You Don’t Have To Let Go Of Everything At Once

Are you kidding me, Colorado?

For two decades now, we have gone to the corn maze with our sons before Halloween. It started in 2001, when we took four month old Joe to Anderson Farms. We have been when it was 80 and sunny. We have been when the temperature dropped and we were finishing the maze in the snow. We have been when we had the boys in Baby Bjorn carriers, then in wagons, and then when we raced as teams (boys versus us) to see who would emerge triumphant. It is one of the traditions we made and kept over the years. It was definitely different this year with Joe off at college, but we decided we weren’t ready to let this go.

The map Luke used

It was about 60 degrees at 10:10 a.m. when we entered the maze. The sky was full of cirrus clouds, and the leaves on the cottonwoods were amazing. Luke has a crazy good ability to read maps, so he told us we could finish both sections of the maze in 15 minutes. I told him it would take at least 30. With this challenge, he started leading us through the maze. In five minutes he had us through the smaller section of the maze. I was a little shocked. I knew he was good, but this was a little over the top. I started to suspect that this is why he and his brother have beaten us through the maze three years running. We did get close one year, but not close enough. I thought it was because Steve and I were old and slow. It was actually because Luke was Magellan in his former life.

Luke leading the way

Luke raced us through the second part of the maze. I kept complaining that although there are seven miles of paths in this maze, I was going to get in less than one mile of walking because he was so damn efficient. In the end, I wasn’t half wrong. We reached the exit for the second part of the maze at 10:36. I tried to explain to Luke that corn mazes aren’t about speed, but Luke told me I didn’t raise quitters. He thinks successfully navigating corn mazes it is about efficiency and speed. I tend to disagree. I think corn mazes are meant to be wandered through in awe, with a plan of escaping at some point but not until you’ve sucked every last bit of glory out of fall before dreaded winter arrives. But I was not going to complain about our difference of opinion because any time with our high school senior is a good thing.

I think that when both boys are gone next year, Steve and I will still work to keep this tradition alive, even if it is just the two of us. I can’t see giving this up. At its worst, it’s a cold, wet day in a muddy cornfield. At its best, it’s a beautiful morning walk in nature under a glorious fall sky.

You can’t keep your kids from growing up and leaving you, but you can keep some things in tact so that if they ever return (maybe with their own children) they know where to find you.

Thing Two and I

Turns Out Dr. Spock Was Right

“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” ~Dr. Benjamin Spock

Two little bears and one mama bear

Today I was thinking about the times in my twenty years as a parent when I was brave enough to follow my gut, to speak up for my children, to make the right choices for them in the face of opposition from medical professionals, family members, friends, and even random strangers who couldn’t keep from speaking up about something they knew nothing about and that was none of their business. Sometimes I made these bold moves with my voice shaking. Sometimes I made them unconsciously, simply changing a behavior without considering why I had. No matter how I managed to summon the courage in those situations, though, I trusted myself. And, as it turns out, I intuitively knew a lot more than I thought I did.

When most kids their age were starting first grade, I thought it wise to keep both our boys back a year and give them a second kindergarten experience. I simply didn’t feel they were ready. I just kept thinking that an extra year to be a child, to build basic skills, could never be a bad thing. It was odd watching boys they knew from playgroup jump ahead of them in school. It was odder still when boys who were younger than they were suddenly were in the same grade. In the end, both boys ended up being diagnosed with learning disabilities, and the extra year allowed them to fit in with their fellow students until we figured out what they needed. If they had gone to school “on time” with other children their age, they would not have been able to keep up. They weren’t ready then. Neither boy has suffered for the extra time we suggested they take to get to where they needed to be.

When Joe was 7 and finishing first grade, I remember him crying and telling me he didn’t want to go to second grade. He hated school. He actually said to me, “I’m the dumbest person in my class” (that story here). That broke my heart because 1) I knew he was not dumb at all and 2) how do you fix the shattered self-esteem of a 7 year old? So, I went out on a limb and took him to Children’s Hospital in Denver to be evaluated for ADD after Joe’s occupational therapist suggested it. It took less than an hour spent with two child psychologists and one child psychiatrist before they took me aside and told me they were positive Joe had ADHD. They suggested trying him on a low dosage of Concerta, the slow-release version of Ritalin. Joe and I agreed he should try it. Several friends thought I was crazy. How could I put my young son on a Schedule II drug? Three days after he started on it, Joe, then 8, told me he finally felt like himself. That medication changed the trajectory of his life. It allowed him to focus at school, to trust himself, to make good decisions, to grow his self-esteem. It allowed him to graduate high school with a 3.8 GPA and gave him the opportunity to be accepted at a well-respected, private liberal arts college. He and I have zero regrets about this decision.

