Back-to-school brings scissors, pencils, cliques, and other sharp things

It’s mid-August, finally, and many schools in our country are back in session. In my neck of the woods, however, we still have a month to go before that first bell. There are beaches to visit, day trips to take, ice cream to scoop, camp-outs to plan, and all kinds of lazy days spread before us like a month of red-checkered picnic blankets.

Still, it’s mid-August, and while that means the summer’s last hurrah for the next few weeks, for many parents, it also means thinking ahead to the upcoming school year. In my house, we have summer reading (and notes) to finish, as well as math homework (yes, you read that right, we have math worksheets). Amid all the catalogues and online ads and social media posts of faraway friends’ kids having first days of school — first weeks even — there has been this gnawing thought.

What will this year look like for my kids?

Honestly, I’m not concerned about academics. It’s not that my kids are so brilliant. It’s just that I can handle helping them with schoolwork. It’s neat. It’s predictable. Sure, it’s often a challenge at one time or another, but it’s manageable.

What I wonder is what the year will look like for them socially.

talking behind backUndoubtedly it’s my own baggage that makes me feel this way, year after year. I had some struggles in middle school, sixth and seventh grades in particular, when both years found me an outcast for some alleged insult to a friend. (Yes, both times a friend heard a rumor I’d said something that I didn’t say, and suddenly no one in the grade spoke to me for months.) I remember this keenly, and have always been on the lookout for my kids. Are they happy? Making friends? Being a good friend? Enjoying school? Enjoying after school?

It’s usually a case of “so far, so good.” I don’t care about popularity and I don’t care about numbers. I think it’s okay to not be friends with everybody, but I try to teach my kids to be kind to everyone, even if they don’t want to foster a friendship. What I do care about is that each of my children has one or two good connections, true connections, honest and mutual friendships, to count on.

This year, I’m not so sure what to expect. This year, I have my doubts, and also my fears, about what back-to-school will mean for one of my children in particular, because for the first time, in the last few months I have witnessed some genuine Mean Kid behavior. Straight out of a Disney Channel movie.

The first incident happened at the end of the school year. My kids and I were walking to a nearby soccer field for someone’s game. Our route took us through the neighborhood across the street, a neighborhood filled with families and kids, many of whom are friends on some level with my kids. We rounded a bend and I saw them, the three peers of my child, stopped a distance away, chatting. My nerves got edgy; these kids are only peers, not friends, though they friends were at one time. But not any more, as far as I could tell by the sudden lack of phone calls. The were No Longer Friends.

We walked on. The trio walked as well, but stopped every once in a while to chat, or look at a phone or a flower. They saw us; I saw them recognize us. Yet no one spoke, not them, not my kids. Finally we were near enough when I could use my Mom/Teacher voice to say, “Hey there, Name, Name and Name!”

No one answered. By now my blood was a little hot. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined any of these kids (I know their PARENTS!) ignoring an adult. But ignore me they did. We closer still, until we were a few steps behind, and we all finally had to turn onto the single-file path through the woods, a cut-through to the fields. One of my kids was on a bike, and wobbled slowly just behind the ahead-walkers, and still no one spoke. As the path widened, my bike-rider shot past them, as did my kid, the peer and former friend of these three, and still not one spoke. Not to that child or the siblings, and not to me. And I thought, “What the what?” and “So it begins.” whisper1

Fast-forward a few weeks, to summer vacation, the local pool. Neighbors, friends, peers swimming, enjoying the hot July sun. They were there again, peers of my child, though not all three, but some, with another in the mix. At one point I gave the kids money to get some overpriced treats from the snack bar. Kids’ peers were perched at a picnic table, slurping on Italian ice. My kid walks past them. One says hi to my kid, brightly, friendly. My kids says hi back, equal in tone. Once she’d passed entirely, with back to them, that peer turns to the group, says something, they all laugh, harshly, glancing at my kid before laughing some more. Again, I was caught off-guard, again I was shocked, embarrassingly so, because one new group member, I’d thought, was my child’s friend. I wondered when that had changed. And how.

Fast-forward to today. Same pool. This was not witnessed first hand, but told to me by one of my other kids. Above scenario, almost to the detail, except one or two of the Other Kids had been replaced by one or two more. Same hello. Same whisper. Same laugh. (Apparently, my child who shared the story spoke up, called the Other Kids out, and basically got a “whatever.” Same child hugged his sibling, and said the Other Kids were a bunch of jerks. I had to kiss them both.)

My child shrugs off these incidents when they are mentioned. My child is kind and forgiving. My child calls them still calls the Other Kids friends. My child is an optimist, always able to see the good side of any situation, of most people.

