Monday, March 24, 2014

Creating the "Right" Childhood

There is this continuous complaint that kids today aren’t experiencing the “right” kind of childhood – you know, like the childhood that person remembers as his own.  Kids today are too protected, too indoors, too electronically focused, but in the “good old days when I was a kid” ….

Comments like these reek of presumptive parenting, of insinuating that one parenting style is better than others, of mothering condescension.  I admit, I don’t know what “kids today” are experiencing; I only really know what my kids are experiencing, and that is a world I help create for them.  My parenting responsibility is to offer them the “right” childhood (as determined by Eric and I) and then to emphatically support the girls as they navigate their own childhood and development.  I absolutely adored some elements of my youth and they fundamentally shaped me into the person I am today; of course I want to provide a similar array of experiences and opportunities for my children.

I had some primary loves when I was younger.  At Lola’s age, I loved playing in the dirt bed in the backyard.  My mom is a serious gardener and, to prevent the kids playing in her gardens, she provided a big rectangular space of dirt for us.  Theoretically it could have been a garden too, but we kids were more interested in digging in the dirt, making tracks for trucks and cars, making mud, etc.  Eventually I graduated from always playing in the backyard to playing with all the kids on our cul-de-sac.  We had endless afternoons of tag, hide and seek, kickball, and other outdoor games and we came home when the streetlights came on.  I was not involved in any sports or activities or instruments; my time after school and on weekends was my own and I could do whatever I wanted with it.  Eventually I moved into an endless desire to read books and to explore worlds described by others and I left most of my childhood loves behind.  (Some aspects of my childhood I just do not remember.  Did my family eat dinner regularly?  Did I have homework each night?  When did I bathe?  I just don’t remember those time restrictions.) 

My daughters do not have a dirt bed to play in, which is unfortunate because I’m sure the girls would have played in it incessantly.  Raina was an enthusiastic sand box gal – she created small sand piles at home from dumping all the sand out of her shoes – and Lola just enjoys being outside.  We do have a big common ground that abuts to our backyard and the girls go exploring out there unsupervised.  Lola finds fallen sticks and creates mini-sculptures or uses them as weapons in her pretend play.  Both girls enjoy just running around in the common ground, kicking balls, blowing bubbles, biking, and being free. 

Our street does not have streetlights or sidewalks or many kids.  Lola plays outside by herself – chalking or running or talking with neighbors – and she abides by the boundary of not playing in the street.  I worry about her navigating the street on her own – she’s small and cars are big and fast – but she has developed a smart strategy of walking through the common ground to a sidewalk or a friend’s house as a way to bypass walking on our individual street.  I am immensely comfortable with this arrangement and it’s remarkably similar to the one I used as a child.  Yes, theoretically, I could have wandered multiple streets away in my neighborhood and explored/played there, but I was more interested in playing on my street and with my friends there.  The girls have a similar mindset.

The Whomptons do not a backyard playground – no slides or swings or anything of that ilk.  We have an elementary school about ½ mile from our house instead and, when the weather is nice, the whole family walks down to the Ross Elementary playground so the girls can get their willies out.  The walk from our house to the school is mostly sidewalk, except for our street and three other streets we have to cross.  It is an easy walk and is one the girls are physically well trained to do on their own.  I’m not certain when it will be appropriate for them to make that venture on their own, for them to say “I want to go to the Ross playground!” and for me to respond, “Awesome!  Have a great time!” 

We are slowly training the girls to get to this point, to be comfortable with more and more distance between parent and child.  On any walking venture, Lola runs ahead on her own and explores but she stops at each cross street and waits patiently for an adult or Raina to arrive.  Lola knows that she crosses streets only with a bigger person.  I trust her to respect that boundary and, therefore, I respect her independence and desire to have a different speed than the rest of us.  The girls are rarely lockstep with the adults on a walking venture – the adults have a consistent speed, where the kids gallivant about and explore more – and I’m proud of them for stretching out that imaginary parent – child leash.  I trust my kids to make smart choices in regard to their safety.

Not all parents and children have the same philosophy and I noticed it recently when we had another child over for a playdate.  We took two excursions out of the house, something I rarely did with another person’s child until now.  The girl let me know she wanted to use the restroom.  I said okay, pointed to the facility’s restroom 15 feet away, and made it clear with my actions that I wasn’t coming in the restroom with her.  She had the choice to go in alone, to not go in at all, or to ask for someone to join her.  She walked to the restroom door and stood beside it for 3 – 4 minutes, until I called Raina over and asked her to go inside with the friend.  The friend exclaimed “thank you!” to Raina and in they went.  Later, we went to a playground and Lola’s first action was to climb UP the slide and then to slide down it.  The friend was shocked. 

Friend: Lola, what are you doing?  Can you do that?
Lola: I’m going up the slide.
Friend: But it is dangerous!
Lola: No, it’s fun. 

After watching Raina and Lola do the same thing for a while, the friend tried it, slid down, proclaimed it “fun!” and then did it over and over again. 

I tell this story not in a judging way to that child or her family – again, each family is different and makes conscious decisions to be so.  Clearly, the friend was not comfortable taking an action she deemed risky and she communicated that with her words and actions.  However, the adult in the situation (me) and the child had different standards of what constituted a “risky action” and it made me wonder whether the child would tell stories about the playdate and whether I will be labeled as one of those parents – you know, ones who ignore their kids and let them do whatever they want – as a result.