When I told Joe’s pediatrician at his next appointment about his new prescription, he read me the riot act for not consulting him first. Didn’t I know that he could have evaluated Joe? Why wouldn’t I consult him first? He was his doctor, after all. I looked that doctor square in the face and, with a voice rising from somewhere in my gut I did not know I had, told him, “Yes. You are his doctor. You should have diagnosed this already based on all your visits with him and all the forms we filled out for you and the tests you yourself gave him in your office.” He huffed out of the room. Joe was horrified. I told him everything would be fine, and we would be finding another doctor. Ten minutes later, to his credit, the doctor returned with Joe’s chart and admitted he should have caught it. We found another pediatrician anyway.

The next pediatrician came recommended to us by a couple friends as well as Luke’s dyslexia tutor who knew him personally. The boys were at that office for six years. During that time, they became teenagers. When the doctor conducted his physical exams of the boys, I stayed in the room. I never allowed them to be alone with the doctor during the physical exam when they were undressed, even though they might have felt it invaded their privacy. To combat that, I would turn to face the wall when the doctor checked their genitalia. My main reason for remaining in the room was that the boys were not great at sharing information, and I didn’t want to miss out on what the doctor was saying or finding. My secondary reason was that when I would ask the boys on the way into the office if they wanted me to stay in the room, they always did. I knew it made me seem like a meddling, overprotective, helicopter parent. I did not care. As it turned out, that doctor was one day no longer at the practice. He was being investigated regarding claims made by other parents of inappropriate sexual touching during exams. We dodged a bullet because I stuck with my gut.

If you are a new parent, a soon-to-be parent, or a parent who is constantly questioning your decisions about your children in the present moment, I’m here to tell you that what Dr. Spock said is true. Trust yourself. Trust your intuition. No one knows your child as well as you do. Listen to them. Listen to your heart. Meet them where they are and not where you hoped or wanted them to be. And then do whatever the damn hell you want to raise your child(ren) the way that makes the most sense for your family. Ignore the naysayers, the comment makers, and the nosey Bakers. You know more than you think you do, even when you aren’t aware of it.

My pride and joy…both of them

I’m Banana-Seat Bicycle Years Old

4th grade: Linda, Taryl, Me, and Christy

When I was a kid, back in the Dark Ages, we didn’t have the Internet. There was no YouTube. No Nintendo. No TikTok. No Snapchat. We couldn’t text friends. We didn’t even have answering machines or voicemail, so if you tried to call your friend and they didn’t answer you had to ride your banana-seat bicycle blocks to their house to talk to them. We didn’t have homework that took hours. We walked to the local school by ourselves, walked home with friends, and hung out. We didn’t spend our nights in front of screens. Instead, we ran around with our neighbor friends playing Hide and Seek or Kick the Can until our parents yelled from the front door or flickered our porch light to signal they wanted to go to sleep so they were required by law to make sure we were home safely.

With all that free time and parents who really didn’t care what we were doing or where we were just as long as the house was quiet, we were “free range kids.” We would yell that we were going to ride our bikes, the screen door would slam behind us, and no one would have a clue where we were for hours on end. No one had an app to track us. They did not care. So, we did stupid things. We made mistakes. We were creative. We had endless hours of unstructured play and not a parent around to check up on us. It’s how you learned about life in the days before you watched “content” from the security of your bedroom while your parents yelled at you to get off your iPad, monitored your electronics usage, and turned off the Wifi to get your attention.

Here are a few things I did between the ages of 9 and 15, which should illustrate how innocent life was back then:

I would walk to the end of the block to see my friend, Amy. In the basement of her split-level home, we would listen to Gypsys, Tramps, and Thieves by Cher. I am pretty sure we made up a dance routine to that song. I have no idea why we chose that particular song, but I’m going to hazard a guess it was because her parents owned Cher’s record. I believe it might also have been at Amy’s house where I sang into an ice-cream-cone-shaped candle that served as a microphone. Sadly, we sang was Barry Manilow’s Can’t Smile Without You.

