PAREN(T)HESIS — Time For Kids

April 2, 2018

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

As Mother’s Day approaches, we will see lots of articles and interviews about motherhood. Many will be insightful and surely provide a new angle for thinking about raising children or inspiring a new appreciation for its blessings. But I find one truth that stands above the others: The importance of spending time with children. I don’t mean dressing up for holidays, going on Wisconsin Dells trips, or attending concerts together. I’m thinking of plain, old quotidian time.

Having tea together, sitting around reading, or assembling a puzzle don’t make good photographs or moments to share with grandparents. They won’t sound impressive in a daily journal or look good on Instagram. But what doesn’t make a good social media moment does make a good parent-child relationship. It’s true, too, for grandparent and child or guardian and child.

I’ve heard executives brag about attending all their kids’ games. But I know they weren’t around for much “everyday” time after school when nothing particular was happening except meal prep and homework plus lessons or practices. I think it’s nice to attend some of one’s children’s games, chess matches, dance recitals, etc., but during these events, the child isn’t getting interpersonal interaction with their parent, who is sitting with other adults.

In my opinion and that of child expert Dr. Meg Meeker, it’s more important to be around to do things like help with homework, share a podcast, or bake something together. Meeker, a pediatrician who has listened to children share their needs and fears for 30 years, has concluded that every child wants lots of attention from parents—even 16 year olds who roll their eyes when their parents enter a room.

Looking back on my own happy childhood, I do distinctly remember and appreciate one Christmas and one birthday (I got an awesome purple bicycle), and I especially remember a trip that just my mom and I took to Florida, which was a big treat for us.

More than those isolated, exciting events, I remember playing catch or shooting hoops with Dad after school, reading on the couch on a Saturday, and dozens of outings on weekends like cross-country skiing or hiking in Muskego Park or the Southern Kettle Moraine. My sister and I played sports or our own invented fun with neighborhood friends. To me, these unremarkable hours are the true building blocks of my childhood.

Sometimes my parents had fun without us and went out with friends, while my sister and I were “stuck” with fish sticks for dinner and a babysitter. My dad, a police officer, often had to work weekends. But I got an overriding sense that there was time for us to be together and that’s precious to me now.

Some of my most deeply-felt memories seem almost silly to share because they were so commonplace: goofing around with the dog, playing in a treehouse my dad built while he worked nearby in the garage with the Badgers football on the radio, and lying in sunbeams in the living room with my sister while my mom made pudding on a Sunday afternoon. These are the most evocative vignettes for me. No photograph triggers these recollections and they are not the type of thing American society applauds.

But while most of society doesn’t value them, they are valuable. Though they’re free, or don’t cost much, they are not easy to achieve in today’s fast-paced society.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

Learn more about Dr. Meeker:


March 1, 2018

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

Wanna bet?

My husband and I have enjoyed very small-scale bets since our early days of dating. The bets have been a source of friendly competition and a way to set aside differences until we could undertake a little research to decide upon a winner. The topics are usually trivial and esoteric — some are too strange to print. Our friends laughed along with us when they heard about the ongoing record we keep of all our little bets in our “bet book.”

Now our daughter is part of the contests over topics like last month’s Super Bowl outcome. We wager things like who gets to select dessert or who gets to pick the next board game we play. Sometimes the debate over the appropriate wager takes a lot of back-and-forth and becomes its own mini negotiation.

For the bets about trivia topics, it is surprising how often the winner is decided by semantics or interpretation. So we are very deliberate in the wording of the actual bet, such as, What is the average rainfall in Milwaukee County in the month of March for the years 2000 to 2017? versus How much does it usually rain in March?

In the fall we included my parents and sister and enjoyed a six-way bet about the first day of snow here in the Milwaukee area. It was our second year doing the first-snowfall prediction and experience taught us to be specific, after all, pride and a whole six dollars was at stake! So we specified that the first snowfall must be measurable (no mere “traces”) and reported at Mitchell Field.

