TIME Family

The Day My Daughter Discovered I’m White

'She never saw skin color looking in my eyes'

My youngest daughter was adopted from the Massachusetts foster care system. She’s a beautiful, African American girl with huge brown eyes that smile 90% of the time — except when she’s being sarcastic, and even then she makes me laugh.

I remember clearly the day she joined our family in 2003. The social worker told me that, whenever possible, the system tries to place children in homes where the parents are the same race as the child, as they believe that’s in the child’s best interest. My husband and I were open to whatever child fate sent our way.

And so, on a stormy November night, baby Ayla was delivered to our doorstep. Literally the power in our house flickered as the social worker rang our doorbell and dropped her off with just a small duffle bag containing four onesies that no longer fit and an empty canister of formula.

Although we had already raised two other children through the baby stage, the moment the doorbell rang, I felt weak inside. My confidence in our parenting abilities was only as strong as is typical of parents with young children (which is to say, it varied by the hour). That night I questioned my sanity, my capabilities as a mother and if this child would learn to love me — for at the moment she was a helpless baby who had no choice or ability to affect her circumstances.

(As a side note, I still get tears in my eyes when I think about how, within 24 hours, our friends threw a spontaneous baby shower and delivered everything we needed — from clothes to a car seat to an ExerSaucer — to our doorstep. We hadn’t anticipated that our foster child would be a baby, and so we no longer had those items on hand. This was before the days of Facebook and I’m amazed at how quickly word spread and people rallied to support us.)

While I loved Ayla from the moment I met her — as did all of our relatives, neighbors and random people in the grocery store, the girl is seriously adorable — I wondered as she got older how she would feel about being raised in a white family.

My fears were cast aside one day when Ayla was 5 years old. We were in the bathroom together, taking turns using the toilet. “Mom — your butt is white,” Ayla observed. “Yes,” I replied, wondering where this conversation was headed. “And my butt is brown,” she said. “Yes,” I replied again. I could see her brain processing this information.

It occurred to me that, even though she had been staring at my face every day for the past 5 years, until that moment, she never realized we were a different race. She never saw skin color looking in my eyes.

I held my breath as I waited for her next question. I began crafting long, philosophical conversations in my head about how I would simultaneously explain the birds and the bees, the construction of our family, and race relations in the United States.

“What time will Daddy be home? What’s for dinner?” she asked. That was it. She had moved on. Skin color was of no concern or consequence to this kindergartener.

Denis Leary famously said in 1992 (and then recently tweeted): “Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.”

As the confederate flag was lowered this month in South Carolina, I can’t help but reflect on Ayla joining our life. Fifteen years ago, my husband and I were living in Oregon. As we started having children, I had a strong desire to get back to the east coast to be within driving distance of our extended family. My husband interviewed for a job in Columbia, SC. Oddly enough, that year South Carolina was also considering the removal of the confederate flag. When we went to look at houses, this was the top news story and I remember seeing news vans everywhere.

Ultimately, my husband chose a job in Massachusetts. It’s crazy for me to think that, if we had moved to Columbia, Ayla wouldn’t have joined our lives. So many specific puzzle pieces had to fall into place for her to become my daughter — and they did. And now I know it was for a reason.

A quick Google News search on “foster children” shows that there continues to be a significant shortage in available homes for the more than 100,000 children currently in the system. There are also just as many (or more) instances of children being abused in foster care as there were so many years ago when my husband and I first decided we had heard enough and that we had the time and resources to provide for another child.

While my husband and I have shared our family story privately with friends over dinner, we’ve never before discussed it publicly. Now that Ayla is old enough to give her permission, I wanted to share the “butt” story in the hopes that it may inspire someone who has considered becoming a foster parent to take the next step.

While nature vs. nurture continues to be a hot debate in terms of what has the greatest impact on a child, I can tell you that Ayla has inherited my husband’s love of Star Wars, her brother’s love of soccer, her sister’s love of reading and my love of dogs. When I asked Ayla her thoughts on being adopted, she told me she likes that it makes her unique and it’s been a “strange, but cool experience.”

In a recent school project where she had to create her biography, she wrote “Ayla wonders what her birth parents are like, but she knows she would never love them as much as the ones she loves now. Ayla has so many dreams, she can’t list them all! In the future, she will move to Hollywood and take college courses in fashion and design.”

Whatever the future holds, I will be at her side.

This article originally appeared on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

How To Help Your Kids Get To Know Their Grandparents

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Tom Merton—Getty Images/Caiaimage

It's all about asking the right questions

Whether you’re a family who sees grandparents all the time or just gets together for a big blowout family gathering during vacations, you probably think your kids know their grandparents pretty well.

But even in extended families that are very close, says Dan Zadra, author of My Grandma: Her Stories, it’s easy for stories from the older generations to get lost.

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So how can parents help kids take the initiative to really get to know their grandparents, whether over summer or on more frequent visits?

Elementary age kids, Zadra says, can start with questions about things that “all kids from all generations have in common: What was your room like? What was your neighborhood like? What was your first pet? Those things are easy to ask, and get rich answers. And they bring the generations closer together.”

