When I Made My Kids Stop and Touch the Tree

It was St. Patrick’s Day.

Well, not quite. It was the Saturday before. But everyone was pretending it was St. Patrick’s Day, and so there was a lot of revelry going on that afternoon, with families gathering on the green square that, while not emerald green, was starting to show some signs of life here in North Carolina.

And the walking lifeforms present, the mammals especially (mostly human and canine) were equally decked in green like that grass, all pretending to be Irish for a day.

Which I find exceedingly odd.

Every March we seem to all forget, or forcibly ignore, the history of “Irish Need Not Apply,” a sign that meant much to my Scotch-Irish family at one time. I’m sure we’d like to think that we’ve forgotten that history because we’ve grown past it, but I suspect humanity has just decided to trade prejudices.

Which is a disgrace that I’ve written about before in other posts.

But, anyway, we’re there on the lawn, and the boys are playing with other kids, and they’ve all picked up sticks and started to cast spells on each other with them. Harry Potter is pretty popular in our house, even for as young as the boys are. Magic entrances the old and young alike.

But then the wands became swords, which is a natural evolution that probably is a nice metaphor for human evolution somehow, and the sticks started to be used to hit this big, old oak tree in the middle of the square.

Swing. Chip. Chop. The kids hit the tree with relish, and the bark started to fly and the sticks started to break, which sent them in search for more sticks. Chaos. Fun. Smiles. Laughter. Almost too much to stop it. The adults kept their distance, letting them play for a bit in that anonymous, friend-making way kids play before they pick up those social norms that will destroy their ability to get along with anyone and everyone. No one wanted to interrupt the play.

Except…that tree.

And I said, “Hold my beer,” and my friend obliged, and I walked over and I knelt down next to the tree alongside my youngest, Alistair. He was hitting the tree with that stick, fighting an imaginary foe.

And I touched the tree.

I felt it like you’d touch an old gravestone or an important marker. He watched me. “Feel it,” I invited him. He reached his hand out, eyes wide. “What’s it feel like?” I asked. “It’s rough,” he said, inspecting it carefully.

Then I touched his arm in the same way. “This is the tree’s skin,” I said. “It’s like yours. Feel yours.” He did. “Your skin keeps you safe. The bark keeps the tree safe.”

“It’s alive,” he said.

“Yes, and growing. We can’t hurt its skin. Touch it. It’s alive. You’re right,” I said, turning back to it. “We can climb it. We can hang a swing from it. We can do all sorts of things with it, but we can’t take its skin.”

He dropped his stick. He invited his brother to feel it, too. And soon the kids were all feeling the tree, sticks at their sides.

And then they ran off to play swords and wands and other games, and left the tree to stand sentinel.

And all it took was reminding them that the tree was to be used, not hurt or destroyed.

All it took was to remind them that it’s alive, like them.

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Do It Anyway

My 4 year old, Alistair, he’s got a mind of his own. I mean, I guess all kids his age do, but we’re encountering a kind of superhuman resistance in this little person that my wife and I have not found in our older son, so this is new territory for us.

He’s a kind kid. He always shares his fries.

And he’s creative, often making up songs all on his own to sing to himself while he does puzzles or plays with his action figures.

But he’s particular. Very particular. Everything has an order, a purpose, and he’s not happy when that order meets deviation. He’s got a rigid inflexibility that we, as parents, often see as a bit of a burden.

And then yesterday happened.

Last night, after a quick dinner out before choir practice, my son was methodically and slowly separating our food containers into “trash” and “recyclable,” all while standing over the appropriate receptacles.

He was there so long that a line was forming behind him as adults were waiting to dispose of their own trash. But he just kept going, slowly, painstakingly separating, like some kind of pint-sized Captain Planet.

“Hey buddy,” I said, “these people are waiting to throw things away, too.”

“I’m going fast as I can,” he told me, not even looking up.

At this point the people in line, confusing him for being a cute, innocent eco-warrior, started to chuckle.

And he heard. And this guy, well, he doesn’t suffer fools easily. He’s like his mom in that way.

And he stopped his work, turned and looked at a line of adults, four deep, and said loudly, forcefully, “It’s not funny to laugh at people doing the right thing!”

Tears in his eyes.

They stood in silence. Most went to another trash can.

I looked down at my little guy, wondering how we would ever get that little will to bend.

But this morning I have a different feeling. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to tell him, “Good job, Al.”

Because there will be plenty of people in his future who will laugh at him for doing the right thing, especially when it’s not popular. There’ll be plenty of people who, in their impatience, will encourage him to do a rush job, cut corners, or not put his heart into something.

