Final Rules

Dear readers,

The time has come for me to close up Tortoise on the Loose. The irony is that I simply don’t have the time. Or, more correctly, I need to use my energy and time on paid writing, creative writing and my studies. This doesn’t mean that I am abandoning the philosophy of slowing down; I just won’t be blogging about it. When I reflect back on the nearly two years of this blog, certain themes stand out. In conclusion, here are my [unedited] rules.

Tortoise on the Loose Rules for Slow Parenting and Living Simply

1. Cook and bake at home as much as possible. If you don’t know how, learn. Cooking saves money. It forces you to better appreciate where your food comes from and therefore appreciate the farmers, producers, and the environment. It teaches children a valuable life skill. Cooking is also a project that is accessible to everyone in the house – even the two-year-old can punch down the bread dough and add ingredients to the mixer. Cooking is a key component to developing as a group – if you cook, you are more likely to want to share what you cook with people. Preparing a meal together and eating together can be transformative.

2. Embrace the outdoors. Go for a walk. Explore your national parks. Camp. Plant a garden. Be sure to kick the kids outside for at least 30 minutes a day no matter what the weather. Experts will tell you that there has been a collective loss of basic knowledge about nature. Children and adults alike need to understand their environment if we want them to care about it. Children and adults both need to be challenged by nature, the challenge will build appreciation of the world and contribute to the knowledge that we cannot control it. Being challenged by nature also builds character – toughness, endurance, resilience and humility.

3. Embrace your community. Aim to live, work, shop and play in your community. We all make connections with people in various groups outside our neighbourhoods. But the strongest connections are those that overlap. When we play community league hockey with our neighbour, connections overlap and are enhanced. When we walk our children to school with their friends and their parents, we are building community. When we shop at local stores, we build community. Seek out opportunities to have connections overlap and community will be strengthened.

4. Let your kids go. Stop mollycoddling your children. Let them be free to play and do activities that challenge them. Kids need to come home with more broken bones and bruises. Let them make mistakes. Children need to be able to walk to school by themselves and play at the park without adult supervision. Older children need to be able to take public transit by themselves, go off to university without their parents looking over their shoulder and travel far from home with their parent’s blessing. Let them learn life skills on their own. They will be empowered and have the confidence they need to get on with their lives.

5. Stop being fearful. Remember that crime rates are at their lowest. Your children are more likely to be injured in a motor vehicle accident than be abducted. If you are reading this, you likely live in one of the safest countries in the world. Stop injecting your fears into your children. If you want your children to be social, globally minded, empathetic members of society, you need to let them learn about the world. This means exposing them to the world as an enjoyable place ripe with new ideas and experiences. If fear rules your head and your parenting strategy, your children will learn to be afraid of new experiences, people, places, foods, cultures, ways of thinking, etc.

6. Don’t make your children your life. Be sure to have other roles than just ‘parent’. Being a parent is a very important role but it is unhealthy if it is the only role you occupy. The academic literature is pretty clear – multiple roles make a person more psychologically healthy and less depressed. Success in one role will smooth over disappointment in another role. Take time for yourself. Invest in your identity beyond mom/dad.

7. Believe that free play is more important than structured activities. Your child can learn piano later in life. And despite conventional wisdom, learning a language isn’t necessarily easier when you are young. Stop obsessing about all the skills and interests you need to develop in your child. Instead, give them time every day to do NOTHING. Boredom precipitates creativity. On that note, stop feeling the need to entertain your kids. Tell them to go play by themselves. They’ll figure it out.

8. Stop trying to keep up with Jones. We all know that perfection is unattainable, so why do we keep trying? Don’t worry if your kids’ clothes are second-hand. So what if you still haven’t painted over the ugly wall colour from when you bought the house five years ago? Stop wanting that big, better, newer car/house/vacation. Spend your energy on people, not trying to keep up with false promises of happiness.

9. Create traditions. Children LOVE the predictability of a family tradition. Isn’t that why we all love Christmas so much and we are disturbed when someone asks us to alter what we’ve ‘always done’? Work at making family traditions that are unique to your family – the spot in the garden where the children always plant their veggies, the annual Easter egg hunt with cousins, the anticipation of new PJs on the winter solstice, Friday night pizza and a movie, Sunday dinner with the grandparents, etc.

10. Embrace messiness. Children make a mess. Nobody ever said playdough was tidy. And a four-year-old doesn’t really understand why he can’t take sand out of the sandbox and put it on the lawn. Learn to be okay with messy happiness. An obsession on tidiness is restrictive and unhealthy.

11. Let your kids be sick. Stop sanitizing everything. Throw away the cover that keeps your toddler from touching the shopping cart. Exposure to germs will build their immunity. More importantly, if you stop obsessing over germs, you will teach your children to interact with the world in a normal way rather than see the world as a scary place full of disease and threats.