I have heard that kids often adopt the worldview and general outlook held by their parents. I hope that low-cost, lighthearted games like these reinforce the view that learning new facts can be fun and it’s ok to disagree with those you love. And, it’s a lot of fun to win!

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

PAREN(T)HESIS — Olympic Lessons

February 2, 2018

Network television will be honoring American athletes at the XXIII Olympic Winter Games this month. I love hearing the athletes’ backgrounds and learning how they fought through hardships to achieve the elite levels in their sport. Some stories really pull my heartstrings, like one from my childhood when speed skater Dan Jansen learned of the death of his sister while he was at the Olympics.

I was in my young teens in 1988 and remember feeling a little awestruck that someone from my area was an Olympian with a solid chance at winning a medal. Then I had a hard time believing that he fell in the 500-meter race, then fell again a few days later in the 1000-meter event. It took my young mind a while to absorb all the twists and turns of that athletic saga.

I recently revisited his story while reading a book about Wisconsinites who have competed in the Olympics called Going for Wisconsin Gold: Stories of our State Olympians, by Jessie Garcia. Reading about the story still brought tears to my eyes and the continued emotion made me hesitate to check YouTube for clips. (I did watch clips and even the Visa commercial made me misty eyed.)

The saga didn’t end in 1988. Locals will remember that Jansen competed in more Winter Olympic Games and eventually medaled in the 1994 Olympics while setting a world record in his last Olympic race.

Many of Bay View’s current parents have poignant memories of Olympic stories of triumph and defeat like those of Jansen, speed skater Bonnie Blair, and alpine skier Picabo Street. (We were a little young for Eric Heiden’s amazing 1980s performance, but many current grandparents remember.) Since the drama and emotion of the Olympics can be seared into our brains, the next few weeks seems like a good time for some “teachable moments.” When watch the games with our children, we can extend what we’re viewing into a discussion on our culture, beliefs, and values.

Sometimes even a star loses big, and in front of a big audience. It’s still important to act with dignity and maybe aim for another chance in the future.

Life isn’t a movie plot, and unfortunately the circumstances of real life are often fraught with contradiction. Tragic things can be happen alongside wonderful things, even for an Olympic athlete.

One moment of glory isn’t effortless, it’s the culmination of years of hard work and tradeoffs.

Often an effort is about much more than personal achievement. It is often about the effort and achievement of a team, country, or for a higher purpose like worldwide cultural exchange.

It can be exhilarating to watch amazing comebacks or perfect performances. I always like an underdog. Underdog events and some years even the less popular events get me fired up. All in all, sports provide lots of opportunities to discuss life lessons, at least the segments aired before bedtime!

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at


December 30, 2017

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

For a year or two, dinosaurs were BIG in our house. Our daughter was very interested in books, television, and everything else related to dinosaurs, and several of her friends shared the interest. They all learned the word “hypothesis” and its meaning from the paleontologist on the children’s TV show Dinosaur Train. Some of the kids could rattle off scientific names for their favorite dinos.

Many children pick up an intense interest on a topic like dinosaurs, vehicles, or insects around ages two through six. After that it often fades away as school makes that kind of focus harder to sustain.

It’s been a few years since dinosaur talk and interest were commonplace in our house. For some parents, an intense interest starts out cute and then, over the years, gets borderline annoying or concerning.

I still remember discussing the best approach with my husband. Was there anything educational in our daughter memorizing multisyllabic words? Anything helpful to a young brain in knowing a lot about a subject, even if that subject is an extinct animal? It crossed our minds that we should try to redirect her enthusiasm and brainpower toward something more useful.

Instinct told me that digging deep into a subject was worthwhile, at best, and harmless, at the worst. Experts have declared the intense interests healthy. (Tell my husband I was right!) Kids get a little confidence boost when they know a little more about their favorite topic than some adults. Other benefits for the child are things like:

• More persistence
• Improved attention span
• Deeper information-processing skills
• Higher confidence

Looking back, the dinosaur days seem a little quaint. Like so many things in childhood, from mysterious knee pain to imaginary friends, kids just grow out of it.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

PAREN(T)HESIS — Caring For Pets

December 2, 2017

Jill Rothenbueler Maher

When I walk around our neighborhood, I occasionally see remnants of what seem to be former dog houses. (If I’m wrong, I cannot imagine how the concrete rectangles were used.) The attitude of Bay View residents and suburbanites toward dogs sleeping outside is one of the huge changes since I grew up. My parents’ dogs, a Black Labrador and an English Springer Spaniel, both slept in doghouses connected to our garage. I don’t think anyone found it strange at the time, but today it would raise eyebrows among neighbors.