I hope when he’s mocked for doing the right thing in his life, he does it anyway.

Do it anyway, Al.

I’m starting to think that little will is going to work in his favor, eventually.

And when the world laughs at you for being focused and giving your all to saving what’s important to you, do it anyway.

Lessons on Life from Watching My Son Paint

220px-WatercoloursMy son, my five year old, is in love with water colors.

He sits at his little table, blank page before him, and carefully swirls his brush in the water dish like a chef carefully mixing the batter that will be baked into something good.

And then he dips it in his desired color, the edges of the paint container stained with a menagerie of other colors, and goes to town.

A swish. A splash. A dot.  It’s kind of like what I imagine watching Jackson Pollock paint would be like, but he does it with his tongue out, concentrating. He’s intense.

And then, poof, it’s done.

And I peer down on his page, and he’s only made a small dent on the white space, sometimes no bigger than three nickels worth of area. And yet, “I’m done!” is his proud pronouncement.

And onto the stack it goes. A fresh sheet of paper comes out, and creation begins again.

I’m consistently impressed with how much he lets the canvas speak around the paint.  Or, perhaps, it’s how loudly he lets a little paint speak for itself amidst the blank space surrounding it.

And I can’t tell if it’s because I’m his father or because there’s actually something there, but I think it’s stunning.  And not just the art, but the whole process.

The careful attention to detail.  Knowing when something is done, even when it doesn’t “look done” to any other eye.  Not being concerned that the paints bleed together, imagining that this kind of blending and imperfection is part of the process.

Watching him paint is a study in what it means to be OK with what you produce in life. To call it quits when you’re done.  To not worry about the details, or even the critics, and let something be fully itself.

It’s a study in both minimalism and maximum attention.  He’s not interested in filling the canvas. His concern is to watch and see when it’s completed.  This is at odds with so much in our world today that encourages us to pack every. damn. moment. full of meaning and activity and productivity.

But sometimes the canvas can speak.

A calendar full of unmarked space is not the marks of a boring life.

A few strokes of color are sometimes all that you need to be full.

Why I Sing To My Boys

jason-rosewell-60014Most nights, as the lights go out, my boys will request that I sing them a song.

Not just any song, mind you, but from a catalog of random songs that I’ve sung to them since I first rocked them to sleep the day they were born.

We’ve added a few over the years, but most of these were, from the start, their songs.

The old Civil War era song Cindy Cindy tops the list.  They especially love the verse:

I wish I was an apple

a’hangin’ on a tree

and every time my Cindy passed

she’d take a bite of me!

And then there’s the hymn Abide with Me, a lullaby for the very young, or the very old, to entrust them to the Divine.

They’re also a big fan of I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, which tests my ability to remember multiple verses in a row at breakneck speed.  The faster the better.

And then a little socialist, hippy tune I picked up from my summers romping through Pennsylvania, Calling All the Children Home by John McCutcheon.  They especially love this one because I’ve included their names in the final verse, and they claim I wrote it just for them.

But here’s the thing: I don’t sing to them to get them to fall asleep.

I sing to them so that they’ll sing.

I sing to them so that they know that men sing, and sing well, and sing in public, and sing tender songs as well as fun songs.

Their mom sings to them, too, of course.  Lullaby by the Dixie Chicks is what they ask from her most. And they love it.

Because singing with your children, to your children, not only teaches them that it’s OK to sing, but it also teaches them the amazing thing that happens when you sing to and with someone else: a special bond is formed.

And what has happened because of all this singing?

My five (almost six) year old sings to himself in the shower, and it’s great to hear from outside the door.  He knows the joy of song, and acoustics, and is figuring it all out.

My four year old sings along with every song on the radio, and listening to his voice is one of the most amazing things because it’s so neat to hear him pick up notes and complicated lines at a young age.  He’s learning to try, at least.  And that is something that can’t be taught overnight…it takes a while.  Years of singing.

They ask me to put on my records, and they sit and listen to whole albums.  They not only know how to listen to music and sing along, but they’re starting to appreciate music.  They’ll listen to a song and give an opinion now.

And in a culture where music and the arts are disappearing from classrooms in deference to STEM curriculum, I want them to get this in their bones now so that they’ll be able to do it on their own later.

But, also, I sing to my boys because I like singing.  And just like any parent, I want to share the joy of the art with them, so that they can know what it truly is to be human in this world of growing automation.

I sing to my boys…and you should too. Whether you have the vocal chops of a lark or a loon, sing. Teach them to sing.

Because to be human is to sing.  And it is divine.