12. Allow your children to be children. Don’t push the adult stuff until later. Five-year-olds do not need makeup. Elementary children do not need to be taught how to ‘ask a girl to dance’. Three-month-old babies do not need skinny jeans. Children are not mini adults. They think differently, their logic is different, they respond to and remember things differently. Respect this. Celebrate the wonder that is childhood!

13. Less toys is better. Your child really doesn’t need all that plastic crap from China. You know it in your heart, so why do you keep buying it? And why do you encourage others to give it to your children at birthdays and Christmas? Let your children have a few good quality toys that provide the opportunity for open-ended play.

14. Avoid the consumer culture and be thrifty. I never understand people who say ‘shopping’ is a hobby. Turn off the TV so you don’t watch advertisements. Don’t spend every weekend in the mall with your kids. Be cautious about how you associate spending money with emotions – don’t let your children learn that buying something new will make them feel good. Being thrifty teaches your children to build their self-worth (and yours!) in better ways.

15. Minimize your life. Less stuff means less to manage, clean, organize. The bigger your home, the more stuff you will own and the more time/money you will need to take care of it. Is this really how you want to spend your life – buying and maintaining large quantities of stuff? Even if you are a millionaire, wouldn’t you rather your money and time go to better causes? Learn to borrow before buying. To this day I never understand why people don’t use their public library – it’s a source of virtually free and unending resources, folks!

16. Give simply. Give meaningful gifts. Give useful gifts. Give experiences. Give consumable gifts. Give books. Give generously of your time and energy – this is a better gift than stuff.

17. Take time to reflect. When things are busy, we act without really thinking. We rely on our autopilot or fall back on old ways. If we set aside time to reflect, we can live more meaningfully and thoughtfully. Learn to pause.

18. Be confident in your choices. It can be hard to be different from the crowd – to have people judge you for letting your child walk the dog around the block by herself, to have people doubt your parenting ability when your child climbs to the top of the tree and nearly falls, to have people laugh behind your back at your attempts to keep Barbie products out of your house. But remember that your choices are not a judgment on others. You have to live your life and give your children a life that you believe in. Be strong. Be reflective. Be resilient.

Thanks to all the readers who stuck with me these past couple of years. Your comments have been valuable!
Happy parenting,
Laura Manuel (aka Mama Tortoise)

How Halloween Might Injure or Kill Your Kids

Mark Parisi from http://www.offthemark.com

Before you let your kids out of the house this Halloween, have you considered that they are more likely to be hit by a vehicle than at any other time of the year? Or have you seen the reports warning parents about the flammability of Halloween costumes? Oh, then we have to take into account that child molesters use this day to lure children into their homes. Also keep in mind that Health Canada is urging parents to let their children draw faces on their pumpkins instead of carving them – gasp – children might cut themselves.

Halloween is a great time of year to crank up parental fears.

Of course, we all know that crime is at historic lows. And that an unhealthy focus on safety paralyzes children from having any kind of fun. But that doesn’t seem to stop the fear mongers. For fun, I collected some of the best (or, worst) news headlines from this last week about Halloween fears.

Halloween makeup: safe or toxic?
Some parents may think the ghost-white makeup they slather on their kids’ faces this Halloween night is safe because of the “non-toxic” label on the package.

Forget Scary: It’s all About Caring in Calgary
Children wanting to wear scary, violent or blood drenched costumes will have to trade them in for more caring and community-friendly outfits at two public elementary schools in Calgary this Halloween.

The biggest Halloween scare? Emergency dental bills
After savouring a giant gumball, her son Benjamin snapped the spacer on his braces with a Sour Patch Kid. Next, it was Ms. Belanger’s turn: Having weakened her teeth on chocolate bars over Halloween, the Calgary mother of four cracked a tooth on a nut in an apple crisp – a root canal and crown would follow.

Smaller Halloween treats lead to larger eats
Treats packaged in Halloween-sized mini portions trick people into eating far more chocolate and candy than they otherwise would, researchers from the University of Alberta and University of British Columbia have found.

Brace for the most dangerous traffic night of the year for kids
While costume creation is in full gear, give a thought to something else: road safety. Studies from both the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta and Safe Kids USA warn that Halloween is the most dangerous traffic night of the year for kids.

Sex offenders ordered to keep “lights out” on Halloween
The sex offenders must have their lights out and cannot answer the door on Monday night, unless their probation officer comes knocking.

Realistic toy guns can be dangerous around Halloween
Officials with the sheriff’s office want the public to be aware of the dangers and consequences of showing those weapons in public.

Is Halloween Too Scary?
Halloween is everywhere you look, but the scary decorations, costumes and traditions may be scaring your children more than you realize.

