On Toy Guns and Norway

Image courtesy Wikipedia

The summer I was eight, I won a miniature toy handgun as a prize at the Canadian National Exhibition. It was clear orange plastic, and contained some sort of mechanism inside that made a whirring noise and set off sparks when the trigger was pulled.   I loved that gun. With that in my hand,  I could be anything I wanted to be — a policewoman, one of Charlie’s Angels, an inter-galactic princess like Princess Leia — and I felt bigger, safer, and stronger than I was in real life.

Most of all, I felt dangerous.  I liked feeling dangerous.

The gun was left out in the rain one day, and rainwater seeped into the mechanism, rendering it useless.  Without its spark,  it was nothing but a piece of plastic from the CNE.  But I still remember the thrill of it, and that’s why I feel utterly and completely conflicted when it comes to the issue of toy guns for my boys.

I am, at heart, a good liberal Canadian, who abhors violence and who can’t understand why, in this day and age, that anyone would need to own a gun.  We teach our boys that guns are unnecessary, that they’re used to kill people, and of course, that killing is wrong. I cringe when I hear one of them roar at the other, “I’m going to kill you!” followed by mouth sounds of “phew! phew! phew!”, which I know to be  sound of an imaginary Star Wars blaster, firing.  When their grandfather bought them each Nerf guns, I admit to being more annoyed that they’d conned him into buying something that we’d already said they couldn’t have, than I was with the Nerf Guns themselves. They’re infinitely cooler than the Nerf pop guns my sister and I had when we were kids, as it turns out.

Other than the Nerf guns, they don’t own any toy guns that they haven’t themselves fashioned from sticks, cardboard, or other household detritus.   We don’t buy guns, but we also haven’t completely forbidden toy guns from the house, either.

Then, the news this weekend from Norway of a horrific shooting massacre of innocent youth, and I can’t help but wonder whether we’ve taken the right path on the subject.  Should we forbid toy guns? How can we abhor and denounce this sort of violence and still allow our children the means to play act in a similar manner?  Yet, if I take away their toy guns (and swords, and light sabres, and sticks and and the cardboard tubes from wrapping paper, and on it goes, for the line between violence and gun violence is thinly drawn) as a reaction to what they symbolize, have I really done anything to teach them why violence is abhorent, or have I simply left them to their own devices, finger guns drawn?

I’m not sure of the answer.  I wonder sometimes whether we’re unclear on what message we’re trying to convey.  Sure, we all feel like we’re doing something, in loudly and vocally denouncing guns, but I’m not sure that repetition of that message makes playing with toy guns any less of a thrill for the average child. Does playing with a toy gun make a child more likely to use  a real gun when they’re older? Probably no more so than wearing a Superman cape makes it likely that a child will try to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  The message that real violence is to be avoided, that real guns can be used to kill, that killing is not glamorous or something to be joked about — these are the the things we want our children to learn — for their safety and everyone’s.  I haven’t yet decided whether the lesson can only be learned if toy guns are removed from the equation.

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Spending Days in Montreal

Schwartz's smoked meat medium fat Montreal Que...

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The boys and I are taking our first mommy-son vacation later next month, when we hit the rails for a four day adventure to Montreal.  When trying to decide where to go, it didn’t take long to land on Montreal as our first choice. In fact, the location was a no-brainer. Where else could we go where we can reach our destination within hours, take a “real” train (says Sebastian, as opposed to the subway he rides every day) and hear French at every turn? Daniel starts French lessons this fall at school, and he’s anxious to try out a few French phrases (which I will dutifully make him and his brother practice between now and them, whether they like it or not).

Having spent some time in Montreal, I’m familiar with the city and its charms. Finding things to do will be easy peasy: Hike to the top of Mount Royal? Will do. Visit the Biosphere, stroll through Old Montreal, and eat smoked meat until you puke? Why, don’t mind if I do!  Montreal is such a wonderful city for visiting that I’m sure that we’ll all have a fantastic time.

There’s just one hiccup.