Back in the days before caller ID, my best friend, Kerry, and I would call the house of a cute boy we knew. He was a mall rat we also knew from church. He had brown, curly hair, and we thought he was adorable. We would ring his house repeatedly, hoping he would answer. He often didn’t. So we would hang up. Sometimes, though, he would answer. We would still hang up. We just thought he had a cute voice. After a while, they stopped answering their phone altogether. One day we discovered the number was out of service. His parents had changed to an unlisted number because they had grown sick of getting hung up on.

My sisters and I would walk to the local swimming pool, which was two miles away. We would stay there for hours, swimming with friends. buying Cokes and Big Hunks from the snack shop. One time while we were walking home, we got caught up in a heavy thunderstorm with lightning. As we were running through the park parallel to the road, a police officer pulled up and asked if we wanted a ride. He drove us the last few blocks to our home. Our parents worked, so no one was home when we got there. No one saw us arrive in a squad car, so there were no questions.

In elementary school, my friends and I all had Drooper dogs. They were toy dogs with soft, plush fur, stuffed heads, plastic eyes, black pompom noses, and bean-filled bodies. My friends and I had many of these dogs, as they were one of the “in” toys then. When Grease came out, we decided to recreate the movie using the stuffed dogs as the characters. We used fabric scraps to create dresses for the female characters and vests for the male characters. We had an 8 track tape of the soundtrack, so we choreographed dance numbers for the dogs and worked out the entire performance.

A lot has changed in thirty-five years. Kids are more carefully watched. Parents are more vigilant. We have phones that can track everywhere we are. We aren’t really free range people anymore.

I Am The Tortoise In This Scenario

The hare is so much cuter than the tortoise, though

I’ve been in and out of therapy for forever. Okay. Seven years, but it feels like forever. And I’ve been mostly in therapy during those seven years except for a few months when I thought I didn’t need it any longer and turned out to be wrong. Today during my weekly session, I proclaimed once again that I am tired of this process of working to get my head right. I want to be finished. Like yesterday. I declared that I would like to be well-adjusted now, please. My therapist, being the gentle, thoughtful, patient woman she is, reminded me that maybe what I need to focus on again is self-compassion. Recovering from emotional abuse is a process, and I will likely be going through that process for the rest of my life. That is to be expected, and it is okay.

Is it, though? I’m having a rough time swallowing that pill. Although I intellectually understand she is right and even understand that every single person is messed up in their own special way and battling for inner peace along with me, I don’t like this answer. I function best with deadlines, and the notion that perhaps I will be more well adjusted by the time I get to the end of my life, at a time yet to be determined, is a bit too open ended for me as far as deadlines go. I am working on managing expectations because I understand that is a good way to live but, damn, that is also difficult for me. And I work every day to give myself grace as I struggle, knowing that being raised without affection, positive messaging, and unconditional love causes lifelong damage to a person’s psyche. I am defensive, dismissive, and distrusting not because I was born that way but because these were the mechanisms that protected my fragile sense of self and kept me safe. They served a purpose. And now that I understand I am safe and these reactions are no longer needed, I would like to get rid of them sooner rather than later, thank you very much. It’s just not going to happen that way.

So I have been thinking about this all day, and I realize I need to reframe this issue. If I am going to be making slow progress on this, I need to accept it and relax and settle in for the long haul. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. I’m not the hare. I’m the tortoise. In the end, it will all work out. Right now it might feel like I am losing the race, but if I keep plodding along, not taking anything for granted, I will win. Will it happen on my ideal timeline? Apparently not, because if it could happen just by my willing it out of sheer frustration, I would be there already. So a tortoise’s pace it is. I will know I have achieved my goal when I no longer need my protective shell.

