If you had to sum up your objective in raising kids, what would you say? What’s a one-sentence goal for parenting? I think mine is something like this, “Raise healthy happy humans who make a positive impact in the world, and who are capable of full financial, emotional and personal independence.”
Basically, my job as a mom is to make it so my sons, when grown, do not need me. (Hopefully they’ll want me, but that’s another story.)
Clearly, to my mind, this doesn’t start when they’re 22 and turning the tassel on their cap for their BA. It probably doesn’t even start when they’re 18 and walking across the stage to the sound of their name in cheap rented polyester robes for the first time. It started a long time ago, and the work of that independence is in full force.
I’ve taken steps to encourage this all along. The kids have walked to school – about 3/4ths of a mile along a major road – pretty much every day this year. Grey has gone to sleepaway camp two years now. The kids have regular chores they’re responsible for, and just last week I trained them on how to do the dishes. (Not that I followed up with the educational experience by having them do dishes by themselves…)
But this weekend marks a major moment. I’m putting my ten year old son on an airplane for a transcontinental flight. (His first question when I told him, “Will I have wifi!?”). I’ve never done this before. The whole unaccompanied minor thing remains a mystery. (I love the advice to give my child a cell phone and credit card. Um, no. I’ll pack some really nice snacks instead, ok?)
He’s going to spend February break with his grandparents in Washington. So far I’ve heard of a major financial outlay for Poptarts. We’ve loaded his laptop with the software he wants and figured out authentication for Minecraft when we aren’t present. We’ve got a backpack and a computer case packed. Laundry is being done in support of the rest of the packing. And before dinner tonight I’ll wish him well and walk him to the gate and kiss him goodbye.
In most circumstances I would say “And then I won’t see him for a week.” But things are complex now. My grandmother’s health is very rapidly failing, and it’s not unlikely I’ll see him in California for a funeral in this next week. Death is hard to predict though, so there are almost two branching plans in my mind, with a great moment of uncertainty. I’ll talk more about that later.
But all these things help build independence. The trip across the country. The packing. Even the sudden change of plans and brush with mortality. They help turn a child into a boy. And lay the groundwork for a boy to grow into a man.
This is an exchange that could (has) happened between almost any two people in my family (in all versions of family you’d like to consider). (When I say it what I usually actually mean is that we’re not leaving until I’ve finished my book.) Adam and I have long had vacations that consisted of beautiful locations, museums, snorkeling and bevies of books. On our honeymoon I read 11 books – and that was only because I didn’t have room to bring more. When we went to Istanbul, we saw Hagia Sofia. We walked the walls of the Fortress of Europe. We watched night fall over the Bosporous… but a favorite memory for both of us was the morning we went to a little cafe, drank them entirely out of orange juice and both of us finished entire novels. (Mine was Guy Gabriel Kay – great vacation reading!)
Ten years ago at just about this time, I was on this self same island of Cozumel for a week. All my daiquiris were virgin that trip since I was pregnant with the firstborn child who was – would become – Grey. I took refuge in the buoyancy of the water. And we read. A lot. But since then, our reading vacations have been stolen moments (pretty much all during Camp Gramp week). Sure we might sneak in a paltry four or five books on a vacation, but nothing like the epic conquests of yore. Children – especially young children – require slightly more attention it turns out.
When an unexpected opportunity arose for us to go back to Cozumel this April vacation week, I grabbed it with both hands. We returned to the same excellent resort (Presidente Intercontinental, if you’re curious) that we went to last year. A huge part of that was that the kids had loved Keri, who ran the kids club. They happily got dropped off with her after breakfast and picked up sometime in the afternoon. This left Adam and I ample time to follow our true desires: snorkeling, time together, and reading entire novels in one sitting on the beach. SIGN ME UP FOR MORE! We still had plenty of time for adventures and time together, but the surcease from bored children was delightful (and they enjoyed it!)
