This morning, after breakfast, Albus practiced piano. He always checks with me before getting a sticker, to make sure he’s earned it. Which is awfully sweet. He’s a good kid. Except this morning I really didn’t think he’d earned it. He kept rushing the half-note, always the same mistake in the same place. So I asked him to play the song again, with that in mind. I suggested playing the difficult spot several times over, with the correct notes and timing. But all he wanted was to hack his way through the song and be done with it, regardless of notes and timing.
Then we looked over his dictee results. In French, his teacher had written: “You need to study.” Things is, he’d studied. A fair bit. He’d sat down several evenings last week and worked on his homework, including studying for this dictee. He’d shown me his worksheet. I knew it was true. But the proof wasn’t there in the final test results.
As we were having this conversation, and I was offering more advice re efficient piano practice, Fooey happened by with a question. Albus was extremely rude to her. I reprimanded him. He pushed her. ie. things went from bad to worse, and quickly. I sent him upstairs on a time-out.
Why does he need to act like this? the thought half formed as I raced around the kitchen and cleared the breakfast dishes and wrote a cheque for AppleApple’s sub order and helped Fooey ready her bag for school and tried to remember all the details that needed to get done in the next eight minutes before everyone would leave and the house would go suddenly quiet, and I would eat breakfast and pour a cup of coffee and greet this computer.
Why is he so angry?
And I found myself looking at this morning from his perspective, not mine. From his perspective, he got up and got dressed and ate breakfast and then he practiced piano. And even though he practiced, it wasn’t good enough, and he couldn’t make it better, and he felt frustrated. And then his mother had to sign his dictee and he knew it wasn’t a great mark, and his teacher thought he hadn’t even studied. But he had studied. And he couldn’t make it better, and he felt frustrated.
I called him downstairs, and I said the above, an abbreviated version. He was quiet. Is that kind of how you feel? I asked, and he nodded.
I’m not sure how to make life better for him. Or easier. (Why do parents so often want to make life easier for their kids? But I do. Or not easier, exactly, just gentler.) What is the lesson, if hard work does not pay off in success? You know, it doesn’t always. Some people have to work much harder than others to achieve the very same level of success. I don’t want him to get frustrated, to give up, to not care.
I do want him to take responsibility for the choices he makes. I don’t particularly want to lower the bar.
But what if he’s trying, and it’s not working? Is the answer always: work harder? I’d feel frustrated, too.
Do reward systems work, as a parenting method? I’ve been pretty firmly against them, on principle. On principle, I believe that kids should do their jobs to help the family out, as participants in a collective effort.
But it turns out that our eldest is highly motivated by reward; and highly not-motivated by his mother’s principles. This summer, to earn money, and completely of his own initiative, he worked for his grandma on several very hot afternoons. The work was gardening, which he blithely ignores at home, but at Grandma’s he threw his whole heart into the job. They went to the library and researched plants. They went to the greenhouse, and he picked out flowers and plants based on his research. Then he dug the garden beds and planted the flowers and plants, and watered them. For which he earned some money. And he took great delight in the connection between working hard and earning a reward.
Which got me rethinking my original no-reward system of family governance (or, more precisely, the-reward-is-in-the-happy-feeling-you-get-from-helping-out-your-family system). I’m not abandoning that system, or the concept of responsibility. The kids do have responsibilities, and important ones, like walking to school, and making sure younger siblings get safely to and from school. And going to bed when told. And doing their homework.
Which brings me around to the grey area of piano lessons. They kind of have to take piano lessons; perhaps they would want to even if the choice were wholly theirs, but the truth of the matter is, their mother wants them to take piano lessons, and three out of four children are doing just that this fall. It’s Fooey’s first year, and A and A’s third. Now, before this round of lessons ever started, Albus heard from a friend that the friend’s piano teacher gives out stickers for “good” practices, which, if enough were earned would eventually add up to actual prizes (Albus heard giant Lego ships; I’m thinking portions of this story might be apocryphal).
But in any case. Intriguing. What counts as a prize? For AppleApple, it’s a book. For Albus, it’s Lego. And what counts as a “good” piano practice? Basically just focus and attention. Also, as a rule, play each song at least three times. Albus was over the moon: imagine getting stickers just for practicing the piano. And I thought, imagine children practicing the piano just for getting stickers.