Halloween Ain’t Over Until I Have Burns From A Hot Glue Gun

The year he wanted to be a Lego.
The year he was a Lego

It is a story as old as time. On September 20th, Mom asks sons what they want to be for Halloween. Sons shrug. On October 1st, Mom asks once again what they want to be for Halloween. Oldest son replies with a vague, “something scary.” Younger son shrugs. On October 15th, Mom tells sons the shipping deadline for their dream costume is rapidly approaching and asks if they want to look online with her for costumes. Nope. On October 24th, Mom urges sons to get it figured out or risk spending Halloween handing out candy to other children. Oldest son says he will be “something scary” but he still doesn’t know what. Youngest son says he’s working on an idea. On October 26th, five days before Halloween and one day before the school Halloween party, youngest son announces in the car on the way to school that he would like to be his favorite Pokemon character, Mudkip.

“I’m not sure where we are getting you a Mudkip costume at this late date,” Mom says.

“It’s okay, Mom. I’ve got it all figured out,” says ridiculously imaginative youngest son. “I know exactly what we need to make it. It won’t cost much. I just need a blue sweatshirt with hood, blue sweatpants, and some fabric, probably grey, orange, black, and white.”

The year he was Pacman.
The year he was Pacman

“Uh huh,” Mom replies warily. “You know I don’t have time to shop for all that stuff today. I have plans.”

“We can get the stuff after school. I will pick out everything I need. I will make it,” says I-am-too-cute-to-say-no-to youngest son.

“Uh huh,” sighs frustrated Mom who now knows how she will be spending her entire Monday evening.

So I resigned myself to my fate. I spent my day painting the family room at the new house before heading to pick the boys up at 4. As soon as they were in the car, we drove over to Hobby Lobby for costume supplies, except we weren’t entirely sure if we would find what we needed.

Luckily for Luke and I, we’re great in clutch situations. We were gifted with the ability to pull something from nothing. We go in with a Plan A, but when Plan A falls apart we quickly devise a Plan B. When that doesn’t work, we run our way through the alphabet. I’m not sure we’ve ever had to go beyond Plan D to find a solution to the problem at hand. When we couldn’t find the right color blue hoodie (and I quickly ascertained that finding one at this point would require multiple trips to various stores across town that we had neither time nor gas for), I got Luke to settle for a blue t-shirt in exactly the right shade. From there we figured out how to create a suitable headpiece for the costume, and Luke agreed to forgo matching bottoms to make the costume a bit more age appropriate. I mean, what kid at age twelve wants to be wearing the equivalent of the pink bunny suit from A Christmas Story to school?

When we got home, I fished out the hot glue gun, my sewing kit, some polyester fiberfill fluff, and got to work. Luke was costume designer. I was seamstress. He wanted to do more hands on work but I relegated him to cutting because, honestly, that hot glue gun is a nasty bitch. I couldn’t see how landing my son in the emergency room with burns was going to expedite our costume creation. We dumped out the supplies and took turns devising schemes to turn our meager $14 in supplies into an adorable costume. We cut and recut shapes for the eyes and nostrils until they looked right. Luke stuffed some of the pieces to adequate fill, and I glued and sewed until we ended up with something Luke could live with. It wasn’t exactly what he had pictured, but he accepted that it was his lack of expedience that led to this backup version of his whimsical plan.

The year he was Mudkip.
The year he was Mudkip

As I was busy using my fifth-rate sewing skills to attach the tail to Luke’s costume, I thought about why I end up in this predicament year after year with this kid, slaving away on a costume that will be tossed out once the pillowcase comes home heavy with candy. It’s partially because he’s my youngest and he’s growing up too quickly. It’s partially because his ingenuity and enthusiasm are contagious. It’s partially because I enjoy seeing how close I can come to executing his perfect costume. But it’s mostly because I don’t want to be the kind of mother who isn’t willing to give herself second-degree burns (yes…I earned a blister) with a hot glue gun the night before her son’s Halloween party at school. It’s my way of letting my sons know there is nothing I wouldn’t do for them, including pouring my blood, sweat, and tears out for them when they need me the most.

I think a lot these days about the legacy I will leave with my sons. If I’m gone suddenly tomorrow, what will they remember? What will they miss? Will they recall that I made up crazy dances to sitcom theme songs or that I fashioned a makeshift triage in my office for their injured stuffed animals? Will they look back fondly at the times when together we coaxed something from nothing in the clutch? No matter what they will recollect someday, I live at peace today in the knowledge that I gave this motherhood bag my all. I never backed away, even on the worst days when my car sang the sirens’ song of the open road. I left it all in the ring and I have no regrets about the time I invested in my children and their dreams while putting my own on hold. It’s just too damn bad I still haven’t mastered the fine art of the hot glue gun.

