posts tagged with 'parenting,'

our police visit

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!

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it's 7:30, do you know where your children are?

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".

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often barefoot, sometimes balanaced

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.

three boys barefoot atop a mountain

they're doing it

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.

Harvey's feet, dipped in the spring

how beautiful are the feet...

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work-beach balance

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).

the boys at the edge of the pond, Zion jumping

jump right in!

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!

Lijah smiling with this towel over him

warm and happy

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.

three boys playing far away along the beach

independent play

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).

Zion holding his towel to his face

cuddle towel

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...

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freedom for kids

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.

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balancing

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.

Harvey, Zion, and Havana doing homework at the unfinished playroom desk

desk work

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bedtime assurance

Zion falls asleep during stories, and Lijah falls asleep nursing or listening to music, but most nights I need to leave Harvey's bedside while he's still awake—if for no other reason than my presence is too distracting to him to let him drift off. Not that he realizes that; lots of times he feels like he's wide awake, and expects to be so for some time. So every night—every night, he likes his routine—I tell him I'll check on him when I'm done with whatever evening chores I have in front of me. For the last six months or so he's asked how I'll know he's asleep, because he might just be closing his eyes for a second, and I tell him I'll know by his breathing. Which in actual fact is totally not necessary. I'll really know because I don't hear him complaining about something, because that boy can't stay in his bed at night for more than five minutes without finding some reason to call for us... unless he falls asleep in that time, as he does 19 evenings out of 20.

Actually, the above isn't totally true: I don't tell him I'll check on him, and I don't give him the answer about breathing. Anymore. I did for weeks, or maybe even months, but I'm not a patient enough parent to keep saying the same thing over and over again forever. And Harvey knows that, so he fills in my side of the conversation. Our current bedtime closing goes like this:

D: Goodnight, I love you.
H: What are you going to do out of my bed before you come check on me?
D: Put away the bikes, close up the chickens, see if Mama needs help with the cleaning. Maybe do some writing.
H: When you come check on me, How will you know I'm asleep? Will you listen to my breathing to see if I'm asleep?
D: Yes. Goodnight, I love you.

I think it works pretty well.

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to soothe a savage breast

For months Lijah was just in love with brass band music, and specifically the more uptempo tunes of the Youngblood Brass Band. Not so much lately, but when he was between six and twelve months all I needed to do was turn on "Brooklyn" and, no matter how much he had been fussing, he'd just relax into my shoulder and be asleep before the song was done. In the car it was "Pastime Paradise", which was also a favorite of the other two boys; sometimes we'd even start it before we tried to get him into his seat, since that sweet sousaphone beat made the buckling-up so much easier.

Why was that? Did he really like the songs so much they eclipsed all his other concerns and annoyances? Maybe, but I have a theory that there's something else involved—namely, that pre-verbal babies have a preternatural perception of body language. When they're freaking out it stresses their parents, and when the parents are stressed it adds to the baby's stress and makes it still harder for him to calm down. When you find something your baby likes it short-circuits that negative feedback loop. It was YBB for Lijah; for other babes the magic might be from being rocked a certain way, or hearing mama singing a particular song. But the important thing is that, having launched into the guaranteed-good calming process, the parent can feel like everything is under control and relax. Self-fulfilling prophecy, it works.

With the third kid I've come to the opinion that, for me at least, recorded music is the way to go. While I have plenty of philosophical reasons to prefer singing—and I sang a lot to Harvey—there's a problem with having to produce the magic yourself. Sometimes I'm too tired for good vocal production! With the right song cued up on my phone all I need to do is fumble it out of my pocked and push the button; poof, instant calm.

Now that Lijah's more of a rational being, the magic of "Brookyln" is diminished some. Once he started being able to think, "Oh hey wait, this is the sleepy song—must resist!", the system started to break down. Of course, he still loves music, and it's always easier to calm him when I have something playing. Now that I think about it, it's a fair trade-off: it takes two or three songs instead of half of one to get him to sleep, but I don't have that one driven so deeply into my brain that it rises every moment when I'm not thinking of something else. It's nice to hear a variety of tunes. And even when Lijah doesn't need the music, I've decided that I do. If I'm going to be rocking with him for who-knows-how-long since his nose is so stuffy he can't breathe lying down, I want something to mark the passage of time and keep me sane. I've spent nights up with him listening to the entirety of Counting Crows' first album and half of This Desert Life, and they're totally bearable; so much better than would be an hour and a half marked only by sniffing and the ticking of our three downstairs clocks.

So, future parents, I recommend recorded music. Sometimes it's magic, and even when it's not it helps a lot. Plus I have high hopes for these boys' musical sensibility as they mature; they've listened to a lot of good tunes!

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A non-formulaic reaction to a formula commercial

I am just going to keep watching this commercial until it stops making me cry. And that hasn't happened yet.

For those who have not seen the Similac Mommyhood commercial, I will offer the briefest of synopses. Different ideological groups of parents set off to spar. They stop to save a baby in peril. Fellowship ensues.

I've watched it at least a dozen times now, and it still leaves me crying like a three year old who's been told he can't have a second rice krispie treat. (ahem Zion.)


I love so many details about the parent "gangs" in this characterization. I love that the attachment parents come off as slightly indecisive and bewildered ("Is it go time? Yeah, I think it's go time..."). I love the fact that the badass breastfeeders look gross for not wearing bras. I belong to both those two tribes, and I think both depictions are accurate of me.

I appreciate that the area where the stay-at-home Dads are picnicking is an unadulterated mess.