The attitude toward pets has really changed since the 1970s. I noticed that a hand-me-down book from that era included the question, “Is loving a pet like loving a person?” The publisher’s answer reflected what was probably commonsense back then, which boiled down to, “No, you might love a pet but it’s not like loving a person.” In 2017 I think the answer would be different, or the publisher would eliminate the topic to avoid the negative feedback!

This month is a popular time to get new pets and experts say it is important to think through your situation before welcoming a new pet. The reality can involve allergies, the safety of the child and pet, and the ongoing cost of food and visits to the veterinarian. My husband and I held out until the age when our daughter could reasonably help care for a pet with things like feeding the correct amount and remembering to put the dog food bag away. We also thought about whether she knew how to control a leashed dog and safely cross intersections.

One thing that hasn’t changed since my childhood is children insistently begging for pets. Our daughter moved from turning the kitchen into an imaginary pet store to directly asking us to give her the odds, that is, the percentage of likelihood that we would get a dog. That percentage moved from 50 to 100 the day we visited a shelter and found the right match. Our work schedules meant that we couldn’t adequately train a puppy so we got a more mature, house-trained dog. Our daughter has been helpful with chores and has loved the dog more than I could have imagined.

We had to say goodbye to a cat a few years ago, and we dread the day when we will have to deal with the death of our dog, but experts point out that experience with the death of a pet can help translate to dealing with other types of loss.

Pets can also help children develop responsibility and give them time away from screens. An advantage I hadn’t thought about before researching this article is that pets can be trusted, safe recipients of a child’s innermost thoughts. Kids sometimes share thoughts with a pet like they do a favorite stuffed animal. On dark winter nights, a pet with the right temperament can be a great comfort.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

PAREN(T)HESIS — Raising Responsibility

November 1, 2017

Before we know it, snow shoveling season will hit Bay View.

Shoveling is a seasonal chore that kids can help with early in life, starting in small way that suits their ability and with adult supervision, and as they grow and mature, working up to taking on the whole task. This particular chore helps the household but also improves the neighborhood because passersby get to walk on a clear sidewalk, minimizing the risk of injury or wet feet. Spreading the love even further, some children help an elderly neighbor by shoveling their sidewalk.

When most of the homes in Bay View were built, kids shoveling would have been very commonplace. But across the nation, children’s chores have trended downward and have reached near zero in some families, where children do not put away books and toys or walk the dog or even hang up their own coats. The situation can reach a boiling point when parents “go on strike” and refuse to do any housework.

The parent-child struggle over chores must be a perpetual frustration because I remember the mom Marmee doing something similar to a strike in the novel Little Women, which is set during the Civil War.

Achieving a family life where chores are part of the routine, not something to be objected to or fought over, does carry a short-term cost to harmony. Children will try to subvert the parents’ attempts. Our daughter has come up with some pretty creative objections to putting away silverware and other chores. (She has also complained that the weekend should be renamed the “workend” because we have the heaviest cleaning and chore burden on Saturday and Sunday.) When instituting a new expectation that children will help, parents will lose some time enforcing chores or punishments. After a few weeks or months, they will gain back time when children consistently help run the household. Over the years, they will be rewarded with children who are more self-sufficient. Some parents even look forward to their children having more harmonious marriages because their own childhood chores led them to share and balance housework with a future spouse.

In the book Parenting Without Borders, Christine Gross-Loh reports that the way we ask our children to do something matters. Ideally, the parent and child are engaged in something together (like sitting near one another to read a book) and then the parent gives a brief, clear direction for a chore and works with the child to get it started. The intentional approach makes sense and is backed up by research.

