Shock and Aww

Mine is not a militarily cultured family, but, I find myself thinking in military analogies. Here’s a sampling:

Rules of Engagement– Whatever tenuous rules and policies I’ve made for the moment and will change or abandon at will.

4869071404_77104ed8e8_z BDR– Yes. Make your bed every day. It isn’t “Basic [almost] Daily [if you feel like it,] Routine.”

Troop management– Getting to school, through IKEA, church, or Costco with all members accounted for, unbloodied, and almost on time.

Group Cohesion– Tying everyone’s performance to everyone’s reward. While strongly protested as unfair, it has proved an effective tool for building cohesion and accomplishing missions.

The Enemy– Colic, TV, exhaustion, or an opposing faction within a family usually consisting of barefoot short people.

Guerilla Tactics–  Sneaky goings on: Throwing away [read: donating] unused toys when children aren’t around. Putting mushrooms through the garlic press, so the kids can’t pick them out. Changing their clock so we can sleep in for another 30 minutes.

Surrender– My flag waving arm is sore and it isn’t because I’m such a patriot.

I surrender!

I surrender!

Routing– What happened to me last Saturday when Hot Swede was gone all day, ending with friends’ pity and their bringing me wine.

Trench Warfare– The parenting of very young children. Consistently interrupted sleep, chaos and destruction coming at you from all directions all the time and all you really want is a pair of dry socks.

Night Watch– What the stay at home parent gets when a child has nighttime vomiting, ostensibly because I “can sleep during the day.” Bwah ha ha ha.

Recon– going through the backpack, looking for a permission form.

Special Ops– Volunteering, attending, being over age 30 at the school carnival, teaching Sunday school, leading a boy scout troop, etc.

Coordinated Attack– When the plebes work together to attack every weakness I have on a given day [see “Routing.”] For example: “Okay, you whine. When you’re done, I’ll drop a full quart of yogurt on the floor. Then, you run through it on your way to almost make it to the toilet. After that, we’ll complain about lunch and fight about who hates squash more. She’ll take away our screen time and then we’ll break her. She’ll cave without the hour’s break. It will be mac and cheese for dinner and play outside for the rest of the night.”

Victory– If Hot Swede and I make it to 51 and they make it to 20 nearly whole, good, functional, and still smiling at each other, we will have a ticker tape parade.

Headless Nike: I'll take it.

Winged Victory: If she kept her head, it wouldn’t be as fitting.

School Fundraisers

My children attend a wonderful public school. I am very grateful. The parents association at school operates with a level of involvement and organization that I remember from my private school days. They are a highly motivated group of parents who work very hard at raising a lot of money to support the educational offerings of the school. Off the top of my head, here are fundraising campaigns they’ve launched in the three years we’ve been at the school.

Oh, the memories

Oh, the memories

  • Wrapping Paper & Gift Sale
  • Coupon Book Sales
  • Read-a-thon
  • A local restaurant that donates a % of the profits from a certain day of each month.
  • Boxtops/Labels for Education
  • Book orders
  • 2 Book Fairs per year
  • Plant Sale
  • A pair of carnivals: the pièce de résistance: one in the spring, one in the fall, complete with silent auctions, bake sales, live music, crafts, and games.

These parents work their tails off. They are awesome, and they raise a healthy chunk of change. Because I am always ready to advise others on what they should do, I thought I’d brainstorm a few new ideas. Half of them involve booze.

School Rummage Sale:

Families donate toys, snow gear, bikes, etc. for the sale. This is a parents only event, complete with wine and canapés. All unsold items will be donated. No children allowed, as who knows who’s Wii or train table has been marked for sale.

tiny bubbles in the [beer]...

tiny bubbles in the [beer]…

Cash bar, or keg at the Carnivals.

These are chaos intense events. Moms and dads would pay many tickets for a strong gin and tonic. I’ve done informal polling to this end. It would be a success. If there is a problem with having a keg on school grounds (of all the silly rules,) there are lots of families who live within 2 blocks of school. They could host in a garage or yard. I’m sure permits would have to be pulled, etc., but it would make the “throw wet sponges at parents” booth a distant second.