This time, though, they’ve only spent a few hours there. The only thing nearly as fun as snorkeling along the reefs with my beloved – pointing out the octopus and lionfish and barracuda – is snorkeling along the reefs with my beloveds. Grey has become a fine swimmer and can almost dive with the snorkel. Thane – indomitable Thane – arrived barely swimming and has improved by leaps and bounds since. He insists on swimming (even though he really can’t) and calmly keeps paddling even as the waters close in over his head. He’s unflappable. Add a life vest, and he was perfectly content to come snorkeling with us – even letting go of my hand to go investigate some interesting formation. How much more fun things are when I can do them with my children and yet find them fun for me!!
Then, yesterday, my life changed forever. I think that may not be an understatement.
Thane is in Kindergarten. He has a gift of great focus. He always has – he could do a hundred piece puzzle at three through sheer determination and patience. (Certainly not through optimal strategic choices, assuredly.) The door to reading has finally opened to him. He has many needed words by sight and strong phonetic skills. He still struggles to blow past words he doesn’t know, but he has three of us standing by to tell him that e-n-o-u-g-h is enough.
“Mom” he asked. “Did you bring me any chapter books?” I handed him “A Horse and His Boy”. He gamely worked his way through the first pages. “Mom, do you have anything easier?” Well, no I didn’t. But what I did have is the wonder of technology. I LOVE my Kindle, in part because it means I don’t have to pack an entire suitcase of books. (Yes. We did regularly bring a suitcase for the books and board games.) I just got a new Kindle (backlit, with 3G downloads so I don’t need wifi to buy the next book in the series) but I brought my old Kindle with me in case. In case of what I’m not sure, but in case.
I downloaded Books 1 – 4 of the Magic Treehouse and handed it to him, showing him how to turn the pages. We went to breakfast. And an hour later, he was begging for more time. He’s plowed his way through the first three and a half books (as well as a non-fiction book on Jupiter his dad bought him.) We all sat – at breakfast, in front of the pool, in the beach chairs, at dinner – all reading our books together. It was GLORIOUS. The world has opened up before us, of the quietest and most profound adventures.
Then, as though my heart was not already filled to brimming, my eldest. My beloved. That child I carried with me as a promise ten years ago… started reading Narnia. I read him the first few chapters of “The Horse and His Boy”. (Personally, I think “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” is one of the weaker Narnia books. And “The Horse and His Boy” stands alone best of the rest of them.) He finished. And asked for more. Yesterday he read “Prince Caspian”. Today “The Lion , The Witch and the Wardrobe”. At dinner he downloaded and started “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”.
There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
Those books were my gateway to this wondrous world, my friends. They initiated me in the arts of the fantastical. I remember the realization crashing on me that ASLAN was like JESUS. (How much more precious is an allegory when discovered by a reader instead of explained!) It was a short hop for me from Lewis to his dear friend Tolkien. And that’s a world my imagination has never fully left behind.
This marks, I think, the beginning of a new phase of my life. I have long left behind parenting babies. My feet are crossing over from parenting young children (that stage where your greatest wonder is how the heck you’re going to keep them entertained so you can do things). I enter through the doors of parenting all elementary children. Already I can sleep in. Already they dress themselves. Grey puts on his own sunscreen – hallelujah. And now, my sons will begin to go on the greatest adventures between the pages of books. Some they will share with me. Others they will venture on alone. But their journeys have begun.
Last night I went into a darkened room, as I do pretty much every night I am home, and I kissed a pair of boys good night. I climbed under Grey’s bed to the inviting cubby where Thane has been sleeping since Tiberius took over Thane’s room as a sick-room. In that darkened corner was my four year old (for another five minutes), his hands clasped as though in prayer, lying with an already beloved birthday book next to him. I kissed his forehead. He still sounds like a baby when he sleeps.
But that’s all the baby there is left to Thane. As he comes into his fifth year, he comes into his own. Thane has a tremendous sense of purpose and drive, and a deep commitment to his beliefs and ideals. This was somewhat… trying… this year as his beliefs and ideals often included things like “Not going to school” or “Making sure you heard him about what he thinks he smelled in the middle of church” (hint: it’s never good). I have consoled myself through some of his more adamant moments by reminding myself that some traits that are very difficult to parent at four are pretty awesome in an astronaut or CEO or Nobel-winning-scientist-who-is-too-stubborn-to-give-up.