Two thorny issues about chores are whether to pay an allowance for them and gender equality, balancing the amount and type of chores between boys and girls. In the end, getting some help is most important.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

PAREN(T)HESIS — Access to Books

October 1, 2017

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

I think the Bay View neighborhood must have one of the highest densities of those small book giveaway spots called Little Free Libraries. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, think of a glorified birdhouse mounted on a post near a sidewalk, but filled with books. Once you know to look for them, you’ll spot them all around our neighborhood, including the fire station on Kinnickinnic Avenue. The “take a book, leave a book” concept fits the mindset here of neighborliness and the belief in thoughtfulness and literacy.

Little Free Libraries are open around the world and I was delighted to learn that the idea started in Wisconsin. Todd Bol of Hudson built a structure to trade books as a memorial tribute to his mother. He eventually teamed with Rick Brooks of Madison and Little Free Libraries began to spring up. The ones dotting Bay View are fascinating because the style and shape of them are unique — some even tricked out with interior lighting. Many include children’s books, and at least one has a dedicated children’s section. The Little Free Library site has a map with registered libraries, but it isn’t a true guide to those in Bay View. You’ll find many unregistered ones if you explore our streets.

Another popular way to get free books in our area is, of course, to use one of our traditional libraries. Bay View and Tippecanoe are within reach for most of us, and St. Francis and Cudahy are close. And Tippecanoe is now open on Saturdays! One of my favorite “mom tricks,” when our daughter was younger, was to visit the library website and use my card to request books be held at Central Drive-Up. This technique avoided getting a little one out of the car and then carrying her through a parking lot into a building, especially in winter. Children can also use their school library.

Next Door, a Milwaukee nonprofit that supports Milwaukee’s central city, reports that the number of books available to a child may surpass all other variables in predicting their long-term success in school. They operate a long-running Books for Kids program.

Given the abundance of books in Bay View and the importance of reading for scholastic success, it’s heartbreaking to know that the situation is very different in other neighborhoods. The creator or “steward” of a Little Free Library on North 45th Street mentions that she is in a desert of Little Free Libraries and that the public library is over a mile away and getting there requires crossing busy streets. The situation makes me want to send her a check or help in some way, even though I know it’s not a long-term solution.

Here is a list of a few of the area’s Little Free Libraries with ample
children’s books or with a children’s section.

  • Humboldt Park Elementary School, 3230 S. Adams Ave.
  • Milwaukee Fire Department, 2526 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
  • Private Home, 2785 S. Wentworth Ave.
  • South Shore Park (near playground), 2900 S. Shore Dr.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

PAREN(T)HESIS — Money Talks

August 1, 2017

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

Last month, I shared thoughts around talking with kids about how babies are made.

Next up, money, another subject that is sometimes taboo. More specifically, I’m thinking about kids knowing the basics of personal finances.

Many grade schoolers have to pause and think to remember how much a quarter is worth. Ask them to guess how much is paid for rent or a mortgage, and they may throw out what they consider a really high number, such as $100. As they get older, they might grasp these values and concepts but know little about using a budget to help prepare for the future. Older children should learn things like how credit works and even compound interest.

While it’s comforting to keep money concerns in the realm of adults, eventually kids will need to handle money without an adult over their shoulder. I remember my first purchases without a parent were 10 or 25 cent candy at a store near our school. (Peach was my flavor of choice.) Today kids might buy a cookie at a coffee shop or use a vending machine without their parents, or even rent a movie or juice up an online game.

It’s reasonable to think that they will make better decisions, both large and small, if they have been given some guidance.

On a small scale, I try to show our daughter receipts for things like groceries and have her look at the total so she gets a grasp of the cost of food. On a Target or Walgreens receipt, I point out the line indicating tax.

To help her become comfortable with money and to have a little independence, we’ve started to let her make some small purchases on her own, such as muffins at a coffee shop or farmers market.

