Back to School at the Mall

Back to School at the Mall

Wild Child and the Diva are headed back to school. When they arrive for their first day in a higher grade they will be kitted out in new outfits that say to one and all, “this is who I am this year”. I imagine it’s the same for kids across the country; they’ve grown over the summer and not just in shoe size, so they’re gearing up to start again as a new and improved version of themselves.

It begins with the back-to-school shopping trip. These days, we buy everything from pillows to power tools online but, come the end of summer, with growing kids in tow, we head to the mall like running salmon because there’s no online substitute for “*sigh* Go in and try it on”.

I hate malls. I hate what they represent, hate their climate-controlled artificiality, the pseudo bargains, the foot-tenderizing acreage, and the crowds. Even so, shopping with the Diva is a blast; with Wild Child, there are really good moments. But with the both of them . . . well thank god, it’s only once a year because it easily shaves that much off my life.

Fifteen seconds over the first threshold, Diva kicked things off by loudly proclaiming her disgust at the garment industry’s insistence on adding pink to everything made for girls. In store after store, rack after rack, carrel after carrel, she sucked her teeth and “tutted”, her fashion sense mortality offended.

“This one’s nice”, I say to her. “Yes,” she says, simultaneously cocking her left hip and her right eyebrow “except they just had to slap a peace sign on the front of it.” Okaaaay. Last year, peace signs were “oooh, so cute!” but I make a mental note; no pink, no peace signs. This turns out to be easier than expected because at ten, she’s already so tall that she can no longer wear girls’ clothing. Now while I could hardly be described as a prude, I note that many women’s fashions are really not meant for ten-year-olds. Naturally, it’s precisely these that she prefers. “Oooh!” she exclaims, like she’s just found a stray kitten, “isn’t this adorable?” “What? Where?” I say, “I don’t see anything. Oh that – I thought that was a couple of loose threads.” This earns me several moments of aggrieved silence.

Meanwhile, Wild Child is venting his boredom by crawling around on floor and hiding in the clothes racks. “Hey Iiiiiima – you can’t seeee me.” For his part, he made it clear he would consider nothing but t-shirts and he played skateboard with the cart until we made our way to those racks. For him, if it glows in the dark, smells like cookies when scratched or references video games or annoying sisters, that’s the shirt for him. And a hat. He’s got to have a hat. One of those gawd-awful hip hop hats that perches on one’s head like Papa Bear’s cereal bowl. There’s just no way to get through to him that as skinny as he is, the effect is . . . not really what he’s going for.

Which brings us to jeans. I have a pair of beanpoles; skinny jeans are kind of a cruel joke. “Do you have these in slim sizes?” I ask the sales associate. She looks baffled. “Nooo, they’re skinny jeans.”
In and out of the dressing room we go, my son’s tenuous grip on himself visibly unraveling. “Okay look,” I say to him, “try these ones.” He stands there. “Ima, those are girls‘.” “Yes, I know, but they don’t look like girls’ and they’re skinnier than the boys'”. “Ima…” his eyes shift left, then right. I’m starting to unravel a bit, myself. “Just try the damn things on – they don’t look any different.” Shoulders hunched, he slopes back to the dressing room. They fit. They look good. Great, in fact. And no pink anywhere.

Diva, meanwhile, has found the sneakers for her. The child who has grown three shoe sizes in five months wants a $75 pair of kicks. I calmly explain that such a purchase is madness. She’s thoughtful for a few moments. “How muchwere you going to spend on shoes?” “I was hoping about half that.” She smiles. “Well then, you spend that much and I’ll use my allowance for the rest. I really, really love them.”

Later, as she’s cooing over 3 inch heels, my son sidles over to me. “Ima,” he says quietly, “I don’t mind that they’re girls jeans.” “No?” “No. But, you said it so everyone could hear.” “I embarrassed you.” He nods. “You kinda do that, you know.” Mm. “I apologize. I will try not to do that.” He nods again. “Okay. Thanks.”

Yep, kids grow over the summer.

