Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"For children, summer should be a time to decompress, to explore at their own pace, to do absolutely nothing. To imagine, perchance to dream..."  Ellen Nicholas Rathbone

According to a recent article printed by The Atlantic free play is a marvelous and vital part of summer that's often being swallowed up by a jam-packed schedule of events that's sometimes even busier than the school year.  The article argues that the LESS time children spend in structured, adult-directed activities, the better it is for their self-development, ability to reach goals and their imaginations.  I decided to put this theory into practice today to see if things would quickly deteriorate into a shit show.

Wednesdays I watch my niece and nephew (10 and almost 8, respectively) for 8-9 hours. Add my toddler and my 6 year old to the mix and that's a lot of unstructured play. I scrapped plans today to take them to mini golf and the park, I put away the stack of board games I was going to play with them and I put a ban on screen time OF ANY KIND. And then I sat back, added water and watched the fun.

It turns out that they were just fine without my interference. Better, actually, I'm embarrassed to admit.

The kids found an old magic set and started learning tricks to show me as I folded laundry. They built with legos and created a castle of k'nex.  When I went out to water the garden, they offered to help which soon became a hilarious, beyond fun water fight.  They found the other hose attachment, rustled up buckets and worked as a team to soak me and each other. I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard or got such strange looks from my neighbors.  Keep in mind that I didn't say "Okay, children, put on your bathing suits. We will now have a water fight."  It happened organically and spontaneously. I had to put all their clothes in the dryer afterwards but so what?

We sat in the dining room and ate sandwiches and fruit for lunch.  They asked me to tell them a story about the worst thing I did as a child. (A food fight I poorly chose to initiate.) They asked if we could bake cookies. I said yes and got out all the ingredients. They chose which ones to put in (sprinkles and chocolate chips yes, coconut or almonds definitely not).  The played Zingo and The Memory Game. I told them I would need a half an hour to send my editor a book review that was due and the four of them went upstairs to read to themselves or one another and draw.  At this moment they are playing a game called "Fort" in which they have made my entire sitting room into...well..a fort.  They are delegating who is guarding what exit and doing some kind of push-ups as part of their training.  "We will defend our base!" they yell at some common, invisible enemy.  "I have a very bad feeling about this." I hear my son say.  They are laughing.  I ask them if they need anything.  "More blankets" is the answer.  I didn't teach them the game "Fort". I never even heard of the game "Fort." But they are so excited and having a grand ole time.

I don't mean to paint any kind of an idyllic picture of "free play" here or insist it's some kind of utopia. I'm shocked that there hasn't been one scuffle. However, I am humbled by what a ball the kids are having when they are given a safe space to freely decide, create and direct the action.  This is not something they get to do all year at school. 

I stress more times than I like to admit thinking of how to challenge, delight or otherwise occupy my children. I try to plan outings, play dates, visits to interesting places and neat events. I try to plan time for reading to them, movie nights, picnics on the beach.  It turns out I've been wasting my time and energy here. What fools we modern day parents can be.

So today we did nothing.  I took them nowhere.  I organized zilch.  But they are loving every second of this not-so-lazy day of summer.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Say Cheese?

My second favorite thing to view on Facebook is pictures of people's children, especially those kids whom I barely get to see because they live far away.

My first favorite thing to view on Facebook is pictures of people's food.

Lately, I've been getting some slack (albeit loving slack) because I don't post enough pictures of my kids, Big A and Little D on Facebook.  It's true, I don't post a ton of pictures of my children, although I feel I come through for holidays and other events like tooth losing or "eating a giant ball of cotton candy".  Today I went out of my comfort zone and posted a picture of Big A at the bus stop with his homies. 

When I'm chided by friends to post more photos (generally by those whose kids are grown, live far away or those who don't have kids) I feel warmed that people care enough about my offspring that they want to keep up with their progress.  And yet, I'm probably not going to increase the volume of my photo posts. A few times a month is all I can manage.

