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

July 30, 2015

There's No Ham in Hamburger

"Are you kiddos ready for some Franky Furters, Muenster Melts, and Black Forest Bites?" the waiter cleverly pitched the finger friendly options at the start of Saturday’s lunch. 

Two and a half year-old Max looked at three year-old Felix with fascination as he placed his German order for “Franky Furters.”  It was this same amazement that I displayed when Angela perfectly lined the hot dog buns with mustard and sauerkraut amidst Max and Felix loudly cheering the theme song of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

The “Restaurant Scene” is an evolving production for us and every time we revisit the stage, no matter how well I’ve reviewed the script or prepped Max for his close-up on the lines of gratitude in Serbian or English, unpredictable elements arise that transform a light fare comedy into a discipline melodrama as I anxiously look forward to the next take.  I recently started to speculate whether or not hovering over every detail has become my tragic flaw.

I’ve welcomed each of Max’s feeding milestones with excitement and a side of uneasiness.  My Medela Breast Pump was the most anticipated gift on my Baby Registry but after my three-hour tutorial with the lactation specialist, I went into childbirth with fears of a delayed or indefinitely postponed milk arrival.  Learning to nurse in a crowded space never felt rehearsed enough, especially during take-offs and landings on an airplane as I looked across the aisle at the mom doing so with her hands free to safely fasten her other child’s seat belt.  It seemed as if the very basic concept of feeding was made even more difficult by trying to give my best impersonation of effortless.

Enter solids.  Now that Max has secured his new role with table food, I realize that my biggest critic is no longer the crowd but my very own protagonist, who though miniature in size convincingly delivers bravado with his multilingual and wide range use of the word “no.”  He craftily offers opposition to bath time, nap time and unsweetened snacks with the words "ne", "neću", "nema" and recently with the start of preschool, a most enforced "no," accompanied by a negating head shake.

Saturday’s lunch was full of careless spills and hysterical outbursts.   Throughout the lunch, I frantically wiped and cringed, while Angela demonstrated the German favored “free range parenting,” placing independence and responsibility on her son as they each separately enjoyed their meals and she revealed not even the least amount of distress.  Then somewhere in between coloring with the crayons and tracing the map to the treasure chest, Max began his own improvisation by repeating Felix’s “nein” and retorting with his own vocabulary of negatives.  He was comfortably engaged in what sounded like a simulated conversation with his German playmate Felix, allowing me to have an adult conversation of my own.

After the scene wrapped, Max and I returned home, joyful of our own somewhat victorious performance and inspired by the less controlled dining endeavor.  There's no ham in hamburger nor is there sauce in sausage but the German recipe for parenting has a brilliant balance of less hovering by parent for the independent success of the child.  Max and I only got a taste of it on Saturday but we'll surely return for the second act!

July 25, 2015


Kicking a ball for sport dates all the way back to Ancient China and is played today in every village, town, city, state and province around the globe. Commonly called football, fotbol, fuβball, or fútbol in most nations, it is distinctly referred to as calico, sakkā or soccer in many others.  Regardless of its name, the object of the game has remained the same: to shoot the ball into the goal!  Ideally, a mesh network is made as the target but as I’ve seen on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and Durban, South Africa, two sneakers can conveniently be used as goal posts to achieve the same effect.
I personally believe Max caught onto the concept of the game probably before he could run or even walk---perhaps memorizing plays while doing “tummy time” in his Infantino play gym during infancy. While I would love to state that I was taking a page out of a FIFA handbook on how to raise a prodigy by early exposure to televised sport, it is actually my student loan payments that have kept us in such a close quartered living space.  
Once decorated with sharp edged furniture and at least sentimentally valuable décor, since Max was born our living room has gradually become a common area for little adult and mainly child play.  Three corners reserved exclusively for Max’s arts & crafts table, fortress tent, and mini gym equipment, leave the remaining one for our large flat screen television that is commonly colored with pixels of green field being run by footballers blocking, striking and volleying.
An avid sports enthusiast, my husband follows the matches of not only Barclay’s Premier League, Bundesliga, Champions League, La Liga and Serbian SuperLiga, but also CONMEBOL and more increasingly those of Major League Soccer.  Fudbal, as my husband calls the popular sport in Serbian, is regularly and routinely previewed in our home regardless of time or season.  Max must surely think he is up for recruitment as he has learned to imitate not only the strikes attempted by the footballers but regardless of his success at securing the ball in his Fisher Price “Grow to Pro Super Sounds Soccer” net, he willingly performs the celebratory “slides” that follow and even scans the imaginary stadium that is our living room for our praise as he says, “Bravoooooo!” and executes self-congratulatory applause.
Like this endeavor to celebrate his motor skill development, Max first practiced this routine for our recognition when he would attempt to master a new phonetic technique.  “Puma pate,” he would say pointing to and picking up his sneakers or “Dai Adidas jackna,” as he reached on his tippy toes for his sports fleece that was hanging in the closet.  Our smiles, claps and cheer gave him confidence and now I can see that they have also fostered independence.  These short statements have evolved into the Alphabet Song that he just yesterday completed in English followed by his own shouts of approval.  All these months of repetitively pointing to objects have encouraged Max to achieve the goal of proper identification and he has reminded us that just as they do in the Major Leagues of any sport and in every language, a triumphant win should be met with spirited enthusiasm.

