Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Letting Him Make Mistakes

The nearby mall offers free morning movies during the summer and I've intended to take Noah to one of the better offerings all season. Today was the last day of the program so I seized the opportunity to have a little 1:1 date to see Penguins of Madagascar (which has many hilarious moments).

 I checked in on whether he wanted to go a few days back and he was positive about attending, but his energy was more fixated on the prospect of movie theatre popcorn than the film itself. I want to buy a large one, he declared more than once. I told him he could use the money from his "spend" jar (we like the save-give-spend formula for allowance) but I was not thrilled with the expenditure. My disapproval of his decision was more directed at his happy consumption of a torso-sized bucket of chemicalized popcorn doused in toxic liquid "butter" (let's be clear, it's definitely not butter) than the lousy use of my his money.

I value thrift and I value natural foods eating; movie theatre popcorn violates both these values. I also value allowing my child to make decisions for himself, even if he chooses differently than I wish. One major reason for beginning an allowance this year was to give him opportunities to make regular decisions about how to use money. I did share my reasons against movie theatre popcorn (for one, we have 20 pounds of popcorn in our pantry at home, right now, plus real butter, and that is not an exaggeration) but I didn't want to pile on unpleasantries to what was, for him, a really notably fun event. I felt the need to mute myself similarly early this summer when he blew several weeks of allowance on a remote-control car that he played with for all of 4 days.

The kid really enjoys food and I completely relate. He'll sometimes make embarrassing moaning sounds of pleasure while eating a taco in public. At 6 it's simply not realistic or right to control all aspects of his intake. Not-so-little dude ninja-climbs the counter in the mornings to reach food high above the fridge while I'm still snoring in my bed, slices his own bread with a serrated knife, and can load and reload his flimsy paper plate at potluck spreads with no help from me. Most recaps of parties he attends have to do with the kind of tasty food he consumed!

After all these years of being mostly in control of his diet, it's difficult for me to see him waste money and ingest crap food into the growing "temple" of his body (I laugh saying that for this kid is often-naked, riddled with scabbing chigger bites June through August, and still forgets to wear underwear or brush his teeth, so he doesn't exactly evoke the "my-body-is-a-sacred-vessel" vibe). And yet. I trust that he'll find his way to healthy eating and sound financial spending by watching his parents make these same decisions each day (having children really pressures me to walk my talk in a big way!). And by making mistakes - lots of them.
A meal worth moaning over -Thai Boxzing food truck

Almost ready to hunt his own rations

Monday, August 17, 2015

Mountain Pilgrims

We just returned from a great family camping trip in the Western North Carolina Mountains. Three Augusts in a row now makes it our tradition, or at least that's the way we're starting to describe it. It's a chance to suck in cool mountain air before we return to Durham and suffer through the last weeks of sticky heat and mosquitoes of summer. Little mountain towns are beginning to look familiar, we almost know the route without cursing over an unwieldy paper map ('cuz GPS won't help ya out in those parts), we're developing favorite varieties of the heritage apples we always pick, and I notice very distinctly the ways my children have changed over the past year(s).

The change I enjoy the most is that my children have the perseverance and physical stamina to hike longer distances before growing fatigued. Little Ezra made it 2.5 miles round trip to the gorgeous Crabtree Falls with nary a complaint and both children beamed with pride and appreciation as they took in the falls. Last year we were still wearing Ezra in a carrier and limiting hikes to under a mile. What really excites me is the possibility of beginning to backpack with them!

I also appreciate how much they relax into our camping experiences. They begin the trip as the loudest people in the park, seemingly unable to tamp down their sounds. By night 2, they figure out how to make a "home" in a shared public space (and the public campgrounds off the Blue Ridge Parkway are exceptionally popular with sites crowded closed together. I am motivated to find camping options with more privacy for our next trip). Minus distractions, they begin to rely more deeply and harmoniously on one another for companionship and look to found objects from nature to fuel their imaginative play. At one point, my boisterous babes were crawling on their hands and knees in silent pursuit of a butterfly they hoped to "pet."