Some parents are wonderful photographers.  They have kickass cameras and they are amazing at capturing the moment.  Two moms I know, Heidi and Catherine, were such a amazing amateur photographers that they are now professional photographers. My friend Beth is a fantastic amateur photographer, and some of my favorite beach pictures have been taken by her, when I had no idea I was being photographed. In the below picture I was pregnant with my daughter while my 3 year old son had fallen asleep trapping me in a beach chair for two hours. This photo is incredibly meaningful to me.

But I don't possess the same flair for capturing the moment when it comes to my own kids.  Here's why.

My phone is my camera.   I try very hard not to have my phone with me at all times, but particularly when I'm spending time with my children. (This HAS NOTHING to do with the fact that two previous phones were destroyed due to Little D drooling on them and my insurance was cancelled.  Nothing whatsoever.) My phone, with it's bells, whistles, texts and connection to Upworthy is too irresistible of a distraction.  This is why I miss calls all the time and I'm even worse at checking my voicemails.  So my phone is never close enough to capture much of anything in a timely fashion.

I used to really try to scramble for my phone and snap up something cute the kids were doing. I would rush around for my phone, zip back to my kids and yell "Okay, hold that pose!  Put your arm around her again!  Smooch her head like you were before!"  And then sh*t got weird like those pictures of naked babies arranged in flower pots or rugs...cute...but staged.

It was around then that I noticed that I am not someone who is able to capture the moment and still be present to what is happening.  When I'm stopping to document something happening with my kids, I am not as good at remembering it.  My memory seems to give up, kick back and eat a bag of Cheetos, it would seem, replacing my memory of that moment (and its accompanying emotions) with whatever picture came up on my phone. 

I figured out that I was forsaking actual memories for documentation.  And it's not that I take NO pictures of my children, because I certainly do. It's just that I take LESS pictures of my children these days because, ironically, I seem to bear better witness to their photo-finish-worthy hijinx or precious moments when I don't remove myself from the situation and get behind the camera.  Strange, but true. My sister Chrissy doesn't post too many pictures either...but when she does they are usually awesome so everybody generally pays attention, wildly slapping the "Like" button like a bunch of sugar-crazed children at Yestercades.

When a woman from my writers' group, Barbara, wrote an exceptional piece about this topic a few months ago, ( I wish you would share it on FB!) I found myself nodding along and fighting the urge to yell "Amen!"  She wrote that if you're taking TOO many photographs or videos from OUTSIDE the moment, there's really no way for you to be inside the moment, really experiencing it.  It's because of this that I often offer to take over the camera when I'm at a friend's child's birthday party.  The mom gets to experience the celebration for her child and be IN THE PICTURES rather than behind the camera and out of the action like we all usually are. 

It would be ideal if my husband was a whiz with a camera or loved to take pictures but he is much, much worse than I am about taking pictures.  When Big A went off the kindergarten this past Fall, my husband shocked the hell out of me (and probably himself) by capturing this completely candid photo where both my son and I were unaware that we were being photographed.  I was walking Big A to the bus stop for the first time.  While  I'm moved, touched and inspired by the fact that this photograph exists, I'm glad to know that I didn't have to drop my son's hand and remove myself from our walk to take a picture, hence ruining the moment.

Since I make a conscious effort not to take too many pictures, when friends or family members capture something beautiful on film, it is all the more poignant to me. Because a gifted photographer I am not. When I remark "Say Cheese!" rather than whipping out a camera, I'm more likely to be grabbing a box of crackers and calling everyone in for a snack.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Savor this

Today a new mom asked me for some advice.  As usual, I began to sweat profusely and grimace as I do when anyone asks me for parenting advice. Like most moms, I am doing the best I can and yet I don't feel fit to advise a newt on parenting.  I look around and always notice that everyone seems to parent better/more calmly/more happily than I do and I also notice their offspring are more well-behaved/more accomplished/ better at the cello than my own.  But this mom is in her mid-twenties, full of energy and not used to taking no for an answer.   She pressed me for some parenting advice, not sweetening the deal at all by referring to me as "a seasoned mom". Thank you, young whippersnapper.  So before she shooed me off to the local HoJos to get the Early Bird Special, I cobbled together 4 pieces of parenting advice I felt comfortable sharing based on my own trials and errors.

