Smile Tips for All Parts of Life from a Mom, Wife, and Dentist

December 28, 2015

School Zone

Last week, we arrived in the Balkans for a much needed vacation.  After 15 uninterrupted months of work, I jokingly told my parents just days before our flight that I felt like I'd been running with scissors trying to prepare for the trip.
Once a very "happy to sleep" baby, our now two and 3/4-year-old sleep protester Max has dictated minimal sleep for Mommy & Daddy, only allowing us to barely separate the even longer winter work days. Alas, now that I've recovered from jet lag and adjusted to the caffeine intensity of the customary four to five cups of Turska Kafa, I am finally able to relax and appreciate the quaint Eastern European lifestyle, which is quite a refreshing change from the super fast pace of our Washington, DC metropolis.  Most ironic and pleasantly surprising, however is that as my Mommy status tries to fully engage this "pit stop", Max's practice of Serbian has taken off at lightning speed since our arrival.
"Neću to, Mama! Come on! Hoće McQueen! That's Max's red car! It's mine!"  Lightning McQueen is indeed a favorite among children all around the world.  The fast, bright, shiny red star of Disney Pixar's Cars is a staple of each of Max's play dates and his inspection seems to denote the start and finish of each gathering. Upon arrival, Max sizes up the toys of his peers and just before departure, his host ensures that the most celebrated rides find their way back home! However, in between these surveys, Max and his friends engage in active story telling, stunt dictation and most comically, actual conversation. This universal adoration for McQueen has perhaps endorsed Max's use of at least the Serbian toddler vernacular.
Just before our trip, we finally parted with Max's Fisher Price Crawl Around Car, which was probably a harder task for me than it was for Max. I remember researching it online when he first learned to sit on his own. The sturdy toddler size car served us through two birthdays and even though its wheels are only props and don't actually roll, Max took very good care of his first hot ride! We discussed every shape and angle, every verse to every song. Even the gear shift made for fun analysis.

Recent studies reveal that parents who consciously engage with their babbling infants can accelerate their children’s vocalizing and language learning. The hustle bustle of life definitely makes me grow impatient and at times I feel like I'm rushing through the most important parts, but it's the fun silly chats about the detail of a toy car that have proven to be most powerful. Sometimes it's the slower pace of the school zone that allows us not only to play safely but more importantly to learn the value of those lessons and this theme rings true not only for Max but for Max's Mommy too!

November 30, 2015

"Now, repeat after me."

On Max's first day of preschool, I had butterflies in my tummy as I went through the wide range of emotions felt by most parents. Would Max like his teachers? Would he play nicely with the other children? Would he think Mommy & Daddy had abandoned him? For sure, we wanted our son to make a great first impression. So we brushed his teeth, shined his sneakers, reminded him that biting is bad and dropped him off.

After my tears dried, I looked around the busy parking lot at the other parents rushing off to start their days and I realized that in the blink of an eye, my Mommy Stopwatch had actually slowed down its pace.  For the first time in 2 years, I didn't have to contemplate Max's next snack, diaper change or unforeseen meltdown over blue vs. orange Gatorade. After I got my bearings and re-calibrated my maternal clock, I went to Target, not for anything in particular but just for this seemingly new opportunity to stroll the aisles without anxiously looking at the time on my iPhone every 2 minutes. Later on, I actually sat down in Starbucks and read a few newspaper articles on my mobile device and on my way back to pick up Max, I even carelessly scanned through the radio stations.

Upon my return, Max's teacher briefed me on his first day. "Max had a great day!  He slept for the entire nap and ate all of his lunch---on his own.  The only thing is...(and she quieted her voice to a whisper)...we can't understand Max when he talks. It sounds like he's speaking another language but we weren't sure because he seems to understand us. He even seems to repeat what we say." 

The start of preschool brought about a new wave of many firsts: Free time for Mommy & Daddy, complete sentences and most recently potty training. More importantly,  for the first time I realized that he would be looking to me as the English language expert. 

October 19, 2015

The World is Mine

My husband has given over 101 nicknames to our two-year old son, Max.  Each tag has its own tale that can easily melt my heart and while many of these titles, especially when announced in my husband's Slavic tone, sound like they belong to mythical legends, not one of these identities contain our widely visible definite article: the.  