Thane’s personality becomes increasingly clear. His greatest gift is this remarkable spatial/color reasoning. He still loves to do puzzles (he tops out around 100 pieces because he has no strategy) and create symmetrical creations with shapes on our kitchen wall. However, now that he can force his fingers to obey his will better (he’s been frustrated by their lack of obedience for years) he’s really stepped up his game with Legos. For his birthday, I got him a Lego set rated for 8 – 12. I kind of figured his brother would help him. Instead, Thane did the Entire. Thing. By. Himself. I helped him find like two pieces he lost, and put on a few of the stickers.
Thane is very innovative in how he puts his Legos together. He tends to develop more three dimensional creations than his brother. He does love minifigs best, and will often assemble armies of 20 – 30. His preschooler hands undo his work nearly as often as they finish it, but he persists until he matches his mind’s creation. Just for the record, Thane’s drawings and artwork are pretty normal – he seems pretty uninterested in drawing/coloring in general.
When not engaged in feats of spacial reasoning, Thane loves rough-and tumble play. His favorite thing in the whole world is “tickle and snuggle time in Mom and Dad’s bed”. He simply cannot get enough rough-housing, which would be more fun if his head couldn’t be categorized as a deadly weapon. He loves physical play. He’s been doing soccer for the last few weeks, and has done pretty well. With the advantage of a younger brother, he’s gotten to attend a few of his brother’s practices and last week actually did the entire practice with his fellow-four-year-old-younger-brother-friend.
Lately, Thane has been working very hard on learning to read. He has phonics down (except for period confusion between “b” and “d” – which come on, that’s hard.) His patience and diligence when he decides he’s going to read is astonishing. Just don’t let him corner you for “Hop on Pop” because that takes nearly an hour.
Thane loves Skylanders, even though he never plays – he watches his brother. He still loves Scooby Doo. He loves Digimon. He wants to be read stories about super heroes. He sings songs and makes up new words – and they’re often pretty good ones! He is constantly frenetic, and it is hard to get him to sit still for – say – dinner. But when he gets his focus on, he can sit quietly for an hour. He leads off practically every statement with “Guess what” and is desperate to get his points across. Sometimes he will insistently ask a question three times or four times, but fail to listen to all three answers. He can go across all the rings in the playground, hand over hand. He sleeps with his Puppy, worships his brother, and is 45.5 inches tall (91st percentile). Thane bounces when he walks.
Thane still holds my hold.
Happy fifth birthday, my beloved son.
You can see an album of our family adventures in October here, including a video of Thane reading.
About the time your child is two, you desperately long for the day when they want to talk to you and what they have to talk about is *interesting*. Rumor has it this is a short phase, between the obsessive talk of the preschooler and the reticence of the older kid.
Grey has definitely entered the time of life where he has things to tell me that I want to know, don’t know, and don’t have anything to do with the how long he’d have to save his allowance to afford Ghost Roaster. We have some really good and really interesting conversations now.
Not only is Grey fun to talk to, but he’s started creating art that is interesting to me. Now, I’m his mom so I’m sure that threshold of interest is lower. But he brought home his “Goal for Second Grade” paper this year. What do you think his goal is?
You know what? I think his goal is AWESOME. And I think he might be able to do it. He draws constantly. He has a box of index cards he uses to create card games with his friends. (Think Pokemon.) His homework is full of doodles. Every day he comes home with pages of drawings. I’ve always tried to be careful to edit the boys’ papers, and only keep a few from each age and stage. But I’m having real trouble throwing anything of his away. So instead, I’m scanning and saving many of them.
I have the inevitable blogger’s challenge of the imperatives of content. So I thought I’d share some of Grey’s recent drawings with you (with his permission – I asked). I’m curious whether you enjoy seeing these, or whether I should just keep these on the kitchen bulletin board.
I’m still at the “introduce your children to every possible hobby” phase of parenting – at least with my firstborn. There are so many wonderful and rewarding hobbies to be had, and so many of them are picked up as young children. Thane, my sweet little four year old, is already getting a little long in the tooth to ever be an ice skater or Olympic gymnast.
