Read Along with Me: Last Child in the Woods

Okay, I finally decided to start reading “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. So many have asked me if I had read it, that I was starting to feel embarrassed. I felt like one of those presenters who is in front of a large crowd and a hand shoots up and says, “But have you read the most seminal piece in parenting this day?” Ahhh…..

Fine. I’ll read it.

And you can journey along with me.

I completely agree with the premise. Today’s kids have become more and more distant from nature and that is having serious consequences on their health, creativity and development. It is also having an impact on the environment. I’m just not sure I need 300+ pages to tell me all that, since I am now also a product of the internet age and want my information concise and quick.

But I’m going to slug through the book and see what I learn, having started on page one in the middle of the night while waiting for the emergency medicine vet to evaluate my dog’s chocolate toxicity level. Apparently the scent of delectable dark chocolate nonpareils was more than her four paws and sharp canines could resist.

One paragraph that caught my attention was Richard Louv’s description of how much our society uses technology within our cars now. No longer do kids observe endless fields and mindless telephone poles whipping by their peripheral vision. Instead they are plugged into a device and miss out on observations of nature and changing landscapes, thus missing opportunities to understand the expanse of the world and the connection countryside and cityscapes.

“We actually looked out the car window. In our useful boredom, we used our fingers to draw pictures on fogged glass as we watched telephone poles tick by. We saw birds on the wires and combines in the fields. We were fascinated with roadkill, and we counted cows and horses and coyotes and shaving-cream signs. We stared with a kind of reverence at the horizon, as thunderheads and dancing rain moved with us.” (pgs 63-64)

Okay. He got me there. I have long patted my shoulder for keeping all electronics off in the car while we travel around “town,” but whenever we started a road trip that would last longer than an hour, the boys knew that devices were now “allowed.”  I’ve been doing it backwards!

But here’s my argument; that is to say, here’s what I do to convince myself my decision is of course the right one. I’m a single parent driving three bouncy, noisy, crazy boys six hours to get to the beach. There’s only so much a mom can handle before she becomes too much of a distracted driver and things get unsafe. I can’t juggle the arguments about who won the counting cows contest, who is touching whom, who stole whose pillow. So if they’re going to “plug in” and leave me to my inner introvert thoughts for a bit, I’m just going to go with it. We will all arrive safer and saner this way.

As a compromise, we have developed a routine of turning off all electronics about forty-five minutes out from our destination so we can see the landscape change and start to smell the salt air. It’s a moment to bond with each other in excitement and in connecting with nature. We spend the next week feeling and talking about the power of waves and the pull of the tide. We stumble over sharp shells and curl our toes into the sand. We explore the rough, heavy wet sand which shapes into castles with the fine silky hot sand that floats in the wind as you let it spill from your fingers. It’s a whole week of being unplugged which the boys still relish at the ages of 11, 8 and 6.  I’m hoping we get a few more golden years of spending a week at the beach.

And after starting to read this book, I have tried to be more intentional about pointing out “nature” a bit more as we drive around town and through the city parks. I throw in small comments about the shape of the clouds, the color of the sunset, the shade offered by the trees, the grass along the side of the road. This pacifies my guilt a bit, but I still wrestle with wanting my kids to be more comfortable in the natural world and to connect more with it.

So I’ll keep reading (though I confess that I’m more drawn to “Before I Wake” by Dee Henderson which I’m also currently reading!).

 

Poverty as Seen By the 6 Year Old

The Little Guy was rapping in the back seat again. He does it often enough to make Super Tall Guy snap “shut up” more often than I like. I love hearing him play with words and sounds. I love listening to the boys experiment. And so I bite my tongue when I’ve had a long day and am tired of noise. And I shush the eldest to give space to the learning.

Last week, these were the words:

I got no money

I got no money

I got no job

I got no home

 

Help me

Help me

Please help me

Cuz I got no money

 

All I got is this piece of cardboard

Cardboard

All I got is cardboard

And I’ll recycle it

But can you give me some money

I got no money

 

Please help me

Won’t you help me.

