Archive for the 'Lessons Learned' Category

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.

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The Benefits of a Little Suffering

Mount Edith Cavell and the Angel Glacier in Jasper National Park

The Bear needed to go to the bathroom. It was our second last day in the mountains and we were far from any sort of conventional bathroom. Not a problem. She set off for the nearest tree. I watched her hold onto branches for support then look around for leaves to use as pseudo toilet paper.

It’s odd what moments you feel pride as a parent. But I did feel proud. There was no complaining, no hesitation in what she needed to do. In a short week, she had learned how get over this hurdle just like the many others before it.

We’ve just returned from a holiday in the mountains (the reason why I haven’t blogged in a while). We spent our time with a mixture of family and friends seeing familiar and not-so-familiar sites through the Rockies.

The Bear admirably rose to the occasion. We calculated that our little five-year-old hiked between one and two kilometers every day without complaint. Even Banana developed a distaste of the hiking backpack that we brought for her. And on our return trip from Mount Edith Cavell, Banana walked the whole way back on her own.
The girls slept in a tent in near freezing conditions. They awoke to watch their breath hanging in the air and put on their mittens and touques before having breakfast. Again, no complaints. They marveled at the insects, used outhouses unquestioningly, dusted off their bodies when they tumbled in the dirt and ignored the tree sap that seemed to make their hands forever sticky.

It can be difficult to justify this holiday as ‘fun’ to people who have never camped or who dislike hiking. To people who say they are ‘afraid’ of insects or who don’t like to get dirty. Because, yes, it is a little uncomfortable. But there are benefits to a little suffering.

When pushed into the unknown, into a state of discomfort, or being forced to suffer a little, one learns to be flexible and creative. One is forced to adapt, forced to come up with new ways of being. The kids don’t question this state. They accept the condition as fact and acclimatize quickly.

And the benefits? In short, children learn to be resilient. In fact, the scholars call this resilience theory.

As parents, we do our children a favour when we remove their cushy surroundings. We force them into an adaptive state so that they can find their inner creativity and resourcefulness. They learn to rely on themselves and discover new levels of confidence. They toughen up.

No, I’m not a malicious or vindictive parent. But there are benefits to a little bit of suffering. And you know what? As parents we benefit too. It’s feels good to remind yourself what your body and spirit are capable of.

My New Play Guidelines

There are times when I will not play with my children. Seriously, there are children’s games that I simply do not have the patience for. For example, I will never be a person who can play ‘pretend’ with children for hours on end. I simply can’t stand it. I will not have tea parties with them or play dress up.

I’ve started to feel that there isn’t anything wrong with admitting this. If play is supposed to be fun, then I need to be having fun too. And I don’t have fun playing ‘school’ for an hour with a five-year-old and nearly two-year-old. There are some parents who do enjoy these activities. That’s great, but it’s not me.

Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of activities that I do enjoy doing with girls. We do play together. But I’ve stopped trying to force myself to enjoy all their games. Instead, I make sure that I participate in games that are fun for me too. I enjoy colouring with the Bear, for example. And I love exploring and discovering nature with them – like a recent trip when I helped them catch about 20 leeches from the lake.

Here are my new play guidelines:

1. If I’m not having fun, I don’t push myself to endure the activity.
2. I make an effort to do things with the girls that we all enjoy.
3. I try to come up with activities that they love, but are combined with getting things done. Hence, bath time for the stuffies. Pete (the sheep in the picture) is Banana’s favourite. He gets filthy as she drags him everywhere. So I made the animals a bubblebath in the backyard and the girls washed their animals. Ta-da, playtime that also accomplishes something. Best activity ever!

Back to Basics Camping – Minimizing the Trip

How much can you fit into a Toyota Prius?

I’ve been remembering the summer trips to the west coast that I took with my family when I was a child. We would pack everything we needed into a Toyota Tercel. This included stuffing the interior of a canoe that we would hoist on top of the car. We were a family of four with a dog and I have no recollection of feeling like we had left something important behind. Every summer we would do the same trip so we (well, my Dad) were expert packers. But it wasn’t just clever packing, it was forcing our family to only bring the basics.

I am well aware that our family is nowhere near the hardcore minimalists (like the people who only own 100 items or less). In fact, I’m even a little leery about attaching the word ‘minimalist’ to this post out of fear that the real minimalists will find me and mock me. That said, I have been inspired to live with less. This weekend, our family went camping – two adults, two children (one still in diapers), and a dog. Just like when I was a kid, we fit everything into our Toyota Prius.
I will confess that we have often thought about ‘needing’ a bigger vehicle. Our thought process included looking ahead to events like camping trips. But we have held back; deciding that it would always be cheaper to borrow or rent a larger vehicle for the one-off times we needed something bigger. We also invested in a great roof rack for overhead storage – the cost was less than a single month’s car payment.

Amazingly, we have simply adapted to the small car out of necessity. And packing for camping wasn’t as difficult as we had anticipated.

For fun (and also because I’m a little anal retentive and have a list typed up anyway), here’s our packing list for three days and two nights of camping.