Middle school kids, says Zadra, can ask more complex questions, like, “Who was your best friend? What was your first job?” And they can pose questions with “emotional sophistication,”as Zdra calls it: “What would you like to do over if you had a chance? What did you learn from it?”

High school kids can work at being active listeners, according to Zadra. Instead of questions with a simple yes or no answer, parents can coax them to ask open-ended questions that encourage people to tell a story. Parents might also want to encourage high school kids to “get comfortable with space” after they ask a question, says Zadra, to let the person they’ve asked “think it through.”

And at every age, Zadra says, kids should learn to look for something beyond “the first answer.” Instead, parents can teach them the old journalistic tick of the follow-up, “What do you mean? Can you give me an example? Why is that?”

When you do that, Zadra says, “you get a completely different answer.” And parents might learn something they didn’t know about their parents too.

TIME Media

Behind the Magic of Sesame Street

Sesame Street Cover
Cover Credit: BILL PIERCE The Nov. 23, 1970, cover of TIME

It's more than just a television show

What is it about the long-time favorite television show, Sesame Street, that has allowed it to influence generations of viewers?

A recent study by economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip B Levine concluded that children who watched Sesame Street in the 1970s fared better in school than peers who did not tune in to the iconic program.

The study found that children who lived in areas with greater Sesame Street coverage in 1969 were significantly more likely to be at the age-appropriate grade level.

This effect was particularly pronounced among boys and black, non-Hispanic children. The study found that the likelihood of these children being left behind was reduced by 16% for boys across race and 13.7% for black, non-Hispanic children, in areas with strong reception.

Sesame Street’s magic

As an educational researcher, early childhood educator, psychologist, and dedicated Sesame Street viewer during my own childhood in the 70’s, I am well acquainted with the show’s power to influence children.

I have spent the last 15 years working with children growing up in the context of urban poverty. Presently, I am investigating the educational experiences of preschool-aged children who are homeless.

These experiences inform my perspective on why Sesame Street, in particular, has had such a positive impact on young viewers.

What I am concerned about is the conclusion of the authors of the Sesame Street program study that “TV and electronic media more generally can be leveraged to address income and racial gaps in children’s school readiness.”

Perhaps.

But we should proceed with caution in advocating blindly for an increased emphasis on children’s television and screen time as a potential remedy for America’s persistent achievement gap. And we must understand: why is it that Sesame Street has helped children learn all these years? For this, it is important to understand what makes Sesame Street such a powerful teaching tool.

First, Sesame Street is developmentally appropriate. Research on child development informs the show and concepts are presented in a way that is appropriate for young learners. Research shows when instruction is aligned with children’s capacity to understand it, they willingly engage the material and develop self-confidence.

Second, education trumps entertainment. On Sesame Street, children are engaged as partners in learning – they are asked to repeat, respond, and to think about what is occurring on the screen.

Third, Sesame Street honors children’s lives and engages them in discussions about things that matter to them, including diversity and difference. Children see people like them living and learning on Sesame Street.

Moreover, over the years, Sesame Street has not shied away from difficult topics such as death, homelessness, discrimination and incarceration.

As important is that Sesame Street helps children who have not experienced these things relate to them. This helps foster empathy for others. In short, Sesame Street relates to children and helps them feel as if they matter.

Screen time is not a remedy

However, increasingly, these crucial elements are being overlooked both in children’s classrooms and in media targeted at them.

Even though children are spending many more hours in front of the television than children did during the 1970s, there is much greater disparity in academic achievement and other indicators of learning.

The gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students has grown about 40% since the 1960s and is now double the testing gap between white and black students. A separate study found that low-income boys who spend more than 5.5 hours per day using sedentary screen media are the lowest-performing students.

Learning has lost its fun for children. Young children are being asked to master content that is beyond their appropriate developmental level. This makes learning frustrating and leads children to feel insecure.

Frequently, screen time is used to entertain and/or manage children, shifting them into the role of passive observer. In my work as an educational researcher and clinician, I have found this is especially true for children whose behavior is viewed as challenging, who may be parked in front of a television or computer screen so that others might disengage from them.

Thus, children experiencing challenges in their personal lives are often not supported in developing coping skills.

In building on the findings of this recent study, it is important to keep in mind that Sesame Street made a difference because of its approach, not just because the television was used to deliver it.

Children are willing to tune into Sesame Street and pay attention because it is relevant. When learning occurs in a context that is relevant to children’s lives, they pay more attention and retain more information.

We should proceed with caution in advocating blindly for an increased emphasis on children’s television and screen time as a potential remedy for America’s persistent achievement gap.

Most of all, we must understand the magic that is Sesame Street in order to replicate its impact.The Conversation

Travis Wright is Assistant Professor of Multicultural Education, Teacher Education, and Childhood Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

6 Stupid Questions I Have Been Asked About My Adopted Son

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xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

“Is he yours?”

In my family we range from pale to dark in skin color. I am pale with freckles and my husband is darker, although not as dark as my son, with dark hair. I get that we don’t look alike and I am completely fine with that.

After all, we are all human; skin color is just that, skin color.

When it came to adopting, I didn’t consider skin color to be a factor. Just as when I meet a new friend I don’t say “Oh, great to meet you, now what color is your spouse?” Why?