Oddly, my husband's native Serbian tongue actually excludes the use of arguably the most commonly used word in the English language.  I honestly hadn't paid much attention to the hidden value of this word until Max began to articulate his own verbal conquest and as his toddler language expansion moves rapidly to conquer phrases, adjectives and pronouns, I find myself a bit concerned that without definite Serbian counterparts, certain meanings may get lost in translation.

With the start of preschool and more social development with his English speaking peers, Max has seemingly launched a few non-verbal strikes against Serbian.  Although my husband continues to firmly engage with Serbian, Max who was once more comfortable with his Serbian voice is now eager to demonstrate his English achievement.  Language experts argue that children of bilingual homes are more than likely to play some degree of divide and conquer tactics in making one language dominant over the other and this approach becomes especially significant in conquering parental territories, where one parent speaks the language of the outside environment.  Luckily, his many nicknames are perfect pingbacks for Max to return to his Serbian discourse but I have to wonder if he might unknowingly search for unknown treasure.

In Greek Mythology, the Gods reward mortal good with opportunities for prosperity.  The challenges test our human ability to seek out these moments and determine their true meanings.  The popular hero Theseus is credited with finding the only possible path to the center of the Labyrinth and heroically freeing Athens from the belly of the Minotaur.  As I examine the many detours in our maze of English and Serbian, it appears that the Language Gods may have mysteriously taken away a single article but graciously awarded us with the parallel translation of my and moj.  This gift is exhibited in Max’s endeavor to take ultimate possession of the pronoun regardless of language assignment. "My toys, moje patike, my fire truck, moj video, and (a personal favorite) moja Mama!" Max's dominant stance reminds me that the Gods made these two words of the same world, on purpose.
When were first started dating, my husband shared many stories of his childhood trips to Greece and Macedonia.  I remember thinking, Macedonia?  Ancient Greece, Macedonia?  Alexander the Great, Macedonia? Aristotle and Plato, Macedonia?  I hadn’t even thought about that region off the pages of my ninth grade World History textbook.  Greece is strategically located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa and in his conquest to conquer the world, Alexander the Great or Aleksandar Veliki as they say in Serbia, manifested cultural diffusion, where he joined the different elements of various cultures and even incorporated them to coin new languages.

A labyrinth is unique in that is has one route to the center but Alexander is great because he used his many gifts to conquer new territories.  Under the guise of his many titles, perhaps Max too will be heroic on his own path to great acts and good deeds.

September 19, 2015

Food, Glorious Food!

I've wrangled with the "freshman fifteen" at least twice, once was back in college and more recently towards the end of my first year of breastfeeding. Following the stretch of an everything nauseous pregnancy with my son Max, that last round of weight gain was indeed more savory than the first. Nevertheless, I've justified both contests as necessary sacrifices and with the return of balanced meals and long walks with Max in his stroller, I actually thought I'd finally tamed the "Beastly Bulge."  That was before I entered the gates of Toddlerville, where refined carbohydrates are plenty and treadmills sit just over the horizon.

In our new habitat, food is not just abundant but well worth the discussion for any budding linguist.  Every piece of sugar has immense caloric value and is stock-full of what seems like infinite vocabulary words.  This yummy nutritional fact is an especially tasty treat for Mommy to introduce Max to our very dense English lexicon.  The super bright colors of the rainbow are not only found in assorted fruit varieties, but also available in chocolate shelled jewels where the wild animals of the safari thrive in cinnamon as well as vanilla flavored kingdoms.  Cookies and cupcakes and ice cream, oh my!

Most distinct to Toddlerville however, is not the marvelous mounds of sweets but that their consumption is offset by a super-fast toddler metabolism.  In the land of never ever go hungry, snacking between meals is not just encouraged but favorable due to the petite-sized stomachs and appetites of the natives. Only in a fantasy could you find the values of the Food Pyramid inverted to satisfy the sweet tooth of a child's palate.