Absent from this trip were those moments of total exasperation from traveling with children: of a toddler tyrant insisting that the car windows be rolled up (this, after our AC failed us on the 2014 trip, making for a very hot ride home), of kids growing more irritable by the day because of trouble sleeping in an unfamiliar setting, of hunger-fueled meltdowns because the limited camp rations don't match the variety of a full fridge and pantry.

Dare I say it? Our children are becoming good travelers!

The kidlets maybe becoming good travelers, but our new dog, Pippi, is a great traveler! I was a bit nervous about taking her, as we've only had her with us for 3 weeks. She did not bark once, happily hung out tethered at the campground when we needed her to and made us all laugh with her ability to sleep wedged in the most improbable places, including with her head resting atop my coffee mug in the console.
Crabtree Falls, Milepost 339 on the Blue Ridge Pkwy

Not pictured: Chula Dog, who is not such an easygoing traveler

Bedtime reading by the campfire

Picking (and eating and eating) "June" and "Ginger Gold" apples at the Altapass Orchards

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My Dog, The Woods and Me

Walking with Chula Dog in the woods around the Eno River is one of my favorite activities. I like woodswalks with people but it's a different, chattier experience. There is something soul satisfying for me about silence and to share nature with a mostly silent companion is the best.

I like to see the transformations that occur on these walks. Chula starts off hyper-alert, looking all around for imagined dangers, making quick, furtive forays into the river lest she be spotted by a predator in a place of vulnerability.  After a while, when we take a rest in an especially scenic spot, she becomes mellow and focused: she's the predator now - stalking fish, pouncing toward movements in the grass, munching greenery for a power boost. She lowers her whole self into the water, swimming for the joy of it.

Her transformation mirrors my own nervous system's shift on these walks: I move from a giddy, cerebral state (planning the hike [beginning with the perpetual, nagging question of, Is this the best use of my limited childcare?], trying to remember how long is the trail and where does it begin, again? Will I have time to make it to Costco between the hike and the nursery school pick up?) to a calm, harmonious state. I tune into my breath and the subtle signs of animal and plant life all around -the plop of sunbathing turtles slipping into the river from their rocks, the swish of poplar tree leaves swaying, the fish that become visible only when all is still. There is so much energy in the woods and river on a summer morning - the place is practically buzzing and crackling - but it takes quieting down and being still for me to notice.

I noticed something else on this last hike: Chula is getting old and soon the kinder choice will be to leave her home from these multi-mile hikes. She can no longer hop into the back of the car without assistance, and limps for a day following each walk. This realization led to a bold move: I submitted an application for our family to adopt a second dog from a rescue group. We have been wanting a second dog but it's easier to do nothing and so a year has passed since our initial conversations about it. I want Chula to be part of training a younger dog in the ways of the woods (it's ok to explore but you must return to your people!) and so it's time to move forward.

Maybe my next post will feature a new silent trail companion!

Chula Dog in the Wild, Age 10

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summer Slow 2015

I'm enjoying the slow rhythm of summer, with Noah out of school. Oh, how I have missed him! Wide open days lend themselves to leisurely play and unfolding projects, uninterrupted by scheduled activities. The boys become each other's best playmates again and we gain so many damn hours to our days. It's not that we don't go anywhere but there is a looseness to the going out - we tell friends we'll be at the park around 10 and maybe don't actually show up until 10:30 because the kids were so engrossed in fashioning weapons out of broomsticks and sand rakes I didn't want to move them along before they were through.

A balanced life, for me, means I have space in my days to connect with others in an impromptu way: I can invite people over for dinner cuz I get to thinking about them that morning, I can say yes to caring for a friend's animals because it's low-key entertainment to have a young puppy in our midst. It means not scheduling every hour. As summer begins, the days are blanketed in heat and humidity, and my energy takes a ding, I want to rip any 'To-Do" or "Bucket" lists into shreds!
All-star dog walking team

Noah and I are taking piano lessons together on Thursday mornings. I am as much a beginner as he is, which is a wonderful shared experience. I don't seize many opportunities to be a true beginner, which is at least as much about not having lots of time to explore new areas of interest, as it is wanting to save face and appear competent in all things like a "good" adult should. Yeah, that's lame.