Because it doesn’t matter and it is beyond rude.

I knew subconsciously as a teenager that I would not be able to conceive but I held out hope anyway. Eight years into my marriage we decided to start looking for fertility help. We tried a couple of options but felt so broken. It was then that we decided to adopt.

We were living in Texas at the time and took the adoption courses out there. The courses are designed to scare you. They give you the worst case scenario of having a child, stating that with adoption you may not see trouble or disabilities manifest right away.

Well, as far as I know there is no magic serum that makes your children perfect if you give birth yourself either, so we forged on.

Through a string of events, we made the decision to come back to Florida first. We were assured that all of our courses and certificates would transfer. Upon checking in with Florida we found out that accepting the courses was purely up to the agency. We were devastated.

I called relentlessly trying to get them to change their mind. I was told that we would have to start over and that there were absolutely no infants — but my sister-in-law had just adopted an infant. I pushed on. We really wanted a child and we didn’t care about the age anymore.

One July evening the phone rang, and it was my sister-in-law. She had received a call from her case worker about an infant related to her son who had been born. She immediately told the case worker about us. We were able to contact her and the agency and make our case for keeping the blood ties in the same family.

Ten months later our son was officially ours, although he was ours the moment we held him at 5 days old. We also were fortunate enough to foster our son from 3 months old to 10 months (the first 3 months were daily visits only) so he had never known any different.

I occasionally joke that I got off easy because I didn’t get stretch marks and indigestion but in reality, the adoption process was extremely stressful. The courses and in home visits make you feel as if you are actually a parent being investigated for child neglect rather than trying to adopt. If everyone had to take these tests prior to conception I think there would be a whole lot less children conceived.

My point is we really wanted a child and did not let up until we were approved. The moment I held him I knew he was meant to be mine as if I had delivered him. It is a surreal feeling that only an adoptive parent will understand.

We have never hidden the fact that he is adopted from my son but sadly we do not know much about his biological history. We do know that he is bright and happy. He has dark skin and darker eyes. He is American and Human. He is healthy and loving. He is the kind of child who has patience with smaller children and elderly people. He loves to teach and stand up for those who are different. He makes my husband and me very proud.

Throughout his life I have been asked some seriously offensive questions such as:

1) “Where did you get him?”

I ordered him on Amazon. I mean really! There is not a store for children and I didn’t take him on a whim. I had 10 months of extreme stress to make sure that he would be mine forever.

2) “Did you not want children of your own?”

Nope, didn’t want to pass on these genes, thought I would try out someone else’s. I did, but if I didn’t, there is nothing wrong with accepting a child into your heart and home that does not have one. I have grieved the fact that I will never feel the flutter of feet in my stomach and never have those milestones of peeing on the stick and seeing the positive line and then planning out a pregnancy. Mine is a different path.

3) “Is he yours?”

Anyone who has adopted knows this question hurts the most. Yes, he is mine. He may not have grown in my stomach but the moment I held him he was mine. There is a bond just like a birth mother has. He lives with me, so he adopts my actions, my temper, and my husband’s walk as well as our sarcasm. I would not hesitate to die for him.

4) You are having a baby shower? But you’re not pregnant.

Well yes, I got a call that my son has arrived and now I would like to celebrate. There should be no difference. (This actually happened to my sister-in-law.)

5) Doctors look at you like you are crazy.

When they ask about periods during pregnancy and I answer with an “I don’t know,” which leads to the inevitable re-hashing of how we came to adopt him.

6) What is he?

Which I have been known to answer with “human” or “male.” This tends to quiet the question-asker. I get that his skin is darker than mine and his eyes are brown while mine are green. If you stand him next to my mother or my cousin you would swear I was the adopted one. So really, why is his ethnicity a subject I should address?

America in general claims to be sensitive. The nation has politically correct terms for disabilities and sexual orientation yet when the grocery clerk looks right at my child and asks in front of a line of people “Is his dad black or Hispanic?” it is somehow perfectly acceptable.

Meanwhile I am trying to put a blank face on for my child so he doesn’t know that I am so upset that I could climb over the counter and shake this teenager stupid. I usually try to ignore the question or put out the sarcastic remarks I noted above however, the older he becomes, the more he listens.

So when the latest cashier (this one old enough to know better) asked in the checkout line at Walmart, he looks right at me and said “Why would she ask that?” To which I respond “I have no idea, honey” and look back at her.

Of course the curiosity doesn’t stop there and all the way to the car I am peppered with questions about it. So I launch into the melting pot story and how almost everyone in America has come from a different continent to build a better life.

I then have to explain that my first name is Spanish (although I am not) and how our last name is German but Dad’s family came over from Italy for the most part. Then I stumbled through what I know of each side of the family’s history which includes American Indian, German, Italian and a bunch of other ethnicities.

This was a conversation that I would have gladly had with my son in our house setting but was not particularly thrilled about having in the Walmart parking lot on the fly.