Service-a-thon

If we’re going to pledge money to our kids to read during the read-a-thon, how about doing the same for the time they spend serving others? I would love to pledge to a kid who was going to spend time weeding school flowerbeds, or helping the librarian sort books, or raking leaves for an elderly neighbor. File it under character education.

Change Drive

Get some Costco pickle jars and have a contest for which classroom/grade can collect the most coinage (American money only, please.) Prizes are given for the most money raised and the fullest jar. Root beer floats and bragging rights for the winning classroom. The losers have to roll all the pennies. Easy and unimaginative.

640px-Left_Hand_-_Kolkata_2011-04-20_2350

Please?

Straight Up Ask

Okay, here’s the deal. We can send your kids home with promises of iPads to the highest seller and you can look at their expectant faces and explain why you’re not going to buy more wrapping paper, popcorn, stationary, books, whatever else we can think of that is not too heavy for a kindergartner to carry… or, you can write us a check, three digits please. Like an NPR fund drive, the sooner we meet our goals, the sooner we’ll end the drive. Please, for the love of Ralph, that spring carnival is a killer.

Grant Writing

This will work better in high school, but how about it? Assign students to write grants to fund art, science & math enrichment, music, PE- all those “extras” that aren’t on standardized tests. They’d learn to research, assess what a foundation is looking for, to write to that interest, to be concise and clear, and to submit on a deadline, a real one. Little actual funding would get accomplished, but in the off chance that it did- double score- learning and money!

standing ovation for you, sir.

Standing ovation for you, sir.

Parent Prom

This would be fun… and just as awkward as the real thing. Get a sitter; buy tickets, and draw straws for a designated driver. There will be noshes, music from the olden days (your youth,) and other parents dressed up like you’ve never seen them. It could be a themed soirée -1980s, Dr. Who, dress like a middle schooler, dress like YOU did in middle school. Liquor is de rigueur, duh.

 

 

After School Ice Pop/Coffee and Cocoa stand

This would totally work.

This would totally work.

This idea struck as I watched the ice cream truck roll down my street, playing cheery Christmas music in July. We need our own food truck/rolling stand. There would be ice pops or snow cones in the fall and spring, for the two weeks that they last. When the weather turns chilly, it’ll switch over to coffee and hot chocolate. Not bad, eh? This one doesn’t require booze or babysitters.

 

Who doesn’t want to support the education of their kids? Getting rid of stuff, going to a party, and drinking (coffee) seem like great new ways to do that. Anyone else have good fundraising ideas? I can’t use any more wrapping paper.

The Start of School

I am excited for school to start. My kids fight so much that I name them Israel, Palestine and Syria. That is not why I’m excited. We have been around each other 24/7 since June. That’s not why I’m excited. I’ve actually kind of enjoyed that, when Palestine wasn’t throwing rocks at Israel, and Syria wasn’t wailing about something. I’m ready because it is time.

P1010920We had a wonderful summer. I didn’t over plan it, like last year. We visited family, took some swimming lessons, and did minimal piano practice. We didn’t do camps, classes, sports teams, or any of the other extras that gorge on time and finances. I taught Bear to embroider. The kids played with friends, read and listened to books, did a lot of chores, and watched some TV. It was delightful.

I’m sure they would have liked to play baseball, attend camps, and other organized fun. Those are wonderful things- enriching, engaging, and good for kids. But my children get their heads pumped full of enriching, engaging activities throughout the school year. They do full days at school and take weekly music and dance lessons. If they do the prescribed homework and practice that goes along with these activities, their days are full. They are scheduled or getting nagged to work, from the time they get up, until they get ready for bed.

Summer is opportunity for contrast and a different kind of intellectual training. I’m convinced that after 9 months of cramming it full, the brain needs some down time to sort it all, put it away, forget that which it doesn’t want (to the chagrin of teachers,) and take some creative actions of its own design. Okay, so the forgetting isn’t great, but the sorting and creativity are at least as important to my children’s mental growth as is pushing them to do above grade level math. I suspect it is more important.