Sleeping
– Family-sized tent
– 4 sleeping bags
– 4 thermarest sleeping pads
– 2 pillows (for the girls)
– 2 pillow slips (for MJ and I to stuff with a sweater or fleece)
– 2 baby blankets (the ones that the Bear and Banana [say that they] couldn’t possibly sleep without)

Toys/Entertainment
– 2 stuffed animals (each girl could only bring one)
– Bocce ball set
– 10 kids books (five for each girl)
– 2 books (one for MJ and one for myself)
– Deck of UNO cards
– 2 Magnadoodles (in place of stray crayons and crushed colouring books)
– Bubbles and face paint
– Sand toys

Kitchen Items
– 1 plastic table cloth
– Camp stove and fuel
– 2 pots
– 1 kettle
– 4 plates
– 4 bowls
– 4 mugs
– 4 forks/spoons
– 4 knives (2 dinner knives, 1 paring knife, 1 knife with a serrated edge)
– 1 small spatula (high heat)
– Bottle opener
– Bodium
– Small tea pot
– Small cutting board
– Wash basin for the washing up
– Dish soap
– Dish cloth and towel
– 2 garbage bags
– Water container (the collapsible kind)
– Cooler with ice packs

Food (many items were taken out of their packaging to make it easy to pack. Eg: granola bars and instant oatmeal were taken out of the boxes they came in)
– Small boxes of cereal (special treat for camping)
– Packets of instant oatmeal
– Tea bags (regular and herbal)
– Coffee (ground)
– Hot chocolate powder
– Eggs
– Bacon
– Bread
– Croissants
– Cheese and meats (pre-sliced)
– Cucumber
– Tomato
– Oranges, blueberries, grapes (fruit that doesn’t need slicing!)
– Bag of noodles
– Tupperware container of pasta sauce (pre-made and frozen in advance)
– Condiments (packed into smaller containers)
– Olive oil (packed into a smaller container)
– Milk (with screw top lid)
– 2 bags of chips
– 2 bars of [good] chocolate
– A bag of roasted nuts
– A bag of marshmallows
– Granola bars
– Mini bottles of alcohol (That’s right, our campsite is going to have a mini bar!)
– 2 bottles of wine
– Dog food

Clothing
– 1 pair of pants for each adult
– 2 pairs of pants for each child
– 2 shirts each (long sleeve and short sleeve)
– 1 pair of shorts/capris for each person
– 1 warm jacket or hoodie per person
– 1 pair of walking shoes/boots per person
– 1 pair of sandals/flip-flops per person
– 1 pair of water shoes per person
– Underwear
– Warm socks
– PJs for each of us
– Swimsuit per person
– 1 hat per person
– We didn’t pack rain gear. We decided that if it gets wet, we’d just go home.

Toiletries
– 1 bar of soap to share
– Toothbrushes and toothpaste
– 1 comb to share
– Deodorant
– Face cream (my luxury item!)
– Bug spray
– Sun screen
– Small package of first aid items (Band-Aids, Polysporin, etc.)
– Diapers (we used disposable diapers for the weekend even though we usually cloth diaper)
– Wet wipes
– We didn’t pack shampoo or other shower stuff (eg: razors) as we were just going to tough it out for the weekend

Other
– Lighter
– Hatchet
– Flashlights
– Lantern
– Camp chairs (probably unnecessary but we could fit them in)
– 4 towels
– Rope
– 1 dog bed
– 1 dog leash
– Camera

On the Importance of Letting Your Kids Make a Mistake

The Bear and I had some friends over the other day. As the ‘responsible’ adults were chatting in the front yard, the kids wandered off. When we realized they weren’t around, we started calling for them up and down the street. Even though they were in a group, they are only pre-schoolers. They appeared in the backyard – coming through the back gate. I cringed when I saw them all in bare feet and realized that they had walked down the back alley without shoes. I was torn. I was not impressed with the Bear (I knew she was the ring leader) but I was also admiring the fact that they had made it around the block by themselves. I was also thinking about the broken glass that was likely to be found in the alley and how it could now be in their feet.

This past week, I read an article about risk in the UK’s Guardian. Written by children’s advocate, Tim Gill, it is a call for rethinking how we expose kids to risk. The article re-ignited some of my thoughts about the importance of letting children make mistakes. In other words, it is only by allowing children to make mistakes (and this always involves exposure to risk) that they really learn. It is through mistakes that children learn about which risks to take, how to weigh out the pros and cons, and how to deal with the consequences.

When all the parents tell little Johnny to get off the top of the wall because it is too high, how is little Johnny to learn about his limits or abilities or discover the power in deciding for himself? Perhaps little Johnny falls off that wall and breaks his arm, wouldn’t you feel awful that you didn’t stop him? But at some point, he needs to know what is ‘too high’ and be able to assess this for himself without someone else doing it for him. Beyond physical risks, children need to be given the opportunity to take a risk in meeting new people or attempting a new activity without a parent assessing the situation (and therefore, risk) for them. They will only hone this skill through making mistakes. Maybe the new kid at the playground shuns them or the new activity is too difficult. But they need to experience the error in their judgment rather than have someone else make the judgment for them. And I think that this is the hardest thing to do as a parent, to sit back and watch your child make a mistake.

