Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Happiest Birthday

Some days in parenting are just magical.  The air is clear of conflict, the kids’ spirits shine brightly, and the atmosphere hums with joy.  Ben’s birthday was one of those days—the excitement over his graduation from four-year-old to five-year-old was practically palpable.  Even Abby, whose own birthday is still months away, resonated with anticipation.  In fact, her sincere and heartfelt celebration of Ben throughout the day made this birthday the best yet.

Josh and I woke to Abby’s voice that morning sometime after 7:00.  From her crib, she called loudly to Ben through their shared bathroom door, “Ben, Ih’m soh happy ihs your birfday today!  Ben, Ih’m soh happy you were bohrn today!”  Ben, king of accuracy and precision, clarified with the patience of a wise, old sage, “No, Abby, I wasn’t born today!” but clearly enjoyed her excitement.  Abby, undeterred by his correction, shifted into a rousing version of “Happy Birthday,” her exuberant two-year-old voice leaving Josh and I in silent giggles next door. 

These are the moments parents dream of, the exchanges that sometimes feel like the stuff of parental fairy tales--until we wake one morning to find the fantasy has, in fact, invaded reality, that Love does exist on earth as it does in heaven.

The day continued as sweetly as it began.  Over lunch at the kids’ favorite pizza restaurant, Ben leaned over and kissed my head, saying, “Thank you that it’s my birthday.” Josh and I could only smile at each other.  It felt like we spent the whole day enjoying our children’s purest selves and glancing at each other in delight.

The highlight of the day, however, was taking Ben to see his first movie in a movie theater: Toy Story 3.  I had previewed it a few weeks ago and decided it would be appropriate for Ben, who we knew would love the story and characters and play and with whom we could discuss the darker characters and themes.  Abby, though disappointed she couldn’t join us, seemed to understand why she was staying home with a sitter to take her nap.  And so the three of us drove to the theater, bought our tickets, bought a box of candy of Ben’s choosing, and settled into our seats with our 3-D glasses in place. 

When the movie began, he sat on the edge of his seat, attending to every detail with absolute focus and concentration.  He laughed out loud in the funny spots; he whispered questions (“What does ‘selfish’ mean?”); occasionally, he reacted in his normal voice (“Is that the real Buzz Lightyear, the one with the real laser?!”), which we figured added to the authentic viewing experience of the grown-ups around us.  And when it was over, he asked, “Can we watch it again?”, his love of the experience clear.  As we walked back to the car, he said, “Buzz Lightyear is my favorite superhero ever, and he’s always going to be my favorite no matter what, even when I die and am under the ground and not alive anymore.  He’ll always be my very favorite.” 

He’s there, he’s arrived at boyhood—a lover of stories and adventures and daring rescues and bad guys brought to justice or demise, with enough understanding of the world to appreciate conflict and plot but with enough naivete, still, to adore a superhero, to believe in an unstoppable force of good and strength capable of vanquishing any evil.  Five-years-old ushers us out of preschool days and into the era of true boyhood.  And this new age sparkles with wonder.

Ben wanted to keep his 3-D glasses rather than recycle them and asked to take one of our pairs home for Abby.  He gave them to her as soon as we got home.  And though, by the end of the night after dinner and cake, both kids had reached the edge of their self-control, Ben still offered to let Abby open one of his presents as he had promised earlier in the week, “because I love her.”  

It was a magical day, full of everything good and right and true: love, gratitude, selflessness, innocence, joy, and enchantment.  Not everyday is like this. But this day existed, without contrivance or reminders or promptings or any other intervention. 

And I'm pretty sure I'll remember it for a long, long time.       

Monday, July 19, 2010

Don't Freak Out

...but I'm going to share the most important information I just learned about keeping our children safe from sexual abuse.

***Because the statistics show that a third of women and fifteen percent of men are survivors of sexual abuse, it is possible that some of you reading this blog are survivors. I want to acknowledge that though this material is sensitive, there is information here you can use to keep your own children safe.***

(For more information, please visit Feather Berkower's website:  There you'll find statistics, resources, articles, and information on upcoming workshops.  She also coauthored a book that will be published in the next few months: Off Limits: A Parent's Guide to Keeping Children Safe from Sexual Abuse).

