If I didn’t laugh at my situation as an American living in Italy, I would cry. Often. So, I choose to laugh. My sense of humor is often directed toward those strangers in the strada who like to give me parenting “advice.” Basically, they’re telling me that my Americanness makes me the worst parent in the world. Maybe they’re right. What do I know? In any event, I’ve boiled down Italian parenting to a few distinct rules, and I’ve shared those in the most recent Our Paesani, “The Italian Guide to Parenting,” column for ItaliansRus.
Yesterday may have been Mother’s Day, but today is the good day. This mamma was able to kick things off with a shower and deodorant. I even caught a few episodes of my new favorite show, HBO’s Veep, on demand. Baby Boy is sleeping, well, like a baby, which almost never happens. When you work at home, the first thing you have to give up when your child can’t sleep is the shower. Lemme tell you something, there’s nothing like a hot shower to put you in a better mood. So, today is definitely my mother’s day. Anyone who will be around me today – which is mainly my mom, my 2-year-old son, 4-year-old niece, and nearly 2-year-old nephew – can thank me later for the deodorizing.Wait, other than my mom, the people who are usually around me are far smellier than I am. If I can get them to hang one of those perfume thingees from the car on their pants, then it will be a really great day.
Now, let me give it to you straight. I’m an Italian American (heavy on the Italian) and I have only been to the Olive Garden twice in my life. Once I was in high school, and the highlight was Howard Stern dining at the table next to ours. The other was with a colleague, who wanted to go there. Both were many years ago now. The only part of the meal that I recognized as being good and Italian enough was the salad and bread. I have made a copycat version of the bread at home, in fact. But I’m a mom and I know how expensive it is to eat out and how much fun my son has when we do something – like eating out – that breaks us out of our traditional routine. So, I have to applaud Olive Garden’s efforts to support families and the development of our children. The restaurant will be offering one free children’s menu item (children under 12) with every purchase of an adult entree purchased that day in honor of Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work Day April 24. You’ll have to print out a coupon from the OliveGarden.com site. (The coupon should be available later this week.)
I’m trying to raise my son to be a man, who takes responsibility, has ambition, and strives to make the world a better place through his work whatever that turns out to be. Since I work at home and he’s not yet in school, everyday at my house is Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. Lots of other people have just one day a year to expose their children to the secret world that they enter when they leave their houses every day of the work week. And it’s an important day. It’s not just about getting kids to think about the future. It’s also about showing them just how hard you have to work to put food on the table and give them that stuff they are always asking for, not to mention the stuff they need, such as medical insurance, retainers and braces, shelter, and the like. You and I know this isn’t magic. Making money is about work, hard work. It’s about time we teach our kids to have a work ethic and to realize that money has value because of the sweat you put into earning it. And if Olive Garden wants to show its support for us as we take on this challenge by giving our kids a free meal and the chance to show off their etiquette skills in a public restaurant, then I’m all for it. Just make sure to enjoy that bread and think of me.
NOTE: I have no affiliation with the Olive Garden, nor am I receiving any kind of reward, financial or otherwise, for sharing this post.
For those who are willing to venture outside New Jersey (and go to a New York mall, where you’ll pay tax on clothing), there is the ginormous Palisades Center in West Nyack, N.Y. Frankly, it’s so close to Jersey towns, such as Northvale, that it is hard to avoid it. With all sorts of sit-down restaurants, including an IHOP, food court, carousel, ferris wheel, ice skating rink, bounce house, movie theater, IMAX theater, and more stores than you can handle, there’s never a loss of things to do at this place. You could move in and still not get to all the events and activities. On Munchkin Mondays, select Mondays throughout the year, families are encouraged to bring the kids for special events and coupons just for them. (The last one was for St. Patrick’s Day on March 17.) At the moment, your kid can visit with the Easter Bunny and pose for a photo. Of course, the pictures are outrageously expensive (it cost 20 bucks for two stinkin’ prints). Still, you won’t be able to get over that smile, so you’ll be gouged and happy. Baby Boy is going to visit with the bunny again at the Bergen County Zoo on Saturday (should the weather hold up), and there are other malls getting in on the act, of course. These are the other places you can take a picture with the big bunny himself:
Garden State Plaza – You can even get a fastpass to get further ahead in the line.
