Archive for Things that Matter

A Quiver full of Blessings

When I consider all the evenings Oliver and I have fallen into bed, utterly exhausted by our three boys and their antics, yesterday seems even more surreal. While on most evenings I find myself praying, “God just give us the strength for this next half hour of showers and tooth brushing,” yesterday I found myself thanking God for the three amazing gifts that never cease to surprise us.

After a lovely day of gardening and playing outside, we had just finished supper when a landscaper friend came by the house to give us some advice on our outdoor plans. We left the boys to play inside so that we could both be part of the consultation. Every now and then I would check on the boys, just to make sure that there wasn’t any trouble. After all, in my experience, war will break out between those three within about 2 minutes of being left to their own devices. Though I didn’t actually see them, their quiet voices assured me that there was no reason to worry. “They’re probably just looking at books,” I thought. Still, strange…

As we were wrapping up the consult with the landscaper on the front porch, we spied the kids inside, jumping around in the living room, obviously trying to get our attention. Seeing that they were all happy and smiling, I simply smiled, nodded, and returned my attention to our friend. All of a sudden it dawned on me that Teddy was wearing PJs. Come to think of it, so was Sammy. Upon closer inspection, even Caleb was in PJs, which surprised us, since Caleb does not dress himself yet. “Too bad they don’t know it’s shower day,” I commented to the two Dads standing on the porch. “They’ll just have to take everything off again.”

At that point I noticed, however, that the boys’ hair looked wet. “Teddy,” I asked our 7-year-old through the window glass, “Did you shower?”

“Yup!” he exclaimed, obviously tickled pink that I was slowly putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

“Did you shower everyone?

“Yup!” he said again, a giant smile on his face. “We even brushed our teeth!”

I couldn’t resist re-introducing our trophy children to our family friend, who was as shocked as Oli and I were.

As we were preparing to begin the story time ritual a little while later, Caleb suddenly entered the room saying, “I yat a poop!” Since Caleb still prefers the diaper to the potty for this particular bodily function, I assumed he was stating a fact that was in the past tense. I quickly ushered him into the bathroom, where it turned out that his pants were clean and he was eager to sit on his little red pot.

From his vantage point watching the exciting drama unfold in the doorway, Teddy was quick to tell me that he had already put Caleb on the potty before his shower. (Trust me folks, this kind of thing happens all the time when you have trophy children.) Apparently Caleb was having a great potty-day, because his subsequent potty-success sealed the deal on an incredible day.

We read stories snuggled on the couch in front of a warm fire, and finished off the time with some acappella singing. When we got to Peter Lutkin’s The Lord Bless You and Keep You – which I have been singing to all three at bedtime since they were nursing babes – I decided to take the two older boys to sing in Caleb’s room, who was still awake in his crib. As we stood in the darkness by his crib singing the familiar strains of this beautiful hymn of blessing, Caleb joined his little voice to our dissonant chorus. Although we don’t yet have harmonizing voices, that day we had harmony in the home. It was there in the darkness that I mentally bottled the moment; a small preserve for the next time they’re at each other’s throats and I’m losing my mind. For all the trouble they are, children are indeed a blessing.

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Spring already?

Since it’s the last day of January I feel it’s appropriate to begin a countdown to gardening season. There are only 108 days left until I can put in my vegetable garden! On second thought, this is quite depressing, given that winter has only been upon us for 41 days. On the bright side, gardening season really starts before May anyway. My tulips and crocuses will be in full bloom much sooner, not to mention the dandelions. I can hardly wait.

Any gardener can relate to my feelings of anticipation. Even non-gardeners can appreciate the glory of spring with its fragrant blossoms, brilliant colours and the promise that snowsuit season will soon be behind us for another year.

Parenting is a lot like that. Sometimes it feels like we’re stuck in one record-breaking stretch of winter where there is no fruit – nay, not even a bud – in our children. We spend countless summers preparing the soil of their little hearts, praying for rain, adding fertilizer, pruning, and loving on that little sapling in hopes that one day it will bear fruit. I am here to tell you, folks, that there are signs of spring in our family’s garden. Yesterday I discovered a shiny little fruit on one of our little saplings.

In Teddy’s class there is a troubled child whom we shall call Nick (not his real name). Nick joined the class in the middle of the year. It soon became clear that Nick had some problems making friends. His way of getting attention was to hit, spit at, pester, push, or in some other way irritate his classmates. His idea of “play” was limited to anything involving weapons. In no time at all he was well-known at the office and by the parents of Teddy’s classmates.