I haven’t got a clue where to stay. I mean, I really can’t decide. There seem to be hundreds of choices, and all the regular web sites offering hotel reviews are, surprisingly, unhelpful. For every decent review, there appear to be seven negative or neutral reviews, for all but the chicest, most exclusive (and least likely to be child-friendly) hotels. While I try to see through the comments made by chronic complainers, I’m finding it hard to make up my mind about my options.

It shouldn’t be this hard. My list of hotel needs is not huge. At least two beds ( A king will not do. I love my boys, but they sleep like starfish). A pool would be ideal. I’d prefer a suite with at least two rooms and some sort of kitchenette, which makes it easier to save on food costs and allows one person (read: the adult, a.k.a. me) to remain awake in the living room while others sleep in the bedroom.  Close to downtown…or close to Old Montreal…or close to the Main, or close to, close to….ARG!

So here’s my request to all of you. If you’ve been to Montreal lately, or know someone who has, let me know where you stayed. Where does your neighbour from Montreal stay when he’s in town? How about your co-worker? Right now, I’m looking for room for three people, close to downtown, and I’d love an honest, genuine recommendation. Let me know in the comments if you’ve stayed somewhere worth revisiting.

On the Canadian Flyer for Adventure

My boys really enjoyed the popular Magic Tree House series written by American author Mary Pope Osborne. In it, brother and sister Jack and Annie travel back in time through the conveyance of a mysterious, magical treehouse.  The series captures the interests of children between the ages of six and nine (dinosaurs! pirates! princesses! ninjas!) and teaches them about both world and American history in a fun (for a child) and engaging way.

My only regret while sharing these books with my children, and this is not a criticism of the series per se, was that the series is so focused on American history.  So I was pleased to find a similarly-themed series of Canadian books, called the Canadian Flyer Adventures series. Like the kids in the Magic Tree House series, the protagonists of the Canadian Flyer Adventures series use a magical conveyance (this time, an antique sled that had belonged to one character’s grandmother) to travel back in time to places and events of importance in Canadian history: through these books, we’ve visited L’Anse aux Meadows, what is now the Alberta Badlands during the time of the dinosaurs, and Alexander Graham Bell’s home in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. We’ve learned about the Underground Railroad and what it was like in to live in Canada during the second World War.   Each book provides the reader with a series of quick facts about each topic, as well. While not quite as comprehensive as the Magic Tree House series, the Canadian Flyer Adventure series books provide an adventure-filled and interesting introduction to Canadian history for the junior school set. I recommend them to your budding Canadian historians.

How Not to Be Late for School

On the boys’ last report card, we were reminded of our family’s dismal record at getting to school on time.

It’s embarrassing.

After a humiliating recent meeting with the school principal, who wanted to discuss strategies for combating lateness, we decided that come hell or high water, we’d start getting them there before the first bell.  Except for one morning when we were truly late for reasons beyond our control (can you say TTC breakdown?) we’ve been pretty good at being on time. But mornings in our house are, in a word, stressful. Too much yelling! Cajoling! Threats!

And that’s just what the kids say to each other.

We’re looking for a better way. There’s no worse start to the day than one where everyone feels pushed around (children AND adults!) and grumpy because of it.  In our defence, we have a morning plan and a system which has the potential to work well. We’re rarely held up by something so simple as a missed trip permission form or a lack of recess snacks. We have that all figured out.  We’re late usually for one of two reasons:

(a) someone’s slow to move, easily distracted from the task of getting ready, and just plain uncooperative; or

(b) something big pops up and needs to be tended to, like the need to use the washroom. Or test anxiety. Or an existential crisis.

Usually, it’s the former that trips us up, though you’d be surprised how often it’s column (b).

Enter Alyson Shafer’s book, Ain’t Misbehavin. She suggests that morning dawdling is just a form of passive power struggle. The more parents dig in our heels, the more kids resist, so we all need to stop digging. She provides a three step plan and some quick hints on how to put that plan into practice. Unlike some of the other strategies, this one’s meant to be implemented over the course of a week or so, which would have been fine, except the primary dawdler of the family was home sick all week, which meant our morning routine this week was totally different than usual.  So using Shafer’s plan, I’ve been looking at how we can make our current routine less stressful:

  • step one: make a morning plan WITH the kids.