Paramus Park – On certain days, you can even get a picture of your pet with the Easter Bunny.
Bergen Town Center – There is a VIP line for those who purchase their pictures online first.
As I’ve mentioned before mall hopping is the thing to do when you’re a mom of a toddler and the weather is still stinky here in New Jersey. So, until spring decides to grace us with its presence, we’re visiting the malls in northern New Jersey, arguably the mall capital of the world. Next on our list is The Outlets at Bergen Town Center. In the not so distant past, this was known as the Bergen Mall, or in my family as the dirt mall. It had been one of our favorites when I was a kid. There was this round, majestic fountain, where we’d throw in pennies and make a wish. Sometimes, we would have ice cream. Sometimes, we would have pizza. Always, we would seek out the sales at Stern’s. But by the time I was in high school, the place had become a relic of the past. To boot, there were all sorts of let’s-just-say “interesting characters” hanging out there. The only reason anyone would stop by was for the GAP Outlet and CVS. Times have changed. The place is sparkling and new. And it has some great benefits for parents of little ones:
- Outlet stores means outlet prices. You’ll find Carter’s, Gymboree, and Disney Store outlets, not to mention Target. Oh, and the GAP Outlet is still there – and it’s been renovated and moved, too. There’s also a Whole Foods if your child likes to drink a gallon of milk when out on the town. Maybe that’s just my little milkaholic.
- The fish tanks are a great distraction. When Baby Boy starts to lose his mind, which happens frequently when we’re in public, we need something to calm him down pronto. If the gallon of milk doesn’t work, a big tropical fish tank will. And it did when we were at this mall last Friday (see photo above).
- There are some good eats. Bobby Flay’s burgers, a pizza joint, and Subway have all worked out well for Baby Boy and me. I know burgers are not so healthy, but once in a while, you just gotta, especially when you live part of the year in Italy, where the beef has an aftertaste that I still can’t identify. You can get healthier fare at the pizza place and Subway for moms who are concerned.
- The seating areas are rather large and placed all over the center aisle of the mall. I’ve relaxed here when Baby Boy has fallen asleep in his stroller, a rarity that has me shouting, “Amen!” and hearing harps and chirping doves. Bring your Kindle along and you might really feel as though you’re in Heaven.
- If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a show. A group of teenagers in a tap dance troupe performed for Baby Boy and a crowd at the mall last Friday. Baby Boy was delightfully mesmerized, which means this Italian Mamma was just plain delighted.
I’m loving the superhero T-shirts with capes that are now available at Target stores and Target.com. I picked up this Superman one (see photo) for my son and nephew. They cost $12 and make for super adorable super heroes. In some stores, you can get Batman, too, but I’m not finding it online any longer. The shirts also make for fun additions at playtime. Who doesn’t want to pretend to have super powers? And a cape on anyone 7 and under is still cute and not yet creepy.
Parents are always asking me about what kinds of clothes to pack for family vacations; well, these would be perfect as you jet off on spring break. And this would also be a delightful treat in an Easter basket. There are never enough options for boys to play dress up. Of course, my son only obliged with the cape for a short while. Then, he pulled it off. It’s attached by velcro, so no worries about ripping. You can check out the cape in the photo below. Just make sure your kid knows he can’t really fly. We’re still working on that with my nephew and Baby Boy.