My gut instinct was to advise Teddy to stay away from the child and make sure he tells the teacher about Nick’s inappropriate behaviour. This is also the side of me that just wants to call the police about rowdy neighbours instead of talking directly to them. It solves nothing. Still, when another child spits at your child, you want justice.

Instead of seeking justice we decided to pray for change. We made the choice to think and speak of Nick as a troubled child, not a trouble-maker. Of course Nick knew that what he was doing was wrong and that it would win him no friends, but something was obviously compelling him to act that way. From the little we found out from Teddy (not the most trustworthy bearer of accurate information, mind you) Nick came from a broken home. Although this does not always result in children exhibiting bad behaviour, Nick’s behaviour could certainly be explained by trouble at home. Although we don’t know any details, I invited Teddy to project himself into Nick’s possible situation: most likely he wasn’t seeing one parent most of the time. It’s possible that he did not feel secure in their love for him, which caused him to come to school already bent out of shape. Maybe his need for love was not being met at home, and his “love tank” was perpetually empty.

His problems were only exacerbated by the fact that he had joined his class in the middle of the year and was trying to find his place where everyone already had theirs. His attempts to impress the others with his knowledge of guns did not impress his teacher. He perpetually placed second in two-man running races at recess, which is to say that he came in last place all the time. This is a big deal in a subculture where being the fastest boy means everything.

Time went on and the Anti-Nick movement grew. Based on their children’s bad experiences with the boy, parents began going to the vice-principal with the issue. He did what he could to reason with him and explain how to be a friend if he wants to have any. His behaviour seemed to settle down somewhat, but there were days when his “happiness balloon” lost air all day and was totally deflated by3:00pm (according to Teddy). We maintained that Nick needed a good friend if there was to be any hope of his behaviour changing.

One day I asked Teddy if he would consider a play-date with Nick. “Of course!” said our son, who would consider a play-date withIran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if it meant that he could host someone and possibly share a meal with them. When he mentioned it to Nick at school, he was immediately open to the idea. Although we haven’t managed to arrange the details yet, the thought alone seems to have changed something between the boys.

Yesterday Teddy came home and announced that Nick had told him that he was his only friend. At recess Teddy had been playing soccer with his buddies when he noticed that one of the girls in his class was irate with Nick. Apparently, a switch flipped and the mental movie of his Mommy talking to him at breakfast about Nick started playing. He walked over there and explained to the girl that Nick was not a bad kid, but that he wanted to make friends and just didn’t know how. He told her that he would feel a whole lot better and be a whole lot nicer if someone would just be his friend. At which point he turned to Nick and said, “Right Nick?”

I can imagine Nick’s surprise at this point, but he agreed with Teddy that yes, this was the correct analysis of the reason for his angst and aggression (though I don’t think he used those terms). After this, the two boys went and found a place where melting snow was dripping from the roof, and had a great time sticking their heads underneath. It didn’t seem to matter to Nick that their game had nothing to do with guns. “You know Mom,” said Teddy as he concluded his story, “I think Nick is actually a really good friend.”

I think I could say the same about you, Buddy.

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Parenting 101

I’ve decided that my New Years resolution this year is to figure out my kid. I’m a little slow on the draw, I know, seeing as he’s seven years old, but this boy really should have come with an instruction manual.

When Teddy was first born I was a freshly minted PSYC 1F90 graduate. That’s right, I had a full 8 months of introductory psychology under my belt folks, and I knew how to raise a child. I come from a long line of people who see the world in black and white, and so I foresaw no problems in the child-rearing department. According to my upbringing, you brought a child in line early and he stayed there until he moved out. According to my psychology textbook, you rewarded a child for good behaviour and discouraged bad behaviour by frowning, and you could save yourself the hassle of punishment altogether. I was confident that by combining these two silver bullets I would be large and in charge of the most well-behaved, well-adjusted children on the block.

Since then we’ve moved to a new block, so maybe that’s the problem. Whatever it is, I am as large and in charge of my well-adjusted children as Italy’s Prime Ministers have been of their feisty fellow parliamentarians. What I didn’t take into account when we welcomed the child that would make us the perfect parents, was that God has a never-ending arsenal of tricks up his sleeve in order to keep us dependent on Him for things, including parenting wisdom.