Forgive yourself. 

I am not going to tell you to "SAVOR EVERY MOMENT".  I'm not going to tell you that because I believe that most moms are already doing that.  The highlight of my day is watching my 2 year old run to her big brother for a bear hug and a smooch every day when he gets off the bus.  I know you are enjoying these moments also at your house.  Of course you are. What are you, made of ice? 

You don't need me to tell you to savor those moments.  What I want to tell you is that you should forgive yourself for BLOWING A GASKET during the less adorable moments. Like when they throw a can of neon yellow slime into a load of white laundry that includes your favorite cardigan, dump chocolate milk on the floor for sport and throw a tantrum because you won't let them stay up until 10 pm to watch a re-run of Wonder Woman. All of which happened this past year in my house.

Forgive yourself for yelling, speaking harshly, shoving them into their rooms or designated time-out spots.  You are human.  You're entitled to hissy fits when you've asked your son TEN TIMES to put on his karate uniform and he's refused to do it and now his ride is here and he's wearing just a shirt and no shoes. You will not always make the right decision as a parent. You will fail.  Forgive yourself for not being perfect because you are doing the best you can.

Forgive Your Children

Are you children the picture of perfect manners? Do you they always eat their greens, never whine, say hello to their aunts and uncles by name and do their homework without being told?  Are they fair to others and never perseverate on the gumball they wanted from Toys R Us when you have just bought them a new stuffed Angry Bird?  If this is the case, please leave this blog and NEVER RETURN!

As a former girly girl, I thought that my daughter would love to have tea parties and play dolls with me. She doesn't. She wants to shoot hoops and collect worms.  My husband thought our son would love surfing as much as he does but he has somehow sired a son that loves water but not getting his face wet.  Forgive your children for not being miniature versions of yourself.  Let them be whoever it is that they are going to be. Forgive your children for sometimes embarrassing you in front of grocery clerks and entire birthday parties because, quite simply, they are children.  Forgive them for not being perfect and sometimes sneaking a box of orange tic-tacs under their pillow that they got from Grandma when you specifically said no candy after 6 p.m. 

Please don't expect these miraculous little creatures to be perfect. You are setting them up for failure.  Expect them to be remarkable and they will always succeed!  For example, it was remarkable that my two year old managed to lock everyone out of the bathroom today, including herself, while the plugged faucet was still running. 

But Don't Be Your Child's Friend

I promise you that if you are very lucky there will come a time in your early twenties when you'll take in a movie with your mom and discuss politics with your dad and you'll realize that the pendulum has swung and your parents are less your care-takers and more your equals...even your friends.  But if you're the parents to small children or teens that time is not now.  Yes, that means being the bad guy. The one that makes them eat the broccoli, says no to the second ice pop, enforces the bedtime and teeth brushing and metes out the punishment when he karate chops his sister because she accidentally turned off Adventuretime.  It means sitting down sometimes and calling your children out on their bad behavior so that they can learn to be happy and productive.

With great responsibility comes great power. Your children may not like some of your rules, particularly limits on candy, screen time and lights out but they sure as hell will respect you for it.  It's tempting to think of your kids as your "little buddies" but they're not. They're a precious gift you've been entrusted to raise and teach until they can make it on their own in this world.  Don't leave them ill-equipped to navigate this world by indulging in their every whim, letting them do whatever they want and, in short, not doing the hard work you signed on for when you became a parent.  Wonderful teachers, Coach So-And-So, Sensei Whomever and their CCD leader may be great role models and part of a loving support network, but YOU ARE THE PARENT.  One kid I know responds to any time-out his mom gives him by storming "You're not my friend anymore!!"  She never was, kid.  Children have plenty of friends, what they need is a parent.

Spend Time With Your Kids.

