Adventures in Parenting #3, Report Card: Good effort, needs improvement

(As you read this you are going to see that, while it addresses our parenting, I wanted to focus on a few of the stories I tell about Iliana.  I wrote a post with Elizabeth in the spotlight, and as a parent, I would never play favorites, as you will see below.)

Parenting Rules:

1. The safety of the child is paramount

“Does this make us bad parents?” Rebecka asked before dawn.

“Depends,” I said.  I had just read that Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio was 1,299 feet tall.  Higher than the Empire State building.  And our daughter Iliana, 13 years old, was planning to rock climb the damned thing starting in an hour.

Credit: Rio All Access

We will get back to that later.

How we stack up as parents

Rebecka and I have always maintained that when you took her skills and my skills and combined them, we made one pretty good parent.  We interacted with the girls in different ways, Rebecka was consulted on social things, which group to trick-or-treat with, what clothes to buy for the new school year, what classes to take.  Rebecka planned their summer camps, took them to the library and haircuts, talked about college choices.  She was this kind of parent: Girl Scout leader, camping enthusiast, guide to choosing Halloween costumes, companion for High Tea at the Mayflower Hotel, we eat dinner at the table, we’re not animals.

I have good soft skills, dealing with emotional issues, such as difficult friends, and worries about school. I can pick up in the intonation of “Fine.” when something is amiss, I can hear when something is not being said and open a door to discuss it. 

 I specialized in being this kind of parent: comedian, cook, gardener, after school tutor, I have a great idea for a science project, here’s how you change a tire, don’t worry that turtle won’t bit you, let me show you how to use that crowbar to pry up those paving stones.

It’s not that Rebecka and I didn’t know the rules of parenting, we just believed it’s better to play it by ear sometimes. Well, most of the time.

Rule 2: It is imperative to model good dietary habits.
One morning over breakfast Iliana recounted an odd dream. “I was in the lunchroom and I when I looked in lunch bag it was all deserts, cupcakes, cookies, candy bars.” “Doesn’t sound healthy,” I said but I could not have been more excited. After I saw them off at the bus stop, I rushed to the Shoppers Supermarket and scouted the aisles I usually avoided. I was on the hunt for sugar, artificial sweeteners, and coloring. If it said, “Low fat,” “Low calorie,” or “Organic,” it was not basket-worthy. I ended up with a load that was exactly what the dentist did not order. The next morning I played it cool, wrote their names on the brown paper bags and nonchalantly handed them out.
At dinner Elizabeth went first. “I took my lunch bag and turned it upside down and dumped it out and my whole table went “Woooooow!” then the tables around us stood up and oohed. Nicole said, ‘That is a lot of junk food, Elizabeth. Good for you!’”
Iliana could not stop smiling as she described the astonishment of her elementary school friends with their pitiful sandwich and piece of fruit.
That weekend she proudly displayed a collage she made with all the wrappers and the heading, “Best Lunch Ever!”

Rule 3: Parents must not have favorites amongst their children
Couldn’t be further from the truth in our family. If our family had been traveling west in a wagon train in the 1800s and found ourselves being pursued by hostiles, when we decided that two of us would go this way and the other two would go that way, there would have been no need to draw straws to decided who went with whom. Elizabeth and I would go right, Iliana and Rebecka left. It just seems to me human nature that some people are more in tune with other people. This natural divide continues to lead to vigorous competition when we were playing team games.
Elizabeth and I are easy going, practitioners of “Oh well, that’s good enough for this job,” and think that a “B” grade is something to brag about. Team Rebecka and Iliana strive for excellence and don’t deny it, and shake their heads at our complacent attitude. Elizabeth once said to me, “It’s not fair that Iliana gets all As and I don’t.” “Would you be willing to work as hard as she does?” Elizabeth thought a bit then, “You’re right, it’s fair.”
The two teams in the family get along in the tradition of President Reagan, trust but verify.

I was often my mother’s favorite, much to the consternation of my sister, Elizabeth. I do recall one incident in particular. We were in elementary school and in the summer doldrums, when the heat had sapped our strength and enthusiasm for vacation, when my mother announced it was time for the summer ritual cleaning of our closets. For 11 months stuff had been collecting on the floor of the closets. Mine was two feet deep in clothes, shoes, toys, bowls and silverware, books, abandoned inventions such as the perpetual motion machine which almost set the garage on fire, bird traps made of coffee cans and a mouse trap to close the door (sad to say, several birds were injured in my childhood), drawings, National Geographic magazines (see post about sex ed), bike tire tubes, etc. Just about everything I had touched over the last year ended up on the floor of my closet. On a more positive note, my dresser drawers were well ordered because they were nearly empty. So, my mom rallies Bill and me and Sis and lays down the law, “No one can play until their closets are clean, drawers straightened out, toys put away.”
I shared a room with Bill and he was a clean freak so he was gone after half an hour. We were several hours into this archaeological exercise when Sis had to use the bathroom and she glanced into my room. I was laying on my bed, reading one of my collection books with titles that all started The Story of … The Story of the U.S. Marines, or the FBI. My mother was on her hands and knees sorting through my closet debris.
”MOM! THAT’S NOT FAIR!” Sis screamed, nearly levitating me from the bed.
My mom just laughed, “Oh Sissy, who can get mad at Bobby?”
Sis could.