I know that adoption will have some trials that feel different than those of a biological family. I have encountered some with my son already. At 8 he is feisty like me and his temper sometimes gets the best of him. So when he says things like, “I hate you” after being told that he cannot have a pair of shoes that cost an ungodly amount of money or “You can’t tell me what to do, you are not my REAL mom.” (I am sure many step-moms have also heard this) when I tell him he cannot take his iPod to school, I do feel betrayed, but I get over it. That is what parents do, love you unconditionally.

What is a real mom anyway? Just because a person gives birth to a child or donates sperm for a child does not mean they are the REAL parent. I have had many people ask me, “Where is his real mom?” Um let’s see, I feed him, shelter him, love him, and would give my life for his so…RIGHT HERE!

My son has inquired about his biological family and I have told him that when he turns 18 I will provide him with everything I have on them. Admittedly it is not much, but it is a start and I hope to be strong enough to accept the fact that he will want to meet them one day.

I also hope that I have made him strong enough to accept it, if they choose not to meet him. For now I will continue to raise him as a good human who is proud of his adoptive family. Who knows, maybe one day he too will adopt.

As frustrating as it is to be asked these questions, I would not trade parenthood in for anything. It is the hardest, most stressful job but it is also the most rewarding. Especially when my son says “I am glad you picked me.”

Dominga Weicht wrote this article for xoJane

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

How an Unplanned Pregnancy Ended Up Being the Right Choice for Me

xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

I’m still amazed by how something so poorly timed and so unexpected can result in a life with such significant purpose

I wasn’t ready. I did not plan to get pregnant. I was completely uncertain of everything about my future — my relationship was new, my “career path” took a temporary detour, and my finances were basically nonexistent and nowhere near in order.

Four months before I took a pregnancy test and saw two distinct lines indicating a positive result, I celebrated my 21st birthday. On the night of that celebration, I fell off of a barstool and decided to stay there, lying on the floor, laughing and staring at the ceiling. I thought about my carefree immediate future — I had just quit my job and decided not to enroll in any classes for the fall semester.

I was about to embark on a cross country road trip with a young man that I knew well enough to travel with, but not well enough to even attempt to plan a future together. I imagined crossing state line after state line before finding a waitressing or bartending job and settling in somewhere in California for awhile. I was willingly lacking direction. Flat on my back on the dirty bar floor, I was thrilled at the thought of aimless, careless travel.

By the time we reached Tennessee I felt like something was a little “off,” but I assumed it was due to the constant travel and inconsistent sleep. We ran out of money as we approached the middle of Arkansas, so we decided to settle in Louisiana for awhile and find jobs and work our tails off to make money to stash away for the rest of the trip. I woke up one afternoon after working the graveyard shift as a cocktail waitress on a casino boat and went out and bought the pregnancy test.

The two lines appeared within less than a minute. I didn’t expect this to happen to me. Back then, I still blindly believed that odds would always be in my favor and that because I was “smart,” something so life-altering could never happen. I almost cried, but disbelief and shock kept me from sadness.

I assessed my options and I spoke to my sister, my mom, and a close friend. And then I sat in the sparse, humid living room of our temporary rental and made my decision.

I want to tell you about that child. That unintended child. That child that I carried in the midst of uncertainty and instability. The child that many might say it was not the “right time” for. A child that many might say I wasn’t equipped or prepared for or mature enough to raise.

The first sight of him on a pixelated ultrasound screen at a clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana poured a confusing mix of hope and anxiety into my heart. For the first time in my 21 years, I was brimming with both awe and fear. It seemed that these two feelings alternated every other minute. I had no idea how I was going to do this — how I was going to handle being a mother.

I could not picture my future with a baby in my arms whose life would become my main responsibility. I wanted to believe that “everything happens for a reason” but the truth was that the only reason that I was pregnant was because I chose to be careless and irresponsible. My youthful ignorance that conned me into believing I was exempt from life-altering consequences died swiftly when saw evidence of his life.

The monthly, then bi-monthly, then eventual weekly trips to the clinic to confirm his health and growth seared the reality of impending overwhelming responsibility into my mind.

Watching the days (actually the minutes) tick by as his due date approached, then passed put me in a state of complete confusion. Which did I want more: for things to stay exactly the same or for my world to change forever upon his arrival? His birth occurred about a month before my 22nd birthday.

I spent most of my first year of legal drinking age pregnant and diligent about what I did/didn’t put into my body. Had another choice been made, I’d have been living it up, out til the wee hours of the morning, coming and going as I so pleased, and focused on my appropriately self-centered future.

With this baby’s arrival came absolute bewilderment. I didn’t know that the word “love” was so weak and wrong and overused until I spent my first few hours with him alone in my hospital room. I used the word “love” all my life to describe strong feelings of adoration, fondness, and attachment to others, but this feeling I had while holding this tiny boy, would make any other feeling of love I thought I had seem so insignificant compared to what took up permanent residence in my heart that day.

The English language failed to produce a word that can describe the way I feel about this child. Merely proclaiming “love” does not do justice to the way it feels when every section of your heart feels like it’s bursting with every possible wonderful feeling: elation, happiness, contentment, exuberance, delight, excitement, suspense, and hope.

