We spent the long weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, where we’ve gone for a few years now, to camp in comfort on their big lawn. There is always a bonfire, and the beach is nearby. We went into town early on Saturday to watch the Germany-Argentina game (my brother didn’t sit down the entire match, even when it was apparent that his team was going to win), and then Kevin and the kids and I vegged at the beach all afternoon. It was so relaxed. Lots of work to pack up and lots of laundry today, but so relaxed in between.
Our family meeting was so good, yesterday, that I was buzzing for hours afterward. It wasn’t that we’d solved problems or perfected the use of the talking stick (NO TALKING STICKS! was my decree). It was that we talked. There was conversation. Back and forth. Ideas flowing.
It all started earlier in the day, when I picked the kids up from school for swim lessons. If we walk fast, we can just get to the pool in time. I had fresh-made banana muffins to offer to grumpy eight-year-olds, pining for play dates.
“This is the worst day ever! I hardly have any time to play with my friends!”
Mondays and Wednesdays (and Fridays, sometimes, too) are days we currently keep free for after school play dates. Tuesdays are music days. Thursdays are swimming. And those days are also family time.
“But it’s not like we’re really together, is it? It’s not like real family time.”
No, not during the actual in-the-pool swim time. But let me assure you, we’re really together the rest of the time, and it really is family time. Walking to the pool and then home afterward underlined the togetherness of the venture. There we were, walking and talking, talking and walking. It’s an elemental combination. One of my closest and longest friendships has revolved around walking and talking. We walk, we talk. The forward motion can contain silences, time for reflection, emotion, quiet, bursts of energy and laughter and ideas.
There is no time of silence when walking with four children; but what interesting subjects have occasion to emerge. On the way home, AppleApple put on the winter hat I’d brought (one for everyone, though most declined). We passed a young woman on the sidewalk. Whether or not she noticed AppleApple’s winter hat/spring t-shirt combo, I cannot say, but AppleApple certainly noticed the young woman, and kind of cringed and hunched. And then she said to me: “I feel sort of embarrassed, Mom.” She was puzzled by the emotion. It was almost as if it were new to her, and she was newly discovering and feeling something unexpected and uncomfortable. She was embarrassed to be seen wearing a winter hat on a spring evening.
What an amazing opportunity to open a conversation about our emotions–embarrassment in particular–and how they can shape (or not!) what we choose to do. “Do you feel chilly without your hat? Would you like to keep wearing it?” Yes. “So keep wearing it.” I hope I didn’t head down Lecture Lane, but I was thrilled to be talking with my kids, in the most organic way possible, about peer pressure, being different, feeling different, and the multitude of embarrassing moments in their futures that could alter their behavior, or that they could recognize and resist. One of the most wonderful things about growing up is realizing that embarrassment is so often a projection of one’s own fears and anxieties–“what if she thinks I look stupid in my hat?”–and having the confidence and self-assurance not to change, if we’re happy doing what we’re doing. Most of the time, other people are thinking nothing of the sort (except, maybe, other teenagers; I’m not sure; I remember that being a pretty judgmental phase in my life). Most of the time, other people don’t really notice, or don’t notice to the degree that one imagines. All of this self-consciousness is heightened during the teen years–years of self-discovery, when it is both necessary and painful to examine oneself in depth and superficially, to scrutinize and question and experiment, to learn Who Am I?
We didn’t get into that. I told some funny stories from my childhood about feeling embarrassed. I warned them that embarrassment would be a sensation all the more acute and frequent in the years to come, and asked them to tell me if I were ever embarrassing them (they couldn’t imagine it! Ha!), and promised that I would never deliberately try to embarrass them … but that it might happen anyway.
And, then, this came out. Albus said: “Sometimes I feel embarrassed when the other kids in my class talk about Wii and they don’t talk to me about it, because they know I don’t have one.” He had a new friend over on Wednesday (play date day), and his new friend asked whether he had a Wii, and Albus had to say no. “Did you have fun playing together?” Yes. “Do you think he’d like to come back and play again sometime soon?” Yes. “Do you think he liked you less because you didn’t have a Wii?” No.
At our family meeting, we revisited the topic: being different, having a Wii or choosing not to. Fooey said she’d rather not have one, because then they might always want to play it (the child knows her cravings, too–she LOVES tv, and knows how hard it is to turn it off). AppleApple said we could always play at C&K’s house (uncle and aunt-to-be). Albus pointed out that if we did get one, we could stick to rules about how often the Wii would be played. Both Kevin and I were of two minds. I do think our family would be able to set limitations and stick to them. But the larger and more important point, to me, tends in a different direction altogether: why not be different? Why not be the house on the block where friends come over and play outside? (Plus, in our tightly-knit ‘hood, we’re not the only house on the block with no Wii; it’s just that this year, Albus has been separated from his best buds at school, and has had to adapt to the wider population of kids).
Coincidentally, I’d just read a report yesterday that the AVERAGE DAILY screen time for Canadian kids is SIX HOURS. And on weekends, that goes up to SEVEN HOURS. (That includes computer, tv, gaming systems).
