Island Time: What a month away with my children taught me

11738059_10155931974745083_6601488050755240455_nI just returned from a month away. With my kids. All three of them. 24/7 at arm’s length for 4 whole weeks. We ate every meal together, woke up at an ungodly hour every day together, and spent every second together for 28 days.

Believe it or not, it’s what I wanted. In fact, I was desperate for it. I longed to be free from the schedule: the schoolwork and the activities, the play dates and birthday parties and the overwhelming feeling of always being on the go. I wanted to spend the days with the boys doing nothing. Teaching them that doing nothing is in fact doing something – it’s recharging. Re-setting. And all of us need to know how to do that.

Residing in a busy city and having busy schedules and living with a big, busy family, it’s hard to not get swept up in always “doing”. Checking things off “the list” with compulsion and not really enjoying any of it. I’ve spent lots of time this past year reflecting on how much time we spend “doing” and not “being”. I want to change that.

Most importantly I want to impart to my boys that their self-worth is not tied to how busy they are. And what better way to do that, than to show them how.

We unpacked our bags in Grand Cayman and settled in for a month of island living, where “island time” is a real thing. We spent the days at the beach discovering the sea life, and learning about our world. Snorkelling adventures spanned hours and walks on the sand were slow and unchartered. Mealtime was unhurried and evenings were spent watching old movies, playing cards and lost in our imaginations.

Escaping the perils of boyhood is not possible – even in Paradise. They still fought, and whined, and complained. They still didn’t want to be touched, breathed on, or looked at. The iPads were still taken away and threats were still made, but all to a much lesser degree.

Free from distractions, the boys reconnected with each other and with me. The conversation flowed and while my boys studied mollusks and coral formations, I realized who they are. Their distinct personalities revealed themselves to me in new ways, and my understanding of them and their fears, anxieties, dreams and excitements, became clearer.

The weeks passed in a blur, a painful reminder of how fast the years are slipping by, and tears came with the realization that I can slow down and be more present but I can’t stop time.


Canadian Ski Council Ski Pass is back!

Just got word that the Canadian Ski Council will be running their very popular Ski Pass™ program again this winter. For just $29.95 — the cost of processing and delivery of your child’s pass —  your grade four or five student can ski or snowboard up to three times each at one of 150 participating ski centres across Canada. Otherwise, the pass is free!

If you’ve got a child born in either of 2002 or 2003 (currently enrolled in grade 5 or 4) and are a Canadian resident, all you have to do to take advantage of this fantastic offer is to visit the Canadian Ski Council website. To get immediate online access, you’ll need a digital photo of your child as well as digital proof of age or enrollment in grade four or five in a Canadian school. If you don’t have the required information at your fingertips, you can download an application from the website.

Snow Pass season starts December 1st and is valid for the entire 2012 – 2013 ski season. Visit the Canadian Ski Council website for more information. Happy skiing!

Everybody’s Gonna Have a Real Good Time

This past weekend, serendipitously, I watched a swimming pool full of children between the ages of four and twelve sing and splash to LMFAO‘s I’m Sexy and I Know It.  As the opening notes sounded, a rush of kids emerged from underneath towels and off of chaises lounges;  into the pool they went, where for three minutes, they danced and carried on like the kids they were, completely oblivious to the underlying meaning of of the lyrics of that song. Half the adults in the pool were singing along, too. Say what you will about the artistic merit of the song, you can’t deny that it’s catchy. It puts you in a good mood. It makes you not-at-all sorry for party rocking, and that’s the whole point of that type of music. It’s fun.

I bet if you asked the average seven-year old what that song is about, they’d tell you: it’s about having a party. It’s about looking good.  My seven-year old certainly could care less about the lyrics beyond those which are readily discernible on a quick listen to the chorus (he might mention that it’s about shaking his bum, but he’s seven and anything to do with bums is REALLY funny).  My older one could probably tell you what some of the other lines in the song mean, but we’ve already discussed how babies are made and that – gasp – grown-ups do “it”. Of course, you’d have to get him to stop dancing in order to ask him a question about the song in the first place.