Let’s be clear.  I do ignore my kids.  I don’t spend much of my time entertaining them or shuttling them from place to place.  I do let them do what they want (mostly).  And that mostly is the key.  Eric and I have worked hard to establish boundaries of acceptability so we trust the girls to make good decisions.  I feel like the structure we’ve made and the opportunities we provide to grow are hallmarks of being a good parent.  I am not blasé about my role or responsibility.  But, from another person’s point of view, these actions might look like the hallmarks of a bad, neglectful parent.  More importantly, they may make us look like irresponsible adults – like ones that should not be entrusted with other kids on playdates or sleepovers.  Again, the label of being one of those parents. 

But I digress.  My main point is that my parents trusted me to make good choices and they gave me latitude to make those choices – whether good or bad -- and to live with the consequences of them.  That model makes sense to me, and it’s one I try to embody with my children as well.

Another key component of my childhood was exposure to the outdoors: playing outside at my parents’ house, working on my grandparents’ farm, camping and fishing with my cousins.  I understood the outdoors and was mostly comfortable there.  Eric and I try to provide outdoor opportunities for our girls as well.  Raina is a Girl Scout and both girls are Ethical Navigators; we regularly choose the Zoo or hiking over other more indoor pursuits.  Raina chose to have last year’s birthday party feature a hike and she’s expressed interest in doing something similar this year.  She’s thinking camping out in the backyard as a sleepover.  Really, how cool is that?!  I am excited by how much they have embraced outdoor pursuits and I’m looking forward to future outings of the girls and me camping and hiking in National Parks on our summer breaks.  It’s going to be great.

My introverted self loves games and books.  Gaming allows you to be social – as in there are people with whom you’re interacting – but the level of real social interaction is up to you.  I played ridiculous amounts of Crazy Eights, Rummy, Uno, Canasta, Hearts, and Tonk with my dad, and then plenty of Solitaire games on my own.  Eric plays games with the girls on a regular basis; Raina and he have Zombie Fluxx matches each night and they plus Lola play Incan Gold and Forbidden Island together.  (The girls don’t play any traditional 52 card games together; I don’t know why.)  I have pushed the love of books.  We own loads of books, we take weekly trips to the library to restock, and we actively encourage reading as an activity.  I am so grateful that Raina has embraced the written word so completely. 

Of course, no childhood is completely rosy – at least mine was not.  My family grappled with alcoholism and financial instability and unemployment and these forces had really destructive effects on my family.  While I did not enjoy these catalysts, the life lessons I learned from them were invaluable and directly have impacted the partnership Eric and I have and the environment in which we raise our children.

Eric and I are lucky enough to not have addictions of any kind.  Past that, we do not drink alcohol, do not smoke, and do not use illegal drugs.  While some folks hear that and think “but how do you have any fun!?” I think the counterpoint is important to see.  We lead really happy, fun and fulfilling lives without those additions.  It’s important to provide those models for our kids (even though it’s not the primary motivation behind our actions). 

Our financial story is not as straight-forward.  When Eric and I first married we financially stretched a little past our means to make a sizeable purchase; we spent most of our savings on a down-payment of a home that was larger than we needed at the time.  And, assuming that everything continued on in the same path, we would have been fine financially.  But you should never count on money situations to always be positive – as I should have known from continuous childhood experiences.  When Eric’s company downsized and let him go immediately after we closed on the house, we were saddled with a substantial debt on a single salary stream.  So we switched financial gears and began to conserve as much as possible.  Over the next ten years we made short-term financial security our highest priority; we paid off student loans, car loans, and eventually our mortgage.  Present day Eric and Krystal prize financial stability.  We live well within our means, spend frugally and mindfully, and save aggressively.  We hope to never face unexpected unemployment again, but we have positioned ourselves in a place so that it would not be destructive to the financial stability of our family. 

Talking about the really challenging parts of my past is not easy and I don’t know to what extent – if any – I’ll share those personal stories of my childhood with my daughters.  But I do want Raina and Lola to embrace the same core value of moderation so some conversations will need to occur.  We’ll approach these conversations eventually and I’m optimistic about the girls’ making responsible and reasoned choices.


I ruminated over this blog post for a while, after hearing Kate Lovelady's platform address about "Kids Today" and I read "The Overprotected Kid."  Feel free to check these source materials as well.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hello, Spring Break!

I stay-at-home parent in chunks throughout the year: spring break, summer break, and winter break.  I know that some folks relish in having nothing planned and just seeing where the world takes them that day, but that is so not me.  I am not impulsive.  I plan things in advance.  The kids are happier knowing that we will do something each day, they can look forward to the various items, and if it’s not planned then it might not happen.  I like the blend of getting out of the house, but also having time at home to just be.  Saint Louis has a wondrous array of places to visit, so it is remarkably easy to brainstorm fun things to do.

MICDS has two weeks off for spring break, so Raina, Lola, and I sat down and listed all the fun things we were interested in doing and all the need-to-do items as well.  Then we spread them out in our makeshift calendar.  Here’s the plan. 

Saturday: Saint Louis Zoo

Sunday: Ethical Society, playdate

Monday: clean bedrooms, sort through spring clothes for donating, go to library, cook meals for the week, doctor appointment

Tuesday: buy Frozen, watch Frozen, buy any replacement clothes for spring

Wednesday: Art Museum, Science Museum

Thursday: Laumeier Sculpture Park, make individual pizzas from scratch, playdate

Friday: family hike and picnic

Saturday: playdate and visit Old Courthouse

Sunday: Ethical Society

Monday: City Museum

Tuesday: playdate, make cookies

Wednesday: Missouri Botanical Garden

Thursday: playdate

Friday: volunteer at the Saint Louis Area FoodBank, make Eric’s birthday cake

Saturday: playdate, sleepover

Sunday: Ethical Society, get ready for Monday!