We the people of New Jersey are a special breed of mall rat. We are particular and each of our malls has a distinct function and role in the community. Until recently, for example, the Bergen Mall (now the much more elegant Bergen Towne Center) was the dirt mall. You went there for nostalgia and to snag a deal at the GAP Outlet. Now you go there for Bobby Flay burgers and to snag a deal at the GAP Outlet with much more enthusiasm and a lot less embarrassment. Garden State Plaza is the most popular kid at the table in high school, but the richest one lives at Riverside Square in Hackensack. Still, we find ourselves – especially moms and our babysitters, who are looking for ways to help our children pass the time when winter keeps coming back for more – spending time in each. They all have their own unique perks for kids.
Recently, a gas leak outside our home sent us packing to Paramus Park. This is the hidden gem among malls in our area. It has great shops and cool happenings, but lives in the shadow of GSP. On a Friday afternoon, it’s perfect for kids because it’s not too crowded and it offers a little bit of free fun, too. We ate at the food court, which features kid-friendly fare, such as pizza at Sbarro’s. There’s some history in the court with that giant turkey statue that was a 1970s gift to the town of Paramus and had my son shouting, “Bird!” incessantly, which is music to my ears because he doesn’t talk much. And, to boot, there are kids-height tables for eating and relaxing. Now, we traveled with one adult for each of the three children and still the eating portion of the day was anything but relaxing. I was fearing my nephew or son was going to jump off the bench at our table and fall to the lower floor, while my niece was lamenting having to eat more than just the mozzarella on her pizza. But we charged forward.
A play area was calling the kids’ names, but we quickly ran from it as we shielded their eyes with our hands in the hopes they wouldn’t see it. They did but we promised to return. We lied. Instead, the kids jumped out of their strollers and were quick to put back on their socks and shoes to hurl giant, plastic chess and checkers pieces at each other and nearby mall patrons. My sister saw the photos I texted her and replied, “Fun!” I wrote back, “Fun for us but not so much for the others at the mall.” In any event, it was a good way for them to blow off some steam. The only thing that would have made the afternoon perfect was if the charming old-fashioned carousel that once lived at Paramus Park and that I rode as a child was still there. Sigh.
On most days, while I’m chained to my desk, my son is downstairs playing with his cousins, a male nine months younger than he is and a female who is almost 4. Although I’m distracted with work, I can hear them loud and clear, especially the boys. Don’t worry, my niece gets in on the yelling, too, from time to time. But the boys act in ways that are unexpected, inexplicable, and downright strange.
Indeed, these two little men are a mystery wrapped in a riddle that I’m trying to solve. I wasn’t expecting to have to be a detective when I was told that I was growing a boy inside me. After all, I have a brother (father to the nephew and niece) who is 15 months younger than I am, more male cousins than I can count, including one who grew up with my brother and me, and I was friends with boys, mostly boys, from elementary school to college. Heck, I’m married to a man. Still, I never realized just how little I understood about the opposite sex.
Here are my observations that are not based on science at all:
1. Boys bang their heads against the floor and walls with wild abandon no matter how much it hurts. My nephew will actually laugh and bang his head against the wall, the refrigerator, and the floor to make different sounds. I’m not writing about gentle taps. I mean ramming his head hard to make the noise as loud as possible. My son finds this hilarious and will sometimes partake but is more likely to bang his head against rigid surfaces when he’s mad about something. Still, the head banging continues.
2. There’s no such thing as using your inside voice. Instead, screaming replaces normal talk. And screaming at one another is not a sign of argument; it is a game. In the photo above, you can see one of the screaming matches that my nephew and Baby Boy find as fun as a day at the zoo. The louder, the better. If we adults can’t take it, even better still.
3. Wrestling is the other form of communication. Baby Boy has delayed speech, which we’re working on. My nephew is on target but is still far less verbal than his sister was at his age. When screaming doesn’t suffice, they wrestle one another. Who gets the toy car now? Who gets the first dish of chicken? Who gets to sit on Nonna’s lap?