Shafer suggests holding a family meeting to discuss that mornings are not working well, and to ask for input as to how mornings can be better. We’ve done that. And re-done it. I don’t think this is our problem. The boys understand that it’s their responsibility to get themselves ready in the morning. Ask them, and they will tell you the order that things are to be accomplished in the morning, based on a list they themselves made. It’s just that somewhere between step two (get dressed) and step four (brush teeth) is a gaping chasm of distractabilty into which both of them fall on a regular basis.

  • step two: Take Time for Training (TTFT).

Allowing children to do those things they can do for themselves leads to autonomy and mastery. Though she doesn’t specifically say it, consistent with Adler philosophy, I’m assuming that taking a hands-off approach respects the child’s authority to control their own actions. . Here, we could probably make some progress. The eldest is quite capable of getting himself dressed, making his breakfast, brushing his teeth and, assuming he doesn’t pick a fight with the youngest somewhere along the way, is pretty quick about it. The youngest? Not so much. He knows what to do, but I’m convinced he just. Chooses. Not. To. (Hmm. Power struggle, anyone?) So we nag and plead, until out of frustration we end up doing everything from putting toothpaste on his toothbrush to pouring his milk. I think we can change that.

  • step three: Plan to be late.

Oh oh. Since it takes a while to get a plan underway, she suggest building in a buffer to allow for the inevitable bumps along the road to a new way of doing things. Except, I think we’ve exhausted all our good will. There’s no leeway on time, so I guess this means we’re getting up even earlier to make this come to pass.

With this plan in mind, Shafer reminds us that to be successful, we need to resist “urging, insisting and micromanaging”. Instead, she suggests that we go about our own business, stepping in to offer help when and where it is needed, holding the child accountable for getting their own stuff done. If they’re flailing around on the floor, assume they don’t need your help and get on with your own routine. This works apparently for things like brushing teeth and getting dressed. Doing less, and doing it without anger or manipulation, is meant to encourage confidence and self-autonomy in your child.

So that’s the plan. And other than the fact that I think we do an awful lot of nagging, and we truly are lousy when it comes to doing things for the youngest, I’m not sure that we haven’t implemented this plan on our own in the past. So I’m thinking of specific situations where we can apply her principles:

  1. breakfast. I’m a stickler for breakfast, and happen to have two children who (like their mother) lose all ability to reason (read also: become more stubborn and less likely to be cooperative) when they’re hungry. Success in the morning hinges on getting breakfast in to bellies, stat. But it takes forever for them from upstairs to the kitchen. Shafer suggests that we set out breakfast, call “breakfast time!” and go about eating our own. A parent’s job is to put food on the table; it’s a child’s job to eat it. If need be, set a timer, and clear away breakfast when time’s up. Hunger will ultimately win out over whatever else is motivating them to dawdle. As Shafer says “You have to prove you’re not invested in what choices or decisions they make for themselves regarding breakfast”. While I like this idea in theory, I’m dreading it in practice. One missed breakfast won’t hurt either of them, but did I ever tell you about the time in kindergarten that Daniel ended up in the principal’s office sobbing because he was just so hungry? And this was AFTER he ate breakfast…
  2. the getting on of coats. I’m convinced there’s a black hole in our front hall which sucks up all available extra time in the morning. Shafer’s advice is simple: once YOUR coat is on, announce that you’re ready to go. Then go. Get in the car. Wait outside. Keep moving without fighting. It may take them some time, but ultimately they’ll come along. By leaving the scene, you’re no longer providing them with an audience for whatever display of stubbornness they’re intent on demonstrating.

Right. I tried this once, inadvertently. I went out to shovel snow after asking them to get their coats on and meet me outside. Ten minutes later I found them having a light-sabre duel on the living room couch.

Needless to say, we were late that day.

So will it work? I think the key is recognizing that children have as much responsibility as do adults  in getting themselves ready. If I’m taking anything from this, it’s the idea that by NOT micromanaging, we might have better success than we’re having now. And if we can do that without anger or validating the power struggle, we’ll be better off. I’ll try it, and we’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ve got to get to bed. I need to be up early.