I should make it clear that there are many things parents can do to influence their children’s behaviour. I am a firm believer that consistent expectations and follow-through are extremely effective when raising a well-behaved child. My struggles are not with any of those things. It’s those behaviours that I cannot control with discipline that have had me on my knees on a daily basis. Here are a few examples:

  • A 3-year-old who will not say “I’m sorry” or “Thank You” even though you have pulled out every available weapon in your parenting arsenal, including taking away the Christmas present he won’t say thank you for. This particular battle lasted over 24 hours.
  • That same 3-year-old who consistently refuses to pose for family pictures for no apparent reason, even under threat. This battle has lasted for years.
  • A 4-year-old who will not allow the dentist to look into his mouth, no matter what fun tactics the dental assistant employs.
  • That same 4-year-old who shuns the singing of “Happy Birthday” as though it violates some non-negotiables of his personal credo.
  • A 5-year-old with persistent, relentless fears of objects that should not induce fears: exercise equipment in the corner, a shower head, a lamp. Trust me, we tried all the advice, including prayer!
  • A 6-year-old who cannot focus on a simple task like brushing his teeth without being reminded at least 4 times and possibly even punished for good measure.
  • A 7-year-old who spends his days whipping his brothers into an active frenzy by consistently leading them in activities like tag, playing ball, jumping, tackling, drumming, tickling, dancing, and anything else that makes noise or creates havoc.

 There was a time when I would have had solutions to these problems, but that was before I met our precious first-born. I also would not have believed that a child as young as age 2 could be a leader of men, or that a 4-year-old could spend a full 20-minute car ride counting to 1,000. I would have freaked out had you told me that my 5-year-old would remove the bread that he thought was done baking out of the oven, loaf by loaf, so that “Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t have to do it.” I would have been delighted to hear that my 6-year-old would take the initiative to clear out the dishwasher and start breakfast, and that he would answer the phone more competently than most 14-year-olds. I would have looked forward to a tidy basement, bedrooms (all of them), bathroom, and living room, courtesy of a sudden bright idea that told my 7-year-old to motivate his brothers to “surprise Mommy” with this special treat. I would have been extremely proud to hear of his helpfulness in the classroom, or that he sticks up for other kids when they are being bullied on the playground. And when someone tells me that my son is “gifted” and may deal with certain “overexcitables” and “sensory processing” issues (is hyper-sensitive to different stimuli, leading to heightened emotional responses and distractibility), I would be initially surprised, but not really.

If nothing else, our daily parenting struggles with a child who just does not fit the mould have made me far more gracious about other people’s struggles with their kids. I realize that not every problem goes away as a result of positive reinforcement or even consistent discipline. I see parents with kids who have chosen the wrong path, and instead of attempting to lay blame for the things they neglected or were guilty of, I allow for the fact that I do not know their child and am in no position to judge. God has made our little people extremely complex, and who am I to try to simplify things?

On second thought, maybe I should tweak my resolution. Maybe figuring out my kid is an exercise in futility. Maybe a dose of patience and a lot more prayer will be the silver bullets that make 2012 a better parenting year than the previous seven!

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The War is Over

Bugs Bunny Rides Again

Image via Wikipedia

It has been one month since our family’s television fast began, and it’s time to take stock of our time spent disconnected.

I can’t say that we’ve gotten used to being completely without television, although I’d love to say that it has no draw on our family after being without it for one month. The truth is that there are times when I’d like to sit down with Oliver after the children are in bed to watch an episode of The Office. There are times I’d like to allow the children to watch a story they delight in, because I remember how I cherished those times with my brother when we were growing up. I have very fond memories of watching Mr. Dress-Up on a weekday morning or Bugs Bunny after church on Sundays with Dad.

Still, our television fast has been worthwhile. For one thing, we’ve been forced to come up with alternate activities during unstructured time. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, it required some effort on my part to plan activities for the children to do when they would normally have watched television before. As a result of exercising our collective creative muscle, our home is decorated with home-made paper snowflakes dangling in front of our picture window, and many of our presents are wrapped in recycled newsprint dressed up with paint stencils and potato stamps. We have handed out and enjoyed large amounts of home-made goodies, baked and decorated with the children’s help. We’ve made more music together, played more Lego together, and read more books together.

Oliver and I have also been challenged to find different things to do on those evenings when we’d rather have sat down and watched TV. We’ve spent many hours sitting in front of the fire, sometimes sipping a glass of wine and chatting about life. Our marriage has certainly benefited from the “forced” communication. Although we have spent many evenings apart, involved in our respective commitments and friendships, we have found more uninterrupted time to communicate in meaningful ways.

I cannot say that there have been any fundamental changes in our children’s behaviour as a result of not watching television or playing computer games. This is to be expected, however, since television only comprised a very small part of their daily routine to begin with. The one difference I can see is that they have become better at playing together peacefully, but that can be attributed to a change in the way Daddy and I deal with their bickering (for details on how we have begun dealing with sibling rivalry, see Cock Fights in the Chicken Coop).

