children over the years, and Sunshine, my youngest, wistfully looked at them, sighed, and said: “Mom, why don’t you ever make cakes like that anymore?” She was completely right, of course. There was an entire collection of train, fire engine, and even ship cakes for the boys, a sprinkling of cupcakes and perhaps one girly cake, and then it stopped. We’ve had very bland and uninspiring store-bought cakes over the last few years. In my defense, my attention was a tad diverted by two or three moves we made during that time, one of them transatlantic, but the honest truth is that I’ve plain lost my cake-designing mojo. I tend to dabble in a lot of things until I get fairly good at them, and promptly ditch them for a new challenge. Hence the few paintings dotting our walls from the days I dabbled in watercolor, crowded out more recently by blown-up photograph, taking pictures and understanding our camera being a new interest of mine. And hence my neglect of this parenting blog languishing in the WordPress cloud for nearly two years while I’ve focused my attention on my new love, Joburg Expat.

(You can view all my birthday cakes from the years when I still did them here – maybe I can inspire someone else even though I’ve become uninspired).

When confronted with the birthday-cake truth, I immediately felt guilty. Was I depriving my girls of the kind of attention I so felt I missed out on as a kid? Were they going to grow up and look back at their childhood and blame me for neglecting them? Actually, if you know our girls in any way, this is almost impossible to accomplish when it comes to their birthdays. We have about 3 weeks post-birthday when there is relative calm at our house, but then the chatter inevitable starts again: “Mom, for my next birthday, I want to…” and on and on it goes, all year long. (At one point even the words “for my half-birthday I want…” were uttered but I put a stop to that with a fury my kids were surprised I could muster from within me). So I might not have baked a pretty cake for several years, but there was no escaping the onslaught of presents and parties for four children, whose birthdays we so unthinkingly scheduled mostly to be in August. (It is September now, which is why I have some spare time to write this article.)

The thing is, I just don’t like birthdays much. There are just too many of them in our family. Our kids don’t really need anything. Of course they want nearly everything, but that’s where their allowance comes in handy, teaching them to plan and budget. Yet I’m constantly forced to wreck my brain for new gift ideas, not only for us to give to our kids but for our relatives who also want to give something but of course have no idea what we like. Because of the problem of living overseas, I am then forced to actually go out and buy all those presents I’m having to think up in the first place on their behalf. And when we’ve finally assembled everything and the birthday table is overflowing, almost immediately the process of going through rooms and closets and identifying candidates for the donation bin or, frankly, trash, begins, to make room for the just-opened acquisitions. But that’s our entire lives, isn’t it? Perhaps I’m just a cynic.

Anyway, I don’t like birthdays, and the parties that usually come with them. You can read more about why by clicking here.

A Ritual for when your Kids Turn Thirteen

I’ve been terribly neglectful of this blog. It’s as if since I became an expat, I’m no longer a mother, because most of my posts reflect on expat life and not really parenting, even though that is really part of whatever you do.

But I recently wrote a post that definitely has a parenting theme. It is about our family’s fairly new tradition of taking our kids on a special trip when they turn thirteen. It took us to New York and a Yankees game two years ago, and this time around to Cape Town and diving with Great White Sharks. Can we up the ante for the remaining kids? Not sure, but our daughter, true to character, is already scheming for 2013. At the moment, Paris seems to be her choice.

To read more about how we celebrate our kids’ turning thirteen in style, click here.

Strong Mothers Strong Sons in Johannesburg

Those of you who’ve read my summary about Strong Mothers Strong Sons, a recent workshop I attended at our school, might be interested to know that Megan de Beyer will be back in Johannesburg for another Strong Mothers Strong Sons workshop 10-13th June 2011 at St. Stithians.

If you are interested in attending, please contact her at

View my previous posts about the workshop:

Strong Mothers Strong Sons on Joburg Expat

Strong Mothers Strong Sons on Desperate Mothers

Strong Mothers Strong Sons

I recently took part in a parenting workshop sponsored by Dainfern College, our kids’ school. It was facilitated by Megan de Beyer, a psychologist who has run a number of these “Strong Mothers Strong Sons” courses throughout South Africa and in California.

It was very refreshing to spend a whole weekend just listening to someone else’s teaching, especially someone with so much insight into the workings of families, and families with teenagers in particular. None of it was really news to me, in the sense that it turned my parenting philosophy upside down. But it is one thing to know what you’re supposed to do (and not to do). It’s an entirely different matter to stop, take a step back, and look at the big picture for a change. Continue reading

My Parenting Articles in KC Parent

Here are the links and brief descriptions for previous parenting articles of mine that were published in Kansas City Parent and Kansas City Baby Magazine:

Raising Bilingual Children – Why bilingual (or multilingual) learning is good for your children, and tips on how to achieve it.

Pacifiers and Thumbs: Tips on When and How to Wean – Pros and cons of pacifiers and thumb sucking plus valuable tips and tricks on why, when, and how to wean your child from either habit.

Home Alone: Ready or Not – How to decide if your child is ready to stay home alone.

Pennies for Peace – Local school children become philanthropists, one penny at a time, based on Greg Mortenson’s bestselling book, Three Cups of Tea.

Do 30 extra points really pay off on the SAT? – Discusses college admissions requirements, prep courses, and how to help your child prepare for the SAT and ACT tests. (this article won a Parenting Publications of America silver award for Investigative Reporting in 2009)

“I’m so angry!” – Helping children (and parents) to deal with anger effectively.

Raising Entitled Kids: Do our kids need so many things? – A look at ways to keep our kids grounded in the era of instant gratification and endless privileges.

Making Holiday Memories – If you know me you will realize it’s very ironic for me to have written this, being such a holiday hater! But they asked, and I wrote…

Should my child take honors classes? – Benefits and challenges of enrolling your child in middle and high school honors classes in the American education system.

College Financial Aid – What savvy parents and their teens need to know about the college financial aid application process.

Little ways to let go – When and how to start letting go to foster independence in your child and equip them well for the teenage years and adulthood.