Peaceful Parenting: A Primer

20139901_10213944649714098_3852037455228540975_nFirst a disclaimer: I am not always a parent who parents peacefully.

In fact, sometimes I suck at it and absolutely lose it.

But I am trying.  I am trying because I realize that there are a couple of things going on in my sons’ lives and minds at their age (3 and 5).  And I don’t want to romanticize this one bit, but rather just reflect on it.

Ready?

My boys are trying to figure out their world.

-They’re pushing limits because they need to figure out their physical and emotional space.

-They’re trying understand themselves (like, for instance, why they sometimes feel like crying or shouting or are happy or sick).

-They’re trying to understand themselves in relation to other selves.  What does it mean to have and make friends at the playground, even though we’re there for only an hour?  How do we play well with people we don’t know?

All of the above is part of their development and developing worldview, and so when they don’t act in a way that fits with the way I see the world, I have to do a reality check on myself: they’re trying to figure it out.

Stop expecting them to have it all figured out.

And they’re trying to figure us (we parents) out, too. One day they’ll realize we have no idea what we’re doing…hopefully by then they’ll be too old to care and will have some empathy.

But until then, I have to remember that a lot of my anger is about me, not them.

In other words, so much of my anger and frustration with them has to do with the fact that they are not me.

And until I realize that my reactions to them mirror my own reactions to myself when I behave the way they behave (because we all behave like children sometimes…trust me, I work with people 24/7, I see it daily in adults), I won’t ever evolve as a parent.  When they fuss and cry, part of that is on them, and part of that is on me…because in some ways I teach and reinforce that behavior with the way I react to them.

So what does it mean to parent peacefully?

To me it means two things.

First, you identify limits well. 

Peaceful parenting is not permissive parenting.  Certainly you allow them to feel the way they feel, but you can’t allow them to do whatever they want.  Remember: they’re trying to find limits.  Give them what they’re seeking!

I’m a dad who is pretty good at letting my kids try things they want to try.  They can fall, scrape themselves up, and make new friends on their own without my help.

Which means: I don’t follow them around on the playground equipment.  And if you’re a parent who does this, and your child doesn’t specifically need your help (and there are absolutely some children who need assistance playing…I get that), but if they don’t need you to be up there, get off.

The reason my kid isn’t playing with your kid is probably because you’re there. Get the hell outta there.  Seriously.

Peaceful parenting means setting limits, like allowing the kid to have the ability to explore on their own.  In this case you’re the one who follows the limits as much as they do.

But, they can’t wander off.  I talk about physical boundaries all the time with the boys, and they largely respect them.  Finn will always come back home to tell me if he’s going into a neighbor’s home (which is why I can’t see him on the street).

These limits: knowing what is their space, and knowing what is beyond their space, gives them so much freedom and peace.  Give it to them. Give them what they want, in this case.

And limits around their time are important, too.  There is a time for TV, a time for independent play, a time for together play, a time to bathe, and a time to be awake and be asleep.  I’m not suggesting that you parse out their day in such a structured way, but allowing kids the peace of knowing “what time it is” has become an important thing in our house.

Sometimes it is time where we can watch TV, and sometimes it is time where the TV is off, but the record player can be on.  Sometimes it is time where we can be messy, and sometimes it is time to keep clean because we’re going somewhere.

Set good limits, and freedom within those limits. They have choices within whatever time it is: what to play with, where to play, what to watch, etc.

For instance, before bedtime, we’ll sometimes give them a choice after bath (which is never a choice on bath nights): “Do you want to watch a part of a show, or would you rather read two books?”  And when we’ve had enough TV for the day and that’s not one of the options, choosing the books is an option.

And choice brings me to the second hallmark of parenting peacefully.

But first, a quick note about screens: we (my wife and I) are making the decision to limit the kinds of screens the kids have access to. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, it’s just what we’re going with. No iPads (heck, we don’t have the money for that mess), no computer access…they’re young still, and computers are certainly their future, but I want their brains to develop in a way that allows for critical thinking and a sense of chronos, not immediate gratification.

Also, and this is something parents need to start taking seriously, screens are increasingly the way that kids get exposed to adults that you don’t know; much more likely than letting them play outside by themselves or even ride their bikes alone around the neighborhood.  Wise-up, parents.

For long car rides, we bring books and toys and stories on the radio. I’m not judging you if you don’t, I’m just saying that we think there are other options that might be better.

Ok, on to that second thing…

Secondly, don’t yell, ask.

Lordy, this is tough.  But it usually works.

