posts tagged with 'parenting'
It's been rainy the last couple days and we're coming up on the end of three solid weeks of relative isolation, and there have been few moments of testiness. Like yesterday, when Zion and Elijah were playing at trading imaginary Minecraft items. Lijah was trying to get some tridents from Zion, who kept raising the price beyond Lijah's offers of uncountable stacks of emeralds. Eventually Lijah got mad and started yelling, and Zion protested huffily that he was just trying to do a fair trade. I was pretty unhappy, and told them so—with Lijah for going into a violent rage instead of walking away, and with Zion for provoking him. "I don't know how we're going to get along as a household," I told him, "if you can't even be generous with imaginary things that don't even exist!" It's safe to say that we're all feeling some stress.
Of course, there are also many lovely moments. Prior to that unpleasant exchange—which happened right around dinner time—the boys had been playing super well together. Their game with their stuffed animals was so harmonious that I silently cancelled some scheduled home education stuff to let it continue, and then I lost track of time and failed to tell them to get on Zoom for their daily group read-aloud (they made it a couple minutes late, when Leah noticed the time and alerted us). So we'll survive. But we do need to keep working at it.
Leah was away last week from Wednesday morning to Sunday night, visiting exotic Oklahoma and Florida. During the day, her being away doesn't feel any different, but at bedtime the kids did miss her some. The hard part for me I didn't realize until later, until Monday morning when I was meant to be getting ready for work and getting the boys ready to go to my parents' house for the day. As the clock ticked past 8:00 without anyone dressed or fed, I realized that over the past five days I'd completely exhausted my ability to make anyone do anything. Including myself. When I let Leah know she very kindly offered to make me breakfast.
Happily, I didn't have a meeting yesterday so there was actually no time pressure. Eventually I did get myself going, fed two of the children and myself (somebody always wants to hold out for breakfast from Grandma), and even made myself a lunch. My arrival time was not disgraceful. Today Leah was back at work and I acquitted myself reasonably well: we did some art, made some bread, read some stories, and played a math game. Of course, my recovery isn't entirely complete—I haven't been able to make myself go to bed yet...
Yesterday morning we walked the dog, like we do. As we were coming home at about 9:30 Zion was a little upset, and lagged behind on the sidewalk so he could be by himself. No problem; by the time we got home he was recovered and we were all ready to jump into school work together. Right in the middle of our drawing lesson, though, we were interrupted by a knock on the door. It was a cop!
It turns out someone had seen Zion walking "alone" along Hartwell Road, and when they reached the police detail at the permanent construction site around the corner they stopped to tell the officer there. I don't know what standard procedure is, but in this case whoever was in charge cared enough about it to send someone our way to check it out.
And even better, they figured out the address to look up—I suppose our neighbors on the force offered some information about our alternative schooling arrangements. Once he finally found our house—we don't have a number up any more—the cop was very kind and polite. He described what had happened, and I told him we had all been out for a walk, and he said he figured somebody had just been worried because it was after the start of the school day. Wanting to get things clear, I asked him what he thought of our sending Harvey down the street—the same street in question—to his friend's house by himself, like we do; he said he saw no problem in that at all. As far as I could tell, he was totally fine with the whole situation, and just checking on us to close the report or whatever.
Considering our lifestyle and looking to preclude future difficulties, I told him that we like to encourage our kids towards freedom and responsibility. He was fine with that. Then I invited him to let us know if anything we did ever made anyone important nervous. It could have been much worse, and once again it made me glad to live in a relatively human-friendly place like Bedford. For Eastern Massachusetts, at least, I think we're doing pretty good.
Here's hoping that's all our interaction with the police for the next year, at least!
As I type these words it is, and I don't. I have a pretty good guess, but since Harvey disappeared soon after we got home this evening and Zion and Lijah headed out a little later, after some decompression time, I've had no solid knowledge of their whereabouts. Which is fine, right? The fact that they took off without worrying about letting me know where they were going surely has something to do with all that we've done to allow and encourage independence over the years.
Why independence? Well, I'm sure it's great that we're helping them become self-actuated problem-solvers who will go on to do great things; also it gets them out of my hair so I can do the dishes. But now they're old enough that I'm starting to consider a different problem: in all that time away from our happy hippy household, are they being too exposed to Bad Influences in the shape of their hooligan friends? Sure, right now it's only Pop Rocks, Pokemon cards, and video games, but can hard drugs be far behind—or even pool?!
