Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Children's Library

I have always enjoyed reading to my children. My parents had saved (probably as a result of my anguished cries against even the thought of getting rid of them) many of my childhood books (although there is still a missing box of picture books, which has bothered me to no end and which resulted in needing to purchase some replacements). Adrianna's bookcase is filled with slightly brittle but still colorful pages, stories and rhymes I know by heart from 25 years ago. Kristina has an entire shelf on her bookcase filled with chapter books that she's not quite grown into, but are just so awesome we need to read them now anyways. Adoring relatives love to give the girls books as gifts, which we are more than happy to receive. And there's nothing like stumbling across a review of "strong female protagonist who saves the day by outsmarting everyone else, highly recommended for ages 5-8" to make me get a little order happy on Amazon. Indeed, I even have an assortment of books 'saved for later' on there because they sounded like ones we needed but are beyond my girls' current literary levels. 

But there is another aspect of our bookly interests: the library.

Conceptually, libraries are great. A place anyone can go to have access to a wide range of books for free.

(Ok, I personally might have some weird book-possession-sharing issues, but still, libraries are awesome places even if I don't like being required to give the books back.)

Except that they're not that great with children. Sure, most big libraries have a reasonably sized children's section these days and a toddler story time once a week. But that doesn't mean it's a good experience bringing kids into them.

My children are now 4 and 6, and well behaved (most of the time). The following is an account of taking them to the library. Please keep in mind that toddlers are significantly worse, and I have deep empathy for those with more children. Or even just multiple toddlers at once. You poor, poor things. You really should be applauded for leaving your house at all.

The entire walk into the library and back to the children's section is full of shushing as they a-little-too-loudly inquire about the world around them and what people are doing in it. Walking is hard, when skipping and jumping are the much more natural ways for a young body to move. Once we are in the wisely barricaded children's section itself, they take off in opposite directions. I follow Adrianna, attempting to re-shelve some of the first thirty or so books she has decided she needs to bring home by reason of they were the closest to her. I attempt to get her to focus on the substantial pile she has now created on a low table, reminding her that we are checking out no more than half a dozen today so she needs to make some choices, and then go in search of Kristina while hoping Adrianna will be busy with her books and not decide to go exploring in the rest of the library. I find Kristina attempting to search for books in the online catalog system. It's more complicated than her simply spelling the name wrong though, since she doesn't really remember what the book was exactly called anyways, much less something as useful as the author. A couple quick attempts affirms that the online database cannot, in fact, read a kid's mind. I steer her away from the computer and to the racks of books, and attempt to talk her into something somewhere close to her reading level instead of the classic Jane Eyre and graphic novels featuring zombies. Reminders of how she needs to be trying to pick things to read on her own go in one ear and out the other, and I soon give up and go in search of the littler one while consoling myself that at least they're free and will be returned in a few weeks regardless of age appropriateness. Adrianna's pile has grown to at least 45 colorful volumes, and my adamant refusal to let her bring home more than 5 is met with tears. I hastily grab the top few picture books in one arm without bothering to even look at the titles, Adrianna in the other, and make a beeline to the check out while hollering too-loudly-for-a-library at Kristina on the other side of the room making eyes at the 7th Harry Potter book to come with me and mentally apologizing to the poor library staff being left with Adrianna's mess to clean up. Now comes the fight over the self-checkout, where the kids want to scan out their own books but are truly terrible at making the scanner work even beyond how they're trying to scan the store item code instead of the library one and keep bickering over who gets to scan next. A line is forming behind us, and in an attempt to be a not-that-terrible library patron, I attempt to scan a couple of their books myself to speed things up a bit. My children, of course, reacting by loudly loosing their shit all over again, and it's all I can do to not threaten to never bring them to the library again. Once outside, skipping resumes right until they see the pretty spring flowers that they need to pick. More shame, and attempts to once again explain the difference between planted plants and dandelions bring us to the car, another library trip completed.

And so I want to create a different library experience.

First up, a library JUST for children, target audience ages 3-12. No cranky stressed out grad students or smelly homeless people muttering to themselves. And it will have significantly more picture books, because all the library money is going into the children's selection.

Put one of those squishy mall play areas in the middle (with literary themes, of course, a stack of books and some of the favorite classic characters like Eric Carle's caterpillar and Dr. Suess's Horton would be adorable), so parents can actually have half a chance to look at the books themselves or talk to the librarian (like, maybe even without a child climbing up their leg or needing to stop and holler at a kid to stop licking the computer screen every three seconds) and to pick out the ones that they actually WANT to bring home to read that week, instead of just the first couple the kid grabbed.