The best classroom ever

The best classroom ever

Unstructured time allows children time to listen to their own quiet minds and help them find resources within. They discover their own interests and practice navigating social situations without an adult overlord watching over them. They learn to amuse themselves and that being “bored” is a natural state for a mind unengaged. It is up to them to relieve their boredom, not me. (I do not create amusements at home. I make bubble solution, provide them with art supplies, take them to the library, and invite them to help me with household duties. That’s it.) Luckily, our neighbors and playmates have a similar philosophy about summer.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

Q wrote a neighborhood newspaper with her friend. They busked on a busy corner, playing tunes on a lap harp, fiddle, and a banjo. They made three dollars! They gave each other pedicures, which consisted of soaking their feet in water full of floating bits of lavender, rosemary, mint, and… chives. (Mmm, onion feet.) They rode scooters, bikes, ate berries and cucumbers out of the yard. They designed Halloween costumes and spent a lot of time talking. That is a summer well spent.

But all good things must end and too much unstructure fosters ennui if it stretches out for too long. They are showing signs of discontent. They loll around and sigh. Easy amusements have lost their charm. They bicker longer, harder and about sillier things. Bear can’t stand how AJ chews gum. AJ can’t ride her bike if anyone else in on the sidewalk for the entire length of the block. Q is sick of everyone.

They are ready for work. Structure, goals, tasks, and challenge are part of a vibrant human experience and it is time. Get ready, kids. School starts tomorrow. Sharpened pencils and clean notebooks full of expectation and promise await your well-rested brains. Work hard. Be good. This is the season of work. Do it as well as you did the season of play. Ready. Set. Go.

Mommy Wars- Call a Truce.

I made the mistake of reading the comments section of an article about Lean In author, Sheryl Sandberg. I’m old enough to know better, but after avoiding comment sections for months, my faith in humanity recovered and it was time to knock it down again. Comment sections are brutally efficient for this purpose. The article was about the continuing controversy surrounding her book. Most of the comments were hackneyed dismissals of her person, not the content of her book, many convoluting her career choices with her parenting choices, each comment revealing more about its writer than it said about Sandberg. Blech. Enough. Grow up.

Wyatt Earp and his Mom. I'll bet she didn't even have a Moby wrap.

Wyatt Earp and his Mom. I’ll bet she didn’t even have a Moby wrap.

Parenting is too complicated to waste time pecking at the choices and lifestyles of others. The Mommy Wars are squabbles of the bored and privileged.  I don’t care if you’re a tiger mom, a free-range dad, a Montessori mama, a homeschool champion, a Ferberizer or an attachment adherent. I don’t care if you’re career driven or a devoted stay-at-home parent. If it works for you- if your children are content and engaged, if you’ve managed to retain some semblance of self- I applaud you. You are doing great! There are some parenting practices that raise my eyebrows- I am suspicious of unschooling, and I am wholly intolerant of disrespect- parents letting children run roughshod over the rights of others to not be maltreated and disrespected by unfettered progeny. (Is there a name for this? I think it’s called, “Parental Narcissism,” but that might just be in my own head.)

There are so many ways to parent because parents and children are all maddeningly varied and their interactions complicated. Ploys work for a while, or for one child, and then must be amended or discarded. If your children’s clothes are stained because you make them do their own laundry- kudos! If they eat McDonalds on the way to tuba lessons because you can’t work, cook, and get homework done- awesome, they get music lessons! If you store your homemade, organic, locally sourced baby food in BPA-free jars- wow, this is really important to you! If you chew up a granola bar and then feed it to your baby, a la Alicia Silverstone– I will not bat an eye. That is among the more benign things they will ingest and I’d like the parent who never licked off a pacifier to please come forward so we can wonder why he’s so weird.

Josephine Baker and her rather unconventional family.

Josephine Baker and her rather unconventional family.