The pre-Christmas season has passed seemingly more slowly than in previous years, and I feel that we have allowed our hearts to be prepared to celebrate the Saviour’s birth in the coming days. As with all fasts, we are looking forward to being able to return to “regularly scheduled programming,” as it were, but with the understanding that discernment still needs to be our plumb line as we expose ourselves and our children to media again.

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The War Is On (Part 3)

Douglas and his cake

We’ve baked cookies. We’ve decorated cookies. We’ve baked more cookies. We’ve celebrated a stuffed dog’s birthday with real cheesecake. (Our media-free Christmas is turning into a cholesterol-laden shock to the system.) I decided it was time for a new activity to ring in the festive season. I settled on painting.

   In my mind’s eye I can see a few of my readers shaking their heads. Painting at your dining room table with a 2, 4 and 6 year old? Are you nuts? By some definitions I probably am, considering I’ve voluntarily turned off the electronic babysitter for at least a month. I guess decorating Christmas cookies has awakened in me a dormant desire to create, and lately I’ve been dreaming of a colourful Christmas, complete with hand-painted plaster ornaments and home-made wrapping paper.

I spent the afternoon preparing the after-school craft, which is to say that I indulged my inner artiste and sat there painting a plaster ornament from the set I had purchased that morning. This will be perfect for Teddy, I thought. A quick search through my old craft supplies yielded more painting supplies than I remembered having. Apparently there was a time in my life when I had time to sit and paint plaster ornaments.

It quickly became clear though that there was no way Sammy – who is just learning how to grip a pencil properly – could manage the ornaments, so I also tried out the stencils I had bought at the craft store earlier in the week on some blank newsprint that has been accumulating in my desk for months. This brilliant idea came to me this week and I thought it too good not share it here.

For months our weekly advertising package arrives with an extra sheet of blank recycled newsprint. I’ve been saving these pieces thinking that they’d be great for crafts. Now that Christmas has arrived I am faced with the same conundrum I struggle with every year: finding an alternative to non-recyclable, high-gloss Christmas wrapping paper. For our own family I’ve sewn simple cloth bags from some flannel I once fell in love with at the fabric store. We use them year after year, but I don’t feel like giving them away with cousins’ and friends’ gifts.

Sammy's work of art

Today I discovered that a 4-year-old can – with some assistance – use a stencil, some acrylic craft paint and a large toddler paint brush to turn boring, recycled newsprint into an impressively festive and environmentally-friendly gift wrap.

I’ve also discovered that spending an afternoon supervising two separate painting projects while attempting to re-connect with a spouse after work and simultaneously whipping up homemade pizza (so the child whose pizza order was misplaced will at least have leftovers in his lunch tomorrow) basically amounts to stress. So here I am (alone!) at Starbucks, sipping a Peppermint Hot Chocolate (thanks Kim) and de-fragmenting after a day of hearing my name taken in vain one too many times. Ahhhhh

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The War is On (Part 2)

It has been a full week now since our family last turned on the television, and I’m happy to report that we are still whole and sane and thriving. Amazingly enough, our children have not protested anywhere near as much as I thought they would. I used to hear, “Can-I-watch-a-show?” several times a day whenever they were too lazy to come up with anything creative to do. (Other requests included “Can-I-have-a-snack?”, “Can-I-go-on-TVOkids? and “Can-we-go-somewhere?” All of these phrases can be translated to mean, “I am bored. Entertain me.”) In fact, 2-year-old Caleb had started to say it when we were driving in the van coming home from somewhere. Except coming from him it sounded more like this: “Ca-A-watchasha? NO!” (Yes, he would add his own emphatic “No” based on the general answer the children would receive to their oft-repeated mantra.)

I can say with certainty, however, that our Television Fast would not be so successful were we as parents not intentional about planning other things for our kids to do or just being available to them during the times when they would normally watch television. There have been several times where I have been tempted to turn on the television for them so that I can get something done. It requires effort on my part to come up with an activity and then supervising that activity.

This is not to say, however, that our life is now centered around doing stuff with our kids and that everything else is being neglected. I think there are two reasons for this:

1. Our children are inwardly more at peace without all the media input and can occupy themselves happily. Yesterday while Oliver and I sat on the couch, Caleb was busy playing with PlayDough at the table, Sammy was immersed in decorating Christmas cookies on his own, and Teddy was working hard at creaming some butter and sugar for Spritz Cookie dough in the kitchen. Sometimes all it takes is giving them a start on something and they run with it.