Anyway, you all remember me talking about sending Grey to basketball during the winter. Both boys have been doing aikido since their fourth birthday – sadly not past this summer. But I’ve also signed Grey up for: dance classes (the recital led the the worst picture ever and an intense desire never to go to a dance recital again, on my part), cooking classes, science classes, swim classes, basketball, soccer, guitar lessons and one single piano lesson.
No way no how is he doing anything that involves rink times on MY watch. So in an attempt to try yet one more sporty thingy, I signed him up this spring for a three day baseball skills camp. His teacher at school said that team sports might help him feel more like a participant instead of an onlooker at recess (I hated to let her know that reading at recess is a dominant trait and one that was passed down to Grey on both genetic lines – but I took her point). So in a fit of ambition, when a thick packet of summer camp sporty type things came home sometime mid spring I found one that was happening while my mother-in-law was here and blithely signed him up.
And forgot about it for a few months.
Now, for those of you who have not met him, Grey is a pretty sensitive guy. He dislikes physical pain and discomfort (as opposed to my youngest child who would probably keep on playing through broken bones if he was having fun). He really hates having people make fun of him. And periodically he has been known to display a bit of a persecution complex. These traits were particularly pronounced towards the end of school, so I was feeling particularly uneasy about this “Baseball skills camp” I had signed him up for.
I pulled back out the Xeroxed form, so terse. Here I was, handing my was-a-first-grader-yesterday over to this camp, and for requirements it said: “Bring a baseball glove, shoes or cleats and a refillable water bottle.” That’s it. What about lunch? I read the text at top “Blah blah blah Varsity baseball coach blah blah learn skills in small group settings with focused coaching blah blah six to twelve years old”.
Holy valhalla. What had I signed my kid up for? I imaged his last few complaints in the ears of the High School Varsity Baseball coach. And he’d be about the littlest kid there! He wouldn’t even get a day to chillax between school and baseball! And he’d never played baseball before! I took him to Target to pick out his glove.
“Mom, this glove is too tight! Mom, this one pinches! None of these (23 options of) gloves is going to fit my hands. My hands are a size 3.* These are all the wrong size! Mom, I don’t think I should do baseball tomorrow.”
Ah. Hm. There we had it. I almost agreed with him. Instead, I rang the help button and got the much-aggrieved-Target-guy (who had already not-sold me a stool that was displayed but not for sale) to size Grey up for a baseball glove. But I wondered… was it the stupidest idea ever to send my kid to a three day, five hour, all guy, all skills baseball camp in the sweltering heat when most of the kids there would truly be working on their swing or their fastball? Oh, did I mention not a single one of his friends was going?
I sent him anyway, counting on having my mother-in-law a mile away. I can’t say I didn’t spend the entire day waiting for the “Come pick your son up” call. But soon it was a quarter to two. It so happened I could pick him up that day, so not able to wait any longer I drove to the high school and after some mystery managed to locate my son. There he was, playing catch with one of the “assistant coaches” (read: members of the varsity baseball team).
“How did it go?”
“Great! I had a great time. I want to do this again next year! Hey, mom, I promised coach I’d clean up. Let me finish getting the gear.”
And that’s how it went, for three days. The second day, he was just coming in from the field as I drove up. One of the other kids sort of pushed him as he was going into the dugout, in that ambiguous way that boys have. Oh no, I thought. Is Grey stomping off the field? No, his team was just batting. He sat on the bench next to the other kids, easy in their company, until it was his turn. He was the last batter. He stepped up to the plate. Swing and miss. Swing and miss. Foul ball. (And this is the kind of baseball where three strikes actually means you’re out and you better go sit down.) Then he hit a grounder to first base and ran it out hard. He grabbed his gear and came out grinning.
“I hit a single and a triple, mom!”
Well, I’ll be. He loved it. He wants to go back next year. He did three days of hard work, hard listening, hard skills. Things he didn’t know with people he doesn’t know. And there was ZERO whining. (This from a kid who will say he’s too tiiiiiiired to go alllll the way to the bathroom to brush his teeth and can’t he skip it for juuuust one night?)