As I struggle with the reality of my slowed mommy metabolism, I recall the plots of Fairy Tales written about the ever craved ingredient where its ravenous consumption has severe consequences.  Goldilocks invades the home of three bears and Hansel and Gretel enter the witch's house to satiate their hunger.  However, it is to their close demise that the important lessons of moderation and temptation are learned. Neurological studies show that our keen sense of smell and taste is linked to memory.  We are conditioned early on to enjoy the sweetness of our childhoods and the words that describe its associations with both good and evil are safely secured in our fondest memories.

Sugar is both friend and foe.  In order to maintain a healthy weight, I had to learn how not to eat and as I teach Max the importance of proper nourishment, I am also giving him the language to enrich his travels.  However, I've had to accept that I'm just a visitor in Candyland, not a resident or a casted regular but a conscientious observer for whom the rules of the Real World still apply.

September 7, 2015

Mix and Match

"Beware of the Terrible Twos!"  The flashing lights of caution couldn't brace me for the Ides of 
Max: the Tyrant Toddler.  I've had to channel my inner diplomatic genius just to calm outrageous demands for candy breakfast, bottomless bottles of bubbles and mismatched socks under winter boots for summer walks. However, even with a background in International Policy, my patience is no match for Max's strategic practice of "Serblish" where he rallies between English and Serbian in a super-confusing game, challenging Mommy's calls with brutal commands and one-sided negotiations.

Before Max's interchangeable play of "No want it!" and its clean version "Hoće to!" push me to my breaking point, I've decided to exercise a few "Jedi Mind Tricks" of my own.   Perhaps, my Mommy Advantage can help me avoid conflict and earn more wins than losses.  The U.S. Open has arrived just in time to provide a much needed tutorial on diplomacy from the competitive stage.

Modern peacekeeping agendas are not only pursued at the United Nations but desired at many a kitchen tables, especially when it comes to reasoning with a toddler about the breakfast menu. While Max's bold orders of "candy, chupa and čoko" are dictated with confidence and ease, it is clear that his negotiating skills require some practice and perhaps even the conditioning of a tennis pro.  Like many aspiring champions, Max is faced with the task of minimizing his unforced errors and maintaining the favorable cheer of the crowd.
After reviewing the plays of tennis greats Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, representing Team USA and Team Serbia respectively, I've proposed a few tactics to help Max and Mommy reach mealtime goals.  Stacked in my favor, the course of action follows that Max must be able to work within the framework of a team where Mommy not only directs the plays, but calls the time outs and drafts all opening and closing remarks.
Finally, after long hot tempered volleys, muscle memory will allow Max to properly articulate his gratitude.  Among many others, this talent has been gracefully demonstrated by Williams throughout her career, best exhibited when she gave her 2015 French Open Championship Speech à propos in the langauge of the host nation.  In the same swing, Djokovic without exception, always gives respectful praise to his opponents no matter how grand the stage.
Only a great athlete can truly revolutionize the game and Max has quite a few matches to serve before he can dictate change on Centre Court.  In the meantime, while Daddy handles his training, Mommy aims to prepare him for his diplomatic position both on and off of the court.  We know that it will take more than a full serving of the Breakfast of Champions for Max to argue both sides of the net and until we reach a tiebreak we'll have to rely on the timeless treaty, "Mommy said so!"

August 29, 2015

Playground Rules

It seems like yesterday, we were clicking away with the camera as our little guy posed in his Bunny costume for his first Halloween. At 9 months, his muscles were just strong enough for him to conveniently support himself in the sitting position as he nibbled and drooled all over his synthetic carrot. Almost 2 years later, Max has hopped his way through several milestones and is now jumping at every opportunity to demonstrate his newest skill.
Following a developmental sequence that begins with rolling, jumping presents toddlers with a more advanced capacity for fun, as it enables them to for the first time trust both sides of their bodies to work simultaneously. Like most of Max's new thrills, jumping from a standstill or on and off of the bed challenges Mommy to minimize all potential risks and hazards. I now see the brilliance of the playground design with its cushioned gravel and open space as a safe and accessible zone for me to release my nerves as Max expands his leaping ability.