Still, it’s probably no surprise to him or to his friends that there are references “it” in songs. Grown ups talk about a lot of things that kids don’t talk about, which doesn’t mean that kids don’t listen: it just means that it doesn’t matter to them to hear it. The economy. Politics. Stocks. What to make for dinner.  Paying bills.  These are all topics which register with most kids as “things that grown ups say” and not “things I must understand RIGHT now”. And when they do tune in, you do the best that you can with whatever questions that come your way about what they’ve heard, as it doesn’t really matter what the source of the question is: as parents, we can’t completely insulate our children from the world, nor should we. Instead, I’d rather teach them to live within it, and give them the right information to be able to do so.

Thank you, Mr. Sendak

We learned today that Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of such children’s classics as Where the Wild Things Are  passed away this morning, as a result of a stroke on Friday. He was 83.

It’s rare to find someone of my generation who did not read at least one of Sendak’s books as a child. I still have, from my childhood,  a hard-backed, well-worn copy of Else Homelund Minarik’s Little Bear. Little Bear was one of my first favourite books. I adored Sendak’s illustrations and spent hours looking at his drawings as I tried to decipher the words that accompanied them.  Sendak’s illustrations are  warm, and funny without being sentimental. There was a comfort in those drawings; a gentle reassurance that despite Little Bear’s (and our own, by extension) foibles, he would always be loved and cherished. I’m sure I couldn’t have articulated that thought, then; I just knew that something about those drawings made me happy.

Years later, I read that book to each of my boys, together pausing to giggle over the predicament of the bear who was too cold to play outside without snow pants, but who found his own pelt warmest of all; and rejoicing at the kind surprise of a birthday cake. Likewise, when the boys were small I found myself turning the tables on my own little Wild Things, threatening each that given the chance, I would eat them up, I love them so, only to have each flee to their rooms in mock horror, shouting “No!”.

It is the darker, harsher Sendak with whom most of us are more familiar: the disobedient Max and the petulant Pierre, whose only words are “I don’t care!” It is this version of which many of us are most fond. Sendak recognized that childhood is not all sunshine and happiness. It’s really a place of uncertainty. Children lack power, and they know that. Sendak’s best work illustrates what happens to a child in a fantasy world where they are in charge, safe in the knowledge that when things get out of hand, there is a safe place for them, and their food will still be hot when they return to it. Said Sendak:

“And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.”

It’s a testament to his gift that so many of us revisit his work time and time again now with our own children, encouraging them to tame their own wild things.

Wild Things Mural in the Children’s Section of the Richland County Library, Columbia, SC. Photo credit : Gerald Brazell on Flickr,  2011.

Tying the Apron Strings Tightly

My kids are over-protected. I’m over-protective. And only slightly apologetic about it.

There. I’ve said it. And I won’t lie: there’s a part of me that winces when I tell you that we often allow our kids to play outside of our house with other kids, more or less unsupervised. What if someone reads this blog post, figures out where we live, and then lies in wait for my children to walk out the door, and then goes and snatches one of them? I’ve spent my whole life practicing the memorization of licence plate numbers just in case someone I love is ever abducted in a car, and I count my complete inability – to this day – to remember a licence plate as a portend of doom.

What could I have to do that could be more important than watching over them? Some days, I wonder how I let them out the door in the morning. What if they fall down those impossibly wide old stairs at school? They’re nine and seven, and still I worry about them eating a snack at recess: what if one of them chokes? Will their friends have the presence of mind to call a teacher? Do any of their buddies know the Heimlich manoever?

It’s crazy. And I know it’s crazy. And I keep my crazy mostly under wraps, hidden from view, because I know my crazy does my children no good. In every other part of their lives, I believe in allowing them to explore, test, and ultimately, to fail.  I do try to push them out of their (my?) comfort zones, but they’re not going anywhere; my nine year old won’t even walk half a block to mail a letter without me.

I’m not entirely sad about that.