 

“What does he know about poverty?” asked the ophthalmologist as I mentioned this song that was created on the drive to his 6-month eye check-up.

What does he know? We drove past a man holding a sign as we traversed a poorer section of town and I answered the Little Guy’s question.

No, he doesn’t understand the complexity of poverty. He doesn’t understand how people and institutions with power oppress over 45 million Americans. He doesn’t understand that kids go to bed hungry every night just miles from his home. He doesn’t understand that families don’t have running water and don’t play in the bathtub with goggles on their face any time they want to like he does. He doesn’t understand inequality and disparity. He doesn’t understand that the color of his skin will play a bigger role in how people approach him than the words that come from his mouth and the thoughts that come from his mind.

He doesn’t understand that life will beat people down. He doesn’t understand that the feelings of scarcity created by experiencing poverty in and of itself will alter the brain in such a way as to keep people in poverty. He doesn’t understand that the man holding the sign does not want to stand in the hot sun and humble himself to beg for money from people who might roll down their window and toss a couple dollars in his cup.

But he does understand that the man is asking for help. And there is something inside the heart of the Little Guy that hears that plea and responds to that plea. His innocence and youth allow him to connect on a real level with a man on the street, uninhibited by all the conflicting “science” of the “best” way to help people.

What I want him to understand about poverty is that it doesn’t have to be this way. What I want him to do is hold onto his heart and his innocence and develop the skills he needs to change the world.

“You really can change the world if you care enough.” ~ Marian Wright Edelman

Effective Immediately

“’Effective Immediately’ can be your team name,” replied a mom recently. I had just explained to her that I have this sense that any time I receive an email or a note in my mailbox from any “community” to which we belong that begins with the words, “Effective Immediately,” or “It has come to our attention…,” it can pretty much be assumed that my boys played some role in this new “policy.”

“Effective Immediately, children must now be supervised in the play area…” Community Pool.

“It has come to our attention that children are riding bikes in the street….” Townhome Community. Let’s be serious. It’s not really a street; it’s more like a parking lot road to the end of the row of townhouses. And it is already posted as “10 mph,” so maybe if you enforced the speed limit with the adults, there would be fewer near-misses of cars and kids on bikes.

My boys are not complete hooligans, but let’s face it, they are boys. They do enjoy removing large boxes from the recycling dumpster and building forts. They have been known to unwind a whole role of duct tape around a couple trees out back and then get distracted by the next game. They particularly enjoy careening down the slope of one parking area to see if they can keep the turn at the end tight enough to miss parked cars but not tight enough that they spill over onto the asphalt (smart guys). And they do march around with their shirts off and their Nerf guns in the ready position, like a reenactment of Lord of the Flies. They are boys – active, busy, exploring, socializing, negotiating, testing their limits.

It’s such a balance as a parent between hovering over them to make sure they don’t get too banged up and letting them figure out who will be captain of the adventure crew versus who is picking up the trash; who steers the swivel cart and who holds on for dear life; who chooses the next activity and who follows along. They climb, they jump, they roll, they speed, they play (and apparently they have jumped off the roof of my sister’s house onto the temptingly waiting trampoline below too!).

To me, the generated “policies” and “notices” hint at the loss of the “community,” the “village,” that used to surround parents in the neighborhood. Instead of Ms. So-and-So down the street just yelling at my boys if they were doing something stupid, she now sends me a text and tells me what they did. Instead of Mr. So-and-So just grumping, “Get off my yard,” he complains to management and every townhome with a human under 5-feet-tall gets a reprimanding notice.

Is it a shift in people turning more inward and taking less responsibility over others? Is it a shift in parents being more protective and getting upset if other people encroach on their boundaries of parenting? Is it a lack of engagement or a calculation of potential liability?