So in my experience, parents had favorites, and the kids always know it. And our family used to laugh at the idea of the four of us going on “Survivor” where teams compete and each week the losing team must vote a member off the tribe. Our family would be great getting rid of the other families, but when it was down to the four of us, every elimination vote would be a 2-2 tie vote. Elizabeth and I would vote together, Iliana and Rebecka would vote against us. When you look through the pictures over the years, the teams are clear.

With my recently adopted daughter, Nata.

Rule 4: No spanking
I just bring this up because Elizabeth got one swat on her diapered behind 26 years ago and she claims she can still feel it, and I therefore, am willing to submit myself to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague to have this thing settled once and for all. I choose Kip Hale as my lawyer because a.) he is a friend of mine, and b.) his specialty is as an Atrocity Crimes Attorney.

Christopher "Kip" Hale
Kip Hale

Rule 5: Teach each child the same life skills
When we lived in Central America, Marta was our maid. She was from Guatemala and started working with us in Guatemala City, but we had set up a fair and generous compensation program for her, and she loved baby Elizabeth, so she moved with us from Guatemala to Honduras.

Lia Felker, Jennifer Bailey, His Honor, Rebecka, Marta

On weekdays Marta cooked dinner and I took over on the weekend. When we moved back to the States Rebecka started working at Georgetown University and I was a hang-out-with-the-kids-at-home-Dad, so I did the shopping and cooking. After we had been back a while Rebecka decided to cook dinner one Saturday night. The girls were shocked and amused. “Mommies can’t cook, only Daddies can cook!” Rebecka was not amused, but did appreciate their lack of a stereotypical gender role viewpoint.

Iliana soon began her chef career baking with Rebecka.

Later she progressed to making dinners with me.  We watched cooking shows such as Master Chef and Hell’s Kitchen together and she learned how to cook from recipes.  I always made a weekly menu before I went shopping and then posted the list of the week’s dinners on the refrigerator.  From time to time Iliana would call me at work after getting home from high school and tell me nothing appealed to her on the dinner list, could she come up with something better for dinner?  Of course, she could and did.  I have watched the process she employed brainstorming ideas, she would empty the refrigerator and pace back and forth, imagining different combinations from the pile of ingredients and she always came up with delicious final product and Rebecka would announce it was the best thing she had ever eaten. Iliana would complain, “Everything can’t be the best thing you have ever eaten.” “OK, if you want to get technical, it is the best thing I have ever eaten so far in my life.” 

Iliana entered a Teen Iron Chef cooking competition at her cooking school in Bethesda, Maryland and was miffed when her team did not win.

In 2017 we were in France so I could compete in the World Masters Track and Field Championship in Lyon. After the competition we spent a few days in Paris and Iliana suggested we take a cooking class. Elizabeth had to return to the states for work, so Iliana, Rebecka, myself, my sister Elizabeth and her daughter KC took a French cooking lesson. Being France, the instructor spoke only French, and was so proud of that fact that when he became aware that we were English speakers his attitude was, “Je m’en fous.” A lesser man than I might have brought up saving French butts in WWI and WWII but since I didn’t fight in either of those wars, I let it pass. With all his instructions in French we had to observe closely to capture the ingredients and technique, but we were missing all of the patter that had the French students chuckling as they sautéed. Eventually a bilingual student noticed our puzzled looks and started filling in some of the blanks.

With my sister Elizabeth and KC

Iliana did discover one drawback of being an excellent cook.  In our family you get to choose your birthday dinner and after Iliana made Beef Wellington once Rebecka always requested it for her birthday and Iliana always dreaded the hassle involved in making it.

Credit: Fine Cooking

Rule 6: Individual differences in the children must not be remarked upon.
“Iliana is the smart one in the family.”
That wasn’t Rebecka or me talking, that was Elizabeth talking about her sister. “Well, Elizabeth that may or may not be true, but I know you can conquer the phases of the Moon before your Friday test.” (We couldn’t but it wasn’t Elizabeth’s fault.) There is a range of scholastic achievement in our family, and I find myself on the low end.
When Rebecka and I first met we went for a walk along the Embarcadero, a wide walkway that separates the street from San Diego Bay, and which originally served as a place to unload the tuna boats. Today it is a tourist attraction.