The only parenting experts are those who aren’t parenting at the moment. I write and read about parenting because it helps me sort out goals and lay plans. The only thing at which I’m expert is getting back up after falling on my parental face. Talk is cheap. Opinion is a wisp of smoke. Action and results are the only things that matter. What is true in war is true in parenting- No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

In the quiet of evening, I resolve not to yell because it isn’t effective. I plan to set aside time to teach Bear to embroider to enrich his mind and our relationship. I say that I will not morph into a harpy of rage when practicing music with Q because it is detrimental to everyone.

The next day, I do it all… until the children wake up. AJ makes us late and I yell, “Where are your shoes!” I weed the garden instead of embroider with Bear. I get so frustrated during music practice that I close myself in the bathroom and scream into a bath towel.

Maybe I am inadequately equipped for parenting. If that is the case, then I am a member of a big club. The parents I know reasonably well struggle, search out new tactics, try stuff, find something that kind of works and pray it keeps working (It never does.) They struggle to manage their own natures as they teach their children to manage theirs.

Everyone struggles, even families with the most enviable exteriors.

The Kennedys. Everyone struggles, even parents with the most enviable exteriors.

I am glad the dad at the park brought his child out to play, even if dad’s smoking.  I have only sympathy for the mother trying to get through the grocery store by feeding her child Skittles the whole time. I do not know how the rest of her day has gone, or what else she’s got going on in her life. I get judgy like everyone else, but I remind myself that it is foolish and futile, especially when I’ve got my own trio of young humans to manage.

1101120521_600The media bait and we bite, stirring up a heady froth of black and white judgment. The sensational Time cover and its accompanying story ruffled a lot of feathers. The vaccine “debate” is drowned in emotion and distrust. The advice of Sheryl Sandberg and Gwyneth Paltrow grow patches of feckless disagreement. It seems that one must have an opinion on all of it. The only beneficiaries of all this ugly chatter are publishers. (I did purchase Lean-In after reading that article, encouraging the pot stirring  to continue. My bad.)

Peace with the life I’ve made comes from owning my choices and reminding myself of the good things that grow out of those choices, instead of envying the things I don’t have. Confidence in my parenting stems from seeing my children’s growth and behavior move in a positive direction. It does not come from judging my efforts as superior or the wholesale dismissal of another’s experience. If it were that easy, I’d get myself a gavel and judge with abandon. It would be easier than relying on results to confirm my work.

Read Sandberg,  Sears,  Dobson,  Chua-  a broad variety of experience and philosophy. See what they offer and get familiar with other ways of approaching the struggle. The only goals are respecting ourselves while raising healthy, wise, confident adults who can stumble through their own adulthood at least as well as their parents and maybe, (if we’re really overachievers,) a little bit better.  If someone else has managed to do that; they’re worth a listen. Even if you don’t buy all their suggestions, you’ll learn something.  Abandon the Mommy Wars. They are an utter waste of time and energy when we all need help, understanding, and to feel free to find the things that work for us and our children, here, in this moment.

Post Script: To that end,  I do not hate advice. I do not equate being offered advice with being judged as failing. Frankly, if your advice is good, you can judge me however you like. I don’t give a fig. If I’m struggling and something worked for you, please, share it! I take all helpfully offered suggestions seriously and with a good attitude. I want all the help and wisdom of the ages to get my children from birth-20 as best as is possible for them and for me.

Creative Destruction

There is a fine line between encouraging children’s creativity and letting them ruin your life. When their imaginative and explorative minds are fully active- watch out- something is going to get trashed. Children who are not fed on a steady diet of screen time are dynamic mess makers. It is the price paid for turning off the TV/smartphone/tablet/computer/DS/game console; they come out of stasis and commence learning.

I once came upstairs to find my 2 and 4 year old “greasing the piggy”- spreading Eucerin skin cream (the really thick one) like frosting on Bear’s piggy bank. It was all over their clothes and they were having a ball. Being the party killer that I am, I put a stop to it, but I couldn’t be mad. No doubt it was tactily stimulating.