In high school, I learned that sexual abuse happened to people I know.  In college, I became aware that it was not a rare exception but an alarmingly prevalent issue for countless children.  Ten years later, I look around my life and find it hard to know off the top of my head which list would be longer: that of friends who escaped childhood unaffected by sexual abuse or that of survivors I know.  Child sexual abuse is real.  It happens every day to kids all around us.  And it is not selective: socioeconomics, degrees, Pottery Barn homes, and loving parents do not make a child immune.

Yesterday, however, I learned information and skills that will increase the odds that my children will reach their eighteenth birthday without experiencing it.  And I feel compelled to share this resource and just a few of the things we took away yesterday with anyone who will listen in hopes that more children will become "off limits" to sexual offenders.

After two years of missing this parenting workshop due to scheduling conflicts, I finally had the opportunity to attend Feather Berkower's "Parenting Safe Children" class on Saturday, a workshop designed to educate and empower parents--and other adults or caregivers--to keep kids safe from sexual abuse.  I'd heard amazing reviews about Feather's presentation from everyone who had attended previously, and I knew I needed to invest this time for the sake of my kids.

This is not your average parenting workshop.  Feather addressed with tact and empathy and poise and clear, thorough information an issue many people are afraid to even acknowledge.  Though the content, by nature, is difficult and, at times, uncomfortable, Feather managed to lead us through our time together without leaving us queasy or paranoid.  Rather, Josh and I left confident, feeling empowered that we had the information and skills we need both to empower our kids and also to "filter" the people and places in their lives to give them the best possible opportunity to be safe, to become "off limits" to sexual offenders.

The statistics around child sexual abuse are staggering--I'll share just a few of many. From her thorough presentation we learned:

*1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys are sexually abused by the time they're 18
*40-50% of offenders are juveniles (this includes teenagers as well as young children sexually offending other children)
*of adult offenders, 95% are married men with children
*by an overwhelming percentage (80-95%, depending on the study), most offenders are known to children: offenders are relatives, neighbors, family friends, babysitters, coaches, etc.
*these statistics are based on incidents that are reported: imagine how many more go unreported...

Though most child sexual abuse is committed by males, the stereotype of the dirty old man lurking in the playground bushes is a far cry from reality.  It is far more likely that our children will encounter offenders on a play date or at school or in their very own homes in the form of friends or loved ones.  Remarkably, Feather described the types of individuals likely to offend with compassion, many of whom learned their behaviors when they themselves were abused (it should be stated clearly, though, that not all who offend were abused and not all who are abused go on to offend).  Still, the familiarity of most offenders is what makes this problem so insidious.

But we are not powerless against it.  Feather reminded us several times that we can equip our children to make them significantly less vulnerable to abusers.

After leading us through the statistics around the incidence of child sexual abuse and the characteristics of abusers, she outlined the qualities of children who are vulnerable.  She described the "grooming" process most offenders use to gain the trust of children and their parents so that we could recognize warning signs or red flags, and she described the qualities of safe kids and safe homes.  Did you know that one quality that makes a child more vulnerable to sexual abuse is not knowing the anatomically correct terms of their "private parts"?  We've chosen to teach our kids the names of all their body parts, but I'd occasionally had nightmares that they would blurt these terms out in the middle of the grocery store or school or a dinner party, embarrassing all of us.  Now, I realize that this knowledge, whether it leaks out in public or not, is a gift and may even communicate to the ill-intentioned around us, "I'm off limits.  Someone's talking to me about things that matter."