July 20, 2015

Dino Who? Dino Lingo

My husband’s parents came to visit this spring.  Just the anticipation of their arrival made our mouths water for homemade Serbian delicacies including Pita, Grašak, Pilaf and Musaka that my mother in-law prepares brilliantly.  Her craft is flawless and the final products are picture perfect.  

picture perfect.   Every croissant or Kifliće is rolled with precision as are the carved chocolate layered wafers or Oblande that she makes especially for Max.

Once they were settled in, my husband headed out for bulk items and I rushed off for cooking ingredients.  My usual thirty-five minute market run, which often feels like I’m competing on an episode of Supermarket Sweep, was lengthened substantially as I scoured the aisles of Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Euro Foods and finally Giant looking for fresh yeast, a key element required to produce those ultra-flaky phyllo dough favorites that my husband enjoys so much.  I felt terrible about the extended hiatus when I finally returned home to find my in-laws searching frantically through Max’s toy bins like they were looking for the flag on the 1990’s game show Double Dare.

“Gde je Dino?” my father in-law asked me urgently as I placed the groceries on the kitchen counter.  "Hoće Dino! Hoće Dino!" Max affirmed as he practiced hopping and yelling at the same time.  As I looked at my in-laws expressions of jet lag coupled with frustration, I quickly realized that in our food frenzy, my husband and I had forgotten to properly introduce them to Dino, Max’s best good friend and the animated mascot of his Serbian Language Kit.

Designed for children ages 1 through 8 and available in 44 languages including Arabic, Mandarin and Swahili, DinoLingo is a comprehensive language set of DVDs, posters, flashcards and activity boards that employ the 150 most common vocabulary words for youth language development.  An additional bonus for Mommy is that it utilizes both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.  Having used a plethora of language tools including textbooks, private tutors, mobile apps and immersion software like Rosetta Stone, I would argue that DinoLingo distinguishes itself as a wizard in language instruction.  Repetition, fun music themes and a mix of real life and animated images capture Max’s attention and promote memory retention and imagination.

I first played one of the five DinoLingo DVDs for Max in a desperate attempt to keep him quietly occupied as I washed my hair.  At 20 months, he no longer enjoyed his Graco Pack ‘n Play and even though all of my baby guides advised against the employment of television before the age of two, I braved the storm and loaded Dino onto the laptop.  To my secret joy, Max sat pleasantly engaged with the visual images and sound reproduced on the screen before him.  From the bathroom, I could hear his light chuckles and scattered baby babble.  Max had definitely made a new friend.

Throughout their stay, my in-laws were fascinated by the spontaneous learning that was prompted by the DinoLingo posters mounted on the walls of Max’s nursery.  Vocabulary building of animals, colors, sports, vehicles, clothing, fresh produce and of course desserts created a quiz show learning environment for not only Serbian for Max and Mommy, but also English lessons for my in-laws.  At a crucial time in his language development, Dino fostered confidence in Max’s relationship with Serbian, inevitably making it his comfort language that he primarily chooses to use first.

Now more interested in active group play, Max doesn’t demand Dino as much, but just as he will rediscover the magic of his stuffed teddy bear Meda or his fluffy frog Žaba from time to time, he’ll often make a special request for the prehistoric talking tutor.  The sweet joy of Max’s voice as he boldly calls out the names of each image is undeniably magical, even sweeter than chocolate.  Indeed, DinoLingo is a special treat for the whole family.

July 15, 2015

La Fiesta de Cumpleanos

Last week, Max and I had the opportunity to take a break from our Eat, Play, Meltdown routine to attend a birthday party for my colleague’s son. 

I’ve learned to really enjoy toddler birthday parties and not only because everyone gets to eat cake.  Even more satisfying is that the three-hour marathon of running and jumping exhausts Max to the point of a no contest nap time.  This celebration was an extra special treat for Mommy because it was hosted by a Dominican family.