If you would like the chance to win a copy of the book, please leave us a comment any day this week letting us know. The competition ends at midnight on Friday, April 22. We will draw for and announce the winner on Saturday, April 23, and Mom Central will mail out a copy of the book to the winner after April 30th.

Disclosure – We are participating in the Ain’t Misbehavin’ program by Mom Central on behalf of Wiley Publishing. We received a copy of the book to review and gift card as a thank you for our participation. The opinions on this blog are our own.

A Guide For The Childless When Interacting With Friends Who Are Parents

  1. Never pop by.  Ever.
  2. Never suggest a quick visit when your friend’s child/children are napping.  Naps are sacred minutes.  Especially if said child is an infant.
  3. Never expect to have a meaningful conversation with eye contact and no interruptions when your friend’s children are around.  Most likely the conversation will be fragmented, disjointed and riddled with incessant requests for attention.  Your friend does care about you what you have to say but will have greater empathy discussing your problems over a childless dinner and a glass of wine.  Or two.
  4. Never suggest a dinner past 8 p.m.  People with children don’t eat that late and when they do they are usually yawning while scanning the room for the waiter to bring the bill -before dessert is served.
  5. Never suggest playing it by ear.  People with children need to plan everything.  Everything revolves around nap schedules, hockey practice and babysitter availability.
  6. Always suggest playing things by ear.  Inevitably, all the best-laid plans turn to puke.  Literally.
  7. Never comment on the messy state of the mini-van.  Yes, your friend knows that there is a Sahara of Cheerio crumbs under your feet and that the armrests have a sticky film, and no, they don’t have time to clean it up.  What’s the point?
  8. Expect to be utterly embarrassed at some point around your friend’s children.  Children lack social filters and will innocently ask you why you are not yet married in front of your girlfriend/boyfriend or some equally cringe-worthy question.
  9. Never call your friend* after 9 p.m. There’s a good chance that you will wake up: a) the children b) your friend or c) both

* there’s a good chance that you won’t be friends anymore.

10. Never ask your friend which movie will win the Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.  Chances are they are still watching                        movies that were nominated three years before.  Except of course, this year since Toy Story 3 was in the running.

I could go on (and on) but we try to limit our posts to a reasonable word count.  What would you add to the list?

Money Management for Kids on Holiday

My husband and I love our long drives to get to our holiday destinations.  With the kids asleep or plugged into a movie, we get huge stretches of time to talk, plan and dream.  Of course, most of our time we spend talking about the kids.

On our way to Chicago for March Break, one of the things we discussed was how to prevent the Gift Store Struggle.  You know the one: you have a great time at a museum, then the kids hit the gift store and go a bit wacko wanting to buy all manner of junk just because it’s on sale in a handy location.  With plans to go to seven museums in five days, I did not want to face this struggle more than once a day. 

Here is the solution we came up with: the kids would get to roam free in each and every gift shop, explore all that was on offer, and make a list of their favourite things.  At the end of the trip, we would save time to go back and buy the one thing that they wanted the most.  This also meant that they could get one substantial gift, rather than several little things. 

The kids were fully on board and it worked wonderfully!  They loved wandering through the gift stores, they did not once pester us for an instant gratification purchase, and they’d enthusiastically compare notes at the end of the day.  (Now, we still bought them baseball caps, t-shirts and books of our own accord.  This satisfied my sense of an appropriate souvenir, so the plan saved us from daily struggles but not from a bulging suitcase.) 

No hassle, shopping autonomy, and big smiles all around.

Simple Gifts

With all of the hustle and bustle of the season, it’s easy to miss out on opportunities to share with our children the importance of giving. Here are a few simple ways your family can help others this holiday season:

  • Make a donation to your local food bank. Many grocery stores allow you to add a cash donation to your grocery bill, which allows food banks to buy food at wholesale prices and in bulk, maximizing your donation;
  • Donate a new, unwrapped toy, book or personal care item at your local shelter or fire hall. If you’re in the Toronto area, watch for donation boxes for the CP24 Chum Christmas Wish, or CTV Toy Mountain. Local agencies and organizations such as the Yonge Street Mission also accept donations which go to help families and children in need. Check with your local community center or house of worship for more ideas for how you can help in your community;
  • Donate your time. Volunteer to help out at your local community kitchen. Children over the age of eight can sort food at the Daily Bread Food Bank. Organize a food drive or toy drive at your child’s school or at your workplace;
  • Make your teacher appreciation gifts really count. Instead of mugs or chocolates, give your child’s teacher a Canada Gives Charity Gift Card in the denomination of your choosing, and let them make a donation to the charity of their choice.