But that is not the reason the commercial has me crying. Somehow it struck a chord, when the stroller rolls downhill and the parents all run to catch it. The mama peeks into the basinet and (wait for it, sob) she mouths the words, "It's okay. He's fine."

That's what made me YouTube this stupid thing until it showed ads on top of my ad. The inaudible phrase, "He's fine."

I don't think I'll ever be able to utter these words. In the absence of a formulaic vignette that only lasts three minutes, there will never be a stopping point for me. I will never have a moment, I don't think, when I look at my children and sigh with relief and say, "Phewf."

"We made it. HE'S FINE."

Another video that I watched in repetition this year was a clip of the first woman to complete the American Ninja Warrior qualifiers. After destroying the obstacle course like she works for an obstacle course manufacturer (which she does) Kacy Catanzaro scales the last hurtle, a vertical wall, to ring a bell signaling that she's reached the trial's end. That part got me chocked up. With jealousy, I guess. Not because I want to reinvent myself as a gymnast (unless breastfeeding counts), but because I will never have a moment in my life where I complete anything enough to ring a bell. Raising children is all encompassing from now til perpetuity. There's is never a moment when I get to say, as Kacy does in her tiny little gymnast voice: "I did it!"

Confound you, moving pictures.

I probably suffer less from the monotony of parenting than from the fallacy of narrative cohesion. Commercials and network television need to tell a story. The convention of the three-minute clip, whether it sells something or not, is to quickly string events together with a clear beginning middle and end. Life does not work in this fashion. It goes on for an impossibly long time after three minutes. We may have successes and we may have failures. We may connect with former enemies or triumph over physical obstacles. But life doesn't stop where a video might pull up a facebook share button. Life goes on. We have to go home and deal with the laundry. Find something for everyone to eat for dinner.

My goal for the moment is not to TRIUMPH over adversity or opposition, but find beauty in the strife-filled obstacle-laden world that I live in. It may never be 'fine' and it may never be 'done.' But if I let go of narrative expectations it can probably be beautiful.

(PS: same message different examples in an article I wrote for Horatio, out this week. I am a one-trick, mommy, potty-mouthed pony, apparently. Funnily enough, that's called a 'dam'.)

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growing up, all of them

After months of productive prep-work and couter-productive passive agression, Zion finally decided he was ready to use the potty this week. Or more to the point, he was ready to reap the heaping pile of rewards we had layered one atop the other if he'd just pee, nay just sit, nay just TRY to go near the potty. Here he is yesterday sitting beneath his sticker chart (which earns him a visit to Chuck E Cheese), eating M&Ms (which he got just for sitting down), doing the deed that's about to earn him a "Jake and the Neverland Pirates Musical Bucky Pirate Ship," a plastic abomination that he saw at Target while we were shopping for camping gear and that I promised him could be his if he would just pee in the potty. I've promised him a lot of prizes over the past three months, but the pirate ship was the one his little brain held onto, the one that finally got him to say "I want to pee in the potty and then you order my pirate ship." Mama's no-disney, no-tv-tie-in, no-plastic-toys rules be damned.

incentivized

Unfortunately, I now learn that the item in question is no longer sold at Target. I am waiting to see if I win an ebay auction for a used one before I fork over thirty five bucks for it new on Amazon. He's pooped in the potty three times so far, but still that's a rather steep cost per turd.

This great leap forward comes at a time when all my children seem to ge growing in bravery. Harvey tried a bike without training wheels for the second time today. He also let me cut his hair with the electric clippers for the first time. (The key was to pretend he was TinTin and I was a foreign barber, and say "Mr. TinTin" in a funny accent) Now his haircuts take half as long and he looks like a real big boy.

our first ride together with this setup. You can't see his haircut in this picture, but oh my word does he look grown up.

Elijah grows bigger every day. At nearly 6 months he's fitting into 12-month onesies. Until August he was way ahead in gross motor skills, even starting to inch forward on his stomach, but a month of near-constant illness set him back. Still, he did have one major change in the past month - he's able to prop himself up in the exercauser for a few minutes at a time. Since he can't hold himself up sitting yet, it's super fun to watch him lean forward in the saucer and play with some toys.

outside having fun

He reminds me of Zion who loooooved that thing.

Zion in his Exersaucer holding a spoon

"gaaaaah!"

And here's Harvey who never had an exercauser, but had to make do with a bjorn baby sitter and ikea play gym in front of it. With a constant input of personal attention, somehow he managed.

it's winter now; we have to wear hats even indoors

it's winter now; we have to wear hats even indoors

Dragging up these old images makes me reflect on my babies and how they just keep getting bigger. I don't want to say "They grow up so fast," I don't even believe that. Between those baby pictures and the current ones I remember A LOT of days I wished could have passed by quicker. No, it's that I look at Harvey and Zion in those pictures and I think, "I hardly knew you then!" I see the wry smile in Zion, the wild eyes in Harvey, and I think, "That was you, but not all the way you. I had no idea." Then I look at Elijah and I think: "Who are you, little man?"

But maybe that's unfair. Right now Elijah is a baby and I love baby him 100%. I love Zion 100% as a 3-year-old and Harvey 100% as a 5-year old even though I'm sure they'll change many times before they leave my care. Each of them holds a future that's full of surprises. Some surprises will amaze me and make me exclaim "I hardly knew!" Some may be plastic and even, gulp, Disney themed. I can only pray that I'll keep pace with the changes, to trust the process, and to trust my kids enough next time that I buy the stupid toy when it's actually on sale.

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