Feather also discussed helpful and unhelpful responses we could provide to our children should they ever disclose that they have experienced abuse.  In this case, calm, loving reassurance is key: "Thank you so much for telling me.  I love you no matter what.  This isn't your fault.  I'll do whatever I can to keep you safe and get help."  In fact, the mantra of the afternoon, whatever the situation, seemed to be, "Thank you so much for telling me.  Let's talk about it" or "Thank you for asking--that's a great question.  Let's talk about it."  Though the thought of facing this situation has always terrified me--creates a pit in my stomach that just aches when I think about it--I now feel  better prepared to handle it in a way that would allow the healing process to begin right there and hopefully not exacerbate an already difficult situation.

In giving us tools to protect our children, Feather gave us tools to be better parents in general.  She encouraged us to really listen to our kids, to hear beyond the words they use to what they might be trying to communicate, to ask questions that invite discussion and to respond in ways that show our children we are available to talk about whatever they may be processing in their worlds.  She gave us permission to be truly honest with our kids--at age appropriate levels--when asked difficult questions about sexuality, our bodies, and other topics we may be tempted to put off until later.  And she gave us principles, "Body-Safety Rules," that we could take home and begin using with our kids immediately.

We had our first conversation with Ben about "body safety" that night at dinner (Abby had gone to bed early, but we will share with her as the opportunities arise).  We shared with Ben where we had been and told him we had learned some important things about keeping him and Abby safe.  Over the course of dinner, we reinforced concepts he already knew ("You are the boss of your body," "You are allowed to have privacy when using the bathroom or getting dressed"), clarified rules we've implied or assumed he knew by talking about them openly ("No one is allowed to touch your private parts unless they are helping you get clean or unless your private parts are sick or hurt and a doctor needs to help them," "You are not allowed to touch anyone else's private parts," "You have our permission to say 'No' and disobey if a grown up ever breaks a body safety rule"), changed some rules in order to make our home safer ("We don't have any secrets in our family, ever.  We may have surprises like birthday gifts or special events, but if anyone ever tells you not to tell Mommy or Daddy something, then you need to tell us right away.  There shouldn't be anything you can't tell us"), and assured him as much as we could in one setting that we will always love him no matter what, that he will never get in trouble for telling us something related to body-safety rules, and that he can talk to us about anything.

Ben, our rules- and boundary-lover, embraced these new tenets.  "If someone ever tells me not to tell you something, I'll say, 'No, we don't have secrets in our family,'" he told me.  We began playing "What if" games as we got ready for bed.

"What if a babysitter tells you you can stay up and watch a movie way past your bedtime but only if you don't tell Mommy and Daddy?" I'd ask.

"I'd say, 'No, I can't do that,' or I'll say, 'Okay,' but then tell you the next day," Ben said.

I don't harbor illusions that he is now immune to the grooming ploys of an offender, but if we continue to have these kinds of conversations; if we continue to talk openly about our bodies and these body-safety rules; if we take advantage of the "teachable moments" in a day related to privacy, secrets, and body safety; if we foster closeness and provide plenty of attention and affection within our family--I am hopeful that if a situation arises--and I pray it doesn't--but if it does, our kids will have a gut reaction that tells them something isn't right and will feel empowered and entitled to say no, to communicate overtly or perhaps even unknowingly that they are "off limits."

I highly recommend Feather's workshop.  There was so much more information than I could possibly include here.  If you are local, I will be hosting one of her workshops sometime in the next few months for neighbors and friends and would love for you to join us.  If you do not have the opportunity to attend, you can find more information and resources at her website or you can order her book, which we will be adding to our collection of parenting materials as soon as it's out.

We spend so much time teaching our children about safety: to stay away from hot stoves, to wear helmets when riding bikes, to wash their hands before eating, to be aware of "stranger danger."  But the body-safety principles we learned yesterday may be the most valuable "safety"instruction we ever provide them.  At one point, Feather asked, "What if every parent, every adult engaged in a child's life, had access to this information?"  It's a fascinating question.  Could we virtually eliminate child sexual abuse?  Even if we didn't eliminate it, how many more children could be protected?

It's a worthy goal.  Will you join me?

(To find sources for this information, please visit Feather Berkower's website:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Today is hiking narrow trails through tall grass,
holding little hands and kissing scraped knees.
Today is wildflowers of purple and yellow,
 inviting small voices to say,
"Look at this, Mama!  Do you see this one?"
Today is hot sun and quiet shade,
chuckling creek and hushing pines.