If you’ve geared up for the holiday season already, consider heading out this weekend to Jake’s Gigantic Give, a fundraiser supporting Jacob’s Ladder, the Canadian Foundation for Control of Neurogenerative Disease. In this unique fundraiser, children visit the Giving Store, where they choose and create a gift to be donated to one of six Toronto- area charities chosen by Jacob’s Ladder. In return, they receive a gift, confirming that giving has its own rewards. Tickets are $25, (plus the cost of your choice of gift) and are available online.

** 4mothers1blog’s Beth-Anne is taking a well-earned and necessary break from blogging so there’s no At Issue post from her this week, but but she’ll be back next week with new posts.

Dear Santa

Custom Santa Suit, http://www.costumers.com

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I fear, my red-suited friend, that your days are numbered around our place.

You see, I think the boys are on to you. They may be little, but they’re pretty savvy. Sebastian used his mad interrogation skills to get me to confess to being the tooth fairy today. Two days of questioning and I crumpled like wet cardboard.

While I was laying there, prone, Daniel piped up with, “Yeah, and I bet Mommy’s Santa, too!” Yeah, I know. How’d he figure that out already?

You’ll be happy to know that I shut down that conversation as fast as I could. I sent Daniel my best “not NOW” look, changed the subject quickly (my stock reminder to them to hand in their homework works well for many occasions) and sent them on their way to school. Crisis adverted.

I think. But I swear I saw a look of triumph in Daniel’s face. My insistence in your existence may now fall on deaf ears.

So Santa, if this is to be our last Christmas together, I have to admit something.

If the boys are savvy to you, if our explanation about the physics of how you can be present in multiple shopping malls at the same time no longer seems plausible, if I can no longer use your exhortation to “be good!” as a crutch (“if you don’t stop that I’ll call Santa!”) then I really won’t be upset. At all.

As you know, you’ve hardly been an active participant in our Christmases. They boys only ever get one gift per year from you. Growing up, I knew kids who got nothing for Christmas except the Toronto Star Christmas Box . And it struck me, even as a kid, that this seemed inequitable. Why would you give some kids multiple presents, and others…..just one. And so, as parents, we’ve tried to even the playing field, intending that along the way, we’d also teach them about gratitude (that gifts are given and accepted and not just conjured up as by magic, so the gift requires acknowledgement) and about how blessed they are to live as they do. It’s hard to teach them to be gracious and modest about their blessings when Santa spoils them, but not other kids.

We’re not unimaginative grinches. We acknowledge the joy and magic that you bring to Chrismas each year. I once had a friend who refused to tell her kids about Santa, since she didn’t believe in lying to them. That always seemed to me to be a bit disingenuous. Parents lie to their kids all the time. I lie to mine when it’s necessary, to keep them safe, protect their innocence or get them to the dinner table. So we’ve willingly fostered a belief in your existence, brought the kids to see you, written you letters, and allowed the boys to be kids, to believe in your magic. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get letters from my boys this year, and I hope you’ll forgive their spelling mistakes.

But if not, please don’t be too upset. I’m kind of looking forward to a different understanding of what Christmas means. I love giving gifts. I love to spoil my boys – I really do, and I admit that we do spoil them at the holidays. But when we take our boys to buy a gift to donate to children who have less than them, when we teach them about charity and giving and volunterism – all things we feel are so important, it will be nice not to have to continue to explain how you fit into all this.

Merry Christmas, Santa.

Marcelle.

A Modest Proposal, or: Should You Hold Your Son Back?

