Friday, May 28, 2010

Do Your Chores!

Hadley and I just finished Little House in the Big Woods (check out the bear hiding next to the house).  What struck me the most about this book is how self-sufficient they were, and how hard they all worked together just to eek out an existence.  Laura and Mary had rocks, acorns, and cornhusk dolls for toys.  Charles Ingalls was a cross between Indiana Jones and Billy Graham.  He trapped and traded fur, managed a farm, made bullets, and built a house (several of them).  All this and he played the fiddle, carved Christmas ornaments, told great stories, and didn’t resent living in a houseful of women.

I was thinking about how far we’ve fallen the other morning when I was listening to Liam and Skyler clean their room… kind of.  After ten minutes of name-calling and accusations, I’d promised an additional chore per insult.  Skyler ended up with five and Liam had four.   After they left for school, I wrote up the chores on the whiteboard we keep in the kids’ hallway.  Since the boys usually get home while I’m talking to other moms, I posted four signs around the house to make sure they SAW them.  (Because boys are gifted at ignoring what is right in front of their face).  This is what the sign said:

Welcome Home!  Do not go on the computer or TV.  If you do, you will be grounded from all screens for the week.  Do not pretend you didn’t see this note.  Your chores are listed on the white board. 

Do ONE chore and then ask me to check that it’s complete before you check it off.  Then get a snack and move on with the rest of your chores.   

Once you have finished ALL of them, you can do your homework and practice piano.

To make sure you do them efficiently, it might be a good idea to do the chores in separate rooms.  However, since some of them are the same chore, you will have to figure out how to get along.  If you argue or blame each other for anything, additional chores will be added.

If you can get ALL of them done well, and you get your homework and piano practiced, and you don’t fight or argue, we will watch more of Indiana Jones tonight.

Love, Mommy

I was determined to enforce this one, but predictably, there was a snag.  After school dismissal, Liam and his friend came bounding up to me.  “Mrs. Colwell, can Liam come over after school?”  Max asked.

Thinking of the signs, I looked at Max, took a deep breath and said, “Liam has some chores he has to do before he can play today.  If he gets them finished and there is still time, I’m sure he would love to play with you.”

As I finished, Max’s mom came up behind him.  She looked at me in shock and then she said, “Thank you!  Thank you so much!  My kids think they are the only ones who have to do chores.  Now Max knows.  Oh my gosh, thank you.  Max, you have homework you need to do.”

So all the kids went home.  Skyler and Liam discovered the notes and got to work.  They didn’t fight or even complain much, but they did a predictably sloppy job until I explained that cleaning the bathroom doesn’t mean flushing the toilet and closing the shower curtain.  If there are towels on the floor and toothpaste on the sink, you’re not done yet.

And “folding laundry” doesn’t mean wadding it up and jamming it into drawers, especially if it’s your mom’s clothes.  Hanging up involves using a hanger, and the gum on the rail of your bunk bed is not there to hold your pen in case you want to draw on your arm at night. 

When they were finally finished, having completed each task passably well, they were quite proud of themselves.  I wouldn’t call the bathroom glistening, but it definitely smelled better and there were only a few streaks on the mirrors.  Max finished his homework and came over, but only for 30 minutes because that’s all the time they had.  Instead of bickering at dinner, they bragged about the chores they had done. 

They felt so useful, that I am doubling the number of tasks they are expected to do around the house.  Call me the meanest mom in the world, but I can’t wait until one of them claims to be “bored.”  I’ve got a vacuum that will fix that problem!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Boys Love Fire

All my boys, including my husband are a little in love with fire.   Everyone wants to light and blow out the candles.  No one can stop themselves from throwing stuff into a campfire.  If there’s a fire in the fireplace, they stare at it and argue over which tool will maximize its size and heat, who gets to use it first, and who was right. 

I even met my husband over something flammable.  It was a flaming bagel.  We were at a birthday party for a mutual friend, and I discovered that if you cram a bagel full of birthday candles and light it on fire, you get an impressive flame that is really hard to blow out.

So, I was only mildly shocked when one day after preschool, Liam came up to me with a packet of matches he’d found (he knew where we kept them in the kitchen), and asked, “Mommy, can I practice being safe with fire?”  He looked at me in all seriousness. 

“Uh, no,” I reacted.  But then I thought about it.  He did ask first.*  How to build a fire may not be as vital for today’s boys as it was for those 200 years ago, but it’s hard to argue with the appealing “wow” factor.  And like Liam suggested, if you practice doing it safely, you’ll be better equipped to do it right when you need to.  I relented, “Well, okay, but you have to build a circle of rocks on the driveway and show me what you want to burn first.”

And he did.  He built himself a mini fire pit, and collected a few sticks, papers, and dry leaves to see what burnt the best.  He torched each item separately and deliberately, watching the flames as they died down.  I watched him from the kitchen with an extinguisher in one hand.