Don't believe everything you think!

In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind, there are few. - Shunryu Suzuki

I am feeling energized by the concepts of unschooling, roughly, the idea that learning can (should?) happen outside the confines of formal education. If you're like most adults, you can go a long time without learning something new if you're no longer in a formal student role. It's stifling.

With a lot more time together, there are more opportunities for one family member's interests to influence another. Noah and I have been diligent in our daily piano practice, and that has little brother requesting his turns at the piano, too. "Show me piano lessons, " he requests. And he shows keen interest in understanding how the instrument works.

Papa Matthew has long been the only piano player in the family and now he's almost having to beg for turns as it becomes a more popular place to be! Maybe we'll form family band, yet...


Thursday, June 11, 2015


My kids have a superpower and it's detecting the most minute molecule of sugar present anywhere in the house. We don't have a lot of treats and that may be why they explode with happiness when it's discovered. I want to treat popsicles and birthday party candy and muffins and granola bars and such as treats - something we enjoy as an occasional pleasure. When these items are in the house, however, the kids have a hard time not consuming them, asking over and over when they can have one.

 My reaction so far, to their sugar-seeking has been to enact strong limitations and I'm beginning to rethink that. For one, I find the limit-setting to be draining. For two, it's not possible to control their access to food outside the house, in the case of my 6 year old who regularly receives junk food snacks as part of his public school kindergarten day, and who goes on playdates and attend birthday parties without a parent. When he brings home a piƱata booty of 40 pieces of candy, doling it out to him (and younger brother, cuz fairness is paramount when you have more than one kid) takes 3 weeks at one per day. I have such better things to do with my time than rationing Pop Rings!

I have excellent self-control around food, now. A dark chocolate bar often lasts me more than a week (if it remains undetected in my underwear drawer hiding place, that is. There is an adult sugar-seeker in my house, too, and his initials are MY). I would love to eat an excellent pastry every day and down at least 2 glasses of wine in the evening but I've learned I wouldn't actually enjoy the experience so I don't. Having unlimited access to desserts makes me want it less and more than 1 drink of alcohol a night makes me feel like a dessicating rat, ruins my sleep and makes me feel dull the next day.

I came by my excellent self-discipline the hard way, by spending most of my Times Record (Troy, NY) newspaper route earnings on BlowPops and Tootsie Rolls and other corn syrup/food coloring concoctions when I was 10, 11, and 12. Do you remember Teeni drinks (see below)? -I could drink one of each "color" in one sitting!

There's a part of me that wishes I can simply impart good self-discipline to my children without them having to go through the learning part. Well, that's kinda ridiculous, isn't it? Does exposure to crappy food warp their palette in some irrevocable way or might my restrictions actually increase the psychological value of the restricted food?

I've been reconsidering the food restrictions, the idea that I have to set limits in order to encourage healthy eating. If popsicles are made of healthy foods like yogurt and fruit, do I really need to limit them to 1 each if they ask for more, for example? Why? Well, one reason is that it requires time on my part to prepare them and I'd like for the popsicles to last to save me the work of making more. If they eat pounds of expensive grocery store strawberries in one sitting, for example, there won't be strawberries for the rest of the week and Papa and I might not get any; that seems ungenerous. If they are allowed cereal before dinner, than they won't want to eat the meals I make and their diets won't be balanced. True?

I'm gathering information to better understand the dynamics. For instance, I notice Ezra tends to eat lots of one thing one day: he'd happily have dates and strawberries and an apple for his morning meal, but he also consumed 6 filets of flounder for dinner one night. Maybe his diet is balanced but over the week and not the day or meal. Noah will scarf ice cream and follow it with a salad chaser. My boys are very healthy, energetic, and (mostly) happy (except when I'm rationing their birthday party pinata booty!).