Why not take a small stand against that, as a family, and just go without? It felt, by the end of our conversation, that everyone was willing to think about the larger implications of the choice. Childhood is so short. There is only so much time to play, and to play creatively. When I think of those kids digging that massive hole in our backyard, and the immensity of fun that was had, the enthusiasm, the dreaming and planning, the dirt, the physical labour, the cooperation … I think, yes! More of that, please! My own childhood was blessed with outdoor play, mess-making, freedom, imaginary play, and a connection to the natural world that was so natural I took it for granted.
Different. It’s okay. It’s better than okay. To be unique is to be a human being. To be confidently, happily, creatively, serenely, humorously, vividly, acceptingly and compassionately unique is to be a content human being.
So … we took a hasty, six-hour road trip, plagued by Easter traffic and stomach woes (you don’t want to know more), that was nothing short of blessed with wonder and luck. We arrived late on Thursday, not sure whether Kev’s sister was near labour, or whether we might have headed out too soon, and by Friday aft, when I saw her, I thought …. hmm, I think this is going to come together after all. Around 7 that evening, her partner called to say: Come over! Midwife arrived! Yes, I was honoured to be part of the birth, serving as doula as well as auntie-to-be. We transferred to hospital early on, the daddy-to-be negotiating country roads with an impressive lack of panic, and labour progressed beautifully. Labouring women fill the room with bravery and courage and strength, and my sister-in-law was calm and focused and when called upon for a last-minute miracle, delivered. Literally. Our family’s new nephew and first cousin arrived at 1:26 in the morning, with loads of black hair and good wail.
We are home again, alive with love and excitement and pride.
I woke up feeling unpleasant. So did Fooey. She felt even more unpleasant than I did. I won’t get graphic on you, but let’s just say it was messy. And she was feeling so unpleasant that she just leaned over the side of her bed. CJ almost suffered a moment of sympathetic upheaval himself, but AppleApple was able to coax him away from the scene of carnage. I seem to be on the tolerable side of unpleasant as long as I don’t eat. I can stand and cope and do laundry (very important, under the circumstances, especially since Kevin is working in Toronto for the day.)
Photo number one depicts the three eldest children (yes, Fooey, too!) embarking on the walk to school, yesterday, without adult supervision. Well, to the walking school bus, which is only a couple of blocks uphill. At the family meeting, we’d decided that for the purposes of crossing the street, she would walk in the middle and each of the older kids would hold one of her hands. The after-school report was pretty good, though they had difficulty crossing “the hard street,” the one with the four-way stop and cars hurrying to commute to work. Apparently there were conflicting instructions from the drivers at the four-way stop. One woman waved them on, and another “old woman” waved to them not to cross, because she wanted to go. She went. The kids wisely waited. I was proud of how they handled it, making the best decision for themselves.
Photo number two depicts us this morning. Yes, I’m strangling Albus. Mostly in jest. He is a natural ham in photos and strives to hog the limelight. A gentle restraint was in order. I love the chaos. I love my family. We had ourselves a bit of fun.
The two oldest are quietly playing Lego together, after taking charge of lunch. With a bit of nauseated-Mama assistance, and some decent teamwork, they made tuna melts in the toaster oven. AppleApple sliced the bread and cheese, Albus worked the broiler. A friend has offered to bring supper, and I won’t turn her down. Even AppleApple, who had experienced a mild frisson over being in charge of the food prep today, thought it was a happy development: “Or we would probably be eating peanut butter and jam sandwiches for supper.”
If all goes as planned, the two eldest will be heading out soon with hockey sticks for a game of street hockey around the corner. I’m glad this gorgeous spring-like weather won’t go unappreciated.
Can I really take a day off? I’ve been sick for two weeks, and moving at the usual pace required to maintain our family’s happy every day life, and finally asked Kevin last night: Do you think that if I spent a day in bed, it might help me kick this virus? And he said: What are you doing tomorrow? So, CJ and I slept in till 10am!!!! I’m leaving supper up to Kevin (he could pull a soup or stew out of the freezer). And I’m planning to go to hot yoga this afternoon. I skipped my Thursday evening class due to sheer exhaustion.
Kevin and I both operate in similar ways: we both like to improvise. We’ve made many of our major (and minor) life decisions on the fly, on what might seem gut instinct rather than carefully plotted research, though I like to think our quick-strike decisions actually arrive out of a long, quiet and invisible processing period. One small example: the way I’ve chosen the “right” time to move babies out of our bed and into their own–each time different, but each time also quite suddenly arriving at a moment when change seemed imperative, and the answer miraculously appeared.
Long explanation for the penny jars you see above, labelled “Movie Jar” and “Respect Jar” (which could also be called “DisRespect Jar,” but that doesn’t have quite the same positive ring to it). I’d written my previous post on Thursday afternoon, wondering out loud how to educate our family on the larger community and global issues around us, and how to motivate us to act on our values. I appreciate the thoughtful responses that arrived. We’re not alone in thinking about this. Kevin and I briefly discussed holding a family meeting, and I scrawled out a few ideas on a piece of paper.