Much like jumping, when it comes to talking, making sense of grammar and meaning also  requires bilateral coordination and things get even trickier by the fact that each language has its own rules for sentence structure. This is especially significant when distinguishing Serbian from English, where the "subject-verb-object" sequence consistency is not necessary to maintain meaning. "Max jumps on the bed" can be translated inversely into Serbian without figuratively transferring the bed onto Max. As if balancing syntax and definitions weren't difficult enough, I'm starting to wonder if this word jumble might make Max a little cautious about leaping from one language lily pad to the next.
Max's leap span seems to be growing in a direct relationship with his Serbian foundation and I have to confidently trust that both skill sets will hopefully surpass those of my own. As my mom says, "every growth spurt is bittersweet." While I continue to hold tight the vivid memories of his many firsts, I also have to relinquish my sense of control so that Max can fully develop and maximize his abilities.

As I watch the kids at the playground climb on, around and through the jungle gym, I am relieved to see that amid all the jumps and chatter, the structure's distinctly organized framework requires each child to establish a balance between risk and challenge. Trial and error is requisite for success and whether hopping, jumping, leaping or climbing, Max is pushing his boundaries in order to reach this goal. He's still got a few milestones up ahead, but in the meantime we've got the trusted words to our favorite tune, "No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed!"

Read more about my adventures raising a bilingual child.

August 22, 2015

Red Hot Chili Peppers

International Food Markets are rapidly becoming as ubiquitous as Starbucks.  Once isolated at the end of a ONE WAY street in a remote neighborhood on the other side of town, you can now find a colorful bazaar of farm fresh produce and key ingredients for authentic cuisine centrally located at a main intersection or even reviewed on an acclaimed food blog. 

How things have changed since my mom packed me and my sisters into the station wagon and drove all the way to South Philly for Buckwheat Noodles and a specific brand of Chili Oil.  Now that Max has officially developed his Daddy's taste for Bulgarian Feta Cheese, we have cultivated our weekly visits to our local Global Food into a festive language blend of not just dairy but also fruits, grains and vegetables.  Max is especially captivated by the endless variety of peppers.Their bright and robust characteristics prompt a fun "Pop Quiz" on colors, shapes and size with the "Grand Prize" of course being that he is allowed to grab at and disrupt their perfect arrangement!

As Max's reach grows to include more Serbian and English adjectives to describe the look of each spice so does my knowledge about their origin, flavor and theme and I am enlightened by the fact that every pepper has its own unique story.  The fiery habanero is indigenous to the Amazon while the sweet purple bell pepper's high heat tolerance is what allows it to ripen to its beautiful Merlot hue and the chile dulce, which unlike its spicy red counterpart, exudes a cheerful yellow zest.  Although rooted in the Americas, the large family of chili peppers have been widely distributed around the world and today India is their largest producer, consumer and exporter.

All these years, I thought Paprika was a bland almost tasteless condiment used to garnish deviled eggs.  You can imagine my expression as I indulged in the generous serving of spicy Ajvar that my husband offered me on our third date, simply calling it "Paprika spread."  I later learned that the popular Hungarian spice is actually made from air dried chiles and was brought to the Balkans under the Ottoman Empire.  Today as a staple in the Serbian kitchen it is found in many specialties including Pungent Paprike, Chicken Paprikash and GoulashThe pursuit of spices inspired explorers to sail the globe and now at a local international food market, a quest for Chile y Limón, Paprika or Vegeta seasoning can easily transform into purchases of natural goods that serve therapeutic or medicinal purposes as well.  After hours researching online for products to end Max's "thumb sucking habit", I found the remedy of fresh Aloe Vera hidden like a precious gem just across the aisle from the Asian pears, smothered between the leeks and elephant garlic.

A "foodie" at heart, my mother has always enjoyed a wide variety of dishes and she'll casually use a favorite spice to, as she says, “doctor-up” a simple recipe.  The liberties taken in culinary science are similar to the mixology of languages that Max exhibits in our kitchen to describe what he wants, where the Macintosh is termed "crvena apple," Frost Gatorade is called "blue sok" and the "banana paKika" in his mind is still probably both a fruit and a vegetable.  Just like in High School Spanish class where we earned extra credit for incorporating geography and history into our studies, Max is enthusiastically earning bonus points for his own wordplay and creativity.