This is a timely topic as school ends today and the kids will be home and hungry much more during the summer months. I'll have more to share in time.

No limits to strawberry eating when we just picked 50 lbs ourselves!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Joys of Camping, Part 2

Did my last post on the joys of camping make you groan? I know that feeling. Camping prep used to be so onerous I decided the camping experience needed to be 2 nights minimum in order to balance the the 2 days of work involved in the getting there. Like many challenges, it gets easier the more you do it. The key is a standard supplies list that you pull out each and every time. All the better would be to have everything you need in one physical spot but I'm not there yet.

The magical word for me when it comes to camping is E-A-S-Y. We eat simple meals with prepared foods we would not usually eat at home, we camp with our car nearby, and we usually choose locations within an hour of home. I'm even using the same meals menu for all our trips lately. We headed home a day early from our latest trip (and skipped our first night on the one before that) because of rain. I used to be more of a purist on these matters ("Only BACKPACKING in which you haul your barebones gear up a mountain side is 'real' camping") but purity, like perfection, is the enemy of progress.

I promised to share my standard supplies list and here it is. I even include the dog poop bags, though I forgot the eating dishes on our last trip so user error is inevitable.

Oh, and also-I interrupt this very serious post to let you in on a truly useful secret: toaster oven s'mores are only about 100% superior to campfire ones and it's all about the melting of the chocolate. I have never enjoyed campfire s'mores b/c the textures felt incompatible: hard chocolate, overly sweet, gooey marshmallow, crisp graham cracker that isn't any good on it's own, even.  But, as a consolation prize to the boys for aborting our most recent trip to Kerr Lake after only 1 night, we discovered toaster oven marshmallows. Now THAT'S a dessert I can get behind. Don't tell anybody I told you; I fear fanatics bearing flaming marshmallows on sticks!

Little Paul Bunyan learning to split wood

Kerr Lake from our tent

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What it's all about: fire and companionship
The only way I consume s'mores!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

My Kinda Fun - Group Camping

Spring has sprung in our lovely Durham and that means lots of outdoor time for our family. We've already had our first camping trip of the year, with 2 more on the horizon for April and May. We've stumbled across a really lovely way to spend time as a family and also connect with others: group camping.
Photo by Sandrine Pilaz

I love what happens to our family when we camp. There's something so relaxing and heart-opening about time outdoors with no strong agenda. We wake up when the sun shines (or the kids begin stirring), we eat when hungry (or when the kids complain in critical numbers), we collect wood and stoke the fire when cold, and step into the chilly water when we get too hot. The weirdest thing of all is that, over several trips now, our kids request to go to bed.

I don't want to wax too romantic over the notion of "being at one with the earth" since we're talking about 48 hours outdoors, maximum, and we have a car parked 100 paces away. Little House on the Prairie, this is not.

My most favorite element of group camping is that caring for children becomes easy and fun. Our children become comfortable asking other adults for help, and there is something about the free-forms of outdoor play that help their little nervous systems become calm and in sync with one another.  Our kids do not squabble in this environment (and immediately resume squabbling on the car ride home).

Hey, nature works magic on big people, too! We adults get lots of time to connect without constant interruption and being able to relax so deeply in an intentional way is heavenly. It fills our cups in a big way.
Photo by Sandrine Pilaz
Of course, I'm playing detective and gathering clues as to what works so well in camping and how we might replicate those elements in our home life. Here's what I've come up with so far:
  • the elements of work are tangible and allow kids to participate 
  • there's very little structure or transitions to navigate. The kids move from activity to activity with freedom
  • there is enough supervision and open time for kids to learn challenging skills with adult oversight like using an axe, rowing a canoe, using blazes to stay on trail, building a fire, cooking over an open fire.

    For a long time, I found the prepwork for camping to be so onerous as to question whether it was worth it. If that's where you are in your journey, dear reader, the next post is for you. I break it down and I'll even share my packing list.