And even as my child shrugs, I see the ghost of confusion in the corners of the eyes. Even as my child is too proud to acknowledge the insult, I see the flash of hurt, quickly replaced by a smile. Even as my child would never say something bad about a peer, I see the slash, ever so slight, in the layers of the skin.

We talk, and we don’t talk. I speak in circles, mining for the heart of the matter, edging closer. I have to be careful; the ground is very unstable. Too much, and it will all cave in, closed off forever. This is how we progress. Talking, listening, subject changing, whispers in the dark of things that are too raw to say in the light of day.

School starts in a month. These peers, and others, will be omnipresent; it is a small town.

I wonder what September will bring for this child. Re-connecting with true old friends? Finding new friends? Real Friends? I don’t know.

But I will bring all that I have, including the sized-for-the-soul Band-Aids that, for the first time, I fear my child will need.

band aid heart

 

 

 

 

Summer Solution: The “I’m Bored” Jar and This Mom’s Attempt to Curb Her Kids’ Addiction to Electronics

I’ll admit it. In the past six months or so I became very slackish about monitoring my kids’ use of electronics.

Chalk it up to the soul-crushing winter we had in the Boston area, when around 7 feet of snow was dumped on us in a few weeks’ time, maybe, the never-ending days with no sun, my own struggles with depression, the battles fought with kids pumped full of pubescent hormones.

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After the 3rd (but not last) blizzard of 2015

I frankly lost the will to care. Sure, I would’ve preferred that they were reading or crafting or playing board games, but heck, that would’ve required refereeing and/or organizing, which I had no strength for. With electronics — the phones, ipods, xbox, Netflix — they were quiet. The house stayed clean. Day after day, bit by bit, that long winter, my resolve was chipped away. I simply lost the will to fight.

But then spring came, and I never got them back on track. The habit had been established. Too many days of too much slack had given them the idea that it was okay. It’s a lame excuse for me as a mom, but there were plenty of days I didn’t try that hard — days where one of the four never had a playdate so of course she could just play Minecraft, days where I had work to finish and was just happy everyone was quiet, days where the 6th grader came home and had sports and 3 hours of homework ahead of him and I just thought I’d let the poor kid veg out for a while.

School ended last week, and I let them sleep late, every day. (And sleep late, my kids do. Rising before 10 a.m. is a rarity, given the chance — and some will sleep until mid-afternoon if I let them.) I let them eat cold cereal when they wanted and I let them binge on electronics and I let them stay in pajamas and I let them basically run wild.

On Sunday night, that all changed. It was that watershed day when I couldn’t stand it anymore. Too much had gone wrong. I was too frustrated and fed up. I couldn’t stand the mess. I couldn’t stand the way I was being ignored when I said to turn things off. I couldn’t stand another moment of me being THAT mom who let her kids chose Minecraft videos on YouTube over reading a book.

On Sunday night, I decided to take back control.

I found an old mason jar. I cut up squares and strips of paper. I found a Sharpie and armed myself with a glass of wine.

I made the “I’m Bored” jar.I'm Bored Jar

The kids watched me, after a while, intrigued when I wouldn’t tell them what I was doing. My husband fed them pizza while I worked. Finally I was done, and explained to them what this was.

For the rest of the summer, there would be a 2 hour limit on electronics. Period. TV, phones, ipods, xbox, Wii, computer. I changed the passcodes on everything that I could. I took away chargers.

I told them they were free to amuse themselves, but if they couldn’t come up with something to do they could pick something out of the jar. Do that thing. No trade-ins, no swapping, no negotiating.

So what went in the jar?

I recently came across this little booklet that I’d been saving for years. I think it had been in a toy or game we’d gotten at some point, and it wasn’t age-appropriate at the time — by the time it was, I’d forgotten about it, I guess. The booklet had 100+ ways to create…things. Inventions. Ideas. Projects. It’s broken down into groups of 6 or so things to do, all using the same group of items you’d have around the house (macaroni, string, paper towel rolls, etc.). You’d get a prompt like “design a piece of exercise equipment a dinosaur might use” or “produce a lock for something” or “change the design of a book to allow more than one person to read at a time.” Use the list of items to do the thing.

My first step was to number my blocks of paper from 1 to 101.3. If a kid picked that number, they’d have to do that activity.

By the time I was done with that, the jar had plenty of room, so I moved on to strips.

“Write a letter to…” and I filled in a family member’s name, one per strip.

“Write and perform an originalI'm Bored slips song.”

“Illustrate a book.”

“Climb 5 trees.”

“Run 20 laps around the house (outside).”