The word “love” does not begin to cover the feelings of protectiveness, devotion, and loyalty. And if “love” indicates adoration, what I felt for that fragile little baby (and still feel for that boy who is now almost a man) made that word seem trivial and soft. Whenever I saw him or thought of him, my world seemed to spin more smoothly.

My feet felt more firmly planted on the ground, yet at the same time, my heart and mind soared with joy and promise at an unbelievable speed. No one told me this could happen — that a brand new helpless baby, who can’t even speak or reciprocate affection, could sweep you off your feet and make you walk with certainty and deliberate purpose.

As this unintended baby grew, the mix of all of these feelings did too. Sometimes, I wished that someone warned and prepared me for this before he was born. And at other times, I’d feel grateful that I was surprised. Being stilled with awe from unrelenting delight and devotion is indescribable. When his first brother, then his second brother arrived, this love only multiplied.

The sweet alliance these sons of mine formed as they grew together made me wonder if indeed, everything happens for a reason. I could never imagine these brothers without my first son for a single second. Their identities were carved from his precedence. Their personalities molded by his example. The bond between the three brothers is so sacred that I will dare to say it may be as sacred as the bond they each have with me.

My unintended son graduates from high school this year. He will start college in the fall. He has friends, old and new, and a girlfriend that adores him. He is full of creativity, passion, integrity, and grace. Whatever path he chooses, and through all of his mistakes and victories, he will exude these things.

In subtle and incredible ways, he will continue to cause others to be grateful and appreciative of his presence. He loves, has been loved, and will be loved by countless others as he navigates through life.

He is the beacon, the pillar, the fire and the home to my maternal heart. His arrival swung the door wide open and paved a path for his younger brothers to travel alongside of him and me, their determined young mother, holding their hands and guiding them on their journey to adulthood.

When I think about the day that I discovered that I was pregnant, I’m still amazed by how something so poorly timed and so unexpected can result in a life with such significant purpose. My unintended son is also the oldest brother, the cousin, the nephew, the grandson, and the friend that completes and comforts and delights so many people. He was never an option — he was undoubtedly meant to be.

So many memories, decisions, lessons, and plans for the future began with him. So much more lies ahead.

Every woman’s choice is hers, and hers alone. I would never imply that what I did is right for every young woman in my position. But when I look at who my choice grew to be and I watch him with awe from a distance, and when I experience his gentle and genuine kindness and witness the way his presence brings joy to others and then I try to imagine all of our lives without him, I can’t even finish the thought.

The world, as we who love him know it, would not exist without him.

Tina Plantamura wrote this article for xoJane

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

5 Things I Learned When I Quit My Six-Figure Life and Moved to Mexico

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Elle Cosimano is the author of Nearly Gone and Nearly Found.

Life isn't a race

I had my mid-life crisis during a sales meeting. Or more specifically, during one of those cliché icebreaker games in a room of a hundred real-estate agents, where we all stumbled around in designer knock-off pumps, wielding cheap logo-emblazoned ballpoint pens, sharing interesting tidbits about our lives in a mad race to fill up a bingo card so one of us could win a free lunch at some overpriced restaurant chain. “Tell me something interesting about you,” said a silver-haired man. “Quick. I’ve almost got bingo!”

The epiphany hit me with the force of 14 wasted years.

I was successful real estate agent at the top of my game, living in a six bedroom, two-story colonial on two acres in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. I had a home theater in my basement, a fireplace in my bedroom, two ovens in my granite kitchen, and enough square footage that I didn’t have to hear my children killing each other in X-Box games on the other side of the house. I had it all.

And I was miserable. Our whole family was miserable. In that moment, I couldn’t think of one interesting thing about my life.

“I’m writing a novel,” I said. I had no idea where the words came from — only that they came from some deep forgotten place. What I didn’t realize at the time was that not only had I just committed to writing that book, I had also committed to rewriting my family’s life. It was terrifying. And exhilarating. It was empowering! We were going to have a brand new story, and I was determined to make it better.

That summer, I took a sabbatical and moved our family to a grass hut in the jungle on the Riviera Maya where I wrote the first draft of a novel. When I reached the end, it felt more like a beginning. I never went back to real estate. My kids never went back to public school. We never went home, and I’ve never looked back. Here’s what I’ve learned.

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1) Less really is more.

For years, I was buying stuff, and more stuff, and then better stuff because I thought it would make us all happy. The value of our stuff has become the measuring stick of our success. And the more stuff I accrued, the more space I needed for all that stuff. And the more space we had, the further apart our family grew.

We co-existed in a state of parallel play, each of us more attached to our cell phones and tablets and game systems than to each other. My husband and I slept in a California King bed because it filled the aesthetic space in a room so vast we never had to touch each other.

The grass hut we live in now is tiny and spare. We have small rooms and small beds. We live close and we cuddle more. We rid ourselves of things we don’t absolutely need (like the $500 designer mixer we whipped out when company came, or the glossy shelves in the living room containing hardback books with perfect spines that we never had time to read). And in doing so, we learned that the only things we truly need are each other.

2) It’s OK to be selfish.