Lessons in Friendship

It has been so long since I’ve managed to scrounge together some time for a blog post. With the Bear starting school in September, we have been barely keeping our heads above water with the amount of commitments we’ve had. There are the ordinary ones such as school and work. Then there are the social activities that sneak onto the calendar.

MJ and I are pretty social people. We value our friends and regularly lament that we don’t have enough time for them. We don’t like turning down invitations and we enjoy doing things as a family with other families. But the Bear’s social life is adding a new twist…

The Bear has quickly learned to always say ‘yes’ to every invitation she receives. And the neighbourhood kids drop by regularly. She can’t quite fathom an afternoon by ourselves, at home. We’ve been doing playdates regularly (although I resist the definition, they are firmly a part of our lives) and birthday parties seem be part of nearly every weekend.

Of course, at the age of five, the Bear’s social life has a direct impact on MJ and I – we are doing the driving (which can be tricky when you have only one car!) or the coordination of the details. I’ve started to make sure that I have enough cheese in fridge for the usual my-friend-is-over-lunch: grilled cheese sandwiches. And then there is the issue of birthday presents – the costs quickly add up.

Part of slowing down is learning to say ‘no’. It is stepping back to prioritize your life so that the important elements are given the most weight. The tricky thing is, family and friends are high on our priority list. I love to see the Bear surrounded by such wonderful kids. And I love that there are no organized activities on our schedule (other than school) so that the Bear has time for developing these friendships and having loads of unstructured play. And theoretically, I love the randomness of her social life. Her social life is, unfortunately, getting to be more than we can handle.

So, what to do? My ever-wise sister suggested that we impose limits but let the Bear choose how to use her social time. For example, allow her to attend only two birthday parties a month. Or let her know she can have two playdates a week, but no more than that. And if she is the one calling the shots, then MJ and I can embrace the randomness.

I think we can all live with that.

And MJ and I need to remember to set an example too. We can’t see everyone all the time.

Garden Review – Best and Worst Gardening Decisions

The garden is officially done. We’ve brought in all the veggies and our pantry and freezer is packed. It’s funny how finishing a project makes you reflect on how you could have done things differently. Here are the best and worst gardening decisions we made this year.

Best decisions we made this season

- Nasturtiums. Call me old-fashioned, but these are my new favourite plant. They grow quickly from seed so there’s no need to start them early inside. There are dozens of varieties – vines, small flowers, large ones, and many different colours. They bloom all spring, summer and fall. The best thing about nasturtiums is that they keep away the pests. We have two grape vines but for some reason I only planted nasturtiums under one of the vines. The one without nasturtiums got eaten by aphids, the other vine looked great all season.

- Sunflowers. So easy and so much fun for the kids. I put them everywhere and they all grew tall and magnificent. I will plant sunflowers in our back alley next year so that I can cut the blooms and have them peek over the fence.

- Growing our cucumbers vertically. I attached the cucumber vines to a trellis this year. This saved us a great deal of space as we only needed a bed that was a foot and a half deep by five feet wide. The cucumbers grew upward and had no problems producing.

- Growing loads of tomatoes. I know that we overdid the tomatoes. And I know that I have been complaining about how long it takes to make salsa. But seriously, nothing really compares to homemade salsa and tomato sauce. The effort was so worth it.

Worst decisions we made this season

- Having no faith in the raspberries. Why, oh why did we not cut back the raspberry bush in the spring? Some plants just go crazy. The raspberries quickly got overgrown and drooped over the lawn. I’ve already cut the stalks to about two feet tall so we’re ready for the spring.

- Forgetting about the annuals. I did it again; I get so focused on the veggies that I neglect the annuals. We had some annuals, but I never get too excited about flowers. Shame on me because I know that they are good for luring bees and butterflies.

- Growing the variety of tomato called ‘hundreds and thousands’. Sure, they taste great. But because they are the size of a small berry, you can’t do anything else with them except eat them fresh. This might sound great for the first couple of weeks. But we seriously have hundreds and thousands of tiny tomatoes sitting on our counter top and we’re sooooo tired of them.

- We had the bright idea of planting all our tomatoes in pots so that we could reserve the veggie bed for root vegetables. Unfortunately, the pots didn’t have drainage holes in the bottom. With all the rain in July, I spent a great deal of time protecting the tomato plants from getting too much water. Such a foolish mistake.

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister (Book Review)

By: Linda Ravin Lodding
Illustrated by: Suzanne Beaky
Published October 2011 by Flashlight Press

We’ve reached an interesting turning point in children’s literature when the message of a kid’s book is aimed at both parents and children.

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister by Linda Lodding captures the essence of the over-scheduled child in a fun and friendly way. With so many activities in her schedule, Ernestine has no time to do what she really wants to do – play. Until one day, Ernestine takes control and changes her schedule.