I will say that this taught me a lot. Obviously, I had underestimated Grey badly when I stood in Target and wondered if I should even attempt this. It makes me wonder if his sensitivity might be because things are not challenging enough for him – if when presented with something that’s truly hard he revels and steps up. Maybe it’s the things that are repetitive and predictable that he finds difficult. Or maybe I should just stop stereotyping bald, muscular varsity baseball coaches as not in tune with the emotional needs of their pint-sized charges.
Whatever it was, I am so very glad that we tried this experiment. I don’t know if baseball will be Grey’s “thing” (I wouldn’t mind!). T-ball is unfortunately a really awful scheduling match for working parents, but if that is what he comes to love, I’ll make it happen. But I’m so grateful for three days that helped me see how strong and capable my rising-second-grader really is.
My eldest son snitched the “Essential Calvin and Hobbes” from next to my bed when he was five years old. I caught him poring over the adventures of the older boy and his striped companion, and loomed over him with mixed feelings. On the one hand, yay love of reading! On the other hand, Calvin is not an ideal role model. On the third tail I’ve always promised myself that – like my parents – I would only make access harder to books that really do damage. I simply hadn’t planned on my non-censorious resolve being tested before my son started first grade.
But there was my spiky-haired son, putting on his best space alien accent and saying “Dat darn Kalfin! He stole ma space chip!” I forked over the complete collection.
When you think about Calvin (as a grownup who may or may not spend too much time thinking about Calvin and Hobbes), you think of a kid who drives his parents nuts, does poorly in school and has behavior problems. But when you return with fresh eyes and see what Calvin DOES in the panorama of his time and tale, you begin to wish your son was – and could be – more like Calvin. Calvin has *time* and freedom. He wanders the woods with only a fearsome predator for company. He has long leisurely afternoons for the creation of mutant snow goons. He exercises his vast and untrammeled imagination in a whole panoply of joyful childish pursuits, many of which my poor son is forebarred from by shifting culture and a mother who works. There is no circumstance under which my seven year old would spend a whole afternoon playing with a little creek running through mud. He doesn’t have that much free time, and I am more constrained to periodically check on him.
But Calvin is teaching Grey what it could mean to be a little boy, and fires his imagination. Grey considers his circumstance, and finds his own way to be, well, an Evil Mastermind (of the amusing, kind, relatively-well-behaved type).
This Calvinic mischief was brought to mind the other night. Grey has a tremendous advantage over Calvin. Although entirely lacking in feline company, Grey has instead a little brother who is his willing and eager minion in acts of creative mischief. How joyful are those two boys in their shared universe! Anyway, the other night the boys were doing their usual delaying song and dance regarding sleep. Basically, it was part of our intricate tradition of them not going to sleep when I’ve told them to go to sleep already. At one point they came downstairs and demanded that I set up a tent for them to sleep in. (In truth, my actual challenges getting Grey to sleep are worthy of a serious post. But it’s funny in small moments.) This demand arrived at the point at which I had HAD ENOUGH ALREADY JUST GO TO BED AND IF YOU DON’T YOU’LL BE SLEEPING IN THE BASEMENT NEXT TO THE WORM BIN!
There was thumping upstairs after my chastened (so I thought) sons went back, but no more demands were lobbied by the prepubescent set, so I declared myself satisfied.
When we went in to kiss them good night, however, an astonishing feat of architecture met our eyes. Sadly, I could find no angle of photography that would take in the full glory but imagine this.
You walk into the room, and the wall appears suddenly several feet nearer, and covered in blue stars. You realize that blessed children have stood Thane’s mattress on it’s side. (I swear this is why I won’t buy either of them a proper bed.)
You are convinced that shortly your children will be squashed by said mattress and tiptoeing up you check out the situation. The brothers – the Lego Mastermind and his brother the Builder Minion, have used the kiddie chairs in the room to ensure their sleep remains unsquished. They lie in opposite sides of the “fort”, in a stuffed-animal-and-blanket filled enclosure.
Isn’t this what childhood is all about, my friends? The problem solving? The rule-breaking ingenuity? The ability to sleep on a pile of stuffed animals right next to your brother? Perhaps Calvin taught my son a bit of what was possible. I can’t regret it. And I can’t wait until Thane is old enough to read it too.