“Organize the bookshelves into alphabetical order.”

There were some chores thrown in, but not more than 10 or 12. “Clean a toilet.” “Wash a window.” “Organize the shoe bins.” “Weed the garden.” “Wash the car.”

On and on until the jar looked reasonably filled. I taped a label to it (please don’t judge my awkward art skills), and set it out.

Today was the first day. My youngest was up first. She was eager to start — she wrote and performed a song for me (“The Parkour Song” because, Minecraft.) She went to the grocery store with me. She scrubbed a toilet. She swept part of the driveway. She drew a comic strip. She was on fire, saving up all of her time until mid-afternoon.

Meanwhile, her next-oldest sister used up her all of her minutes before she was even out of pajamas. The brother used up most, saving 10 minutes in case he needed to text someone later (ah, 12yos). The oldest, the 13yo, who pooh-pooed the whole thing, is already in hot water for going over her time.

But eventually, the three younger siblings were outside, inventing things, making up games, obstacle courses, running around. Just like they used to do.

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“Create a parkour”

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A blind-man’s maze they invented

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Extreme hopscotch (I honestly don’t know what the rules are here)

Some kids eventually negotiated extra time by doing extra chores. (Hey, that works!) Because of this, all went over the 2+ hours, and none have time tomorrow.

So, we’ll see. On day one, the Bored Jar was a success. It’s new. New is fun! It’ll take some time for these four to remember what a creative, thoughtful, experienced life is. And I still sort of feel like a failure, being THAT mom who couldn’t keep her kids off electronics, that mom who gave up, for a little bit, who had to resort to this sort of thing to unplug her children.

But more than that, I’m curious about tomorrow.

I’m sure everyone will be bored. And annoyed. I’m prepared for an uphill battle. They aren’t in any camps, so it’s just us, all day, every day, until school starts again in September. I’m still working from home. Will my will continue to be strong? Will I cave? Will they rebel? (I mean, come on, it’s four-to-one around here.) I’m sort of excited to find out.

Either way, the kids will remember this as the best summer of their lives…

or the worst.

And I’m more than okay with it.

I’m already coming up with new ideas to add to the Jar…

This was the Summer Dad Died, and it’s over.

Tomorrow school starts and no matter the official calendar, summer is over. It wasn’t the best summer for me, for my siblings, my mom, my family. Not by a long shot. Not in the vicinity of any kind of long shot.

But summer happened, and I have four kids, and despite the awfulness that will forever mark this summer,  I hope I gave the kids loads of happy memories during this summer they’ll always remember as the summer Pop Died. Forever they will remember Pop Died and This is Where I Was and What I Did. And all of that will be part of their process, part of their childhood, part of what defines them, in even a small way. As is should be, I’m told.

They loved their Pop so much. Oh, my god. They did. They haven’t yet begun to realize how much they love him and how much they’ll miss him. And holy cow, how will I be able to help them figure that out?

After it happened, I wanted so much to give them a regular summer, to be a mom who finished her work and did fun things instead of sludging from a puddle of grief to do something other than let the kids watch yet another marathon session of Psych episodes.

I think I did. At the best I got the kids out of the house for a few hours of swimming every day. We played some games. We went places. We hugged a lot. We all did our own thing sometimes. There might have been some random dancing. I only cried from time to time. Alright, a bit more than that.

My own memories of summer with growing up my family  have inspired me every day this painful season — if nothing else, I have remembered to smile and be grateful. Because that’s what summer means to me. Almost all of the best memories of my life are in the summer, and almost all of those memories involve my family.

The pain of losing Daddy is still raw. He loved every season for what each offered, but wow, how he loved summer (OMG, he was Olaf before Olaf was Olaf! But, not really, I guess.)

And he loved family. And since June 24 I’ve just spent time looking around and saying, dang. Daddy. This has been one fantastic summer. Not hot, not humid, an odd patch of weather for lower New England in the summer. Warm, brilliant sunshine, cool nights, perfect winds.

Then I realized — August has been exactly the kind of weather we enjoyed all of those summers in Mt. Lakes.  Which is a whole different post, I suppose. But, there it is.

Daddy, I’d like to say right now, school starts tomorrow. Mitzi is starting 7th grade and Cooper is entering 6th, both at the brand-new middle school Ray’s worked so hard at making a reality all these years. Ellie is already in love with her 4th grade class, and Joanna can’t wait to show off her ten-inches-shorter-hair PLUS her new cartwheels.