When we came to the end of the pedestrian-only area there were poles in the pavement to prevent cars from entering. “Oh my gosh!” I said, “Look at that, they have used railroad rails for poles.” Pieces of rails had been cut into five-foot lengths and stuck in the ground. I caressed the part of the track which had carried trains and it was still shiny and smooth.

Credit: All Metals Supply

Rebecka shook her head. “No wonder you like to take naps, it must be exhausting if you see everything you look at.”

I mention that because it is a excellent definition of mindfulness and a backhanded compliment, but secondly it allows us to fast forward 20 some years when Iliana was a young teen and Rebecka observed, “Iliana is smarter than me and she pays attention like you. That is a scary prospect.”

Although at times we had to wonder about her sharpness.

The day before Iliana started classes at Georgetown University, they had a convocation, which looked a lot like a graduation with faculty in their robes, the reading of the charter signed by President James Madison on March 1, 1815, and the Deans giving speeches. The difference was that at a convocation the students were not wearing their gowns but carrying them. At the end of the speeches the new students were asked to rise, put on their robes, as they became the Georgetown Class of 2016.

Four years later, with graduation approaching, Iliana was suddenly panicky because she was supposed to wear that same gown, and after four years of college, keeping track of a single garment seemed impossible. Unless, that is, your mother is Rebecka who values educations and the accouterments thereof so highly she had kept it in a place of honor, waiting for the big day.

I cannot imagine how many pages Iliana read between the two times she donned that gown.

Because I play favorites, Elizabeth as she graduated from University of Maryland, Frostburg.

Oh, what the hell, let’s throw in Rebecka’s PhD in Anthropology from University of Maryland, College Park while we are on the subject of graduations.

At the convocation one of the speakers warned the attending parents that their student/children may be shocked to find out that for the first time in their lives that they are not the smartest student in the classroom.  I mentioned this to Iliana afterwards and she shook her head.  “You and Mom always think I am so smart, but it is just that I work harder than most people.”  I knew she worked hard, in Middle School she was often up doing homework until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.

One of my interns on my Immigration Detention Hotline Team at the American Bar Association was a friend of Iliana’s at Georgetown, Sabrina Khan.  She provided some insights on Iliana’s method of concentration.  “I would go to the library with Iliana and a good looking boy would come to our table and say, ‘Hey Iliana,’ and Iliana would not even look up from the page, she just would make shooing motions and keep repeating, ‘Go away, go away, go away.’”

Image may contain: 5 people, including Sabrina Khan and Iliana Lang, people smiling, people standing and indoor
Sabrina Khan, left, went on to Harvard Law School

Elizabeth was the soccer star, Iliana played tennis, and did rock climbing classes.  Which brings us back to Sugarloaf Mountain in the bay in Rio.  We had gone to Rio for vacation and so Rebecka could visit the two women who had been her “exchange student sisters” when she spent the summer in Rio in high school.

Rebecka enroute to Rio, 1976.

With her Brazilian exchange student sisters, Isabela and Marcia, a few years later.

When we arrived at the airport in Rio Iliana saw a sign advertising her type of adventure:

  1. The safety of the child is paramount

The adventure wasn’t cheap, but Iliana really wanted to do it, she had years of climbing classes to prove she did love the sport, so we said fine. But now in the dark as she was getting ready to meet the guides at the base of Sugarloaf at dawn, Rebecka was having second thoughts.
“Does this make us bad parents?” Rebecka asked in the dark.
“Depends,” I said. “If she is killed or severely injured, yep, we are terrible parents. If she succeeds, we are superstars for helping her build her self-confidence and self-esteem.”

It turned out fine, quite a victory for a 13-year-old. The other climbers were the touring company of “Disney on ICE,” and at one point the climb leader asked for a volunteer to follow him up and to stop and unclip the line from the rock as they moved higher. This meant holding on to the mountain with only one hand. There were no volunteers, so Iliana stepped up.
Self-confidence, check. Self-esteem, check. White hair for parents as we waited until almost sunset for her group to finish the climb, check, and then whiter still when we saw the pictures, check.

So I guess when it comes to parenting, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Which reminds me of this,

Why is it I don’t know a single way to skin a cat, of which apparently, there are many?

And finally, a taste of Rio.

And I recognize that recent reports show that Michael’s personal life was a disgrace, but I love the Brazilian enthusiasm in this video, and he is correct that the Brazilian government doesn’t care about those living in the favelas, the hillside slums of Rio, and I am particularly worried about the favelaers in this time of Covid-19.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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