2. Because Oliver and I are also not watching television in the evenings, we are getting all sorts of things done, even if it’s just sitting and having a long-overdue conversation and investing in our marriage. Most of our Christmas presents are bought and wrapped already. Oliver spent last night practicing piano for his involvement on Christmas Eve, and I finally sat down to read a book without interruptions.

While I bake or craft with the kids, Oliver has become more intentional about passing on his love of music to the kids. His most recent project has been to build a South American drum called a Cajon (which, by the way, has an amazing array of sounds considering it looks like a wooden dehumidifier). I don’t know of any child that can sit still when they hear a good beat, and our children are no different. A few nights ago he brought the drum upstairs, cranked the tunes on the stereo, and began accompanying the Transylvanian Orchestra on his drum, much to the delight of the children. Before that, we actually had a jam session in my music studio downstairs. While I played the piano, he played the Cajon, and those children that wanted to participate picked one of our percussion instruments and played along. When they were done they went and played with the train track Oliver had set up previously, and we could continue with our jam session. It was the first real one since the children came along, and it was sweet. We ended off with the most rocking version of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” our children had ever heard. I felt like a teenager again. Wicked.

Last week we baked and decorated Christmas cookies. This week will include more baking and perhaps some Christmas colouring for the grandparents. Maybe next week we’ll be putting together cookie plates for the neighbours and then deliver them. That’ll be fun.



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The War is On (Part 1)

Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu.
Image via Wikipedia

Ah, Christmas. Time for much food, much drink and way too much stuff. It’s no wonder January is a major downer given that the fuel that has fed the fires of the “Christmas Spirit” has run out. It’s a hangover, really. For this reason many people spend the pre-Christmas time wracking their brains for something new and exciting that will make the holiday “more meaningful this year.”

I’m one of those people. I love the decadence of Christmas; the real-butter baking, the regal decorations, the festive meals, the pretty dresses, the majestic music of the season (this does not include Marshmellow World or Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.) Christmas is the one time of year when my heart is moved to worship at surprising times when an actual Christmas song floats over the airwaves of a radio station that ordinarily plays hollow and meaningless drivel. Dark neighbourhoods suddenly seem more inviting as people dress up their homes with lights and bows. And yet each year I spend time thinking about concrete ways to allow the truth of my Saviour’s coming to earth penetrate deeper and bring about actual change that will last past December 31st.

Years ago I researched different Christmas traditions for a stage play I was writing and came across an interesting custom from the Coptic tradition. In this tradition people fast during the advent season as they prepare for our Saviour’s birth. So this year our family is doing a fast of sorts: a television fast.

It happened more by chance than by plan. Those of you familiar with my writing know of my aversion to all things media, especially where my children are concerned. It just so happened that the latest development in the saga (chronicled in my last post) happened during November, so Oliver and I decided to pull the plug on the children’s consumption of media during advent. To make things fair, we felt that we needed to lead by example (though the children don’t ever see us watching television during waking hours anyway). And so here we are, putting away the remote for a few weeks as we prepare our hearts for Christmas.

baking sugar cookies

This means, of course, that Mommy and Daddy need to be more intentional about planning things for their children to do. This week we have been baking Christmas cookies, which is a real hit. Nobody complains about wanting to watch TV given this alternative. Since the project has several steps and we’re doing this after school, we’ve had several days of fun. I had forgotten how fun it was to bake and decorate cookies, although that could be because in recent years the children were less of a help and more of a nuisance when baking. This year it’s great fun. Tonight we’re thinking of putting up the tree.

We will make an exception for family movie nights featuring classics like Rudolph and the Little Drummer Boy. Perhaps Oli and I will even take in a Christmas classic after the kids are in bed one night. But as a general rule we have decided to devote the advent time to things that families would have done generations ago to prepare for the season. There is so much to do to get ready for Christmas, and this year it won’t all be up to Mom.

Horsey and DouglasThe television has been off since Monday and we’ve already seen signs of the boys’ imaginations returning. On Wednesday morning Teddy and Sammy walked out of their rooms with their stuffies, Dougles (a dog) and Horsey (a horse).

“Only seven more days until Douglas’ birthday,” Teddy announced. It’s written on the calendar folks: November 30. Teddy has already asked whether we can have a party complete with a cake. I’m thinking of humouring him. It will be the first time I’ve thrown a party for a stuffed animal, but it is another idea to substitute TV time.

At this point Sammy chimed in to tell me about Horsey’s birthday. “Horsey’s birthday isn’t for a long time,” he said.

“Yeah,” Teddy added. “It’s still a long, long time away. It’s in a whole year.” Apparently the horse’s birthday was on November 10th. How could I have missed it? I’m sure Douglas won’t mind sharing a slice of cake with Horsey.