I’ve tried to figure out where this irrational over-protectiveness comes from, but the only comforting thought I have is that there’s strength in numbers. I’m not the only one locking the doors constantly. Being overprotective has become a sign of “good” parenting, like feeding your children only organic veggies and demanding copies of their grade’s curriculum so that you can monitor your child’s daily progress toward their Expected Learning Outcomes.

We monitor our children’s every move during the day, but that doesn’t stop each and every one of us from lamenting the loss of freedom that we had when we were children. We live in cities that are considerably safer than when we were little. So what in the hell are we afraid of?

Nuclear proliferation. Watergate. Distrust of institutions. Energy Crisis. Hostage takings. Hijackings. Three Mile Island. Bhopal.

Ah yes. I was a child of the 1970s and 1980s. Half of our parents were divorced (a statistic, by the way, that hasn’t held true since the early 1980s, but I digress). We were educated by ABC After-school Specials, with episodes entitled things like “My Dad Lives in a Hotel” and “Which Mother is Mine?” In public school, I had a friend who was expected to be out of the house until dinner. Not that she had anywhere to go; it was just that her mom worked all day, and she wanted some quiet time when she got home. So when I went to their house, we played outside until six or seven at night. In January.

Can you imagine that now?

I read somewhere that Generation X went through its formative years as the least-parented generation in history (which may be news to the generations of children who were sent out to work before they were ten, but you get my point).  And while I feel obliged to include here that I was not under-parented myself (just because my parents were divorced doesn’t mean I didn’t spend a lot of time with my grandparents, thank you), I knew a whole lot of kids who were. And I bet every last one of them is trying to keep their kids safe from whatever boogeyman of uncertainty and insecurity haunted them in their childhoods.

So as a card-carrying member of Generation X, you’d think I’d just get myself into therapy – like everyone else – and get on with it. Why not try and push my kids to be more independent? But then I think of Sharin Morningstar Keenan, abducted from a playground when she was nine, in 1983. She was younger than me, but familiar; I remember, when she went missing, seeing her father on television, pleading for her return, and realizing that I recognized him: Sharin had her music lesson right after me on Saturday mornings. I still think of her, remember myself lying in my orange-wallpapered bedroom, listening to the news on the radio, and being so afraid: not for my own safety — I was streetproofed beyond measure — but because such evil existed in the world and I was helpless to do anything about it. I know, now, that most abductions of children are by people they know — most abuse is perpetrated by people that children know and trust — but that’s not the evil that frightened me most.

And I think that I’ve been given no greater gift than my children. If the kids of my generation turned out to be okay, so often cut loose, then I have to hope that our children will turn out all right for having been held onto a bit tighter than may be strictly necessary.

May I have some more, please?

Here’s one of the things that has always worried me about having two boys: that one day, I might have to get a second job to keep us all in groceries. It happens to all of them, doesn’t it? One day they start eating, and a week later they’ve grown a foot taller, and they just keep eating constantly until they’re 25 and hopefully by then they’re buying their own food or at least bringing home dinner every now again but in the meantime you’ve wasted away because you continue to buy one pork chop too few, and you’re not going to deprive your growing boys, are you?

Tonight, they plowed through two packages of Italian sausage, an entire head of broccoli, and two servings each of these potatoes. Usually, we only make one package of sausage, and there are always left over broccoli bits or potatoes. It makes me wonder whether we’ve been starving them all these years. They’ve never been huge eaters — grazers, more likely — but have they been eating only half a sausage each all this time out of politeness? Has the sudden abundance of food made them reckless? I’m not sure what’s going on.

(Photo courtesty of Flickr Creative Commons/stu_spivack)

I do know this: the shoes we bought Sebastian at the beginning of January are already too small — and we had sized up a half-size larger than he’d been wearing so that he’d have room to grow. Daniel’s pants are all too short. They can’t keep their eyes open past 8:30. It might be too soon for a declaration, but I sense a trend: my bird-like grazers are on a growth spurt and appear to have turned into fully fledged eaters.  Send help. And more broccoli.