I laugh, but of course there's a serious worry beneath my hyperbole. Lots of my life choices are pretty counter-cultural, and there's nothing more culture-following than a third-grade boy in public school. So there are moments of mild concern, at least, around things like Flavor-Ice consumption and name-calling. But then I figure that, to be real, independence can't be limited. My role is to tell the boys my own opinions and to try to help them make good choices for themselves—I can't make their choices for them. Luckily, they're good kids so it's not as fraught a process as it may be for other parents. Long may it last; so far I do see some connection between independence and responsibility, so I'm prepared to say, at least, "so far so good".
One of the many books I took on our camping trip was Balanced and Barefoot, by Angela J. Hanscom. Super appropriate, since camping is all about the ways which, per the subtitle, "unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong, confident, and capable children." Among many other worthwhile points, the author notes that "going barefoot in nature helps develop normal gait patterns, balance, and tolerance of touch in the feet, all of which provide a strong foundation for confident and fluid movement." Check.
That is to say, they had plenty of time barefoot in nature—like they do. I actually made the two who were doing their own walking put on shoes to start both hikes, but both times they quickly decided they were too hot, and the footwear became cargo. The book suggests that outdoor play builds core strength and endurance; I don't know about the former, but over the two days of hiking we covered about six and a half miles, with something like 1800 feet of elevation gain. (Now that's a vacation!) Zion actually did more like six and a quarter miles—Leah carried him a couple times, for encouragement—but either way it was an impressive effort.
Since we've been back, they've dived right back into playing with their friends in the neighborhood. Lots of that play is outside—none of us parents wants a gang of eight kids filling up the house for long (of course, video games, pokemon cards, and play sets all exert a powerful indoor pull...). I do wonder, though, if the outdoor play that's happening on Beacon Street fulfills all the requirements Hanscom would look for in proper therapeutic play. For one thing, I think it might involve a few too many plastic weapons.
One of the things she talks about in the book is how using natural materials in play spurs kids' imagination and social-emotional development. Store-bought toys, the argument goes, have specific and limited modes of play—a toy car is a car and it's only supposed to drive one direction. To say nothing of a Batman Batcave play set. The problem is all those toys exist, and they exist in the houses of our lovely neighbors (and, yes, in our house too). How can sticks and pinecones ever hope to compete? There's a question of space, too; our woodsy play area is pretty small, here on our suburban lot. Most of the kids are old enough now they should be playing in the town forest less than a quarter mile away, but they aren't allowed to on their own.
I don't know what to do about it. Certainly, I have no worries our boys aren't spending enough time outside, and in nature. But I think they need more time to play in the woods. On my adult schedule, we do hikes—which they love!—but the limited play times available in hiking pauses isn't enough to start to develop complex interpersonal games. Although, now that I think about it... the last time we went to Fawn Lake on a summer camp outing the rocks above the pond turned into a spaceship and a pirate ship and I don't know what else during the half-hour post-lunch play time. We're going there again today, and play time will definitely be on the schedule. Maybe we're doing alright after all.
Every once and a while someone responds with alarm when Lijah walks out through the library doors without me. I try to respond appropriately for the situation so they don't call social services, but honestly? He mostly just likes pushing the button for the automatic door opener. He's not going anywhere—and he has plenty of good sense not jump off the 20-foot-wide expanse of sidewalk into the sparse traffic of the library parking lot, if that's what they're worried about.
Not all parents are so sanguine. A while ago I saw a mom with an elementary-age girl and a four- or five-year-old boy tell the boy, who had drifted maybe 10 feet from her as she and the daughter checked out books, "you're getting too far away!" And this evening a dad checking out at the same time as us had to momentarily abandon the desk to chase down his three-year-old, who was headed out the door.
They're our library friends, so I know that he has to deal with some questionable listening and occasional wandering from his two kids—maybe it was understandable that he wanted to hold them both tightly as they walked down the path to where their car was parked. That my own three kids had left before I finished checking out so they could get started reading their new books in the car probably wasn't the best example we could have set. His girl pointed out the disparity and he answered her, "that's because they're good kids".