Thursday afternoon, the kids started swim lessons. On the whole, the solo-mom outing went really well; we were all working together. But on the drive home, my cherished eldest son was using language that was not acceptable (mind you, he doesn’t use swear words; but the words he was using were equally disrespectful: “fat,” “poopy-head,” and my all-time fave “butt-brain.” Yes, my sweet Albus, when in a fit of frustration, particularly likes to pull that one out of his back pocket.) As we walked through the front door, me laden like an over-worked camel with toddler under one arm, diaper bag and swim bag and someone’s snowpants and etc. over the other arm, listening to my half-grown child growl because I’d insisted he carry his own backpack, I said, “We need a swear jar.”
(In fact, to make a long story even longer, I’d lost my patience over said backpack. I’d been standing beside the truck, holding it out to him to carry while he destroyed snowballs instead, till finally I’d tossed it into the snowy driveway with a semi-sarcastic comment, which, I was embarrassed to observe, was overheard by a neighbour walking his dog. Nothing like being confronted by a little “as others see us” perspective. The kid wasn’t the only one in need of a swear jar, in other words).
At supper, I said, Let’s have a family meeting. And then, When could we do it?
How about right now? said AppleApple.
The meeting was informal, which is how our family seems to operate. It was brief. It was to the point. We talked first about Haiti. Everyone but Albus offered ideas about how we could help. Then we talked about finding ways to express our emotions appropriately. Again, Albus was silly rather than receptive. I was feeling rather hopeless. Are we in for a decade of defensive eye-rolling? But fortunately, Kevin picked up the ball and asked Albus what he thought about what we were discussing. After some hedging and more silliness, he slipped closer to seriousness. And that’s when we came up with the penny jar idea. I’m not even sure whose idea it was, in its final rendering. One jar, into which we’d put enough pennies to rent a movie plus buy some candy, the other jar, which would receive a penny every time we used a bad word–but more than that. Every time someone behaved in a way that was not respectful to someone else. It would be a family jar, not an individual jar. We’d have to earn our reward together. Any money in the “respect jar” would be given away.
We’re only on day two, but it’s a good thing this week is a short week–movie night will be on Saturdays. I’ve noticed that I frequently (to myself and under my breath) use words I consider to be disrespectful. Every time, I drop in another penny. This will hopefully begin to take effect on my behavior. Albus is certainly taking it to heart. Respect is a concept we can all grasp. The idea is that we help each other to be more respectful rather than pointing fingers or accusing.
We shall see …
And I liked that family meeting. It was noisy and chaotic, but everyone got a chance to speak. We must make it a regular occurrence.
That photo above is what’s happening RIGHT NOW upstairs. Everyone in the playroom (my office) playing Playmobil, Daddy watching soccer on the internet.
So. I have a plan to hold a family meeting. But we have two separate topics to discuss.
First, I want to talk to the kids about the humanitarian crisis happening in Haiti right now, and I want to ask them for ideas about what our family could do to help out. And I want to broaden that out to talk about ways we could help in our own community more often.
(I’ve also requested an interview for my ParentDish column with Craig Kielburger, who is a young Canadian man I greatly admire–his parents, too! The mandate of his foundation Free the Children is to help North American children to help other children around the world–in essence, educating our children, helping them to make the connection between their own actions and the effect these can have on other children’s lives. I’m really excited about talking to him.)
That’s topic number one.
Topic number two might sound a little out there, but I’m thinking of having a family meeting about creating a family mission statement (and I must confess, we NEVER have family meetings, and I’m not entirely sure what this will look like in practical terms–sitting around the dining-room table with pieces of paper and pencils? Will we make it more than five minutes before chaos erupts??). Now, a mission statement sounds almost too serious, but what I’m hoping to accomplish is that we can all agree on some basic guiding principles for our household.
This is what I’ve jotted on my piece of paper: In our family … everyone is respected. In our family … it’s okay to feel mad or sad, but we express our feelings appropriately. In our family .. we ask for help when we need it. We help each other. We help others, too.
These are my ideas. How to bring everyone’s ideas into it? We’ll see. This is yet a pipe dream. My motivation for doing it, however, comes from a rather dark place, and that is the anger we’ve been seeing our older children express, recently, and our inability to help them find ways to express this anger appropriately (or to interpret it). I want to stress that I don’t think anger is a bad emotion. It’s human. But destroying your baby brother’s duplo project in a fit of rage isn’t a good way of expressing that emotion. So far, Kevin and I are not getting far with our attempts to step in and help the children find another way. Time-outs work, sort of, at least for removing the child from the situation. But anger tends to be an emotion that is actually pointing toward or masking more complex emotions. Ever felt angry about a situation, only to gradually recognize that your anger was saving you from experiencing a much more frightening emotion like fear or grief? Sometimes anger can give us a feeling of power in a situation in which, if we stopped to think about, we’d realize we feel awfully terribly vulnerable.
Stop me now, I’m rambling.
And it’s time to get ready for swim lessons.
Above, my youngest, sharing a quiet moment on the couch. And I caught it before it devolved!