August 14, 2015

Apple-Babies and Toddler-Techs

Remember back when the entire village raised the child?  When free-range parenting was status quo, hard copy was relevant and after hours television was the greatest threat of bad influence on a youthful mind? 
Perhaps, growing up in the 80's really was "the best of times." Sure, we couldn't archive every single minute and we actually had to wait until Saturday morning to hear about Friday night, but there is something still very nostalgic about memories of opening weekends at movie theaters, compact discs, processed film and even the anticipation of a phone call from a new love.

Delayed gratification ruled the era and it definitely had an impact on parenting.  Even nicknaming me and my three sisters: "I want!", "I need!", "I gotta have!" and "I can't live without!" couldn't help my Dad persuade Toys 'R Us to open afterhours.  Now that I have my very own High Maintenance Toddler I'm beginning to think that child rearing in a digital millennium might take more than conventional mommy maneuvering.
The children of Baby Boomers, my sisters and I were raised by parents who believed in tough love, valued hard work and appreciated longevity.  Our family actually ate dinner sitting around a table and watched television together in the same room and even though mom and dad both worked outside the home, their work usually stayed at the office and weekends were often restricted for family fun.  Following the "be all that you can be!" mantra, many women of Generation X earnestly attended college, became professionals, have started their own businesses and as the mothers of Boomlet Babies several have lucratively coined themselves into "mompreneurs."

At the heart of the village has always sat the youngest member of the tribe and today’s tech toddlers indeed generate the rhythmic pulse of the market.  Having never known a world without cell phones or computers, they are not only savvy consumers cuing their aunts, mothers, teachers and other caregivers about the latest trends but their loyalty to us is absolute.  Many of today's modern women are fashionably outfitted in Bambiniware to meet their toddler bosses, where nurseries are the new boardrooms and high chairs are reserved for lead consultants.
A month after my son Max was born, Japanese carrier Willcom introduced the world's smallest cell phone and weighing just 32 grams, it was compact enough to fit into a baby’s back pocket.  In this is the age of Apple-Babies & Toddler-Techs, stimulating apps are as crucial to little kids as their midday naps.  Max received his My Own Leaptop even before his first birthday and now only 2 years-old, he can unlock Daddy’s iPad, log onto Skype to talk to his grandparents in Serbia and swipe away searching for DinoLingo, Fat Brain Toys, Hooplakidz, Sesame Street, Starfall and what seems like infinite domestic and international YouTube Channels featuring Play Doh molds and Skittles candy colors.

Coming of age in any era requires innovation and throughout time women have continually implemented creative techniques to reach their goals.  As detailed in the 1987 hit "Baby Boom", a woman really can have it all and a baby may very well be her smartest accessory. While my parents envisioned technology as requiring a learning process, I was lucky enough to experience the transition of written based knowledge into its current standard digital format and although family values may seem edited from time to time, the messages of motherhood remain the same and it is their longevity that helps me appreciate the journey.

August 8, 2015

English is HUGE in Japan

“Pokiponi, pokiponi, pokiponi,” Max chanted as we made our way to the checkout aisle.  “Pokiponi, pokiponi, pokiponi…dai mi pokiponi…I want it!” he continued trying his best to grip all three boxes of Barilla pasta.

“Nema macaroni.  Ne, nema macaroni sat.  Macaroni u kući.  You can have some for rućak when we get home.  Mommy has to pay for the macaroni so let’s put it up on the belt,” I tried to reason with my two-year old son as I reinforced my broken Serbian and finally released the boxes from his bionic toddler grip.

“Hoće pokiponi, hoće pokiponi.  It's mine!” Max was in full effect, attracting the attention of other shoppers as I swooped him up under my left arm like a football and tried to find my bank card with my free hand.

“Oh, he must be tired,” the elder cashier said looking at me with a patient smile.
“Hoće pokiponi!” Max asserted even louder, kicking his legs around.
“Pokemon?”  Is that what he wants?  What language is he speaking?” the Supermarket employee continued inquisitively.
“It’s Serbian, my husband’s language,” I qualified, struggling to sign the credit card keypad.
“Serbian?  Oh boy!  Aren’t you worried you’ll confuse him?” she persisted.
“Oh, I’m sure he’s already confused!  Thank you, M’am!” I laughed as I grabbed the shopping bag and quickly hustled off with Max's legs dangling all the way to the car.