Wisconsin legislators are considering requiring public schools to include financial literacy for kids from kindergartners to high school seniors. Like the discussions over the birds and the bees, in my mind financial discussions should start at home and be reinforced at school. This helps make sure a family’s culture is respected while all kids get the basics. It helps society at large when they graduate with a solid knowledge of financial topics.

The Wisconsin Assembly passed the Financial Literacy bill in late June with no opposition. According to an article in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the State Senate may consider the bill this fall.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

PAREN(T)HESIS — Wider perspectives

June 1, 2017

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

Raising children can take us to unexpected places. A friend surprised me when he told me that he resorted to hiding books from his own kids. He took this unusual step because they got obsessed with the Harry Potter series, and for years, they wouldn’t read anything else for fun.

“Read what you like” is a good guideline. The popular Super Reader program available in the Bay View library and other MPL branches has children promise, “I will read things I like,” when they register for the free program. Most parents generally agree, but my friend thought his kids took Harry Potter books to an unacceptable extreme. He wanted them to get exposure to a wider world.

This spring the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Gene Luen Yang, helped encourage young readers to expand their perspectives by either:

• Reading about a character who doesn’t look like them or live like them

• Reading about a topic they don’t know much about

• Reading a format they don’t normally read for fun (chapter book, graphic novel, or magazine)

The endeavor is called the Reading Without Walls campaign and I learned about it in the excellent children’s magazine Cricket. The magazine itself exposes children to a variety of styles and topics in every issue. The May/June issue includes a page about the history of the umbrella. This everyday object started as a parasol to provide shade from the sun and became a symbol of wealth and prestige among various cultures across the globe. It was used on various continents but not for rain protection until an English man carried an umbrella to keep dry and he was considered eccentric. This usage caught on and that English man’s ‘repurposing’ of the parasol is the main reason Americans and people everywhere carry umbrellas. There’s more to the story than I can summarize here. That article piqued my own interest and it will surely make some kids look at umbrellas differently, too.

Another part of the current issue retells the story of the ancient Indian Hindu epic Mahabharata. An endnote gives perspective, including that it’s a story more than 2,000 years old and reflects a time when Indian culture allowed far more independence for women than in later centuries.

Allowing children to explore new things through reading takes a bit of courage for the parents, especially for those with controlling personalities like mine! Our neighborhood abounds with Little Free Libraries where neighbors exchange books but I’m a little uneasy about what she will grab from them. It freaks me out for reasons that are hard to articulate but I get concerned that she will read something upsetting or topics that are too mature. Of course we try to scan them as she brings them home.

Reading is a great way to get out of one’s comfort zone from the comforts of home.

More info:

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

Paren(t)hesis — All friends aren’t the same

May 1, 2017

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

A new kid joined Sesame Street on the public television show produced by the nonprofit Sesame Workshop! The new character has autism, and you can watch her on YouTube by searching “Meet Julia” to view the Season 47, Episode 15 clip.

Big Bird learns that Julia does some things differently, like:

Not answering right away

Not doing what others expect (may ignore requests to give a high five)

Doing things that might seem confusing to others (might flap hands when excited)

Getting upset around noise like ambulance sirens

The other characters, including the adult Alan, explain to Big Bird how to interpret Julia’s behavior and they agree that all friends aren’t the same. They break into a cute song together.

People with autism don’t all act the same, so it’s difficult to have just one character represent them all. To reach the best portrayal, the nonprofit Sesame Workshop brought in autism organizations in addition to the educators and child psychologists they regularly consult.

Although our daughter is out of the target range for the show, I’d like to show her the clip. I think it’d hold her interest long enough to get the point across and shows like this are a great way to ease into discussing other topics, such as autism

It’s on a different level but when I was a child, I remember Count Dracula being the first person I encountered with an accent. I suppose the character was meant to share math skills but I mostly noticed the “Transylvania accent.” Having heard it repeatedly probably helped me relate to people who would become our family friends, Spanish ex-patriots. The mother could not pronounce the “j” sound and always called me Yill instead of Jill. Being from another country seemed totally exotic to me and I was always a little afraid of the mom.