So I made up sticker sheets for each child (CJ could not be left out, and he actually sits at the piano and hammers away to earn his sticker). The rule is only one sticker can be earned per day. I hope it won’t discourage kids from taking an extra turn on the piano if they are so inspired, but I sensed that sticker madness followed by sticker burnout might quickly occur if limitations weren’t instituted.
Before getting all hurray-for-stickers, I will allow that it’s early days, just the second week of lessons, but hurray for stickers! Piano practice, and lessons, have thus far been completely pain-free, even pleasurable. The only issue is children fighting for time on the piano. Practice has been happening first thing in the morning, before school. Best of all (and this is my reward), the extra practicing is paying off: music is being made daily in our living-room.
“Where’s my yogurt drink?”
“Look in the fridge. Generally perishables are refrigerated.”
“Mom, why do you use such big words sometimes?”
Hm, yes, I suppose that phrasing is a bit obscure. Not quite Conrad Blackian, but also not, “that’s where we stick stuff that needs to stay cold.” All I can say, in my defense, is that I like words, and those happened to be the first ones that popped to mind.
“Sometimes when I say big words, people look at me funny.”
(For the record, she didn’t look like she minded being “looked at funny.” I don’t think she’ll stop trying out big words anytime soon. And neither will I.)
File this exchange under Another Example of Like Mother, Like Daughter.
I’ve been wanting to blog all weekend, and have been too busy with food preparation (recipes to come), canning, and parties (tough life, I know). Hurray for a quiet house on a beautiful Monday morning!
For four out of six of us, this morning began swimmingly. Let me explain. We keep aiming to make room for plenty of physical activity, individually and as a family. Kevin has soccer and hockey. I swim, run, bike, and yoga. And we’d like the kids to enjoy the benefits of burning off steam, playing, and being fit.
(Side note # 1: I just found last year’s fall calendar in a drawer, and saw that I’d scheduled “hiking” as a possible family weekend activity. Sadly, that happened precisely never. Given that we had, last fall, a two-year-old, I can see how it fell off the priority list.)
This fall, we’re continuing with activities that have proven easy to maintain, such as the kids walking to and from school every day. We live 1.4km from school, so that’s nothing to sneeze at. Even CJ walks every morning to his nursery school, with his dad. AppleApple will likely continue with rep soccer, and the three oldest kids will play indoor soccer this fall/winter. It’s inexpensive, once-weekly, and will be Fooey’s first experience with organized sports. CJ joins in on weekly swim lessons for all, coordinated so that all kids will be in the water at the exact same time.
(Side note # 2: When examining our budget last month, I discovered that our biggest expense, aside from food and shelter is extracurricular/sports activities. There’s a desire to want to accomodate every interest, but we need to be more creative sometimes. For example, instead of the kids doing hockey, we rent ice time and skate/play hockey a couple of times a month with a bunch of neighbourhood families.)
Earlier this summer, AppleApple mentioned she’d like to swim more often, so she tried out for a swim club … but when I investigated cost and schedule, we realized it was a) crazy expensive, and b) would conflict with other activities. Plus Albus expressed interest in swimming more often, too, and there was no way we could put two kids into this club.
Long story short: it occurred to me that the older kids swim well enough to participate in lane swims, which are quite affordable with a pool pass. Plus, Kevin is learning to swim and would like the chance to practice, too. On Monday mornings, I swim very early, and can do an hour in the pool, shower, and be home before 7am. When I arrived home this morning, Kevin and kids were waiting in the front hall, a bit groggy, in swimsuits, ready for the lane-swim experiment. (And how proud I am at their willingness to give this a try).
An hour later, they burst through the door, glowing. Thumbs up. They’d consulted with a lifeguard, swam with the “oldsters,” and practiced their strokes up and down the lanes. Albus was musing about going more often, on “bad” days (ie. days when he has subjects at school that don’t interest him).
When I start the morning with a run or a swim, I notice an immediate boost in mood; why wouldn’t it be just the same for kids, too?
The energy at breakfast was upbeat and positive. Porridge, toast, boiled eggs. And we still had plenty of time to chat and prepare for the day before saying goodbye.
(Side note # 3: Not everyone needs to schedule time for exercise. The little kids, who won’t get extra swimming time, more than make up for it racing their bikes around the house on the loop of driveway, patio, walkway, and sidewalk. Not to mention much trampolining. CJ: “Look how high I can jump, Mom! You have to come and see me!”)