“Before he turns 1, Douglas has to have his eyes checked,” Teddy informed me next. “He’s still a puppy so his eyes are just opening. He has to have them checked to make sure they’re opening properly.” He went on to tell me that the one thing Douglas didn’t like in his life was when Teddy massaged him on the tummy (which was accompanied by a demonstration) and that if he wasn’t careful Douglas would attack him as a result.

“And the other day,” Sammy added, always needing to be a part of the conversation, “Horsey was going for a walk and tripped off a stump and bonked herself in the eye.” Sammy went on to scratch Douglas behind his ears, just like a real pet.

While I am loving the return to imagination, I’m a little concerned about the subject matter. I can handle a stuffed dog on my couch, but what happens when the children ask for a real one? If we end up with a real dog because we insisted on the children using their imaginations instead of watching television I just may have to bend my principles in the future.

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Screen Wars

SpongeBob SquarePants

Image via Wikipedia

I’m sitting here indulging in one of life’s little pleasures: M&M’s. If you’ve ever opened a Halloween-sized package of M&M’s you’ll know that the pleasure is indeed little: the Almond M&M’s package contains exactly four morsels. Everything in me wants to open another package, but I of course know that my children’s Halloween treats should be enjoyed in moderation, and probably primarily by the children. If only moderation were a lesson we learned in childhood and never again forgot…

Last weekend passed much the same way most weekends do at our house: the children have unlimited playtime, Daddy works on some projects, and Mommy does the laundry because hydro’s cheaper. One notable exception was that our eldest son, by virtue of attending school, has developed a taste for a certain web-based educational computer game, and was seemingly unable to do anything but either play the game or ask to play the game. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for him, his mother is not a fan of substituting computer play for imaginative play, so he spent many hours unsuccessfully begging, “Mommy, can I go on coolmathgamesforkids? PLEASE?”

You can imagine the frustration this caused us both. My steadfast resistance in the face of his persistence caused me to seriously evaluate my reasons for wanting to limit our children’s screen time at their young ages. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just give in and allow him the indulgence more often? (To be clear, he did have some opportunity to play the games on the site.) It must be said that things are much more peaceful around the house when one is playing a video game, another watching a video, and the other napping. Our children don’t fight when they are being entertained.

Even so, I am loathe to – as I see it – open up the media floodgates in our house. Up until recently our children’s exposure to screen media was limited to the following: TVO Kids and Kids CBC (both publicly funded commercial-free children’s programming available with only an antenna.) Once those signals went digital, the children’s access to entertainment was pared down even further to our selection of VHS and DVD videos. They played a game on a second-hand VTech Smile once, and Teddy played a few music games that I use in my piano studio for teaching purposes. Recently he had been on about three times, and twice he had played the Wii at somebody’s house. That’s it. The more exposure he has to these things, however, the more they draw him in, and the less interesting the real-world alternatives seem.

On Saturday morning we visited a family where the TV runs constantly in the living room, so our children were transfixed by the novelty of SpongeBob Squarepants and saw more children’s advertising than they had in their entire lives up until that point. In fact, Teddy saw an advertisement for one of his favourite toys (a BeyBlade) and reacted in much the same way one does when one sees a familiar face on television. “Hey Mom! Check it out! A BeyBlade on TV!” Unfortunately not every ad was as benign as the one for the BeyBlade, and I shuddered as I saw the violent and disturbing “toys” being foisted upon our children’s imaginations.

On the way home Oliver and I once again renewed our resolve to shield our impressionable children from the pollution of television advertising. I can see no good reason to pay at least $30 a month for a service that fills my kids’ heads with all the things they’d like to have but don’t have yet, or worse, a whole slew of programming that does absolutely nothing to develop their character or intellect, but only teaches nonsense, obscenity, and/or violence. As much as I (as an adult with more self-control and discretion) would like to have access to a wider variety of interesting programming, I’m not sure the trade-off is worth it in the lives of my children. I’m sure there will come a time when they are older that we’ll consider it, but not while the clay of their minds is still so soft and pliable.

I realize I’m very old-fashioned and many readers will think I’m being too harsh. Not every parent will agree with our approach, and that’s ok. Every family’s situation is different, calling for different measures. But allow me to illustrate our reasoning the way we did for our son on the weekend:

“As a child, you lack the self-control to eat sweet desserts in moderation. If we were to put an apple and a slice of cake in front of you, which one would you pick? (He was honest, and answered “cake.”) As your parents then, it is our job to limit the amount of sugar you consume, because we know it’s not good for you to consume too much, regardless of how good it tastes. As long as you are under our care, we cannot let you stuff your face with desserts.