Check This Box

Cutest note ever

Spring is in the air. The songbirds have returned to my bird-feeder welfare state. Tulips are in blooming underneath our spring snow. The flowering trees have kicked my allergies into overdrive. We’re solidly entrenched in the season of new beginnings and hope, which is why I was not at all surprised when the other day my youngest climbed into my car after school smiling quite sheepishly, holding in his hand a folded paper note with a smiley face painted on the outside.

He was whispering rather excitedly to his brother and his brother, in turn, was whispering back. Their hushed conversation was both animated and intense. I had a good idea what was going on based on conversations we’d been having for weeks, but I waited to be included. Finally, Joe’s excitement spilled over.

“Luke got a note from Maddy,” he gushed. Then he added, “It’s depressing.”

“How is it depressing exactly?”

“It just highlights my many failed attempts with girls,” Joe said.

“How many attempts?” I asked. This was all news to me.

“Eight,” he replied instantly with complete assurity.

“Okay. Can we talk about that in a minute? This isn’t about you. It’s about Luke. Let him tell his own story,” I chided. “What’s going on, Luke?”

“Well, after school I found this note in my locker,” he replied, handing me the piece of paper.

It was your garden variety, grade-school note. With carefully chosen words, the author was attempting to ascertain Luke’s level of interest in her. The innocence of the note made me smile. Any note with a “check this box” format wins my heart every time, and this note had two different questions with corresponding boxes. Add to it the charming spelling irregularities of dyslexia and you’ve got about the sweetest correspondence ever. I handed it back to Luke.

“So, how are you going to respond?” I asked

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“I thought you like Maddy,” I replied.

“I do. I’m just nervous. What if I tell her I like her and she doesn’t like me?”

“She wouldn’t have bothered to write the note if she didn’t like you,” I told him. “Girls generally don’t bother with guys they don’t like. We try to avoid them. Trust me.”

“Well, then, I think I will answer yes to the liking her question. But I don’t know what to say about the question of if I have a girlfriend,” he said.

Do you have a girlfriend?” I inquired knowing full well the answer.

“No, but…,” he paused.

“You are afraid to put yourself out there?” I asked.

“Kind of,” he said.

“I can tell you this. If you like her, you shouldn’t play games. Be honest.”

“Okay. I will tell her I don’t have a girlfriend then.”

“Or…or you could make a third box to check that says Not Yet. That would let her know you’re hoping she will be your girlfriend,” I suggested, digging way back into my memories of flirting protocol. “That puts the ball back in her court,” I said, “but still keeps you safe because it’s not a definitive answer.”

“Yes. I like that,” he replied with clear relief that there was a way to respond that didn’t leave him completely vulnerable.

He folded up the note, put it away, and Joe used the opportunity to begin his lamentation about his 12-year-old brother’s third success in dating while he still only had one success, way back in kindergarten, and he’s almost fourteen. It’s hard to be Joe.

I’m grateful that my sons are willing to talk to me about girls, at least thus far. The world of interpersonal relationships is a minefield. I hope to keep the lines of communication open with them as they negotiate their way through it. They know I am an old lady, but they also know I dated plenty before I married their dad. I have shared some of my stories of heartbreak, embarrassment, rejection, and shame so they know I have been there and can commiserate. It will be difficult to stand by during the tragedy of their first broken heart but, for now, I’m enjoying the check-this-box phase of newly sprung love or, in this case, like.

Snap Out Of It

This is what you do with untrodden snow.
The beauty of untrodden snow

“We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and to love the wrong people and die. I mean, the storybooks are bullshit.” ~Moonstruck

It’s a new year. And, although I understand that every day is a blank whiteboard upon which I can write the story of my life, there’s something about a new year that sucks me in. It’s not simply one 24-hour revolution. It’s a 365-day, brand new trek. There’s a faint whiff of that new year smell. There’s potential and promise and possibility rolled out before me. It all starts now.