For many years, I denied myself the time and space to discover my own self-fulfillment in the name of being a “good mom.” It’s drilled into us from an early age that parenting means sacrifice—giving up the person we once were for the sake of the adults we hope our children will later become.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want my children to give up on their dreams or set aside their happiness for others. Through my own choices, I was teaching my children that adulthood is soul-sucking, that parenthood is exhausting, and that growing up means putting everything you’re passionate about on hold. Now, I teach them through my own example that they are part of my dreams.

3) It isn’t a race.

Why are we all in such a hurry for our kids to grow up? So many of my friends are pushing their kids ahead, drowning them in extracurricular activities, and lobbying their principals to let them skip kindergarten because their darling daughters and sons are “advanced” and they want to improve their chances of getting into a good college. They’re buying smartphones for their fourth graders so they can keep up with Facebook and Instagram accounts they’re not old enough to have.

Are we only trying to give our kids a competitive edge at life? Or are we rushing them through it, expecting them to behave like adults, so we can sooner arrive in that empty nest where we might rediscover the youthful passions we set aside in the name of raising them?

4) You don’t have to follow the herd.

Don’t settle for a standardized education if you don’t want your kids to live a standardized life. When we left the U.S., we took our OCD/TS/ADD son off the medications we’d be using to keep him anchored in front of a textbook and in test prep eight hours a day. We enrolled the boys in a non-standardized school that embraces music, art and handcrafts, free play, and outside recess.

We took away the anxiety and pressure of surviving school and made learning joyful again. My oldest son doesn’t have anxiety attacks anymore. My youngest son isn’t singled out as a problem-child because he can’t sit all day and regurgitate a textbook. I have given back to my children the gift of their childhood. And I have given myself the gift of my life according my terms.

5) There’s a great big world out there.

We cling to the ideology that America is the only place to have a life. We live with the assumptions that our children will always stay where they are. We think that their world will never need to expand beyond the one or two weeks a year when they use vacation days to rush, rush, rush off someplace else where they can “relax,” only to rush home and start the clock ticking again so they can accrue enough leave to do it again next year.

When we moved to Mexico, I received letters from friends and family back home suggesting that it was all well and good to need a break, but everyone has to come back to reality at some point. After all, we can’t live in a grass hut forever. To this, I ask: Why not? Why is this life any less imaginable than one lived someplace else? There’s a great big world out there. And there’s plenty of time to live it—really live it.

Elle Cosimano grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, the daughter of a prison warden and an elementary school teacher who rides a Harley. She majored in psychology at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, and set aside a successful real-estate career to pursue writing. Nearly Gone and Nearly Found are her first novels.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

4 Kid-Friendly Playlists That Won’t Depress Dads

Soundtracks to inspire singing, dancing, splashing or sleeping—in everyone

There are plenty of parents who cede all control of the stereo during their kid’s waking hours to the Wiggles and Barneys and whatever other high-pitched sounds will delight them, because it sounds like the same high-pitched nonsense that comes out of their own mouths. Then, there are the parents whose music snobbery overrides common sense, and they insist their kid “loves Thelonius Monk,” even as the poor kid’s eyes glaze over while dad gets all hep with it.

You are neither of these parents. You value your sanity too much to succumb to all Rockabye Baby and Kidz Bop all the time; you also genuinely enjoy watching your kid get into music. So, you carefully select songs for those times of day that go best with a soundtrack — when you’re in the car or trying to get them dancing or bath time or bedtime — and hope to hit that sweet spot.

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These playlists are curated with you and your kid in mind: 20 songs for each situation that will inspire singing, dancing, splashing or sleeping, no matter how old you are.

TIME Parenting

In Defense of Soccer Moms

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After a World Cup victory, it’s time to rehabilitate an abused phrase

The inspiring march of the U.S. Women’s National Team to the World Cup championship has elicited a fair amount of cultural commentary. Advocates of Title IX—the 1972 law requiring equal treatment of female athletes—claim that it set the U.S. apart from other countries by creating a competitive intercollegiate training ground for our best female players. To the global inequality crowd, first-world countries like the U.S. dominate women’s soccer because we pour enormous financial resources into player development. For others, it’s gender equality—the more your country has, the better—that generates victories on the field.

But as we look to understand why America’s women are so good at this game, it’s time to rehabilitate a phrase that has been overused, abused, and largely fallen out of productive use: soccer mom. As the players on the U.S. team themselves have told us, mom—and dad, and family in general—had an awful lot to do with their success.

The term “soccer mom” became popular in the 1990s as a way to describe a certain voting bloc. The Washington Post described President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign as targeting “the overburdened middle income working mother who ferries her kids from soccer practice to scouts to school.” Over time, however, the phrase became loaded with baggage. An online search now brings up expressions synonymous with soccer mom, but hardly laudatory, including “helicopter parent,” “stage mother,” and even “angry white male.” Not surprisingly, we heard little about soccer moms during the U.S. team’s procession to the championship.

On the other hand, listen to the team members themselves. They’ve explained that what we admire most about them—their tenacity, toughness, commitment to winning—came from their families in general, and their moms in particular. On a Mother’s Day video made by team members, Christen Press told her mom, “thanks for always pushing me,” and then added with a twinkle in her eye, “and never letting me take a day off.” In a video profile, Meghan Klingenberg talked about how her parents, after working all day, played in the backyard with her and her siblings “until the sun went down.” She also described a match when she was very young, in which she got kicked by an opposing player and fell to the ground in pain—about to start crying—until she heard her mother cry out, “Get up. You’re fine.” Those of us who have sat on the sidelines of youth soccer know exactly what Klingenberg is describing.