I feel like I have to practically beg people to be my village. Yell at my kids – they’re going to listen to you more than to me anyway! I want my boys to develop independence and take risks, but also learn respect and responsibility. I want them to know that others have expectations for them as well and that there is a community that surrounds them and cares about them. As I search for a new home for us, I’m also searching for that community; one that is not reprimanding the parents, but actually joining in the difficult task of raising up the next generation.

 

 

 

 

 

Some days Motherhood Seems So Surreal

Super Tall Guy and I were in the battle. Lines drawn. Armor on. Advancing and retreating. Serious and big emotions. We’re matched weight for weight and almost height by height. And it was physical. Wrestling. Pushing. Yelling. I stood my ground. He pushed the buttons, clamoring for more power. Arguing for agency and the right to be his own boss.

“You are not the boss over me,” the argument continued.

“I am your mother,” I repeated countless times.

In the heat of the anger, the tears, and the chaos, I finally calmly asked, “Do you need to see your birth certificate? It has my name on it.”

Immediately he quieted. “Yes,” he whispered and followed me upstairs.

He sat on my floor against my bed as I pull out the fire-proof safe and got the key. He sobbed that kids at school had said there’s only one way to be someone’s mother and that’s to birth them. He railed against adoption.

I pulled out The Little Guy’s birth certificate. “See, under ‘Mother,’ there’s my name.”

Same for Mr. Ornery’s birth certificate.

Same for you.

“Well, I’m just going to tear it up,” he yelled. “Tear it up a hundred times,” I countered, “It will still stand. Always and forever, I am your mother.”

We’re going to wrestle about this quite a few times, I have a feeling. In every kids’ life there are times that we challenge our parents’ parenthood or angrily state that we want to go live with someone else, you know, because their “Mom is so much nicer.” But when it comes to adoption, the stakes are even higher. It was a choice I made in a court of law to “become” a mother but it doesn’t change the fact that the child has a sense within that there’s “another” mother out there somewhere. Another mother that “could” be Mom or “should” be Mom or is somehow missing from their life. Even without meeting their birthmom, my boys have to come to grips with the fact that they are being raised, and cared for, and loved by a woman who doesn’t look like them, doesn’t share the same genes, didn’t actually birth them.

Super Tall Guy is the first to express this internal wrestling. It took an all-out physical fight to uncover the core of his distress. Each boy will need to deal with the issue in their own way, just as I find myself needing to deal with it.

I woke up this morning on Mother’s Day, listening to the sounds of three boys stirring. Three boys who call me Mother. Three boys who have new birth certificates with my name in the “Mother” line. What a journey this has been.

Some days I can’t figure out how I got here. Some days I know that I haven’t assumed the mother role completely. The sacrifices. The exhaustion. The endless nagging and battles. The toys that creep across the floor in the middle of the night and sprout between the cracks of the hardwood.

Some days I look at my friends’ comments on all the great trips they are taking, the movies they are watching, the hot coffee they are sipping. I warm up my coffee for the third time and pick up another toy to put it in another spot from which it will sneak out another time.

But some days I cry with pride at the orchestra recital, cheer myself hoarse at the soccer field, and fill my heart with joy as I watch boys tear through Christmas wrapping paper. I wouldn’t change this for the world!

Happy Mother’s Day to all Moms, but most especially to those who have raised their right hand and sworn to be Mom through the ups and downs and received a brand new birth certificate with their name on the “Mother” line!

Warnings about “Tricky People” Don’t Stick with My Kids

When I haven’t blogged for a few weeks, it’s a pretty good sign that my brain is full. Lately it’s been full of miscellaneous Internal Medicine board recertification facts that will now slowly fade from the brain after the tortuous 8 hour exam. Thus the brain is clear to start fussing about other things.

For example, I’m starting to get that restless “time to move” feeling. We have been in a small townhome for almost two years and my need to stretch is tugging on me. More importantly, my concern about the neighborhood is growing steadily greater.