Back in 2002, when I was pregnant with my first and due in October, my then-boss and I got to talking about boys’ education. He didn’t have any children, but his sister did, and he mentioned how she’d put her boys into a special pre-kindergarten preparatory program – kind of like remedial pre-school, with tutors – because they were boys born at the end of the school year, and she was worried they wouldn’t be ready to join their class with their peers. In Ontario, any child who turns four by December 31st of any given year is eligible to start junior kindergarten that year, which means that her children would start kindergarten at age three.

At the time I thought this was something wealthy parents did to ensure their offspring’s eventual place in an Ivy-league university. But, now that I have two boys with fall birthdays I think I understand what she was worried about: besides her obvious desire that her boys do well in school, there’s also the potential double-whammy of emotional immaturity relative to their older peers and the fact that her children were boys (conventional wisdom being that boys tend to be less mature than their female peers anyway) to consider. Add ’em up, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. And it’s called ADHD.

Don’t understand that fear? Using longitudinal data about 12000 U.S. students, two recent studies published this year suggest that the youngest kindergarteners in any given year were nearly 60% more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest children in kindergarten, and that by grade five, the youngest were nearly twice as likely to have been prescribed stimulants such as Ritalin. By taking the incidence of ADHD in the population as a whole, the studies authors estimate that nearly 1 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD simply because they are the youngest in the class.

Youngest, and least mature. Most likely to need extra attention from a teacher. Most likely to be disruptive. But, also, just as likely as an older child to act in a way that is age appropriate. It’s just that the age appropriate behaviour of a just-turned four year old is hardly the same thing as the age appropriate behaviour of a nearly six year old, and it’s the behavour of the six-year old that is expected in a kindergarten classroom.

So what would happen if schools were more flexible in allowing parents to determine when and at what level their child should start school? In those jurisdictions where the age of enrollment is determined strictly by the year a child is born, a child won’t necessarily get to start when and where they’re most ready (Of course, the fact that few low-cost pre-kindergarten programs exist is a major issue for most families, who may not have any option financially but kindergarten once a child reaches school age, but that’s another blog post altogether). For boys who need a couple of extra months to mature before they start school, a flexible approach may make all the difference.

Of course, it’s not only boys who may be immature or not ready for school, and it’s not only boys who are diagnosed with ADHD, but if boys are diagnosed with ADHD nearly twice as frequently as girls (so say the statistics coming out of the US), and, apparently, so many children are misdiagnosed simply because they’re immature, then maybe, just maybe, by allowing parents to hold late-born boys back a year, we may provide those boys with the growing room they need to be better prepared for school.  And for all kids, isn’t there some logic in allowing for an approach to starting school in which the child’s readiness, and not their birthdate determines at what level they begin?

(photo credit: Woodley Wonderworks http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2908834853/)

To Be Eight Again

My eldest son celebrated his eighth birthday on Monday. Last weekend, we held a sleepover party for him. In attendance were three of his best friends — all female —  his younger brother, and him.

At about hour nine in the festivities, the kids ran upstairs from the basement (which they had, by this point, converted into an enormous fort, using every couch cushion, pillow and mattress they could get their hands on) for water and a snack. They helped themselves and each other, remembered their pleases and thank yous, and didn’t make a mess. They then scampered back down stairs to continue the game they were playing, which was a scene by scene reenactment of the movie they’d watched earlier.

It was at this point, hearing their laughter, that I asked my husband if it was mean of me to lament the day when these kids hit puberty. When their every thought becomes ruled by their hormones. Because, I’ve decided, there’s nothing cooler than being eight years old.

Think about it.  At eight, you don’t need to be supervised twenty-four hours a day. But, your parents are still cool and not so bad to hang around with.

You eat with abandon. You don’t yet count calories.

You’re not too afraid to sleep over, but you still want your teddy bear. Sometimes.

You’re starting to have opinions about things that that aren’t the same as your parents.  About movies and books. Astronomy. The best fillings for crepes. Music.

You can read. Through the written word, the world has opened itself up to you.

You’re still able to be friends — best friends — with someone of the opposite sex, and not worry about it at all. Your parents don’t worry, either.

You’re still a kid. And no one has yet demanded that you be otherwise.