None of this is particular to soccer. Our best athletes—Olympic skaters, tennis champions, World Series MVPs, Super Bowl winners—often testify to the influence their families had on their careers. But the father who strings a batting cage in his backyard for his son is never derided as a “Little League dad.” Why, then, have soccer moms come in for such ridicule? Some of it derives from anti-suburban biases—what David Brooks describes as a steady “parade” of clichés about suburban life cooked up by cultural observers who abhor everything from suburbia’s supposed conformity to the carbon footprint of those who live there. Soccer moms, after all, drive gas-guzzling mini-vans and SUVs—the better to ferry kids about—rather than eco-friendly hybrids. Sometimes they inhabit homes with backyards—the better to erect that practice soccer goal—and contribute to sprawl. Sometimes they even put their own careers on hold to raise their future world champions. Nothing to admire there.

There are larger biases at work, too. The players can tell us what the support of their moms and families means to them, but according to the commentariat, only larger forces can explain America’s victory. In other words, your mom (and dad) didn’t help build this championship team, the government did. And so Title IX has become the most common, easy-to-describe reason why America has prevailed, as if all those coaches in college programs could take kids without much of a foundation in the game, kids who didn’t already have training and commitment, and turn them into world-class athletes in four short years.

Though the phrase “soccer mom” may have been used as a description of a political bloc, it’s a mistake to assume that soccer in America is largely a white suburban sport. Some 1.3 million people watched the World Cup final on Telemundo, the Spanish language network that broadcasts in America. And the composition of the men’s national team that’s now taking the field for the Gold Cup reflects the strength of the game in America’s immigrant communities.

Of course, the U.S. men have yet to win a World Cup. Are soccer moms neglecting the boys? Hardly. It’s just that men’s soccer in much of the rest of the world is already an enormously rich and dominating enterprise, where the best professional teams can invest significant resources to create developmental programs for younger players—training that our men’s collegiate programs haven’t been able to match. Soccer moms and dads can offer support and commitment and teach children the right values to succeed, but the expertise has to come from somewhere. America is still catching up to the best of the men’s game around the world in that regard.

Throughout this women’s championship run, we’ve heard a lot about how the players were inspired by the 1999 World Cup winning squad. Now, this 2015 team will inspire a new generation of girls to become world class. But kids rarely have the resources to reach such lofty goals on their own. That’s why the next generation will get ferried back and forth to training by mom, practice half volleys into a net set up by dad, get a hug from some family member on a bad day, and occasionally hear someone yell, “Get up. You’re fine.”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

How Making Mom Friends Is Like Dating

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There are some dealbreakers

You’ve probably heard this before, but making mom friends is eerily similar to picking up guys.

I’ll strike up a conversation. If we have a connection, I’ll try to casually exchange information. Sometimes I’ll hear from them, sometimes I won’t.

If it works out, we end up going out on a few (play)dates. Sometimes I think the (play)date went well, but never hear from them again. Sometimes I’m the one who takes the passive-aggressive opt out and doesn’t text back.

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But here’s the thing: I’m 32 years old. I’m married with two small kids. I don’t have the time or the patience for “dating.” Over time, I’ve learned what I want and what I don’t want. I’m probably way too picky. But I’m not sorry about it. Especially when it comes to the following deal breakers:

1. Your kid is mean to my kid.

Look, kids all act like meanies sometimes. We’ve had hitting and biting incidents, just like anyone else. Everyone makes mistakes. I’m talking about kids that are always aggressive or rude to my toddler. The worst is when the kids (and some parents) are completely unapologetic about it. I won’t let my daughter hang out with perma-meanies because I want her to know she is worthy of respect. Also, seeing as how every fiber of my being wants to protect my children, it’s important for me to pull the plug before I feel the need to drop-kick your kid.

2. You’re mean to your kid.

It makes me so uncomfortable to watch a parent be mean to their kid. In my book this includes talking down to your kid, constantly yelling at them, playing tricks on them, disciplining them in front of others, and/or cruel teasing. Yes, we all reach a boiling point and yell sometimes, but then we come back from the brink and try to make amends. Call me crazy, but I think kids should always feel safe and supported. In instances like these, it’s important that I bow out so I don’t feel the need to drop-kick you.

3. You reward your kid’s tantrums.

Here’s how this breaks down: My kid sees your kid getting consistently rewarded for acting like a meanie. When we get home, she starts acting like a meanie because she saw it work for your kid and thinks it will work for her too. Then I start acting like a meanie because my kid is constantly whining/screaming/throwing herself on the floor. Then we’re all stuck in a downhill-meanie spiral for the next few days. Then when things finally calm down, we meet for another playdate, and the cycle starts all over again.