Disney Daze

We’ve just come back from several enjoyable and unforgettable days in Florida. Each time I travel with my family, I learn something new about them. Traveling, even somewhere as relatively mundane as Florida, pushes out the walls of your comfort zone — and as Oprah-ish as that might sound, I think it’s a good thing for all of us to have our boundaries pushed at a little. My own boys seem each to be a year older and six inches taller today, and I swear that’s a by-product of being somewhere other than home for eight days.

Travel also reminds you of things you already knew, but probably have forgotten. To wit:

1. No matter how obedient your children might be, there will be moments when corrective action need be taken to keep their behaviour in check:

2. Not only are my boys friends, they are also best friends. Sometimes, they even act as if they are:

3. Theme parks are loud, crowded, and boisterous. They can be incredibly fun places if one is in the right frame of mind to be jostled, well prepared for the crowds, armed with a touring plan (we really liked this website, for that) and armed with a sense of humour and a large packet of patience.

Wine helps, too. Especially when you can sip that glass of wine anywhere in the park:

4.  I’m convinced that there exists over Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park an invisible bubble, which keeps in all the fairy dust, happy, scented air and whatever else it is they spread around there that makes it virtually impossible to be angry or grumpy at anyone for the entire duration of your stay. About ten minutes after you leave, you will find yourself doubly confused, both by the sudden return of your cynicism about all things Disney, as well as by the gaping hole in your wallet where your money once was.

5.    Every now and again, it’s okay to get a little Goofy:

We’re Game

Traveling with your children this week? With the extra week off of school after New Year’s Day his holiday, undoubtedly some of you are packing your bags for (hopefully) warmer climes.

But, how to entertain them on long car and plane trips? Thank Jobs for Iphones and Ipads.

Yes, I know. We survived family vacations with nothing but a deck of cards, travel bingo and those magic mystery ink books. But really, wouldn’t you have preferred to play Fruit Ninja when you were stuck in the backseat of the station wagon?

Here are some of my family’s favourite Ipad game apps. These are in frequent use in our house, even when we’re not on the road.

image copyright CarcassoneIdentical to the popular board game of the same name, play is   deceptively simple: build a medieval territory and garner the greatest number of “followers” by linking to other players’ roads, cloisters and and cities while preventing your opponents from doing the same.  Simple to learn, and quick to play. You can also play against others online.

Ipad Chess (Mastersoft Chess version): there are numerous chess apps available for the Ipad, but we like this one for its clean graphics and smooth play.

Scribblenauts Remix: You may already be familiar with Scribblenauts for the Nintendo DS, but this game is even more fun to play on the larger Ipad screen. Maxwell, the game’s main character, needs to collect “starites” to complete each level.  You can use the objects on screen to achieve his goal, or you can summon random objects to help him. Type in a noun, add the required adjectives (my favourite so far, courtesy of Sebastian, has been “Big yellow knight shoes”) and see what happens. Educational (you have to spell the words correctly!) and imaginative, this game is fun even for grown-ups.

Of course, Angry Birds can eat up an afternoon, too. Not that I recommend that.

For younger kids, try out these apps:

AniMatch:  Littles will enjoy trying to match the animal faces. They can match animal sounds, too!

Pictureka!: Kind of like Where’s Waldo and I Spy, but with cooler graphics.  Note that the most recent version appears to be a bit buggy.

Helicopter Taxi:  Uses your Ipad camera to simulate a ride in a toy helicopter.Fly around the room and pick up more passengers as you go.

All of these apps work on your Iphone as well.

What are your favourite Ipad/Iphone apps? Any you think we should know about? Be sure to leave a comment.

Candy Everybody Wants, or Doesn’t

Like most kids, my kids bring home more candy from trick-or-treating than they can possibly eat. In the past, I’ve struggled with how to handle this problem, since half of me thinks Hallowe’en is just wasteful and a huge boring mess, and the other half of me really dislikes Hallowe’en. I realize that, while I am not unique in my disdain of Hallowe’en, most people think dressing up and asking total strangers for more sugar than is reasonable to consume in a lifetime (and then doing it again the next year!) is fun, wow. Included among that group are my children, and so I play nice for their benefit.