I don't know about that, but I did appreciate that when I got to the car they were all in their seats and the two that can buckle themselves were buckled (books are a strong motivator in our family). I have to wonder, though, which came first: the good behavior, or the freedom to make good choices? Are some kids so crazy from their first moments that parents have no alternative but to constantly constrain them? I can easily imagine that being the case.
Our own boys each spent the first four years of their life unable to leave our side, so we didn't have to worry about telling them not to do dangerous things. I think that helped. And I think parents can even overcome their kids' foolhardy toddler-hood to give them independence as preschoolers, at least in the right environment; I'm pretty sure Jo and Eugene did just that with their oldest. But it does call for a certain amount of trust—both in your kids, and in the people around you not to freak out too much. It's probably worth it, though. After all, all kids should be able to be good kids.
Our outing on Monday was wonderful and educational and great exercise. And it was productive for the work of our household, because Leah was home using her bigger computer to do hours of work and appreciated not being interrupted. That's why, after exhausting the possibilities of the pond, we finished up the trip with a stop at Whole Foods and the play space. Yesterday the weather was even hotter, so we needed—really needed!—to go to the swimming pond. But Leah was away at the office, and there were things that needed doing at home. So how was I to justify spending three hours at the beach?! (besides, of course, the fact that the beach is really awesome).
We sure enjoyed it. The water was super cold, but with the air hitting hot-for-summer levels there were lots of people there in swimsuits, even if it was only preschoolers and college kids that showed any real interest in playing in it for long. After about two hours in the sun I finally got hot enough to brave full immersion, and it almost stopped my heart. Sure made the air feel a whole lot nicer afterwards, though!
With no ropes and no lifeguards, the boys were free to roam and play to their heart's content, and they did. Harvey and Zion headed off right away; Lijah was a little slower to get started, but after a bit of sand-piling with me he too was off to join the fun.
So I read a book. It was delightful, but I couldn't help thinking of all the other things I could be doing while my children were playing independently, if I could be somewhere else. One problem of modern parenting is the need to constantly provide our kids with entertainment. When I read the Little House books I don't see Pa trying desperately to interest his girls in one thing or another so that he can have ten minutes together to plow the field!
Still, if I had been off cutting wood or whatever I wouldn't have been there to help when Zion tripped and fell headlong into the deep water. As it was I was right where I needed to be to yell at Harvey to go bring him a towel (delegation is the best parenting).
I was also there to hear Zion's pride, which he was ready to share as soon as he got the water out of his eyes. "I swam!!" he exclaimed (he can't properly swim yet). "I flapped my hands like this and I flapped my head out of the water! Like a fish! Maybe my totem animal is a fish!"
"Great!" I told him. "You'll have lots more chances to swim this summer." Too bad there's no swimming holes they can walk to by themselves. Oh well, the work will all get done somehow...
Wednesday afternoon found us hanging out at a playground in Lexington. It was before elementary school dismissal, but there were lots of preschoolers and their parents busy playing together. As Zion, climbing over the four-foot-high chain link fence around the play area, teetered precariously with one leg on each side calling "look at me!", a mom of two preschoolers commented approvingly.
"It's great that you let him do that... I'd be a nervous wreck!"
I appreciated the remark! She continued by saying she feels like kids need to have more "dangerous" experiences, something that might be tough these days. I agreed, but reassured her that she might be a little more relaxed about things like that when her second was almost six! We also talked about how dads might tend to be more relaxed about danger, while moms handle the keeping-the-kids-from-dying duties. It was a nice conversation.
And she has a very fair point. The playground we were on was pretty safe—designed to modern American playground standards, with a cushy rubber surface under all the CPSC-approved equipment, but still most of the parents were hovering around their two-to-four-year-olds—or worse, running towards them in a panic if they started climbing up the wrong ladder. What's the worst that could happen, I wondered?
Yesterday evening I read a lovely YA novel by Patricia Reilly Giff called Jubilee. It's about a girl with selective mutism and her efforts at the beginning of her fifth-grade year to connect with the people around her. There were lots of nice things about the book, most notably its setting on an unnamed island in Maine. Besides being an evocative setting for the story, it also meant that it was plausible for the author to have the young characters wandering around on their own—island kids will know everyone they're going to come across, and there's a natural boundary to how far they can roam. Susan Bartlett did the same thing with Seal Island School, and I'm sure there are other examples too.