When I was a child, my mother stubbornly forbade us from running through freshly fallen snow in our front yard. We could run around the back yard or in the neighbors’ yards to our hearts’ content, but our front yard was not to be disturbed. There was something about the appearance nature’s immaculate whitewash in front of our house that appealed to her. I knew it was some sort of sacred space she needed, but her unwillingness to let us weave patterns with our boots and leave our personal marks vexed me. Snow is meant to become snowmen and snow forts and snow angels. Eventually, these flawless white yards became folklore as I grew older and stopped playing in snow because boots and coats were uncool. It became a vague memory that I decided I fabricated or embellished to tell a better story. It wasn’t until a few years ago that my sisters confirmed my truth. Our childhood had a boundary, and the perfectly snowy front yard was it.

As I headed out with the dog today for a New Year’s Day walk, I stopped to appreciate the snow in our yard. It wasn’t the yard my mom cherished. The boys had been out there, and it was cacophony of uproarious footprints, not an untouched spot in sight. I thought about my mom and her need for that clean yard. I can relate to her sense of beauty and the pleasure she must have derived from the serenity of tidy snow. Motherhood is, after all, a sloppy endeavor, and the front yard was something she could control. It was the part of our home life that could be unblemished. Our flawless front yard granted her a facade of order and some semblance of peace. But, at the end of the day, virgin snow is about as realistic as a clean house. No matter what you do, it never lasts for long. It’s the perfect family photo that fails to relay the chaos behind the moments just prior to its capture. Reality is messy. Life, like a snowy yard, is meant to be experienced. Trying to keep it neat is a waste of time.

As an adult, I see each new year as my childhood’s unblemished front yard. After years of avoiding messes, I understand the privilege inherent in making my mark. Decorum is optional. If 2015 is anything like 2014, I will leave circles where I chased my tail and lines where I dragged my feet. There will be angels where I stopped for fun, some snow critters where I was creative, and forts where I dug in and fortified myself for the long haul. I will leave this year as gloriously pockmarked and lived in as I left last year. Today, though, on a spotless 1/1, I’m gazing over that quiet, blank slate and trying to decide where to head first. Last year’s funk is gone. Time to snap out of it.

Crushing The Hulk

Mental peace = sunrise on Kauai
Mental peace = sunrise on Kauai

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately engaged in what has become a regular pastime of mine…pondering the unanswerable questions of life. Rather than being consumed by the everyday worries provided 24/7 via the cable news networks, I exercise my brain by contemplating topics like the potential for achieving emotional peace whilst circumnavigating the vast ocean of fluid interpersonal relationships. Is there a meaning of life? Is there a Hell? Are humans doomed to repeat their mistakes? Will there ever be another television program as brilliant as Breaking Bad? (Okay. Maybe not that last one, but it does deserve an answer.) While some friends find my need for intellectual exercise exhausting, as an introvert I rather enjoy my armchair philosophy. There’s something comforting in asking questions that cannot be answered. At least you’re certain your suppositions can’t be proven wrong.

Yesterday while my mind was entrenched in the question of whether a person can have true compassion for a friend without taking on any emotional burden of said friend, Joe came racing in from the cold to interrupt my mental machinations. He’d been outside sledding and wanted to share something with his brother who had been resigned to inside play after I’d discovered that his second-hand snow boots were falling apart (literally, the heel of the boot was flapping when he walked and he’d failed to mention this little tidbit to me for a week).

“Luke, you’ve got to come outside and sled!” he implored.

“I can’t, Joe,” came the disappointed reply. “My boots are broken and the insides are all wet. It’s too cold.”

“Okay. But we’re out there running over the Hulk with our sleds. We’re trying to destroy him,” Joe explained before beating a hasty retreat back to the sledding hill lest he miss any additional opportunities for destruction. Poor, plastic Hulk. He didn’t stand a chance against four preteen boys hell-bent on mowing him down in freezing temps.

Luke sat quietly for a minute or two and then he ran upstairs. He reappeared shortly wearing long underwear, fresh wool socks, and a hat with ear flaps. He ran to grab his snow pants. When he came back in, he began his verbal campaign as he continued dressing.

“I have to go back out, Mom. I don’t care if my feet get cold. They’re sledding…over the Hulk. How often do you even get that opportunity? It’s epic!”

I didn’t see how I could argue with this logic. He was right. You don’t get many opportunities to team up to destroy the Hulk, even if he is just a small, plastic shell of the big, green guy. Philosopher though I am, I understand the occasional sense of urgency to let go of the mantle of deep thought, logic, and rational behavior to seize an epic opportunity, warm feet be damned. Yes. My mind may be old and grown up, perpetually stymied by life’s deeper questions, but I’m still young enough to appreciate that sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind and crush the Hulk.