4. You think sugar is the devil, and preach accordingly.

I’m all for trying to make healthy-ish choices, but I still love cookies and cupcakes and all things chocolate. And yes, I will occasionally feed my kids things like sweets, chips, and McDonald’s (gasp!). As long as you do your thing, I’ll do mine. But just know that if you’re the kind of person who is always talking about gluten, refined sugars, food dyes, preservatives, and clean eating, no one is going to want to hang out with you.

5. You’re always trying to sell me stuff.

I empathize with you, I really do. It sucks to try to support a family on one income. You know how I know? Because we’re making some drastic budget cuts on this end too. And in the rare case that we do have some extra money (tax refund, someone sells a kidney on the black market, etc.) then we’re going to use it on a babysitter and booze, not that shakeology crap or whatever it is you’re selling on Etsy.

6. You’re constantly on your phone.

Technology has murdered our ability to socialize normally. To be clear, I am the last person to care about any kind of etiquette. But if you’re texting/Facebooking/Tweeting/Instagramming/etc. while I’m trying to have a conversation with you, our relationship is doomed. Because that stuff is rude.

7. You’re a Debbie Downer.

Parenting sucks sometimes. OK, a lot of the time. I think it’s important to have friends you can vent to. But some people are always the victim. Some people have a problem for every solution and a complaint for everything else. AIN’T NOBODY GOT PATIENCE FOR THAT. Our time together should be fun, not draining. I’m all for venting sometimes (that’s really all this post is), but there has to be a balance.

The fact is, I don’t care what you feed your kids, whether you send them to daycare, what your vaccination schedule looks like, whether you attachment parent or let your kids “cry it out” — I really don’t. It’s just that I literally don’t have the time or energy for relationships that are stressful to maintain. Friendship is a fantastic thing, but if a relationship makes life feel harder instead of easier, then it’s not friendship. And that’s a deal breaker.

Joanna McClanahan (aka Ramblin’ Mama) lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, two small children, and two dogs. She took up writing mostly as an excuse to make her husband watch the kids. She is a Contributor over at Sammiches & Psych Meds. You can find more from her on RamblinMama.com, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Scary Mommy.

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TIME Parenting

Everything You Know About Boys and Video Games Is Wrong

Here's what they really think about how women are portrayed on screen

Kids are fed up with Kate Upton.

When the ads for Game of War started showing up on my students’ phones last year—they haven’t stopped—many were annoyed. They hated that it was impossible to close the ad, forcing them instead to watch the video until the end. But what really irritated them was Ms. Upton, in a full-cleavage-baring white flowing dress. The ads are clearly effective for some, but the message is obvious: Game of War is a boys’ game, and Upton is the game’s mascot, walking through battles totally unscathed and doing nothing except looking pretty.

Action games with big battles like Game of War are incredibly exciting to kids. And kids I’ve worked with, both male and female, will put up with a lot to play exciting games. But it doesn’t mean they like the way women are portrayed. Yet the video game industry seems to base much of its game and character design on a few assumptions, among them that girls don’t play big action games, boys won’t play games with strong female characters, and male players like the sexual objectification of female characters.

You can guess what the results are: a gaming landscape that thrusts a hyper-sexualized depiction of women onto the phone, computer and TV screens of millions of boys and girls.

MORE What Boys Really Want

The issue of sexism in video games, long simmering, is sure to bubble up again during the Comic-Con convention this weekend in San Diego. (47% of attendees are expected to be women.) In collaboration with my colleagues, Charlie Kuhn and gaming expert Ashly Burch, we surveyed more than 1,400 middle and high school students from throughout the country last year. We asked them to tell us what they thought about gender representation in games, what games girls play, and more. Our survey was exploratory—we didn’t have the resources to conduct a thorough evaluation—but we believed it was an important issue to study and hope others will follow.

Here are three things we found that may surprise.

Boys believe female characters are treated too often as sex objects

47% of middle school boys agreed or strongly agreed, and 61% of high school boys agreed or strongly agreed. “If women are objectified like this it defeats the entire purpose of fighting,” Theo, an eighth-grader who loves playing Mortal Kombat, told us. “I would respect the [female] character more for having some dignity.”

Both boys and girls aren’t more likely to play a game based on the gender of the protagonist

70% of girls said it doesn’t matter and 78% of boys said it doesn’t matter. Interestingly, boys care less about playing as a male character as they age and girls care more about playing as a female one.

Girls play a variety of game genres

26% played first-person shooter games like Call of Duty and HALO, 36% played role-playing games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, and 17% played sports games like FIFA and Madden. (19% did not play games, compared to 3% of boys.)

We also asked kids if they identified as “gamers.” Especially in light of the “Gamergate” controversy that erupted last year and revealed intense sexism among some self-identified gamers, would the young people who identified as gamers share any of these sentiments? But very few of our respondents knew what Gamergate was and they had very different responses from what one may expect: 55% of boys who identify as gamers think there should be more female heroes in games, and 57% believe that female characters are too often treated as sex objects.

This all matters because gaming has become an important part of our culture, and it’s sending the wrong message onto our boys’ and girls’ sceens. Our kids deserve better. And it’s what they want.

Rosalind Wiseman is the author of Masterminds and Wingmen (Harmony Books, 2013) as well as Queen Bees and Wannabes (Harmony Books, 2002)

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