Now, I don't know if the authors picked the island setting for that reason. Maybe they just appreciate the romance. But it's a fact that it's harder to find—and maybe to write too!—believable stories about kids who face real adventures and get to make real, meaningful choices for themselves in real-world settings. If you ask me, that's why we see so many sub-par fantasy books, especially in the magical-wonder-collides-with-everyday-life mold of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson (it also helps that those two series are such huge money-makers that they've spawned hordes of second-tier imitators). I've got nothing against stories with magical elements. But I like real adventure too, and I think kids should read about it, and I think they should have a hope of seeing some adventure for themselves.
Climbing over fences is a good start. Playing in the woods without adult supervision. Going to the bathroom alone in the library (hey, baby steps). Staying home alone while I walk the dog. Walking to friend's houses. Any six- or seven-year-old should be able to think about doing those things (at least in a safe neighborhood like ours). Island adventures are great—and you should totally read Jubilee, by the way—but I'd like to hope that a little freedom for kids isn't just something that happens on islands.
Lijah turns three in a few days, so every afternoon at nap time I have a moment of doubt about whether he's actually going to fall asleep. Not that three is a magical age; I'm told that plenty of kids are still napping well into their fourth year. It's just that Harvey and Zion both gave up any pretense of sleeping during the day when they turned two. Not Lijah! He's still going strong.
Of course, he's always needed more sleep than his brothers do: we noticed that when he was just a month old. And then we also figured out some things about parenting as we practiced on our first couple children. I figured out that, if a boy needs to sleep, I need to make him sleep whether he wants to or not! And with Lijah the key to doing that at nap time is music by the Youngblood Brass Band.
When I wrote about his affection for the group back in 2015 I noted that the soporific effect their tunes had on him was wearing off. But then Leah started working more hours and, in an effort to keep our homeschooling days sane, I instituted a hard line on nap time based on mandatory listening. It works! (I wrote about the first day of the program, before I knew it was going to be a thing.)
Lijah's reaction to the prospect of napping goes in phases. At first, fully cognizant of how tired he is mid-afternoon, he was happy to relax and fall asleep. Then he started to push back some, by whining or by trying to start a conversation. With the magic music backing me up, I could indulge him a little—with the reminder that we were going to listen to our three or four songs regardless. Lately, I just turn on the songs and give him some time to finish up what he's doing; before too long he comes right over for me to pick him up. It's kind of nice! (it also helps that the other two boys have their own rest time routine down pat).
Not everything is lovely and easy. As ever, there are many ways in which he is horrible, or at least ridiculous. But I love him a lot, especially when he's had enough sleep. So I'm glad that part's still working out!
We're working on a complete remodel of our playroom/schoolroom (it's orange now, you can see here). When I look at old photos and see how long the previous arrangement held sway I'm amazed—that futon and "entertainment center" cabinet, repurposed for board game storage, weren't anything like ideal for how we use the space. The worst part was how little organized storage we had for the kids' school stuff: papers, art supplies, found treasures. Lots of good work has gotten lost and wrinkled. So I'm excited to be building new shelves and desks—desks!—where there will be a place for everything. Including our hard-working boys.
The only problem is, building custom furniture is hard and slow. And since Leah and I are mostly tag-teaming when it comes to balancing work and child-minding, when I'm deeply absorbed in wood-working the children are going unminded. Sometimes that's fine, like when they play outside happily with their friends; other times it's less fine, like when they get deeply absorbed in watching shows on the iPad. And it's always true that the longer I ignore them the rougher things start to feel.
So today, even though I had an out-of-the-ordinary Wednesday at home, I laid the tools aside to hang out a little bit. We built some with legos, read some books, played some ball tag, did some math and some drawing. Took a walk together. It wasn't all focused attention—that isn't good either. I did the regular chores of the household and put in an hour or so of work for my job. But the furniture hardly advanced at all (Lijah and I did work a teeny bit on what will soon be his desk). It's a balance. I guess there's no hurry anyway: even unfinished, the furniture is already getting lots of use.