This week we had the “tricky adult” talk. Not the “this could happen” talk, but the “this did happen” talk. I talk to my boys about tricky adults and being safe pretty frequently. I also tell them to lift the toilet seat and to ask before sneaking a treat pretty frequently too, but that hasn’t gotten me very far. I know I’m going to go hoarse with the “stop whistling in the car” admonition. They don’t listen.

A sense of dread always comes over me when a particular father in the neighborhood approaches my door. He’s a nice guy and usually it’s about some skirmish his boys and mine are having. Sometimes it’s about who was swearing first. Sometimes it’s about the boys not sharing. This afternoon it was a question about whether I knew a man in a townhome a few doors down. “I’ve met him once,” I replied. “He’s the boyfriend of a mom I know from kid basketball and baseball.”

“Well, I just saw him give the boys candy in exchange for a hug,” he responded.

Boom.

Red Flag number one for grooming behavior of a sexual predator. Every warning signal going off in my body. Every Mama Bear siren firing. I calmly asked the boys to hand the candy over to me as they bounced home a few seconds later, lollipops hanging from their lips. I asked them to stay away from the house and we would talk later.

As we sat in the car before picking up the older boys for karate, I patiently explained the concept of “tricky people” again. How someone might ask you for a hug for candy, but the person is using candy to trick you. They might nicely do it two or three times. On time number four, they might say that the candy is inside the house or the car and please come inside to get some. I said to the boys, “Has Mr. V ever asked you for a hug? Has Mr. A ever asked you for a hug?” referring to the fathers of friends of ours in the neighborhood. “No,” they both replied. Good men do not ask children for a hug. You are not to hug someone that you don’t really know and never someone who is giving you candy to get a hug.

Later that night I chatted with a couple friends…..and then I made a police report. According to my neighbor who witnessed the event and spoke with the police the next day, the man denied touching the boys (of course) and stated that a bowl of candy is always available to anyone (news to me). The district attorney didn’t think there was enough evidence to continue the case, and the family in question is apparently moving out to a new home in a few days anyway (thank goodness). But in my mind, a relatively unknown man has touched my young children without my permission and when I wasn’t present.

My Mommy-heart worries for the three young children of the woman in that relationship. My Mommy-heart worries that for all of my warnings and admonitions my boys remain so easily seduced by sugar. My Mommy-heart worries that I won’t always be there or another caring parent won’t always be a witness and provide a safe extraction. And yet my Mommy-heart is thankful that the boys were not hurt, that it is an important story for us to keep telling and learning from, and that the community is watching out for each other. Parents are in this together.

Maybe there is something to the Bottle-Flipping Insanity

The other night my older two boys sat in the hallway cheering and yelling and counting as they seemingly mindlessly twirled plastic bottles into the air. The bottle flip game. Every parents’ nightmare. Every teacher’s nightmare. Every coaches’ nightmare. If you work with kids, you are tortured by this new craze. There’s even an app for it – at least the app doesn’t involve spilled water or loud thunks or occasional property damage.

My constant diatribe fell on deaf ears. “Go pee, brush your teeth and get ready for bed,” I repeated endlessly. All they could focus on was whether they had “stuck it.” How many points the opponent had. Whether that flip counted or not. They were completely enraptured.

However, it didn’t take long for those bottles to be emptied out and thrown into the recycling bin by a slightly irritated parent.

You see, my boys flip the bottles in the living room. They flip them on the sidewalk. They flip them in the car. They used to flip them in the cafeteria at school, but apparently that’s been banned. Smart lunch staff! The game eats under my skin. It’s not just the noise, it’s the waste of resources that kills me. I already have a “thing” about plastic bottles, but to catch my boys cracking one open, pouring out almost 1/3 of the contents, and then leaving water bottles strewn ….everywhere….. It’s more than I can endure!