Fast forward four years.  Having graduated from matches, Liam asked for and received a flint for Christmas.  He constantly begged to use it, but elementary school schedules were hectic, and it seemed like bedtime arrived before we had any free time.  There were piano lessons, soccer practices, homework, and play dates.  One Thursday afternoon, about half an hour before we were supposed to leave for the craze of activities, I was in the kitchen making cookies – not paying any attention to what was happening in the backyard.   When I turned around to look out the window, there were flames six feet high shooting out of the fire pit.  Liam was using my BBQ mitts and tongs to perch the fire pit grate precariously on the burning logs.

“Hey, Mommy, the flint works!  Look!” he says proudly. 

I was in shock, but it is pretty darn cool that my third grader started a fire with a flint.  He did everything right.  He built a pyramid of large chunks of dried wood from our pile.  Then he collected a tangle of moss and sticks for kindling, and once it got started, he blew on it until it caught the logs and shot upward.  He even tried to “be safe” by using the mitts and tongs to put the grate back on. 

“Wow!” I said, stunned.  Then, “You know we do have to leave in about twenty minutes, so don’t put anymore wood on it.”

“We have to leave?  Can I dump water on it?”

“Sure.  But let’s watch it a little bit longer since you put so much work into it.  Next time, would you mind telling me when you want to use your flint?”

“Okay,” he agreed.  “I tried to, but you were on the phone.” 

I’m quite certain Liam will not be living at home when he’s thirty.  He’ll be off on a crazy adventure.  I’ll have to pin him down every so often for some good barbeque.

*Please note:  This is not unattended "playing with matches."  Liam was taught how to use matches and flint properly, and he learned how to do it successfully.  

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers (or Why I Don't Believe in "Stranger Danger")

Hadley was four when she got lost at Disneyland.  We went toward Alice in Wonderland, she went toward Dumbo and instantly disappeared into the crowd.  As soon as we started calling her name, several families instantly volunteered to look for her.  A Japanese woman took me by the hand and began pointing out little blonde girls asking, "Is she yours?  Is that one yours?  Don't worry.  We'll find her."

Another couple took a look at the picture of her on our camera and offered to make a loop around Fantasyland to try to find her.  "We'll meet you back at Dumbo in a few minutes."

Despite the fact that Disneyland is an unlikely place for would-be kidnappers (expensive admissions, only one exit, hundreds of families videotaping every happy moment) ten minutes seems like hours when you can't find a small child.  Just when we were about to really panic, an Indian family showed up.  They were all glancing around, looking concerned.  Hadley was in the middle of the group holding the hand of the father, and he was patting it gently.  "Your mommy?" he asked as Hadley saw me and dissolved into tears.  For the rest of the trip, he was known as "THE NICE MAN WHO BROUGHT ME BACK TO YOU."  And if he ever reads anything I write, I hope he knows that I am still grateful.  

The Japanese woman smiled and patted Hadley's head, "Have a great day!"  The other couple looked relieved when they came back empty handed and saw Hadley sobbing with us.  "Oh good!"

We thanked our impromptu volunteers and went on our way, grateful for the kindness of strangers.  After we got home and I told someone that story, she said, "Oh my gosh, Hadley just up and went with a MAN she didn't know??!!  You NEVER KNOW what might have happened.  You really got lucky this time."

Well, I suppose that is true to some extent.  I don't actually know what's going to happen when I get up and walk out the door, but I do know that my daughter is unlikely to be kidnapped  at Disneyland.  Most people there don't want to leave with more tired, whiny, sugar-hyped kids than they came with.  I wasn't actually worried that Hadley had been kidnapped, I was more concerned that she was hurt or scared.  I was glad I'd never taught her to ignore people she didn't know, otherwise it probably would have taken longer to find her.  

My friend has taught her daughters to look at their shoes and mumble "I don't know," when any stranger (librarian, cashier, receptionist) talks to them.  They are afraid to leave their mother's side and she attends every practice, lesson, and playdate they have -- at ages seven and nine.    

Despite the fact that I have heard "experts" warn me about stranger danger my entire life, even more so after I had kids, my experience suggests something completely different, and I like it much better.  I have been repeatedly rescued by compassionate strangers.  I was ten when my sister and I fell skiing and lost all our gear on the side of a mountain.  A stranger helped us collect it and sent us on our way.  At sixteen, my car overheated in the mountains and someone gave me a ride to the nearest Denny's so I could get water and call my dad.  When I was eighteen, I spent the night at a gas station employees' house because my car broke down.  A stranger in a cafe wrote me a charming poem about my freckles.  My husband and I got a ride in Idaho from a forest service guy winterizing campgrounds when one of the seats on our tandem sheared off.  When Liam, as a preschooler, got a splinter stuck all the way through the skin between his thumb and index finger, a stranger pulled it out while I held him.  (We still refer to him as the "Nice Cowboy" because of his boots and hat.)  I've bummed diapers, band-aids, juice boxes, and sunscreen off strangers, and I've been just as happy to pay it forward.