No matter what the bigger answers are, every day my children remind me what it truly means to live.

Kids Only Lose Sleep For Something Truly Important

Luke and Motty-O feign sleep

Our oldest son has never been a good sleeper. I used to laugh when people told me that I should “nap when the baby naps.” That would have been a perfect solution to my exhaustion if I hadn’t had to drive him around just to get him to go down for a nap and keep him asleep for that hour. Luckily, our youngest is a better sleeper than his brother. Last night, however, he was restless. By 10 Joe was asleep, but still Luke was not. Hubby asked me if I would go in and say goodnight to him again because that might be just what he needed. So, I did.

I walked into the boys bunk room and, sure enough, Luke was in bed but wide awake. I told him I knew exactly what he needed and traipsed off to their play room to retrieve Luke’s most favorite stuffed animal, a grey Webkinz horse named Motty-O. (Don’t ask me. He was 4 when he named it.) Our creative Luke has a series of stories about this horse, whom he has informed us is from Kentucky and sleeps standing up. We know this horse’s entire back story, a fact I’ve perpetually found charming. When I handed Motty-O to Luke, Luke smiled and hugged him. He stroked his tail thoughtfully and suddenly looked quite sad.

“What’s the matter, Luke?” I asked, worried by the face that usually proceeds his tears.

“Nothing,” he said, still stroking the horse’s tail.

“Are you worried about his tail, sweetie?” I inquired “You know, the more you love on an animal, the more threadbare they begin to look. That’s not a bad thing at all. It’s a sign that you love him the most.”

“I know,” he said with tears welling up in his eyes.

I’m not the only one who has had a long and rough week. Although he’s been taking it like a trooper, Luke was the one who received the dyslexia diagnosis and began tutoring for his disability. He’s the one who has to think about switching schools and feeling different. I started to wonder if his tears had less to do with his horse than with other things he must certainly be grappling with at this time.

“You know, Luke, sometimes if you’ve got something on your mind it’s better to talk about it. Maybe if you tell me what’s making you sad you’ll be able to fall asleep better?”

“Nope. I’m fine,” he replied even as he opened his eyes wider and looked up at the bottom of his brother’s top bunk to keep the tears from falling down. Just like his mother, Luke likes to believe he can handle anything without any additional help.

I sat on the bed with him and stroked his hair, hoping he would open up but he didn’t. Finally, he asked me to leave. It was around 11:30 when he at last surrendered to sleep.

Tonight, I finally pried from him the reason why he was so sad last night. It wasn’t that he was worried about the dyslexia or the tutoring or the idea of switching schools or even the idea of possibly having to move. It was something I never saw coming.

“I was sad about Motty-O,” he reluctantly admitted.

“Sad about his tail falling out a bit?” I guessed.

“No. It’s something else.”

Having been something of a stuffed animal freak myself, I dug deeper into the stuffed-animal-lover psyche to try to extract the thing that might make him sad. Then it came to me.

“Are you sad because you won’t always have him with you?” I asked.

“Uh huh,” he said, tears once again pooling beneath his sweet, green-hazel eyes.

“You will always have Motty-O, Luke. I still have my most precious stuffed animals,” I said. “You know my orange dog, Drooper? I’ve had him since I was 9 years old. I’ve had him with me for 35 years. He went to college with me. He’s traveled with me. I will have him forever. And, you will have Motty-O for your whole life too.”

At this point, a couple tears leaked down his cheek.

“I won’t have him when I die,” he said as more tears fell.

“Oh, Luke,” I said, hugging him, “I believe you will have Motty-O in Heaven. I believe Heaven is filled with all the wonderful things you love and cherish in your life. Motty-O is part of our family. He will be in Heaven with us. I just know it.”

“My other animals too?” he asked.

“Most definitely,” I replied, relieved to know that he wasn’t suffering any ill effects from his diagnosis.