So in the manner of most things that irritate me about parenting, I try to consider what might be positive about this bottle flipping nonsense.

Persistence – If nothing else, the boys are learning to stick with something and work towards improvement since landing on the cap apparently earns more points than landing on the base. In general, nine out of ten times the bottle lands on its side, so they flip again.

Turn-taking – Social give-and-take is a constant learning need of the boys and although there’s usually a continuous argument throughout a “game” of bottle flipping, the boys are negotiating the rules and turn-taking.

Mathematics – Not only are the boys keeping score, but they are adding and comparing numbers. I’d love them to start calculating percentages, but that might be a bit too much to ask out of my 8 and 10-year-olds.

Self-entertainment – Teaching kids to be self-sufficient and able to entertain themselves is a constant struggle for parents. At least while bottle-flipping, they are not complaining about being bored or trying to spend time on an electronic device. And it is an activity amenable to a variety of environments, just not all the ones (like in the car) that the boys think it’s appropriate for.

Friendship – The beauty of this game is that anyone can do it no matter what the age or skill level. Thus, the boys can practice the skills of making new friends and initiating interactions with others by joining in this mutual activity or asking other kids to play with them.

Science – In essence, they are experimenting
with gravity, learning the differences in motion depending on weight or amount of fluid in the container, and learning about rotation of objects. I’m working to incorporate the lessons of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” though we haven’t gotten too far with that yet. It’s usually me picking up the bottles and tossing them in the recycle can.

In general, I’m trying to be a bit more patient with this fundamentally annoying game. Like all fads, I’m hoping it moves along soon….though it’s upcoming replacements (like the fidget toy) tend to be a bit more costly!

 

 

 

 

Have We Watered Down “Friends”?

A friend from high school stopped by a couple weeks ago. We haven’t seen each other in about 20 years, but our reunion hug was long and deep. A true friend. Which made me wonder about the friends my kids are developing?

I really thought about it when my mom returned from the parent-teacher association meeting recently about online safety.

“How was it?” I asked later that day.

“Scary,” she replied. Huh, I thought, that’s the same response my neighbor had when I asked her.

And they are right. It is scary. We know that children are being exposed to photos and information that is not appropriate. We know that our children are revealing too much personal information about themselves. We know that the number of child predators online is beyond comprehension (about half a million predators online every day). We know that at least 20% of all kids experience cyberbullying. We know that about 70% of all kids will “accept” a friend invitation whether or not they know the person.

Then it hit me. Do children these days actually know what a friend is? In my generation, a friend was someone you spent time with, someone that you enjoyed, someone with whom you did activities or sat beside and watched the clouds roll by. A friend was a human being in your physical social context. You have talked to your friend. You have shaken hands or hugged your friend. In those days, you knew your friend’s number and you talked to them.

Today, my children have had “friends” since they were a few months old in day care. Every other child in their class was a “friend.” “Good morning, friends.” “Play nice with your friends.” “Let’s open up our books, friends.” As they entered elementary school, the concept of all peers as friends continued to persist.

My question is, have we watered down the concept of friends to the extent that children assume everyone in their peer group is a friend. Thus, it makes sense to them that they might have hundreds of “friends” in an online space because “friends” are not necessarily people you know, but defined by someone else.

I asked my ten-year-old how many friends he has. His reply was “I have tons of friends. A whole bunch.” To me, though, he essentially has only one friend that he texts and plays Minecraft with and visits his home. The others are classmates and school peers.

So I’ve begun defining for him as he enters the online world that the only “friends” he is to have online are those that he also has a “real life” connection to. People he can touch. People he has spoken to and spent time with. People he actually knows.

It’s a scary world out there (even for me with viruses, hackers, identity theft and more a constant threat). Part of keeping kids safe is helping them navigate their social, electronic and digital experiences (I’m even contemplating using an “online contract“). And part of that is helping them identify and cultivate true “friends.”

(And I used to think parenting was easy….)