One day you will be an adult and you will make your own choices. You will have the choice at that time to have as much cake as you’d like, but you’re the one who has to live with the consequences of your decisions.”

I highly doubt that anyone would question our decision to limit our son’s sugar intake, but there are plenty of people who allow their children to gorge themselves on media as though the entire pastime is completely devoid of consequences. It doesn’t take long for all other foods to lose their appeal, as their craving for the decadent sweetness of media trumps all other desires. From one weekend to the next we witnessed a transformation in our little boys, from getting lost in deeply imaginative games using cars and Playmobile, to simply looking for something to tide them over until they could once again be entertained by a screen. Am I wrong to be concerned?

My husband, who is drawn to technology and screens more than I am, had this sage piece of advice for his little progeny: “Teddy, even as an adult I often ask myself this question: am I still the boss of the screen, or is the screen the boss of me? Can I tell it when I will turn it off, or does it tell me to keep it on?” Wise words.

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The 5-letter S-word (sorry)

“Kids are dumb as mud,” says Dr. Kevin Leman in his book Have a New Kid by Friday. Any parent with a child over the age of 3 will probably agree. Kids will do things which leave us shaking our heads. (“Really, you thought it was a good idea to throw rocks through the plastic window well cover?” or “What do you mean you’re making a salad with my hosta leaves?”) In his book, The New Strong-Willed Child Dr. James Dobson says,

 As we all know, children will regularly spill things, lose things, break things, forget things, and mess up things. That’s the way kids are made…If the foolishness [is] particularly pronounced for the age and maturity of the individual, Mom or Dad might want to have the youngster help with the cleanup or even work to pay for the loss… It goes with the territory, as they say.[1]

 Today was one of those days at our house. Our oldest had spent the morning at VBS (vacation bible school) which is always a highlight of the summer. 140 kids packed into one place for 2 ½ hours every morning for 5 days, playing games and having snacks…now that’s what our extroverted son lives for. What he doesn’t appreciate as much are the wrap-up times at the end where he has to sit relatively still and listen. He happens to be a six-year-old with ants in his pants (no matter how much we insist on proper hygiene) and to sit on a pew in the presence of other boys his age and actually pay attention is often too much to ask (though I do).

So today, after a particularly exhilarating morning, we arrived home to find out from his friend’s mother that there was a hole in her son’s sleeve, courtesy of my son’s teeth. The aforementioned quote from Kevin Leman went through my mind, as it often does in these situations. (Although most parents can nod their heads in understanding, those with children who lack a certain amount of impulse control will nod vigourously.)

Whatever motivated our son to bite the shirt sleeve of the boy who sat next to him is not the issue. I like Dr. Dobson’s term for it: childish irresponsibility. At our house though, when childish irresponsibility leads to personal property being damaged or someone being hurt (either physically or emotionally) the child is expected to make things right by apologizing to the person they’ve wronged and, if appropriate, pay restitution (at least partial) out of their piggybank. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a very painful process for both Mommy and child.

So why go through it if it hurts us both? The simple answer is that children need to learn to take responsibility for their actions, and that doesn’t magically happen at age 16. It starts at age 4 or 5 when Junior needs to apologize for thoughtlessly breaking something that belonged to someone else.

I’ll never forget when our son repeatedly smashed a plastic window well cover at my friend’s house. (I believe that day her central vacuum and the handle on her storm door were also broken by rowdy kids, though she assures me that our boy wasn’t involved. Phew! I don’t think his allowance would have covered that one.)

Although he was only 4 years old, we took a few coins out of his piggy bank, topped up the rest with our own money, and drove back to the friend’s house to say we were sorry and pay restitution. Although our friend could hardly bring herself to “accept money from a child” (something about feeling like a criminal) it was a lesson that he internalized from that day on. Although our son is impulsive, he is not destructive. For the most part our children’s toys (and our house!) are in one piece because the oldest understands that things cost money to replace. He keeps the younger ones in line and models good behaviour in that department.

The concept of restitution and taking responsibility has become relatively foreign in the context of young children. Collectively we as parents often fail to let the child experience the consequences of their behaviour, frequently shielding them from the repercussions instead. We make excuses for our kids or just take the hit ourselves, thinking that we’re doing it because we love our kids. This is in part why these young children grow up to be young people lacking any sense of responsibility, thinking nothing of throwing their pop can on the sidewalk, knocking over a trashcan, or destroying someone’s personal property with graffiti. Someone else will clean it up, right? They always have before.