ADHD Playdate

My dogs both have tracking transmitters. While our family doctor may raise all sorts of weird, fussy “ethical” objections, I’m hoping the vet may be an easier sell on my proposal to have one placed on my daughter. Diva is ten – ten – and I haven’t seen her for three days and perhaps only a dozen times since the start of summer. Oh, she’s not missing, or anything. She just sort of has a life of her own which, at present, has taken her to a marathon sleepover/playdate. What the hell… it’s summer, right?

We got her a cell phone and she’s very good about having it with her at all times but all that texting and Facebooking plays hell with the battery and she’s drawn the line at carrying around a power cord as well. So, the tracker. To be fair, I haven’t seen a whole lot more of Wild Child, but no tracking device will ever be necessary to locate him. While my daughter roams her kid-sized world with an ever widening circle of friends, my son keeps mostly to his room, ensconced up there in his underwear, surrounded by the discards of snacks and very…um, vocally…playing his Xbox. If I’m not at home though, he’s even harder to reach than my daughter is, as his phone is invariably somewhere useless and far away.
I was out the other day and needed to reach him fairly urgently. No answer. Hmm. I pulled over and used my phone to access the computer in my office next to his room. I typed in 96pt. on the desktop: GO GET YOUR DAMN PHONE! then cranked up the system volume to full and turned on something from Avenue Q (which usually gives him fits). I figured he’d hear it, go check it out and see the note. Nope. “Now what?” I wondered, “Ah”. If he couldn’t hear it, it must be because he was wearing his headset. And that meant he was online with his friend. So I called his friend. “Jason, are you live with Wild Child? Yes? Will you tell him, please, to go get his damn phone?” That did the trick. When he called, the first thing he said was “Why does my mom have to be the biggest geek?”

While I worry about Diva’s independence and Wild Child’s lack of it, I was even more concerned about my son’s tendency toward isolation. I’m an introvert and can fully relate to being comfortable with a fairly high level of solitude but “comfortable” in his case, is not “happy”. So when the Xbox took over his life, we went into full panic mode. That our already odd, not-exactly-popular, loner might well disappear forever into a virtual world seemed entirely probable. We put in place rules, limits, timers; we forced him to go outside, we nagged him to call his friends, we badgered him relentlessly and threatened to take away the controllers – in short, pretty much what parents do. None of which had the slightest impact on his consuming desire to retreat to his room and play Xbox.

My little adventure with trying to reach him tipped me to something I’d been missing all along: He isplaying with his friends. That they prefer to meet in a bombed out urban wasteland or on a distant planet, that they communicate over headsets, that some of them are in a different time zone, doesn’t – and shouldn’t – make that much difference. They get together. They play and have fun. In between bellows and shouts and “COVER MY BACK!” and “DUDE, YOU TEA BAGGED HIM!”, they talk about stuff 12-year-old boys talk about. So I think the next time I want him to see his friends, I’ll send him to his room.

Wild Child and The Diva

My daughter is a rock star. That is to say, take away the wealth, the fame and the trips into and out of rehab, and whatever it is that makes someone a rock star, she has it.

The “new girl” in school doesn’t typically have an easy time making a friend and fitting in, but when Diva started a new school mid-year, the girls (and boys) began competing for her friendship. She’s not popular; rather – and we make much if this distinction at home – she is well-liked. She’s funny and fashionable, she likes everyone by default, and she’s kind. Ask her “which one is Sandy?” and she never says “the fat one” or “the one who’s already getting acne,” she says warmly, “she’s the one with the really pretty reddish hair who wears the cute sweaters”. I mean, she’d be fairly difficult for any kid not to like.

Except, that is, the shy, nerdy brother of such a girl, in which case, it’s pretty much preordained that he’s going to hate her guts.  Wild child and the Diva have rarely resorted to actual hitting, but shrieking and name-calling form the background music of our home with “JERK!” and “IDIOT!” followed with infuriating regularity by “IMA!”

The rivalry is intensified by the fact that he is the older brother. With motives both generous and vainglorious, my son had looked forward to being little sister’s guide through school and life. Like an advance scout, he would blaze the trail and point out where water could be found and she, in turn, would look up to him. Instead, he’s found it necessary to consult her on everything from body sprays, to texting etiquette, to how to dress and wear his hair. His humiliation is complete now that, in physical terms at least, it is necessary for him to look up to her.