Have a rotating special display section that changes out every month, show casing everything from Classic Fairy Tales and Bedtime Favorites to Girl Power and Family Diversity. Include multimedia aspects, CDs and movies, puzzles and games, musical instruments and simple toys as applicable. Make this a cool and exciting new thing to look at every time you go to the library.

Expand story time sessions to happen more often for the little kids, and also include usually forgotten target audiences like "school age girls" and "special needs". Make this a place the family community feels welcome in, and keep things like a community bulletin board. Host once-a-month parent forums, complete with story time to occupy the children. Let it become the place everybody goes to when they need something to do, instead of the mall or McDonald's.

Have the walls painted in warm colors, with large prints of pictures from picture books hanging on them. Make it something the kids will look at and say, I want to read that one! 

Most of all, make a place that puts what children are as the main focus, and not an after thought tucked away in the corner. Going to the library should be a wonderful experience for everyone, not just those who are good at talking in whispers. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sister Dress Woes

When we did the annual family pictures last fall, I was talked into signing up for the Target Portrait Studio portrait membership, and as a part of whatever promotion they were running at the time I also ended up with a $50 certificate to use by the end of March.

Well, I do loves me some cheery spring pictures, and FOR FREE just makes it even more likely I'll actually get around to it awesome.

And hey, you know what would be great for these cheery spring pictures? Matching sister dresses!

So I started trolling around online in February, eagerly anticipating the plethora of pastel floral poofy skirts that herald the arrival of spring more emphatically than the most determined tulip (mostly just because the tulips get snowed on a lot around here).

And then, they were here! Seemingly overnight the websites filled up with dress after dress after dress of adorableness.

And then... wait for it........ SALE!

I have learned a few things about these important matters over the years. Mostly, it's hard to judge what size kids wear in formal dresses based solely off their normal wear of tshirts and sweat pants. Oh, and they're persnickety about how stuff feels because they think sweat pants are the best things in the world and they like fancy dresses but fancy dresses should feel like sweet pants too. .

Even when the stuff in question of feel is really, really cute.

So I decided I would have to suck it up bring them into the stores with me to try stuff on.

I also may or may not still have the occasional brief moments of serious parental disillusionment. Like when I somehow thought the above mentioned idea could somehow magically be an enjoyable afternoon with my children.

(Oops, was that a spoiler?? Eh, it's on the blog in the first place, that probably tells you how things are going to go.....)

But back to my afternoon of disillusionment. We arrived at Gymboree, where I made a beeline straight to the top dresses I'd been drooling over online while Kristina attempted to cram her grade-school-sized behind into a comically small little plastic chair to watch the toddler program filled television and Adrianna set about undressing the nearest mannequin.

One of the oddities of this store that I have yet to wrap my brain about is it's complete lack of any sort of attempt at a changing room. Sure, it's not really a big deal for a toddler to get stripped in the middle of the store (although sometimes it's nice to have them in a confined space for it, since being naked is the universal sign to take off running), but they carry clothes up to kids size 12.

But, if you ask nicely, they'll totally let you make yourself at home in their backroom stripping your children to your hearts content.

Which is how come the girls spent the whole time that they weren't being put into/pulled out of dresses asking to buy stuff like random shoes that were hanging out in bins back there.

The first dress was too snug in the arm holes for Kristina. Adrianna didn't like the second dress because... she decided she didn't like it. The best I could get out of her for what specifically she didn't like about it was "everything" in the most lamenting morose voice you have ever heard. Which, you know, totally helps the helpful sales lady and I decide what to try on her next.

Dress after dress was nixed by one or the other of them. My happy anticipation had evaporated. And right about the time I was resigning myself to never being able to get matching sister dresses ever again (well, at least not with them along), Kristina spied a corner of pink hanging on the racks above us.

The sales lady dragged out a ladder, and pulled down some beautiful pink silky fluffy gowns.

The children ooohed and aaahed, Kristina even went so far as to clap excitedly.

And then, the part that came significantly closer to making me oooh and aaah and clap excitedly, they actually said they wanted them. Both of them. In the same, gorgeous little gown.

Admittedly, this was significantly more "fancy dress" and less "practical summer play garment" than I had been envisioning, but at that point, I probably would have been willing to pay up for matching burlap sacks if the two of them actually agreed upon the stupid things.

And then the helpful sales lady rung me up.

And I had a bit of sticker shock that was in no way connected to Kristina whining about not being able to find a sticker she liked in the Gymboree sticker jar.