My first “Companion Culture” was that of Latin America.  Perhaps, this relationship came about because my mother spoke so much Spanish at home that my sisters and I still respond promptly to her commands of “¡Ven aca!” y “¡Vamonos!” or maybe and simply because she gave us each a Spanish middle name or quite possibly because she repeatedly played the soundtrack of the Tony Award winning musical West Side Story during carpool.  Regardless, it was this early exposure during childhood that provided me with a comfortable connection to many aspects of Latin American culture and this security has promoted my subsequent companionship with other cultures.

Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the Western Hemisphere.  "Study a language that you'll use every day!" my mother commanded when I entered high school.  She insisted that Spanish would be our second language because it was spoken in our own neighborhood and could also be used in exchanges with our neighbor countries.  Fanatic about travel, my parents regularly pointed to our Rand McNally & National Geographic wallmaps and globes
in discussion of countries in Africa and Asia where multiple languages are spoken in small villages and examined regions of Europe where, unlike the United States, languages vary by only a few hours driving distance.

My mother has always admired the advantage that Latin American children derive from growing up in inherently bilingual communities.  Teaching English to an emerging Latino population in the United States for nearly half a century has made my mother an eyewitness to an ethnic population shift that has almost made a national requirement of at least a basic knowledge of the Spanish language.  I use Spanish everyday as a dental provider to a largely Central American population and just as my mother used it to direct after-school chores to me and my sisters, I bring home Spanish and relay it to Max in my commands to"abra la boca" at dinner time and afterwards when it's time to brush his teeth.  My husband worried that Max would get confused with yet a third language but one fine day at our local International Foods market, after a four and a half minute screaming fit over a Chupa Chups lollipop, Max smiled and greeted the Spanish speaking cashier with a cheerful "¡Gracias!"

At last week’s Fiesta de Cumpleaños, I watched proudly as Max played nicely with the other kids while I sat around a table of Dominican mothers who were discussing remedies for thumb sucking habits and baby weight loss regimens.  After an hour bouncing around to the drums of la bachata, Max asked for another serving of Moro de Guandules, reminiscent of his favorite Serbian red bean equivalent, Pasulj.  As we sang Cumpleaños Feliz and indulged in the Bizcocho Dominicano complete with pineapple filling, I smiled to myself as a mother intercepted her tot from reaching for another slice of cake, not with words or intonation but with a simple look of intimidation.

July 5, 2015

I Want Chocolate

Cocoa, schokolada, bonbons, bombona, dulce…the list goes on and on.  Who knew there were so many words for candy?  Well, in the world of my two-year old son Max, all of these words are tools for achievement---the goal being, of course, to obtain as many sweets as possible!  It seems like just yesterday, I was defrosting breast milk and eating the chocolate myself to replenish my reserves.  We nursed, we swaddled, we cooed and gazed and now even the baby talk is a thing of the past and so our work has really begun.

When I met my husband almost a decade ago, I was intrigued by his thick Slavic accent and admittedly slightly overwhelmed by the seemingly fiery tone that is a staple in his language exchange.  Having studied Spanish for eight years in high school and college, I was very much accustomed to Romance Languages and I found this Slavic tongue very challenging.  Even having lived a year in Japan didn’t aid me in sorting through the simple tones.  Additionally, it was difficult to find learning resources for his language that was du jour of what was once Yugoslavia.

I remember thinking, if we ever get married, it is imperative that our kids speak Serbian from birth. We joyously found out that we were expecting Max in our fourth year of marriage.  Once anxious to master Serbian, I had become comfortable with a working vocabulary of maybe 20 words and the ability to hold a loose conversation of greetings and common questions but I knew that this was definitely not enough to fake it through a toddler temper tantrum.  I needed to certainly develop at least proficiency in order to raise a bilingual child.

I urgently reached out to friends and family in my husband’s native Serbia to obtain as many visual developmental aids as possible.  Baby blocks, alphabet posters, flash cards, books, even baby dictionaries were collected in time for Max’s arrival. However, as I excitedly opened the gifts, I realized another hurdle in my path: the Cyrillic alphabet, which as my husband explained, is used in the preschool years. 

How was I going to memorize another alphabet as well as words and grammar? As if dealing with pregnancy symptoms weren’t enough?  I just wanted to give up and waive the flag of defeat!  English is more widely spoken than Serbian and we weren’t planning on living in the region, I tried to reason.

Feeling discouraged, I called my mom, a bilingual Spanish and English immersion teacher, and she said, very confidently,  “English will be the language he learns from his mother and Serbian will be the language he learns from his father.  Don’t worry, the child will be fine.  He’ll use the words he needs to express himself.  The difficult part will be when you don’t understand him when he’s speaking Serbian to you.”

So here we are a few years later, Max knows exactly what he wants and is using every word he can in order to get it.  I think I even heard him whispering in his crib, “I want chocolate!”

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