Later as Max napped off his pasta lunch, I revisited the checkout encounter over the telephone with my mother.  “Maybe I am confusing Max.  Between the muffled English and baby Serbian, I barely understand him half of the time,” I worriedly admitted. My mother sighed and without a fumble, quickly allayed my fears, “Oh Sweetie, you’re forgetting that babies are smarter than adults.  He’s fine.  Just let him keep on talking.  He’ll organize the languages when he’s good and ready!”

Science argues that although a highly complex system, language is somehow learned by children within the first years of life in a sort of reverse engineering mechanism where words are derived from a foundation of sounds.  Bilingual children ingeniously use rhythmical cues to keep languages distinct, which in turn helps to sharpen the brain producing an enhanced ability to concentrate.  Perhaps, this is why multilingualism is mandated in countries with traditionally regimented academic schedules.

English is huge in Japan, where children begin learning the second language in elementary school.  Its widespread availability was my mother's selling point in convincing me and my sisters that living a year in the super industrialized nation wouldn't be at all disorienting but instead predicted that it would be a lifelong inspiring experience.  I can still remember how my fourth grade Japanese classmates’ perfectly drawn A’s & B’s looked like art compared to my own.  Calligraphy among other activities including morning calisthenics and mandatory after school homework sessions challenge students to make custom of processing and organizing immense amounts of information.

Always the teacher, my mother easily turned around us asking for directions into an English lesson for many helpful Japanese teens when we found ourselves lost trying to navigate the extensive metro maps in our journeys from Saitama to Tokyo or Shinjuku to Shabuya.  Max is learning volumes of new words everyday and while we'll probably never find Pokemon in the pasta aisle, I have to keep faith that he’ll soon enough reshuffle “pokiponi” into macaroni and eventually reformat his rough text into an artfully crafted script.

August 3, 2015

C is for Cat

"Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” I grew up with a very healthy and happy relationship with the third letter of our adored Latin Alphabet. The soft and hard sounds of the letter “C” are music to my ears and my favorite hardbacks of The Cat in the Hat and Curious George Circus Act were right there on my bookshelf waiting to be read to my son Max.  During his first two years, it was easy to recite bedtime stories as I rocked him to sleep, but now that he’s interacting with each letter on every page, I’ve finally had come to face to face with the intimidating characters of my husband's Cyrillic Alphabet.

In an effort to relieve my fears, my husband has proudly explained to me that the simple “write as you speak, read as it is written” concept of Cyrillic, developed by acclaimed linguist Vuk Karadžić, is actually easier to learn than the Latin alphabet.  In his favor, even though their alphabet is longer, it is mastered so easily by Serbian children that they don’t even sing along to a song to memorize the sounds.  However, as I look at the Cyrillic charts pinned to Max’s wall, I find myself searching for the kidnapped U,V & W and I have begun to wonder if this is why Max enjoys repeating the last few verses of our popular American ABC Song.

My husband insists that my fears of Cyrillic or Ћирилицa spawn from watching too many movies about Russian spies.  Arguably, the shared Slavic symbols of Russian do appear in the backgrounds of many scenes in the The Bourne Supremacy blockbuster and ironically, it is the Cyrillic characters: B, P, C, X and Y that seem perfectly disguised as Latin letters while actually symbolizing different sounds.  Needless to say, when it comes to Cyrillic, I am a bit suspicious about that letter C.
Accents on letters are vital in deciphering codes in any language but particularly made into assets when Serbian is written in the Latin form, where the letter C is pronounced three different ways, each narrowly distinguishable by an almost spylike pronunciation mark.  C alone is pronounced “ts” as in peanuts, while the character “Č” is voiced as “ch” as in chocolate and finally symbolized as “Ć” where there is no equivalent sound, almost as if it were intentionally made a secret.
In our house, letters have bellowed into a tsunami of vocabulary and Max seems to be weathering the storm as best he can.  So far, the forecast is still a bit foggy but as history recounts сунце or the sun will soon shine again.  Just as k is for kitten and c is in maca, Mommy still says “cat” and Daddy says “mačka.”  Regardless of phonetics, it is clear that learning a language and becoming allies takes understanding its history, resilient themes and methodic evolution.

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