As we got home and the children got into a particularly screamy row over who got to turn on the TV, I started brooding over the cost of the dresses.

It was a lot more money than I had planned on spending. Should I return them? Would the girls notice if they just never got to wear them for anything? I could always go with plan B of jean shorts and rainboots for equally cheery spring pictures. Or trade them in for more practical but still matching cotton play dresses instead. But would they feel betrayed? I would have been heartbroken as a child had my mother bought me a beautiful little gown and then returned it. Is it the part where they'd only wear them a few times that's really bothering me? I could always just embrace childhood fully and let them wear them to play in... to smear paint on, to sit in mud, to come home from preschool with half the sandbox tucked into those sweet bodice pleats.

Sometimes, parenthood is full of challenging decision. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Gender and Sexy and Little Girls

I've been doing some pondering on raising little girls, particularly around the ideas of gender stereotyping. Some of this was from my recent following of Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies on Facebook, which has been providing all sorts of thought provoking little nuggets, and I even ordered her book Redefining Girly (although I have yet to read it).

But there have also been moments of personal reflection. This blog article about girls' clothes does an excellent job outlining the problems with the children's clothing section at Target. Add the additional frustrations of sorting through hand-me-downs of super skinny jeans with "cutie" on the ass and a child who is wearing clothes several sizes above her age, and you have my realm of little girls garments.

(Please note, Gymboree clothes aren't quite as bad for following the super trendy neon crop top trend and go up to size 12. Hanna Andersson is beyond awesome for "clothing little girls to look like little girls" and they go up into tween sizes with little girl playdresses, so long as you can foot the price tag.)

Kristina has a plush Buzz Lightyear doll that hangs out with her "important but not most important" stuffed animals at the foot of her bed (you know, the end where she's been insisting on sleeping at for the past month for no apparent reason). On a recent evening, as I was settling her down for the night, she told me she doesn't want to bring her Buzz Lightyear into school for pajama-and-lovie day because her friends would make fun of her for having a boy toy.

And that was a hard moment for me. How do I actually talk to her about peer pressure and gender stereotypes and how to navigate this sometimes shitty world?

I started with, but Buzz Lightyear is totally awesome!!

She grinned, and agreed with me that he really is awesome. I covered that she shouldn't worry about what her friends think of her, to just be herself. And I attempted to get into how kids can like whatever toys they like, whether or not they're a girl or a boy, before she got sidetracked onto an unrelated idea (a common occurrence).

And I think for right then, in that moment of conversation, it was handled well. And I think being aware of it in a general sense and trying to gain additional information on top simply thinking about the matter is an excellent place to start.

But that's not enough.

The base core of "how do I help my daughter see pass crappy but overly integrated into every day society stereotypes without giving any undue pressure for her to behave in any particular way?" is still hard to realistically answer. 

I was thinking about myself as a child, and how I thought of gender and being a girl. How did my parents address or not address these things with me? What helped me that can help Kristina? What was missing that I can add?

And what I realized was that my mother did an excellent job teaching me the fundamental idea of valuing the female mind.

Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue just hit newsstands, and there are all sorts of articles out there about the objectifying of women, exposure to children, and adding to the unrealistic body images inundating our society.

My parents did not have Sports Illustrated magazines in the house. My parents read Newsweek and the local paper. My parents listened to NPR and watched the news. My mother did not fuss with her hair or layer on makeup, only had catalogs selling LLBean-esq clothing, and carried on long and involved conversations with my father and her friends about current events dealing with 'foreign affairs in ___ country' or 'new legislature up for a vote in the senate'.

There were a few awkward side effects of this upbringing, such as my "dressing like an old lady" clothing phase (oh boy, was I ever into those found-at-thrift-stores sweater vests when I was about 12...) when I was attempting to navigate my own personal sense of fashion for the first time. Makeup was a skill I learned from friends two years after everyone seemed to have figured it out, I have read a half dozen fashion magazines in my life, and hair.... lets just say taming hair is still something I pretend to be working on occasionally.

But overall, it gave me a very practical and firm foundation of what was expected of me as a person.

And this line of thought made me suddenly pause to think about that Victoria's Secret catalog sitting in the stack of mail on my kitchen table. Intentionally or not, it does send messages to children. Images stay with people, regardless of the intended audience. And someday they will flip through whatever catalogs are laying around, looking at the models within, to learn about how to be a grown up.

So what do I want them to learn?

Those Victoria's Secret catalogs just might have to go... and maybe some of the worst offending for gender stereotyping toy catalogs while I'm at it.