Take it to the floor. They pull each other’s hair (not to mention ours), sit on each other, kick and roll around like wrestlers in the WWE. It sometimes takes two of us adults to pull them apart. When we do, they seem completely fine, not even angry at one another. In fact, it’s as if they think we’re crazy for not letting the mayhem continue. It’s just the way they settle things and communicate, no big deal. Huh? Occasionally, my nephew, who is still smaller for now, cries for his mom or Nonna. But most of the time it’s like nothing happened. Nothing at all, at least for them.
4. They are completely destructive. I gave my niece a baby doll and she cuddled it in her arms. My son sometimes does that. But often he holds it by the foot, swings it around, and throws it across the room. We do art projects. And my niece will gently hold a paintbrush and try to make her project look beautiful – and tell us that is what she’s doing. The boys, especially Baby Boy who is a little bit older, will enjoy the work all the same. But they will squeeze the paint tube until it dies or crumple the paper before gluing it to the other piece. Sometimes, within moments of getting a new toy, they break it. Sometimes, these toys look like they’ve been run over by a monster truck. How do little hands manage that kind of damage?
With those same little hands, these little boys have stolen our hearts. They fist pump, and caress their mamma’s face. They give the strongest hugs and their mysterious behavior, although confounding, make life all the more interesting and better than we could have ever imagined. And I’m honored God chose to bless me with this detective badge.
Our kids are for the birds. Literally. My sister – the coolest zia in the world if you ask her – is a zookeeper, who specializes in Asian birds. To be honest, her job is pretty cool but don’t tell her that; I don’t want her to get an even bigger head. Zia also keeps a ringneck dove named Baci as a pet, and the kids torture the poor dear with love, of course, whenever they’re around her. Anyway, Zia has made our children – her niece and nephews – wild for birds. So, Nonna decided to keep up the bird craze and occupy the kid’s attention for more than a millisecond by having them each get a pine cone, rub chunky peanut butter on it, and then roll it in bird seed to hang on our trees as bird feeders.
My niece was careful to cover every inch in peanut butter and gently roll it in bird seed. She also bossed my husband around until he placed the feeder on the tree where she thought it would be best for viewing hungry birds. The boys were another story. My nearly 21-month-old nephew stood on the dining room chair and ate the peanut butter. My son sat and did the same but also started spitting out the peanut butter in an attempt to be the class clown. It worked. His cousins thought he was the Jerry Seinfeld of the toddler set, and my niece, with a bad case of the giggles, nicknamed him the peanut butter piggy. Needless to say, I finished the feeders for the boys and had to mop the floor…several times.
Still, it was a great project because we had a few moments, where the kids weren’t yanking each other’s hair, stealing each other’s toys, or kicking and screaming tantrum-style on the floor. And we gain three to four minutes per day, too, while they look out the window to watch the hungry birds eat, eat, eat. Zia would be proud.
Don’t ask me about the food at T-Rex in WDW’s Downtown Disney in Orlando, Fla. I haven’t eaten there but that didn’t stop my husband, son, and me from staying there for about an hour on a recent vacation. The exterior with its dinosaur bones captured Baby Boy’s 2-year-old attention immediately. He wasn’t going to let us pass it by without walking inside. There, he found a baby dinosaur and its mamma moving their heads and arms and roaring and a ceiling full of fun underwater dinosaurs and friends. There was a gift shop loaded with dinosaur goodies that he begged to have. We did not succumb. He left without any new toys, gadgets, or thingamajigs. Amazing, right? Not really. See, just outside the gift shop is a large sandbox, replete with brushes and hidden dinosaur bones for kids to dig up. It’s free to anyone who wants to hang out there. Baby Boy would have stayed there forever if we let him, and it didn’t cost a cent so I thought about it. In fact, the hardest parts of the latest trip to Disney was hanging onto his flailing, gelatinous body as we tried to get him out of sandboxes and other attractions he loved. Getting him to keep his shoes on in the sand – a rule at WDW – was a close second.
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel) and the Newlyweds Expert for About.com.