At some point, each one of my children turns a lipstick all the way up and mashes the cap back on. They dump out boxes of neatly ordered items- bandages, cotton swabs, tea bags, but lack the interest and small motor skills to put them back in. They unroll rolls of toilet paper, pull out entire boxes of tissue, gleefully rip out page after page of phone books. (Alas, our youngest never had this thrill as we received our last one before she was of paper ripping age.) They are on a mission of discovery that usually entails moving from order to chaos.

As older children, they body paint themselves with sidewalk chalk or mud. Walls double as canvas, napkin, and Kleenex. Peony petals are stripped from their stems and flung about in a Disney excess of beauty and delight, leaving plants dejected and a near carpet of pink on the grass that quickly turns to something resembling brown snot. They’ll cut a ticker tape parade worth of paper nitnerts before they vote in their first election. They will all end up on my floor.

I was similarly busy as a child. While my parents lived with much child-made chaos, there was one feature that made harmony between childhood and adulthood easier.

My natal home has a two-part backyard. Visible from the house is the lawn, babbling pond, patio, and bonfire pit- all against a DSC_0080backdrop of a 5’ stucco wall and a riotous wisteria. There is only a glimpse of the Neverland that lies beyond- the back back[yard.]

The back back was our realm. We were essentially free to do anything there that didn’t involve shedding our own or each other’s blood, or at least not much of it. We had everything a child’s imagination and ingenuity required. A patch of 10’ bamboo-like grass served as building material for teepees, fishing poles, pit traps, spears, and anything else that required a stick. Queen of Heaven trees grew like weeds and, when we were old enough, we were allowed to cut them down for sturdy lengths of stinky green wood. We had food- apricots, grapes, and apples. A spigot watered our meager garden, filled multiple buckets for countless uses, and slaked the thirst of small throats. We dug a huge hole one summer that morphed from swimming hole to Egyptian tomb, to bear trap, to root cellar. We buried small pets there (previously expired,) marking their graves with haphazard markers that were always conspicuously absent after the next mowing.

We played at farmer, Peter Pan, and weeks worth of “Refugee”- a game of pretend in which we survived in the jungles of Vietnam with our family and pet panda.- like “house” with a touch more drama. We had many adventures. We discovered many things. We made a mess. If it had not been for the shield of that masonry wall, if my parents had had to look at a pit trap from the living room, or the bundles of tall weeds we harvested and tied as sheaves of wheat from the dining room, our activity would have been curtailed. That wall separated our worlds enough that they could let us be creative and imaginative and still have their adult preference for purposeful landscaping and order.

My family was lucky to have that wall there when we moved in. I doubt my parents would have divided their yard by choice, but it proved beneficial. Adults with children in their lives should consider the level of chaos with which they are comfortable and how attached they are to their possessions. Then they ought to set meaningful boundaries they are willing to enforce. If they do not, children will naturally expand to fit the space allowed, just like grown ups.

Of course, this is all highly individual. I know families who live by the Montessori mantra, “Everything in its place and a place for

Montessori- take me away!

everything.” I am in awe of those parents. I know families who are comfortable letting their children have the whole house and don’t mind the mess. Every room is full of children’s detritus- books, art, toys, games, etc.  Other families have rooms that are off limits to children, lest small feet mar the uniform nap of the carpet, or leave other evidence of their being lying around. My aunt, who had 3 boys and was married to a 4th, had a room that was just hers- full of girly projects and things she didn’t want broken. If you possessed a penis, you were barred.

Based on households I know, I consider my chaos tolerance as middling. Art and drinks stay at the table (That is the rule, but I have found a glass of milk turning to yogurt in a closet.) Playing with water happens outdoors or in the bathtub. Toys are not allowed on stairs; that is just dangerous. There are two rooms where children are not permitted to play- the kitchen- because I am always there and don’t want to trip on Legos, and my bedroom.

The parental bedroom is adult space. Period. Hot Swede and I are quite capable of trashing it ourselves and require no youthful assistance. After a whole day with children, I want one place where I can go and not have to step over plastic food or ruin a foot on a die cast car.  Other than that, they are free to roam. Of course, I am also a terrible troll and make them pick up their messes… when I have the energy.