51Yb6gvrQIL._SX478_BO1,204,203,200_When the kids aren’t doing what I want, or if they’re crying and throwing a fit, my wife and I will try to first engage using a tactic from one of our favorite books (In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek).  In fact, we use this so often, that we make it a point to read this book pretty regularly so that the kids have some shared vocabulary.

When they’re pitching a fit, we’ll often ask, “Tell me how your heart feels.”

This does two things, I’m finding:

-First, it provides for a shared vocabulary with the kids.  It “touches base” with them, creating a construct for conversation that they can identify with.  It’s like a touchstone, something that provides something that they can grasp in a moment when they feel particularly out of control.  They know that in their response we’ll both understand what they’re saying. So much of fit-throwing is two humans talking over each other.

-Secondly, it makes me lead with my heart instead of my anger.  Even if they’re just upset because they can’t have what they want, I need to remember that they are trying to figure out this world, and they are trying to figure out themselves in relation to their desires and wishes (no matter how trivial they are).

After we discuss their heart, I like to give them choices that acknowledges exactly where they are.  This will sound pedantic to adults, but trust me, it works (and, be honest, when you are pitching your own little fit, having someone acknowledge your feelings is the first step to regaining your own chill, right?).

So, I say, “Dude, I hear you don’t want to go to bed.  When you grow up, you’ll probably stay up all night, right?  But right now, it’s bedtime. Do you want me to carry you up, or do you want to walk up on your own?”  Or I’ll say, “I get that you don’t want to take a bath, but you stink to high heaven, buddy.  So do you want bath paints or a bath pod tonight (which turns the water a color)?”

If they have no choice, give a choice within the choice.

And sometimes it works.  Most times even.

But, let’s say that I’m really ticked off because, let’s face it: kids are jerks sometimes.  They don’t mean to be (usually), and don’t want to be (usually), but they are.

Kind of like you and me.

So instead of yelling and saying, “This is the fifth time I’ve asked you to do this!  Why can’t you listen?! Why can’t you do what you’re told?!” Or the more adult version, “What the hell, guys?! Get it together!”

By the way, let’s analyze that first statement.  Because I’ve said it, but I don’t in the moment always get what they’re hearing.  In that statement, what I really mean is: “I’ve got an agenda, and I need you to get on my agenda, and why the hell can’t you just do that?! You’re not good at that!”

Is that what I mean to say?  No. In asking them to get ready, I’m intending for the benefit to be felt by everyone, them and me.  But my frustrated remarks only identify me as the good party, and them as the bad party.

So, instead of saying that, what I try to say now is: “I’m upset that you’re not ready.  I need you to be ready because you have to get to school and that’s important.  Let’s see who can get dressed first. Go!”

And if that doesn’t even work, I’ll go farther: “Look guys, I’m really upset. I’m stomping my feet kind of upset, because you both are good at following directions, you’re choosing not to right now.  I need you to choose to follow directions so that we can be on time.”

Now parents, let me be frank: yelling and saying what I said above usually take about the same amount of time.  It is difficult to motivate the unmotivated.  So why bother?  Unleashing my anger is easier, right?

Easier. But not better.  For them or me.  I usually just feel frustrated that I’m not a better parent, and sad for them because they had to spend the morning being yelled at by an adult that they coaxed into acting like a baby because they’re still babies.

And if time isn’t a factor, then I want to go with the better option if I can keep it together.

Because here’s the thing: I need to raise peace-loving kids.  In a culture that is growing increasingly dualistic (bad/good and right/wrong and black/white thinking), we need to raise kids with better and more expansive grounding, who understand themselves not because they’ve been verbally hit and helicopter parented, but because they’ve had good limits and the space to explore their inner-selves.

And anger is not the opposite of peace, but violence is.  I can be angry and not be violent.

They need to know that so that they, too, can be angry and not be violent.  In all ways.  And I think this is where some of that learning starts.

It’s a work in progress, though. And I suck at it much of the time.  But we’re trying.

We all should try.

For Alistair, On Your Birthday…

Hey Buddy,

You’re three now. That means lots of things, not the least of which is your continued education regarding toilet hygiene…gotta perfect the potty, dude.

But for your dad here it also means you’re getting too big pretty fast. I’m impressed by your brains…only 3 year old I know who loves puzzles and games like you do. And while I’m not impressed by your temper, we’ll eventually learn to harness that for the good of the world.

But even though you’re only three, I want to clue you into some truths that I think you should know, and that even adults often forget. Ready?

You’re beautiful and broken. Like we all are. You don’t need a trophy for just existing, but know that I’m proud of you every time you really try, especially when you try stuff you’re not good at and keep with it. You don’t have to be perfect, just try to be present. And you never deserve better than anyone else, but you never deserve to put up with crap, either. Love others and love yourself and get out on the field. Got it?