Today is growing boy wielding sticks,
protector-child fending off invisible bears.
Today is little sister following brother's footsteps,
scaling slopes too steep with resolve to keep up.
Today is puppy legs climbing hills,
bounding ahead and coming back.
Today is muscle and exuberance,
finding strength and receiving joy.

Today is fresh air and a mother's brand of tranquility:
small bodies, big smiles, excited voices, and time to stop or go
or breathe deep or look around,
all around.
Today is nowhere to be and no one to see.  

Today is summer.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Small Town Story

Da Kind Soups here in Evergreen is small town business at its best.  Sample any of their two hundred homemade soups and you'll know: they're here to provide excellent food to the community they live in and love.  In their first year, Denver's premier magazine, 5280, named them "Top of the Town" in Soup, an accolade not easily won but clearly deserved.

Their menu is simple: each day, they offer ten of their homemade soups alongside five sandwich choices.  Dustin and Ariane Speck, the owners and chefs, are warm and welcoming, greeting their customers by name and providing limitless samples of the day's soups to aid the impossible decision.  They are careful to offer soup options that are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or dairy free for those patrons on restricted diets, though taste never suffers from the omission.  In the spirit of small town warmth, they celebrate the store's anniversary by giving away their soup and bread for free all day.

Above all, they value their customers.  They once forgot to give me a sandwich in my to-go order, and  when I returned the next week for another meal, they gave me the entire meal for free: soup and sandwiches for three on the house to make up for an innocent (and rare) mistake.  I hadn't said a word about the missing sandwich.

Though I was never a soup person before, I've converted.  The kids and I frequent Da Kind almost weekly.  It has heart and soul, ingredients missing from many enterprises these days, even other places in Evergreen.  They operate by their motto, "Live a kind life."

This is a place you crave for the flavor but return to for the community.

It was crushing, then, to learn that Dustin, who creates every recipe and makes every batch of soup himself, suffered from subarachnoid hemorrhaging (bleeding on the brain) a few weeks ago.  Beyond the  chef at the store, he is the father to the couple's two elementary-age boys.  I looked up the term on-line and found the statistics grim: in half of cases, the bleeding results in death.  Of the half who survive, many suffer significant loss in physical or cognitive facility.  When I heard the news, he was still in ICU and though his prognosis looked good, things were still touch and go.  Risks of additional bleeding or other complications kept him under the close eye of doctors and staff.  My heart was heavy--for him, for his family, for the store, for the town.  They are at the heart of Evergreen.  Their loss is everyone's loss.

The shop closed for a few days around the event, but then reopened with a message on their billboard announcing, "Soup man's down but spirits are high."  The shop's employees, who are loyal to the shop and its customers, worked hard to carry the extra burden of work while Dustin remained in ICU and Ariane attempted to take care of him and her boys and the store's responsibilities.  The billboard was updated occasionally with messages indicating Dustin was doing well or offering gratitude for people's support.

When I went in yesterday to get dinner, I'll admit it was as much to find out how he was doing as to bring home a tasty meal.  Before I could ask, Ariane, who seemed to have stopped in briefly but been roped in to help with the dinner rush, told me Dustin is coming home today.  More remarkably, he returns home without a single deficit.  There will be no physical therapy, no occupational therapy.  He has no memory loss, no mental compromise.  He comes home as healthy as he last left.  It is the very best news.

They'll have to keep his activity-level low for a while as his body continues to heal and recover, but it sounds like he'll be back behind the counter, every bit himself, in time.  I left overjoyed for them, for their family, for the store, and for our town.

In two short years, they have become fixtures here.  We feel that we know them, that they know us--to the extent that it's possible over the exchange of warm soup and a smile.  We have come to depend on them not only to feed our bodies but to feed our souls in their simple, kind way.  By all accounts, they have experienced a miracle.  And their miracle is everyone's miracle.
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