Some parents feel guilty if they limit or carve out specific spaces or ways for children to play. Hot Swede and I are not among them. We

hmm, maybe a bunker?

hmm, maybe a bunker?

love our children and pay a financial and career-stifling price so I can devote these few years to caretaking this family. But, this is our life too, not just theirs. We live here as well. Heck, we own the place. Hot Swede pays for every material thing about our home with days of his life. I don’t want our children to squander that. I protect pockets of order and set rules about our home to retain a grip on my tenuous sanity and decrease the sense of fruitless effort that comes with keeping a house where children live.

Children need space and permission to make messes and do their learning.  Adults need the order and predictability that children unravel. It is about finding balance- a shifting equation of adult and child needs, unique to each set of people and circumstances, each finding her space and peace, being true to herself and respectful of others. Where do you put your walls and boundaries? How do you manage living with young inquisitives and youthful creatives?

I’m Not Lazy; I’ve Got Priorities

Last week, my parents flew across the country to see us. I let the lawn grow long. I let the blog idle. I didn’t clean the basement, workout, scroll through Facebook, or do any solitary things that could wait. The weather finally turned from garbage to gold, and I shifted everything of lesser import further down the list. I spent the week eating, walking, and laughing with, cooking for, and talking to these people who first believed I was worth the trouble, while soaking up beautiful weather with all my senses.  To do otherwise would have been foolish.

Relationships are the richness of life. It is incomplete when not shared, in some way, with others. Loved ones come first. Work will always be. People are precious and temporary.

5500724272_a8f55edbe4_z(Not my family, just another one, doing the most important things.)

Bumbling towards Responsible Adulthood

I blew my lid with the kids this morning. Our babysitter left her bag at the house and my children took out her sidewalk paint and gleefully used it all up. They went into her bag and helped themselves. I was horrified. “What? You just helped yourselves to someone else’s property? Would you rifle through Grandma’s purse? What made you think that was okay? I am ashamed of your choices…” and on… and on.Hendrick_Jacobsz._Dubbels_001

There are times, like this, when I feel like the most terrible parent around. I felt guilty for losing my cool (but not that guilty.) I felt like a failure because my 8 and 6 year-old took stuff that wasn’t theirs and they should know better. I was embarrassed. I clearly had not done my job. I cried on the way to school. I knew I was over-reacting. My rational self kept mumbling, “This is not about you.” But she lost control of the ship; it was all she could do to keep me from blurting out, “I guess I’ll have to come visit you in prison!”

Knowing that I was teetering on the edge, I called Hot Swede at work. He is experienced and effective at talking me down from emotional cliffs. His level head and calm voice soon lowered my crazy sail, and I began to think sense.

People make mistakes. Kids are inexperienced people; they’re going to make a lot of them. Of all the lessons children need to learn, moral and ethical ones the most difficult.  Moral action requires mastery of oneself- doing what’s right instead of what’s desired. Ethical behavior takes courage, thoughtfulness and maturity- three things that my young have yet to develop. It takes practice, redirection, consequences, forgiveness and love to learn to behave in moral and ethical ways. It is part of children’s job to push boundaries and figure out how they will operate within and on the world. That is where I come in. My job is to help them learn these lessons with sidewalk paint, instead of more expensive property and consequences.

I thought they had “do not steal” all sorted- my fatuous mistake. When rational, I understand that, of course, I am not done teaching and reinforcing lessons about respect for others and their property. They are 8 and 6. Duh.

So, I will explain why I was so upset this morning and the seriousness of stealing. They will each buy a set of replacement paints with their saved allowance and write an apology.  Two sets- because I want them to feel the cost and because when we wrong someone, we often have to expend extra effort to make things right.

I wish I had been prepared with an attitude of “Wonderful, here’s a chance to teach a lesson.” instead of caught off guard and horrified.  I will pray for wisdom and grace in anticipation of the next time they make a bonehead move. Because this is just the prelude.

Still the best option

Still the best option