Girls can be relied upon to shoot up and start breaking out in curves a good two years before the boys see any changes in themselves…and at least one year before they notice any in the girls. Many of Wild child’s friends are sporting hairier legs, but not all. Some of their voices have begun the descent into a more manly timbre and others still sound like Justin Bieber. His best buds tower over him – watch them coming at you down the block and they call to mind Kermit the frog with bodyguards. I’ve pointed out to him that at his very age, my brother began the school year at 5’2″ and ended it at 6’1″ – the same age, not coincidentally, when I had to stop punching him as a negotiating tool.

We reckoned that his entry into middle school might lessen their rivalry a bit as it would at least having them spending their days apart, but we were genuinely afraid it might just eat him alive. Middle school might as well have been hell for me and…well, everyone I know, but it has been surprisingly kind to him. Moving from classroom to classroom gives his fidgets a little workout. A larger student population has meant a larger pool of nerdy and/or ADHD boys that can relate to him so he’s made friends. The net result has been a somewhat calmer and more confident kid. On one particularly good day, he learned both that he’d gotten a part he really wanted and his grades came back – all As. He smiled broadly as he settled himself into the car seat and said, “Hey Ima, I think maybe my awesomeness is finally kicking in.”


My son, the First-Person Shooter

One of the things we agreed on even before we had children was no “war toys”. I spent my childhood days with the neighborhood boys, all of us armed to the teeth, playing war. My evenings were typically spent in front of the TV watching coverage of the real war. My spouse was ROTC and a crack marksman. One would think that it might have occurred to us that our own childhoods, steeped as they were in violent play, nevertheless produced the kind of adults that, well . . . ban war toys. Parenthood is not typically that clear-eyed, however.

People with all the trappings of expertise were telling us that toy guns were bad and turned innocent children into desensitized little monsters, so we listened. We also made sure that our kids never saw anything on TV more violent than the Muppets. We vetted everything they might watch and then insisted that TV only be watched with all of us together, on the couch, a throw over our laps. This would be our peaceful family ritual to combat the evil influences that strained and slavered for our precious children.

As anyone with more experience could have predicted, by two, or son was nevertheless pointing sticks, broom handles, even Barbies at people and shouting “bang bang”. He became obsessed with guns. And swords. And grenades. Pretty much everything, in fact, on that list of forbidden toys. It must have been Kmart, during the holidays, where my then three-year-old son stopped dead in front of a gun. The celestial choir sang as he said in awe, “that’s the Power Rangers GRK10 Thousand X,” (or some such) “its a laser pistol and a flame ray, and that part comes off and it’s a photon grenade”. (again, or some such; suffice to say, it was the ultimate multi-tool for mayhem.) In my most stentorian parent voice, I said “Now you know we’re not going to get you a gun.” He shifted to stand in front of me, looked me in the eye and, like someone trying to reason with an hysteric, said “Ima, It’s. a. TOY.”

I called one day from the kids’ favorite toy store. “Hon, you know how much he likes playing dress-up and there’s a suit of armor here that he’s just mad for and it is pretty cool but, well, it comes with a sword. I was just thinking that if it was part of a costume . . .” He got the sword.


He obsessed relentlessly over a cap gun he saw while on a camping trip. We gave in and got him the gun. It was the only toy he played with. For 27 hours. That’s how long it took for his gun obsession to vanish.



These days, his room harbors an arsenal: Bokken swords, Nerf guns, air soft guns, water cannons, six shooters, laser guns and more. He’s got a real Vietnam era helmet, a soft cover and a collection of replica service medals. We’ve moved from “no war toys” to an acceptance, even an appreciation of first person shooter games: Call of Duty, Halo Reach, Portal and a host of Lego adventures. The only time or wild child is not wild is when he’s parked in front of one if his video games. His body stills, his mind calms, his attention sharpens. He’s fascinated by World War II, writes his grandpa to learn about his experiences there, and has learned how to make chain mail armor.

He also dances ballet, makes animated movies and wants to be an artist. He’s sweet and patient with small children, tender-hearted toward animals and avoids fighting with anyone but me or his sister. God only knows how he’d have turned out if he was still obsessing over that gun.