This is the fun part.  Not counting church, not counting when you're on the sidelines of the soccer game or swim match, not counting when you have a gaggle of your child's friends and moms over, although that's fun.  Spend time with your kids.  Just you and your partner and your kids. Go to the park. Have a picnic. Pop corn and watch movies they pick. Swim with them.  Ride bikes. Draw with them. Play board games with them. Let them help you make meatballs and cookies even though you will have to absolutely vacuum your floor and ceiling right after.  Make your kids feel that they are your priority.  And I hate to break this to you but the clock is ticking. They're not always going to think you're a rock star. Soon your child will be too embarrassed to hold your hand in public and your daughter will think you're the enemy for not letting her wear make-up.  As hard as this time period can be (the time period of having small children) it will also be the best years of your life. Never have you been so loved before and never will you be this loved again.  Don't squander it.

So in short, (dare I say it?)  Savor. Every. Moment.  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Nothing to fear but fear itself

I am not sending my son to Action Camp. 

Our town has an Action Camp each summer for 5 weeks.  I hear wonderful things about it.  Apparently it is not only safe and nearby but all the campers have a ball.  It's only 3 hours a day too.  The perfect amount of time to get some work done while your kids are off having fun.

But I am not sending my son to Action Camp.

"Aren't you afraid that Big A will lose touch with all the good friends he's made this year?" another Mom asked me.  (Her town has a similar camp and she and her kids love it.)

Until this moment no, no I was not.  But now I am. Now I am afraid he will lose all his friends and become a social pariah. Thank you for that.

"Aren't you afraid that when you get sick of having him around this summer there will be no respite, NOWHERE to drop him?" she asked.

Yes. I AM in fact afraid of what will happen when I run out of ideas, we're hot, grouchy and the kids are having a steel cage match to see who can whine more.  I will have no break. I now possess this fear as well.

"And how about the fun?" she persists. "Aren't you afraid he's going to miss out on a great time?"

I have now broken out in hives.

Note that all three of the questions I was asked began with "Aren't you afraid?"

Yes! Yes...I'm afraid he'll miss out on the fun.  I have a vision of Big A, on the top of the monkey bars in a nearby park as he gazes over at the happy campers. I picture him shrieking miserably "WHY?  WHY DIDN'T YOU SEND ME TO ACTION CAMP?! DAMN YOU, MOMMY! DAMN YOU! OH THE HUMANITY OF IT ALL!"

But all of this fear is not enough for me to send Big A to Action Camp. It's not because of the money. It's not because I want him to myself all summer. It's not even because 1 week out of the 5 he'll be at Vacation Bible School or because we belong to a beach club, even though these are all good reasons.

I'm not sending Big A to Action Camp because, quite simply, he doesn't want to go. 

His summer plans, as he's explained them to me, include not going to school, camping in the backyard with his friends, and a trip to Sesame Place where he can eat "a blue cupcake".  He also wants to go the beach, jump off the diving board "a zillion times" and eat "a blue ice pop".  While his plans may include a high number of of unnaturally blue things, they don't include Action Camp.

When I mentioned a lot of his friends were going he sort of shrugged and asked if they could come over after they were done with camp.  Sounds reasonable.  I think my introvert son realizes that he's had to keep it together all year in the super-stimulated world of kindergarten and he's ready to chill out this summer by having nowhere in particular to be.

He doesn't seem to care that he's one of the few kids not going to Action Camp.  And at age (almost) 6, I may not be able let him decide what time to go to bed, but he definitely can decide this.  If I worked outside of the home, that might be a different story. He might have to go to Action Camp, whether he wanted to or not, because it's a cost-effective childcare solution.  

But to be brutally honest, I was worried for a while about going against the grain and having my son not attend.  Fear is a great motivator. Would he be missing oodles of fun?  Would he indeed lose touch with his new friends? Everyone else seems to be going and having a blast...what's wrong with my kid that he doesn't want to? Fear is so powerful it almost made me override my son's wishes and sign him up for something he specifically doesn't want to do.  And that's when I realized, not just with this small situation but with many future situations that I don't want to be swayed, colored or RUN by fear. 

And so it is written.  No action camp for the Big A this year.  There's always next year.