Me? I’m going to spend a couple of very early hours getting five people where they need to be. Then I’m going to take a shower, do some client work, revise some PBs (you’d like this one, I think, with all the puns and wacky sense of humor), and yes, I might take a nap, read a book, go for a run too. Well, maybe not a run, but perhaps a walk or maybe I’ll dust off my yoga mat. Or jut ride my bike around the block.

I’ll call Mom to check in, as it’s been a few days.

Daddy, how I wish you were here. I’d like to think that you’re “here” in the swirling netherworld of passed-on-ed-ness, and that’s good. Beautiful, even. I’m glad you’re at peace — I believe you are, because out of anyone I ever knew, peace is something you have earned, finally, and I have to believe that if peace is to be found, you’re right there.

But I miss you. I am not satisfied with the spiritual. I long for the tangible, not the ethereal. I wish you were here. Every day, for this whole perfectly beautiful summer, I have wished you were here. To see the kids’ backflips, the hands-free biking, to read the stories written, to listen to the newly crafted jokes. To witness the cousin love when we all get together, to watch the bonds forged, to see the miracle of ties knotted. To allow yourself to know, for real, that you had a very, very large part in the miracle unfolding before your eyes, that whatever else you think you didn’t do all that well, THIS happened.  To remind you to relish in the immense family you helped to build.

Aw, Daddy. I’m a writer. All of that is true. But mostly the whole point of all of this is — I wish you were here because I would sure like a hug. Or just to hold your hand for one more nanosecond. I wasn’t ready to let you go. I’m still not.

Daddy, I just miss you so much.

And holy cow, I bet you’d love to see those backflips at the pool.

 

Crazy. Stupid. Freelance. Love.

Wow, A Mom’s World is sure full of crickets lately. (Much like my inbox from recent subs, but that’s a whole other post.)

But it’s been a crazy busy time for me since I last checked in. I spent a week or so as guest editor for the Hingham Patch. My former duties as community board moderator for boston.com changed into a new position altogether — I’m now the events editor for the site’s new parenting blog, Parent Buzz. It’s a fun (though more time-consuming) gig, as I get to stay on top of cool and fun family activities in the Boston area. I’ve also been keeping busy with my regular posts at besuretotest.com, a site for diabetics and their families (you can find my work on the parenting blog section of the site). I’ve also tried to keep up with my other freelancing aspirations, and will be having an essay in the September edition of FamilyFun Magazine.

Something had to give, and sadly, this month, it was this little blog here. Because after a morning of work that sometimes dribbled over into the afternoon, I still had a house full of kids eager to do something fun. I mean, I could only let them get zombified in front of the TV or Wii for so many hours…..

Luckily, my Patch job allowed me to take the kids along much of the time (ice cream and photo shoot!). And we’ve spent a lot of days getting reacquainted with the outdoor pool at a nearby YMCA. Cooper started summer baseball and Mitzi is doing a summer pickup basketball group. We treated ourselves to a day out in Boston to take advantage of the free admission at the Children’s Museum, and have discovered many new books at the library.

And speaking of which, I am so excited to share with you a great new novel I read last week. But another day. Believe me, it’s one you want to hear about. And I’m hoping to do a better job at sharing my thoughts on books I’ve loved, new and old, in future posts.

Oh, and my own novel? Sadly, it too has taken a backseat with all this lovely freelance work and super summer family fun. But I think of it often and sometimes even jot down those thoughts, so when the whirlwind subsides I’ll be ready to give it the attention it deserves.

Time to get the kids ready for their afternoon at police camp — and, yes, I’ll tell you all about it. Tomorrow.

Summer vacation: Day One

Summer vacation, day two. I won’t count last Friday because I think we were all too hungover from the last day of school extravaganza to do anything. And, in the interest of hygiene, I spent the weekend cleaning the house. (Whew. Long overdue.) So I guess yesterday was our first official day of nothingness.

I got up early and did some work for my gig at the Parent Buzz blog on boston.com. Then, also in the interest of getting done what is painful and you just want to get it out of the way, I dutifully headed over to my annual girl exam. Enough said. By the time I’d gotten home, Ray was camped out on the computer to do his work, so I took the kids to play tennis for a couple ofhours. We had a late lunch, Ray headed into the city for a few hours, Mitzi went to a friend’s house, and the other kids headed to the backyard to do whatever it is they do out there when I’m not glancing out the window.

And while I did re-mop the kitchen floor and vacuum the living room rug, that was the extent of my chores. (Some day I’ll get the hang of the domestic thing). Mitzi stayed at her friend’s for dinner, the other kids showered, I fed them. Ray went to a school committee meeting and I had some wine. There was a game of Sorry, some brownies, then bed.

The first day of summer vacation nothing gets an A+.