A few times recently I have witnessed our son quietly pick up a pop can or paper bag from the sidewalk and hang on to it until he reaches a garbage can where he throws it out. Even though it was painful today, he worked up the courage and apologized to his friend at great personal cost. He’s learning that making the right choices isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary.

If only we adults could take a page from his book, this world would be a better place. Maybe kids aren’t so dumb after all.

[1] James Dobson, The New Strong-Willed Child (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.,Wheaton,Illinois, 2004, 57)

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Real Life in HD

It’s spring, and the world outside your back door is changing. Have you noticed? I mean really noticed. Really noticing means sitting outside to watch the sunrise/set, putting a few flowers or vegetables into the soil or a pot, quietly watching the early-morning bustling of the birds as they prepare their nests, or going for a stroll to take in the plethora of sights, smells and sounds of this season that is characterized by new life and unstoppable growth.

Many years ago this would have been a silly question. Which Canadian wouldn’t want to spend as much time as possible out of doors in May after having been cooped up for the previous six months? While I still want to believe that this has not really changed, I am afraid that for some people, it has.

In a recent episode of Doc Zone on CBC television I was amazed – nay, repulsed – to learn of the effect BlackBerries and the like are having on our collective brains and behaviours. Texting, though a very recent phenomenon, has taken the world by storm and has invaded every place in our society. A study was done on a university campus to test people’s ability to multi-task. Observers recorded the reactions of students walking across campus to a clown riding around on a unicycle. Not surprisingly, 100% of those engaged in conversation with an in-person friend noticed the clown. Only 25% of those busy texting did. The surprising (and worrying) fact was, that most of those conversing with their online friends in egregious English (can you tell I’m not a texter?) actually claimed to be completely aware of their surroundings while engaged in the act of texting. This obviously raises issues like people’s ability to control a vehicle safely while being distracted by the use of technology.

The issue of texting and driving is not a new one, and I do not wish to discuss it here, although it certainly does need to be addressed. It seems odd to me, though, that the only time we will consider a behaviour harmful or even destructive, is if it takes the life of, or seriously injures someone. Is anyone talking about the broader impact on relationships in a world where people care more about what their friends in a virtual place are doing, rather than what’s going on right in front of their noses?

Although this documentary addresses texting in particular, I would implicate other virtual communication platforms in the same crime of destroying relationships. Before everything I say here gets discredited as being the crazy words of a hopeless traditionalist, let me say that I am not against the use of technology. There is a place for facebook, e-mail, cell phones and texting. We must admit to a collective problem, however, when people are checking themselves into internet de-tox centres to become free of their addictions (ironically enough, the centre I’m referring to in Washington is only a few kilometers away from Microsoft itself…). 

Before we shake our heads though at people who are “so far gone” as to need help to quit an addiction to technology, I would challenge each of us to consider our own behaviour. What is the longest you can comfortably be away from facebook? What if you were to lose your cell phone? Provided you do not need to be reached for work reasons, how quickly would you need to replace it? I would even challenge some of those work reasons, however. We tend to believe that we are irreplaceable, and that all hell will break lose if we are not available for comment. If even Green Party leader Elizabeth May can get by without a cell phone, most of us probably could as well.

I would challenge each of us to consider what would really happen if we were to get off the technology treadmill for a few days – maybe even weeks – this summer. Remember, ten years ago most of us had no cell phone and were not on facebook, and yet the world turned even then. Twenty years ago most of us would have spent long weekends outside in the garden or with in-person friends. Fifty years ago we would have actually sat outside on lovely spring evenings instead of staring at an LCD screen in the basement. Does anybody out there even care, or am I the only one?

The real question is, does all of this preoccupation with technology really make us any happier? I use the term “preoccupation” instead of “use” purposely. Most of the technology we use is not a means to any useful end – it’s a distraction from the useful end. Is a job really that terrific if you’re always “on”? Even doctors have times when they call in a replacement and go on holidays. Are you really that much more in-demand than the person whose mandate it is to save lives on a daily basis? Emergency personnel get days off – lots of them. This is so that they do not get burned out by their stressful professions, and can continue to serve and protect with excellence. Are we, in our everyday lives giving ourselves that opportunity for refreshment?

A compelling point brought up by some experts interviewed for the CBC documentary was that all of this point-form speech and one-dimensional communication is actually making people incapable of having a deep thought. We are becoming a society of puddle-dwellers, incapable of devoting any appreciable time to pursuits such as creativity, which requires time and depth in order to unfold. According to the experts, our capacity for anything more involved than “lol!” and “lmao!” is disappearing. So what are we going to do about it?

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