I can’t help but laugh now at how it all played out. Last night, Luke couldn’t sleep. I thought it was because of the same things that have been troubling my mind this week, so I gave him the one thing I thought would be the greatest comfort to him. Instead, that was the one thing that made it more difficult for him to fall asleep. I’ve got to learn not to project my concerns onto my little guy. Of course he’s not got insomnia about his reading issues. Why would he worry about something he’s always known? It’s the mysteries of the universe that keep children awake, mysteries like what happens to our stuffed animals when we die. That’s the only kind of mystery that is worth losing sleep over.

We Need To Go Old School Again

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~Fred (aka Mister) Rogers

My boys engaged in free time play

Lisa, my dear friend who happens to be a high school English teacher, shared a link to an intriguing Psychology Today article the other day. The article discusses the steep and steady decline in the creativity of our nation’s children over the past twenty to thirty years. Studies have shown that as we’ve become a society more focused on test scores, our children have lost their ability to think creatively. The more we’ve restricted free time and free play (through both increased school work and increased extracurricular activity), the more heavily these creative losses are felt. While I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by the article’s revelation, I was a little shocked by the statistics behind the assertion:

“According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984.  Yikes.”

When I was a child, my mother would hand us a piece of paper on which she had drawn random squiggles, lines, or shapes. Our job was to create a picture incorporating the designs she had already placed onto the paper. While my mother’s impetus for giving us this little exercise was most likely to acquire some uninterrupted free time for herself, what she was actually doing was helping us develop our creativity. As it turns out, this simple exercise my mother used to engage my sisters and I when we were children is the exact test that researchers use to measure the Creative Elaboration mentioned in the above paragraph. The goal is to have the child take what exists on the paper and expound on it in an original, meaningful, and possibly humorous way.

As I reflect on the amount of homework my boys do, on the assignments they have in school, and on the advanced level to which they are asked to work in their educational environment, it’s really no wonder that my eldest will sometimes come home in tears, lamenting the knowledge that he won’t have much free time to play after school. It’s heartbreaking, really. I did homework when I was in grade school. I know I did. But, I didn’t have much of it, maybe 30 minutes in fifth grade. Maybe. I did most of my work in class, including studying for exams, and the work I did at home was largely reading and practicing some spelling words. Joe has thirty spelling words in fifth grade, including ten vocabulary words for which he must memorize definitions. This week, on Joe’s list, appear the words hypotheses, phenomena, and memorabilia. I know adults who can’t spell those words. Joe also does 28-30 analytical, multi-step math problems a night, none of which he has time to do in class. It’s no wonder he’s stressed out.

In grade school, a million years ago when I was a child, we did fun, creative things. I remember one lesson we did for Social Studies. Both sixth grade classes were assigned an imaginary culture. We were told what the people in our make-believe country prized and how they lived their lives. We practiced acting within the boundaries of our assigned culture. Then, the teachers opened the doors between the two classes and we were prompted to interact with the other culture. One culture was entirely money-based while the other was entirely love- and affection-based. It was a hand-on lesson in culture shock. In sixth grade at my elementary school, we also studied a unit on the ancient Egyptians. With the research we had done in the library, we constructed “artifacts.” From cardboard we fashioned headpieces, Anubis likenesses, and even a sarcophagus. And…get this. We did all this work in the classroom. None of it was homework. Then, believe it or not, we dressed like the Egyptians and took the children from the other grades on a tour of our ancient Egyptian tomb, which was conducted in the school’s basement crawl space. I’m not kidding. Can you imagine the potential lawsuits from that type of activity today? Kids ducking their heads and walking around in a darkened, dusty, uneven, underground space in the school guided only by sixth graders? But, I will never forget that experience because we had to be creative to carry out our project. Our teachers, given the necessary freedom, taught us to be enthusiastic scholars. Today, my son got in my car in tears over tonight’s homework load.

I’m not a policymaker in Washington. I don’t hold a PhD in education. I’m just a mom who is home with her children. But, it seems clear to me that what our schools need more of is freedom to make learning a creative exercise and fewer standardized tests for which our children spend the entire year preparing. If we want to be the country that others imagine us to be, full of that American ingenuity we are constantly praised for, then we need to rethink our educational system. Let’s use some of the creativity we developed through the free time and play that we were allowed back when we were children to reinvent a landscape where our children are rewarded for thinking outside the box and solving problems ingeniously. Not only would it make the future of this nation brighter, but it would make our present time with our children more enjoyable and less tearful as well.