Problem: six-year-old’s pants no longer fit; discover salient fact at exact moment pantless child needs to be leaving for school; discover half a minute later that box in attic containing six-year-old hand-me-down clothes has next to no pants, oodles of pretty dresses
Solution: six-year-old leaves wearing pants that are slightly too big, but at least not too small; mama makes mental note to buy child more pants, preferably soft; mental note not good enough, should probably go on list; which list?
Problem: ten-year-old’s brand new labelled-as-non-marking shoes leave marks on gym floor, therefore ten-year-old can’t wear them as his indoor shoes (yes, the school requires children to have two pairs of shoes at all times, one for inside, the other for out); too late to go shoe shopping; old shoes wrecked and don’t fit
Solution: ten-year-old’s feet approximately same size as mama’s; ten-year-old agrees to wear mama’s old running shoes to school; but will this work for longer than one day?; mental note to add shoe-shopping to list (maybe); which list?
Problem: late bedtime due to late soccer practice and excursion to get binders that ten-year-old needs for school; three-year-old wakes incapable of speaking to anyone in tone other than grumpy, grouchy, or extremely put out; three-year-old threatens mutiny re attendance at nursery school
Solution: early to bed, early to bed, early to bed (mutters mama, thinking, oh dear, this is all on me tonight, as husband will be working late)
Problem: rising super-early to exercise, mama is Just Plain Tired by the time kids straggle off to school; precious few hours of work-time available; fuzzy-headedness not conducive to deep thought
Solution: one super-short nap; not sure it’s working, as mama is currently blogging and is not, therefore, starting to write her brand-new book, which she’s not scared of starting, really, honestly, okay, she’s pretty nervous about this (file under Things to Get Over; It Will Be Okay, Promise; You Can Do This, Just Take a Few Deep Breaths)
Problem: too much mama multitasking; items slipping through cracks; library books overdue; lists festering; brain overload; can’t read recipe for crockpot while serving porridge and trying to write notes to children’s teachers AND field question from husband about lunches without snapping irritably in reply
Solution: nothing comes to (over-stuffed) mind
Problem: there always seems to be more; it’s not predictable; no amount of list-making can answer the unknowable future
Solution: embrace improvisation; accept failure, reject defeat; welcome to the joy of being alive
He left first, for nursery school, walking with his dad. He has no need for a backpack, but everyone else has one, so he insisted. The temperature has dropped and we had to dash to the attic to dig for winter hats and fall jackets. The report from Dad was good: they enjoyed a “Star Wars” themed walk to nursery school and parted without tears. I will pick him up in two hours. Repeat every weekday. Our new fall schedule.
After I said goodbye to CJ, the big kids emerged for their annual back-to-school portrait. This was the best they could muster. And yet, they’re all reasonably excited about returning to school. No, really, they are.
It was just as I’d imagined. We always pose the back-to-school pictures on the porch. This year we have no porch (they’re scheduled to start rebuilding in a couple of weeks; please let it be so). And there’s something, um, dismal about the background. Albus doesn’t look so happy either. But he departed at 8:30 sharp in grand spirits, off to walk to school with his friends, all of whom will be in his class this year.
Nothing dismal about AppleApple’s chosen ensemble, despite the brown pants and black shoes; she’s even wearing electric blue socks. On the walk to school, she was extremely focused on getting there, and when we reached the grounds, she ran off without a backward glance, or even the semblance of goodbye. She’s proud to be the first child in our family to be in a portable (and it’s the new portable, which makes me think, off-gassing?).
Look at this glowing child. She’d glow anywhere, in any scene, against any setting. I’m a convert to the background, in this photo. She was so terrifically excited to be starting grade one; though “excited” isn’t quite the right word, because it doesn’t capture her confidence and pride about the big step to full-day, and French immersion, and being with the big kids — being “a big kid.”
Never have we all been so ready so early. Which meant a good deal of hanging around and waiting around on the grass. Finally, the teacher called for her students to line up, and Fooey clung to my hand — I was surprised. One last kiss goodbye, and she let go, and the kids slowly made their way through the doors, and off to their waiting classroom.
Another year begun.
(And I walked briskly home and entered a quiet house. Space to think. Silence. Cup of cooling coffee on the countertop. This feels good).