So there I was with the Bear and her friends in the backyard. They were perfectly fine – there was no glass in anyone’s feet and they were oblivious to the fact that they had successfully navigated their journey without an adult. And even though my mind was full of the ‘what ifs,’ I knew that even if something had happened, it would have been a learning experience. Without experiencing difficulty, uncertainty, or the pang of misjudgment, we don’t grow. And isn’t that our role as parents? To help our children grow? We need to swallow that ‘better safe than sorry’ mantra and watch our kids make mistakes. We can be guides and act as a resource, but we need not live our children’s lives for them. Let them make a mistake.

Something Has to Give

Photo credit: clowdomega from http://www.sxc.hu

It was three months ago that we debated putting the Bear into soccer. We were apprehensive for a few reasons:

1. She is only five.
2. She was already enrolled in swimming lessons.
3. We are trying to avoid lots of organized activities. Swimming lessons, soccer, plus playschool for a five-year-old seems a little much.

But we ignored our instincts and put her in soccer anyway. The other night we learned our lesson.

It was raining. No, the rain had stopped. Did we have soccer or didn’t we? And who schedules a soccer game for 6:00, anyway? MJ didn’t arrive home until 5:30 and dinner was rushed as we all scrambled to get out the door. We all had to leave because I was meeting someone – this meant I needed our one and only car. MJ was going to bike over to the field with the girls in the trailer. But, oh no, the trailer came unhinged in the chaos and jammed itself between the spokes of MJ’s bike tire – bending it beyond repair. The Bear was still crying because she didn’t understand why she couldn’t ride her own bike. And Banana kept insisting that she didn’t need her rain jacket so every five minutes one of us was trying to zip her back into it for the umpteenth time.

You may remember the post where I asked the question, what do you think of when you think of family life?

Well, this moment was my antithesis.

I often wonder how other families manage. On the outside, it seems like other families know tricks that I have yet to learn. But MJ reminded me that they aren’t managing – they’ve given up something. In other words, a family unit simply cannot maintain a fast-paced life with loads of activities, hold on to certain values (like eating dinner as a family), and be still be cheerful to one another. Something has to give – perhaps bedtime routine, or time together as a family, or even putting off toilet training the toddler in order to maintain a certain pace. Either way, families may look like they are managing, this much I know, but it is at the expense of other things. I guess one just needs to be cautious and conscious about what they’re giving up.

At this point in our family life, we are giving up a heavy schedule of activities. We will not overload ourselves again; instead we will favour unrushed dinners as a family and avoiding situations that end with all of us angry at each other. And maybe there will still be time for a bike ride, once that tire gets replaced…

Lowered Expectations

Photo Credit: Fran from CartoonStock.com

I can’t remember what the Bear and I were arguing about, but it had escalated. She was furious with me and I was in that weird zone where everything is up for grabs. You know the one? When you’re between that knee-jerk reaction and knowing that you should be the calm and rational parent? Where there is that push-pull between reasonable arguments and caving to the ‘damn-it-I’m-the-parent’ response?

It all ended suddenly with her slamming the door to her bedroom like a 14-year-old. I was fine with this; I didn’t want to deal with any more emotion. Besides, I had dinner to make. The Bear stayed in her room while I shuffled around the kitchen with a fake smile on my face for Banana’s benefit. The Bear’s self-imposed enclosure in her room seemed to last a long time. Eventually, I looked at the clock and realized that 40 minutes had passed – this was a pretty hefty stretch for a five-year-old. I knocked softly and opened the door. There she was, fast asleep in her bed, her eyes puffy from crying.

Of course, I immediately softened. Maybe this is why, today, I can’t remember what the argument was even about. She was no longer the daughter who needed to be reined in; she was suddenly my little girl who needed a big hug.

One of my biggest challenges in being a slow parent is constantly rethinking my expectations of both the Bear and Banana. I’m not – nor was I ever – at the extreme end of parenting. I never believed that they were going to be professional athletes or needed grooming for winning a Nobel Prize. But MJ and I do have basic expectations – like being polite or using proper manners at the dinner table or flushing the toilet, please.

In my rational mind, I know expectations of our children need to be reasonable and age appropriate. But sometimes even basic expectations can intensify until they are no longer reasonable or age appropriate. When I saw the Bear fast asleep in her bed at only 5:30 in the evening, I was reminded that she was only five. She is still cranky when she is over-tired, hungry or has to go to the bathroom. She doesn’t have the capacity to manage her emotion like adults. I was also reminded that we don’t need to stress about every moment of today – she is a pre-schooler who has many, many more years and influences ahead of her.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have expectations of our children. Indeed, I would be worried by parents who said that they had no expectations. But I do think it is important to keep certain expectations in check. I want to push a little, but never too hard. And ultimately, I want her to remember our love for her rather than our disappointment.


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