Lodding gently critiques the philosophy that so many of us adhere to. Ernestine’s parents tell her to ‘make every moment count’ and ‘live life to the fullest’. But trying to pack in too many activities can be disastrous. While Ernestine suffers from activity overload, her parents believe that they are providing the best for their daughter.

While the book’s message can be sobering, The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister is far from serious. This light-hearted story will entertain any elementary school-aged child as they read about Ernestine knitting with Mrs. Pearl Stitchem and practicing yoga with Guru Prakash Pretzel. The illustrations by Suzanne Beaky are bright and engaging.

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister is a wonderful reminder that play is just as important as – if not more important than – organized activities. Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play and founder of the National Institute for Play, reminds us that play allows children to get in touch with their innate talents. If children are confined to scripted activities all the time, they will never get a chance to explore other interests.

Released just in time for Christmas, this book will make an excellent gift for the child [ahem, parent] who needs a kind reminder to relax and take time to play.

Available October 1, 2011, where children’s books are sold. Visit Amazon or Barnes and Noble to order online.

Finding our Groove

Photo Credit: Lavinia Marin at http://www.sxc.hu

Sometimes I feel like a bit of an imposter. As much as we try to slow things down, life just seems to speed up.

It’s the end of a full week of having the Bear in Kindergarten. Banana also started ‘school’ this week at a community-based childcare centre. She will only be going one day a week. But the amount of labeling, shopping for school supplies, filling out of paper work and driving has been over-whelming. MJ and I have also started our own courses and work is piling up. Then there is end-of-year garden duties and processing of veggies. We’ve ended the week exhausted with all of us feeling a little sick. Not good.

But I have to look at the positive. Thank goodness we’ve avoided out-of-school activities. I can’t imagine the pressure of having either/both the girls in another activity. And soon the frost will be here and the garden will sleep until spring giving us some rest.

So, as MJ and I struggle to keep our heads above water, I have to be grateful that we’re healthy and organized enough to manage this time of year. This is a time for adjustments. It’s time to find a new groove after warm, casual summer days.

As the wonderful women at Slow Family Living ask families, “Is this working for you?” And now that we are somewhat settled, I can answer, ‘yes’. Yes, there has been some headache getting organized, but we’ll be okay. We’ve found our groove again.

Harvest Season Begins – Dilled Zucchini Anyone?

Dilled Zucchini Sticks

It’s a beautiful September week and the perfect time to focus on veggies. We’ve already been snacking on carrots and potatoes from the garden. Then there are all the tomatoes that [I thought] I over-planted in the spring. Even though we ended up with 15 plants, I’ve been thrilled to have an over-abundance of tomatoes for salads, snacking and turning into salsa. And we’ve also had pounds of cucumbers which we’ve been turning into pickles.

Then we visited the downtown farmer’s market on the weekend with some friends. Kuhlmann’s Greenhouse was selling their cauliflower for $1 and their giant zucchini for $3. (MJ weighed the zucchini when we got home and we realized that we had 11 ½ pounds of zucchini!)

Banana holding only half of the zucchini that we purchased.

Needless to say, MJ and I did a little bit of canning on the weekend. Here is a recipe for dilled zucchini.

Dilled Zucchini

Who says you can’t pickle zucchini? It makes a great pickle and easily picks up the flavour of the dill. We made the mistake of slicing the zucchini a bit too thickly. And we also should have measured better – the sticks should be cut to the size of the canning jars. We ended up having to cut sticks in half in order to fit them in the jars.

4 ½ lbs zucchini
3 tbsp pickling salt
5 cups white vinegar
2 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp fresh dill weed, chopped
1 tsp celery seed
1 tsp mustard seed
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
Sprigs of dill weed

Chop zucchini into sticks and layer with pickling salt in large bowl. Let it stand for an hour.

Prepare your canning jars – place in boiling water canner (just a really big pot of water!) and let boil for 10 minutes. Set aside screw bands and lids in hot water until ready to use.

In a large pot, combine vinegar, sugar, turmeric, chopped dill, celery seed and mustard seed. Bring to a boil.

Rinse the zucchini in cold water; drain thoroughly; pat dry. Add zucchini, chopped garlic and onions to liquid and bring to a boil. Let it boil for five minutes or more.

Time to fill the jars. Place 1 large sprig of dill weed in a hot jar. Place the zucchini and onions into the hot jar and add liquid to within 1 cm of the top of the jar. Place a lid and screw band on the jar and return the jar to the canner. Repeat until all the jars are full.

Boil the jars for at least 10 minutes in the canner. Carefully remove them from the hot water so that the contents doesn’t touch the lid. Leave them to cool for 24 hours. Be sure to check that the seals have decompressed.


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