Grey is now entering his second great age of firsts. The first, of course, is that period from birth to about two when you get first smiles, first steps, first solids, etc. Then you have the long steep curve of learning until, a scant four years after all the first milestones are met, you start with the second milestones. First day of school, first crush, first real secret, first overnight trip without a relative, etc.
Grey had two big firsts this week, from my point of view. Last night was my husband’s company’s annual summer outing to Fenway park. It transpired that – perhaps – an extra ticket was available. So with a babysitter lined up, we left him to Thane’s tender mercies and brought Grey to his first adventure in Fenway Park. We were in the right field roof, in a terrace. I’d never been up there, but on a very hot and humid solstice, it was breezy and open and lovely. I bought Grey a new t-shirt and he arrived – face-painted with serpents – and I showed him the park and the history and explained the game and the players to him. With intense concentration he learned how to say “Saltalamacchia”. His father, on the other hand, taught him “We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher” and “We want a catcher, not a belly-scratcher.”
The Sox played the Marlins. Papi hit a grand slam into the bleachers. The Sox trounced the Marlins 15 to 5 with booming hits to all corners and long leisurely innings. The air was warm and fragranced with peanuts, beer, people and the softer fragrances from the not so distant fens.
We stayed through Sweet Caroline – sacred tradition – and turned tired feet home, only crossing our threshold around midnight to find a Wide-Awake Thane. It was a weary household this morning, I assure you.
But my church was hosting a concert this evening, and I wanted to go. The performer was Patrick Ball, a gracious and funny man. (If you ever have the chance to see him perform – go!) I wanted to go, and I wanted to take my son with me. So I wrested myself off a gossiping front porch and news of babies to head to my church on a sultry Thursday night. Grey picked our seats in the very front. The wise child had figured out where the fan blew hardest.
He had a notebook with him (our church provides them at the front door for kids), so I listened to the stories and the harp while I watched him draw. As an aside, he is already a far more accomplished artist than I am. Not than I was at that age – than I am now. Anyway, he would lay his pencil down for the stories and pick them back up for the songs. He would drape my arms around him like a scarf, still young enough to not be ashamed of my touch, or to lean his back against me as the night drew long.
The harper’s last story had the weight of bronze, of meaning, of power to it and settled heavy on us in the audience. Patrick turned his hand to the twinkling brass harp strings one last time. As he glid through an arpeggio, close to the end of the song, one of his harp-strings sprung and snapped in the heat of the night – springing up in curliques. With impeccable timing, he declared that he was now done. He stepped down and gave Grey his broken brass harp string.
There are moments that you hope are prophetic, that point to a future you would like to see. I watched my son, transfixed by words and music and meaning, take a glimmering bronze harp string from a bard directly under the cross – at the spot where my child had himself been baptized. Your breath catches and you wonder if, maybe, perhaps, there is still some magic left within the world after all.
Grey tugged at his shirt. Patrick leaned his head down kindly to listen. Then says, “Sure, go ahead.”
In a loud and ringing voice, my first-born announced, “I have a joke!”
I am caught between mortification and pride. I have no idea where this joke is going. To infinity and beyond? Terrible punch line? Actually funny? No clue. But standing in front of the unmoving audience that just paid to come listen to a professional storyteller, my son bravely stood, remembered his lines, lifted his voice and told a truly Kindergardeneresque joke. You really have to be under the age of 8 to think it’s funny. But with courage, conviction and timing, he delivers it to the (extremely patient) crowd.
So I don’t know? Portent? Talent? What does it all mean? On the way home, he discussed at length that final story, asking questions about it that showed he had thought about every word. He wondered if maybe he could try something different with music? (I will give him this – the guitar teacher is really tough. I struggle with the lessons – I don’t think someone learning how to learn was going to be successful in that context.) What does it all mean? Should I sign him up and help him pursue these interests? Should I step back and let him blaze his path, watching in fascination (and periodic mortification)?
What remarkable people they are, these children of ours. They come from our love, eat at our tables and judge the world based on a normal we define for them. But such paths they walk are mysteries to us all, and every winding step an adventure and a delight to watch.
Thank you, Patrick, for your brazen harp string and stories, and for firing the imagination of my son.