I can’t wait to see what today brings!

 

This is the summer of nothing….and everything

It’s the last day of school today!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I couldn’t be happier. The kids will get on the bus in 15 minutes and get off at a friend’s stop for a neighborhood pizza party. Then summer begins.

I’m so looking forward to slowing down, to not having to rush here and there and grab meals on the go. Not having to harangue the kids about homework and projects and practicing their instruments. To not having to get up by 5:30 a.m. just to try to shower before everyone else gets up.

Lots of other moms have asked me in the past couple of weeks about our summer plans. “Nothing,” I answer, trying not to smile.

This summer I want to play. I want to take the kids on hikes through our local parks and make day trips into Boston to walk the Freedom Trail or picnic in the Public Garden. I want to swim in pools and lakes and the ocean. I want to play every board game we own. Twice. I want to stay up late and catch fireflies and sleep late the next day. I want to build forts in the living room  with pillows and blankets, and cuddle with the kids under the fabric, peering out to watch a movie. I want to borrow and read 500 books from the library.

My kids will probably wish they were going to rec camp with their friends, and maybe they will, for a couple of weeks. Maybe. I haven’t signed anyone up for anything yet, so maybe there’s no space left. I sort of don’t care.

Life gets faster every day you are alive. Mitzi is going to fifth grade next year, and that will zip by, then she’ll be in middle school, then, in an eyeblink, heading off to college. Their childhood is pooling in front of me right now and I want to float in every second of it before it is gone, water through my cupped palm.

This is the slowdown summer, the take-it-easy summer, the get-to-know-each-other-again summer.

It starts in eight minutes, and I am counting every second down.

I can’t wait to get started doing nothing — and everything.

Tick, tick, tick…..

Playing for fun — not for runs

Last week, Cooper spent an early weekend morning trying out for a summer baseball league. Depending on his performance that day, he would be drafted to play either the local team (“sandlot”) or the travel team (“self-explanatory”). My Cooper loves him some baseball — but, mostly, he loves to play ball with his friends. He didn’t seem to care where he ended up, so long as his buddies were by his side.

Come to find out, he was picked for the competitive travel team, but most of his friends got into the Sandlot league. So Ray and I gave him the choice — it’s summer, after all. He’s nine years old. The point of playing is to have fun. Did he want weeks of on-the-road playing-to-win competition? Or in-town games? If he wanted the challenge, we were on board. If he  wanted casual games with local friends, well, that was awesome too. We left it entirely up to him. After a few hours of consideration, brows furrowed in serious thought about what he wanted — to play to win, to play to laugh — he let us know. “I want to be with my friends,” he said. “I just want to have fun.” Sandlot it was.

Secretly, I’m glad. I know that my kid has a natural athleticism and affinity for sports, and while I recognize that he’s not a nine-year-old phenom, I’m not surprised that he often gets picked toward the top. It makes me proud to see him perform effortlessly, and a little part of me wants to encourage him to challenge himself, to be better, to excel, to tap into that inherent potential I see buzzing through his entire body.  But, at the end of the day, I don’t care about that. Because for me, sports is about fun, not competition. Yes, I understand that at some point you play to win, but, being me, a sort of granola-munching, Kumbaya-singing Mom, I just want everyone to play. Play. As in, be joyful. Smile. Cheer. Whoop-holla-woot!

Whatever the score.

That’s why I am so glad that Ray coaches. Even though sometimes I get a little nuts watching, I know his heart is always — and first — with the boys. Both he and our team’s other coach each take his role seriously enough to help the team improve their skills and understand the game, but always, always, playing is about having a good time. And even though it seems that, around here, draft season is a big deal for a lot of coaches, when Ray picked the team, he not only chose boys with strong skills, he also chose boys who were friends. Kids who would enjoy playing together. Boys who hung out with each other in their free time — even if their abilities are not on the same level as some of the others.

I think he chose very, very well.

We’re nearing the end of baseball season. Last night our little purple-wearing team played a great game — their opponents were a fairly even match for us, and all the kids did well, even if, in the end, our team lost by one run.  I could see the improvement from a couple of months ago, the solid hits and the well-executed fielding, the way that all the boys are starting to remember where the play is without being reminded, and working together to get the job done. Best of all was seeing the giant grins on the faces of boys who, for the first time this season, got a few RBIs or remembered to throw to the cutoff man or touched home plate.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, and nothing wrong with being exuberant and proud when you do. But those smiles, that pride, that unabashed joy — that is what sports ought to be about, not the scores or standings. There’s a reason it’s called “a game.”

If only we could figure out how to help kids to hang on to that feeling.

Coaches?