I’m sure kids with autism (or from other countries) don’t want to be feared. Hopefully Julia will help kids be a little more receptive to their potential new friends.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

PAREN(T)HESIS — Clothing conundrums

March 31, 2017

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

Many Milwaukee Public School students will be wearing uniforms starting this fall due to a new policy. At some schools, parents and guardians voted on filing a school-wide exemption. If a certain percent of the adults vote against uniforms, the whole school will not adopt the new policy. Regardless of the vote, individual students can be exempted.

The uniform topic brings me back to my Catholic grade school and its dress code. We had to wear collared shirts and avoid logos and denim. As I remember, the overall attitude among students was that we were thirsty for the occasional denim day and that we accepted the rules, probably because they were our norm. Leaving the house dressed according to rules was common in our house. The school dress code my sister and I followed was significantly less restrictive than the police uniform my dad wore every workday.

Decades later, I can clearly remember the flare-up when a seventh grade classmate wore Guess brand jeans with a white triangle label on the back pocket. It caused a few remarks amongst our close-knit group of about 60 kids. The focus on a brand and the potential for other students to beg for the same expensive clothes was exactly what the dress code was designed to avoid. A few years after I graduated, that school’s policy changed and implemented uniforms for its students.

Clothing debates tap deep into our emotions, as evidenced by the Guess jeans incident I remember 30 years later. Friends have similar stories, harbored in their craniums for decades, about what they and their peers wore to school and what type of jeans they coveted. In my childhood, the dress code I had to abide until eighth grade, combined with my penchant for outdoor play, meant I had school clothes and I had play clothes. I got off the bus, walked to our house, and immediately changed into more casual outfits that could get stained.

Back then I never heard of a child who couldn’t tolerate wearing certain types of clothing, but zoom ahead 30 years and now there are many kids with mild sensory issues that can be triggered by some garments.

Some kids don’t like, or cannot be comfortable wearing clothing like pants with buttons or cotton blend pants without any stretch. Luckily, knit clothing options reign supreme now for both kids and adults.

What we wear involves a lot of emotion, but I think the biggest issue with clothing is its comparison among children. It’s safe to say that whatever route a particular school takes on the uniform policy, today’s kids will grow up and survive a few crazy fashion trends, and as I did, eventually harken back to the clothing of their childhood days.

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

PAREN(T)HESIS — Greeting grandma

December 1, 2016

By Jill Rothenbueler Maher

NEW Jill Maher Headshot Dec 2013Many of us are heading, in the words of a song, “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” for the holidays. All the family gatherings make me wonder, who is this modern grandma? Does she fulfill the stereotype by meeting us at the threshold, sporting an apron dusted with a bit of flour?

The grandmother of 2016 may be an older member of Generation X or a Baby Boomer. She may be spending holiday time with her children, grandchildren, and even her own parents. Geographic separation may require that some of her interactions take place by phone or video chat with Facetime or Skype. Instead of greeting us at the doorway in her apron, she may greeting us on the holiday via her phone when she gets home from work.

She may love her family but might not love to bake cookies for them, that tradition that we still associate with the older generation. In fact, grandma (if she even permits herself to be addressed as such) may be too busy working to bake or partake in other traditional ‘grandmotherly hobbies’ like quilting and preserving applesauce. A majority of grandparents are still working.

People don’t always conform to stereotypes. I remember when I became aware of my stereotype when I interviewed an elderly woman for this newspaper and assumed she would enjoy cooking and baking. She surprised me when she informed me that wasn’t true for her.

Grandma of 2016 has far fewer grandchildren than a grandma who was alive when most of Bay View’s homes were built in the early 1900s. The number has decreased from a dozen to about six grandchildren, and the trend line keeps heading down. In my own family, my maternal gram had four kids and my paternal gram had five, while my parents and my in-laws each had two children. My husband and I have one, making our extended families an example of the shift toward smaller families.

Here’s hoping that I get to be a grandma and that I am done working at the office by then!

The author is a freelance writer and mother of one. Reach her with comments or suggestions at

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