A few years ago we realized that the boys got far too much candy and that we needed to do something about it. They collected so much that they couldn’t eat it all. Ever. Even the youngest, who could eat candy all day if we let him, was hard pressed to finish all of it by Christmas, and we usually just threw  out what was left. Still, they’d collected it, it was theirs, and it seemed unfair to just take it away (Ok, it wasn’t unfair.  We just didn’t want to listen to them howl).  We decided that we’d make it worth their while to give it up. We’d buy it off of them.

As it turns out, cold hard cash is more appealing than chocolate so every Hallowe’en the loot gets dumped on the living room floor, inspected,  and sorted into piles as follows:

  • candy you like and want to keep
  • candy you like but not that much
  • candy you hate and that your brother and parents hate, too
  • candy you hate but someone else likes
  • chips
  • sour candies (of which 50% are to be handed over to Mom because ain’t nobody happy if mama ain’t happy, and this helps)

Candy in the “like” pile is kept by the recipient. Candy that you hate but someone else likes gets traded or given away to another member of the family. Chips go into a big basket on the dining room table, because everyone likes those. I take my gummies with glee and promptly hide them. The rest gets counted out, and we pay a nickel a piece to haul it away. I usually take the discards to work, where I leave them in the lunch room, free for the taking.

It isn’t huge money that we’re handing out, and dental fillings cost more than their combined weight in candy measured at five cents a piece, so I figure we’re still ahead. I’m not entirely sure what parenting message we’re sending by buying it from them; I’m sure we’d be truer to our values if we just let them visit the houses on our block so that they didn’t end up with so much, but that would also be much less memorable, and as far as teachable moments go, I figure that Hallowe’en doesn’t have to be one of them.

P.S. Looking for something Hallowe’en related to do with your family this weekend? Tynan Studios is holding its third annual Click or Treat! fundraiser supporting the Daily Bread Food Bank this Sunday between 9 and 3 at Royal St. George’s College campus, located at 12o Howland Avenue, Toronto.  Receive a free 4×6 of your little trick-or-treater for every bag of non-perishable food items you donate. Further details can be found on Tynan Studio’s website . Happy Hallowe’en!

Remembering Memories

We’re a family whose memory-making veers more to the experiential than the material.  There aren’t a lot of framed photos in our house. I don’t scrap book (three attempts notwithstanding, it hasn’t caught on). I’m not even a particularly good photographer and more often than not, we forget to bring the camera with us when we go out (I’m still old-school enough to prefer not to use my phone!). I feel some guilt over the fact that we don’t try harder to document our lives. After years of sleep deprivation, my memory of my own children’s infancy and young childhood is quite honestly spotty. I do wish I had more concrete reminders of those times.  My children, their synapses young and agile, have a recall for events and things that makes me gasp.  I can barely recall what I wore to work today — and I’m still wearing it.

But I do intend to change. These memory-capturing crafts have my attention. With a little time and organization, I think even I could accomplish some of these:

At Tresfrenchhens, these lovely framed handprints. I might need to do this before it becomes unclear whose hands are whose:

Over at Everything Fabulous, there’s a post about these adorable Love Maps. What a clever way to mark certain important  places in your life:

Both Beth-Anne and Nathalie have had the presence of mind to write down all those wonderful things their kids say during the year. I haven’t managed that, but maybe this will help. It’s a Memory Jar, inspired by something Joan Didion did with her daughter in The Year of Magical Thinking.  Every time someone says something worth recording, you jot it down on whatever’s handy, and drop the paper into the jar. Each year, you start a new one. Brilliant.

But if I don’t get around to any of these, it’s probably because we’re  busy doing things as family. Perhaps I’ll just get this for the entry-way wall. Can’t say I didn’t warn you!