We regularly have people live with us, and we've never met any of them before they showed up at the door with their bags.  We're not combing parks looking for local weirdos, but if we get a request or we hear of a need, we'll offer what we have.  We've gotten to know students from Italy, cyclists from Australia, and teenagers from Japan.  In addition to having places to stay now when we visit these countries, our world is more connected, foreign things are less threatening, bridges are built, not burned.  A little risk, discretion, and equipping goes a long way.  

There are simply not enough kidnappers to lurk behind every shrub and loiter ominously near every park.  Most strangers aren't dangerous and teaching your kids that everyone you don't know wants to hurt you simply isn't true.  Most of the bad stuff that's happened to me and my family has been deliberately doled out by people I know or people my kids know.  The easiest place to start is to tell your kids that if they need help and they can't find you, look for a stroller and find another mom.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Cloudy Boys

Henry* was one of six third grade boys in my minivan on the field trip.  He was loud and wiggly like the rest of them, and I don't think he stopped talking during the twenty minute drive to the open space preserve.  When we arrived and were divided into groups, Henry and I were together.  He was still chattering a non-stop narrative on the names of the trees, their history, the buckeyes, what the native-American's used them for, and anything else that popped into his head.  He was exhausting to listen to, but I was impressed at the accuracy and detail of the information he had memorized  Each time the nature docent asked a question, Henry's hand shot up at the same time he shouted out an answer, which was usually right.  The other kids were obviously used to him, and obviously annoyed, and the docent glanced around looking for someone to run interference.  Henry noticed nothing.  I moved over to Henry and put an arm around his shoulder (since my boys -- and my husband -- hear better when someone is touching them) and whispered, "Let's wait until he calls on you next time."  Henry stiffened initially, but then relaxed and started bouncing slightly from one foot to another.  

As we started to move off onto our hike, Henry's teacher trotted up behind me.  "I'm so sorry I left you alone with him," she said.  "His meds kick in around 10:00.  The difference is amazing."  She was right.  Henry began the hike as an exuberant chatterbox, monopolizing the docent and talking over other kids, but as we moved along, he slowed down.  His steps were shorter, he stopped swinging his arms, and he struggled to find the right words for what he was trying to say.  Eventually, he stopped talking and sat down on a log.  "Henry," his teacher said, "We're almost back to the Ohlone huts.  You'll like this part.  We'll have a snack when we get there."

Henry shook his head as if he was trying to wake himself.  "I'm not hungry," he mumbled, but obediently got up and shuffled along side us.  It was a completely different Henry, subdued, obedient, and creepy.  Instead of his restless, manic engagement, he seemed foggy and detached.  He stared vacantly around, paying little attention to the docent.  On the ride home, he made a few comments, but mostly he looked out the window.  It was tragic to watch the drug seep into his system and stupefy him.

Don't get me wrong, I love medication.  I love every gram of fentanyl they shot into my arm while I was in labor.  For the three years I was pregnant or nursing, I had a huge crush on the anesthesiologist who gave me my epidurals.  If I had known how fabulous I felt on demerol, I might have sought out more illicit stuff when I was in my teens or twenties.  But, medicating a child because his behavior is inconvenient is like pushing Rosa Parks off the bus.  When my son Skyler (seen in the pictures above) was in third grade, his teacher wanted him to use a typing machine at his desk because his writing was messy.  In other words, he didn't want to correct or decipher Skyler's writing, he wanted to circumvent the hassle of having to deal with it.  

Boys are hassles.  They are.  They are stout-hearted, chest-beating, loyal, sensitive, rowdy, little cavemen and we are failing them.  School is for girls.  There are few, if any male teachers or role models, and those we do have are subject to unfounded scrutiny and suspicion.  Academic assessment is not based on multi-modal learning styles.  There are too many rules at recess and no real consequences.  (Pick up trash, clean the desks, stack books -- make them DO something useful -- they love to feel useful.)  

Everything boys do naturally can qualify as assault or harassment.  They are SUPPOSED to wrestle, pester, brag, shout, climb, run, and throw things.  It feeds their soul.  Forcing them to do seat work at school, parking them in front of screens at home, overscheduling them with organized activities, micromanaging their social life, refusing to give them any freedom, and pumping them full of drugs to keep them docile sucks the life out of them.  Should we wonder that so many of them are unmotivated and depressed?  

Leonard Sax has some ideas in Boys Adrift. I don't know what the solution is, but I'm quite certain we cannot continue at status quo and have our boys grow into the kind of men they could be.  Sometimes I think they're all born too late.  A hundred years ago, they would make themselves a sling shot and a fishing pole and head out to the back forty once they'd finished their chores.  Idealistic, I'm sure, but it sounds good when I'm explaining to the school secretary that I don't think rolling a pen across the floor during silent reading warrants a phone call home.  

*Of course I changed his name!