Speaking of sports metaphors: the world needs compassionate people more than it needs athletes. Not that you can’t be both, but if you asked me today what I hope for you it would be, more than anything, that you are kind. This broken world needs healers, not winners. Because when you heal, everyone wins.

Also: you get to be yourself, buddy. Other than respectful and kind and loving, I want you to let your creative self run wild in this world. I’m not always gonna love your hair color, but good on you for using it while you have it (a mistake I made).

But don’t get all worked up about your looks. Love your body, but don’t worship it…no one else is.

Don’t let your ego run away with your heart.

Don’t let your brains run away with your sense of humor.

Crude jokes don’t make you funny.

Sit beside people sitting by themselves. They often make the best friends.

The only person you can make fun of is yourself. Everyone else is off limits. And don’t make friends with people who make fun of others…eventually they will make fun of you.

Feel the feels, but don’t always let your emotions plot the journey. Center yourself, big guy, in a love that is bigger than yourself, in a peace that permeates all things.

Addiction runs in the family, so guard yourself on excesses. The world will not help you here…it will always push you toward more of most everything. But none of it will make you better, only blurrier or bigger or badder or madder.

Pray with your shoes on. Be willing to be the answer to people’s prayers, and be willing to do the work to get to the places where the need is great.

Vote your heart and your conscience. Don’t fall for Party traps and false dichotomies. Pay attention to how the candidates look after the least of these in society. And if no one is looking after them, you should…and then run for office.

Oh: and any candidate who claims to be “Christian” is probably just after a vote. Be wary of people who fly that flag too high.

Half-priced hang-gliding lessons aren’t worth the savings. Just remember that.

Give your life away continually to things that are deserving of it: good causes, loving people, a life of service, a partner or family.

But then again, don’t think that you need to get married and have kids to live a full life. Plenty of things in this world deserve our hearts, so don’t fold to the status quo of societal pressures.

Oh, that reminds me: the status isn’t quo. Make that your mantra.

Today you’re three. Tomorrow you’re thirty. I know how this works. So I’m going to start telling you all this now in the hopes that you might learn it all early.

And always remember: I am glad you exist.

Dad

Cold Coffee Confidential

Making homemade cold coffee is easy peasy lemon squeezy. There are only a few reasons I can think of for why you wouldn’t.

1) You hate saving money ($3.50+ for over-iced, burnt-flavored water)

2) You hate cold coffee (in which case we can’t be friends)

3) You’re intimidated and don’t know where to start.

For reasons 1 and 2, I can’t help you, and you are possibly beyond help. But if you suffer from that last one…I got you, buddy.

Cold coffee is just a few steps (and 26 hours) away. That’s the only downside: you need some lead time. But all good things require some lead time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, your garden doesn’t just pop up in a week, and your dreams don’t just come true in the snap of your fingers…if they do, dream bigger.

Alright, here are the esssential steps:

1) Grab yourself a large container. If you have little Hobbits in the house like we do, best to make it kid resistant (aka it bounces not breaks).

2) Get 6 cups of cold water. Not hot water, cold water. Hot water has already gone through some heating elements which changes the flavor…you don’t want that.

Ignore the bag on the table.

3) Pour water in the container, and scoop 5(ish) heaping tablespoons of ground coffee in there. Add more or less depending on the roast and how you like your coffee. And pro-tip: I always suggest you grind your own coffee, hot or cold.  It just tastes better.

Notice the pinky finger position…critical to a spill-proof pour.

4) Make sure the grounds get wet. Really wet. Like, no-hope-floats wet. Stir it, shake it, get it mixed.

Note to self: return those library books.

5) Seal it up and put it in a safe place…like on your counter. Don’t overthink it, you Enneagram type 1’s.

6) Wait 24 hours and be productive with your life.

7) After 24 hours, grab yourself a pitcher and a small wired sieve and pour it through, catching those grounds. Pro-tip: coffee grounds can be reused in tons of ways. If you’re like, “What kind of wire-sieve are you talking abou?” just look below and take a gander at ours.  And if you’re like, “Uhm, that’s a strainer, Brown,” well you can keep your opinion to yourself.

Also: if you’re pretentious you can use cheese cloth (lookin’ at you, Ina…just joking, I love you and all your Hamptons awesomeness).

You say strainer, I say sieve.

8) Stick the filtered cold coffee in the fridge for at least two hours to chill through. If you were really smart you would have made some coffee ice cubes with yesterday’s hot coffee. Did you think of that? Never too late, friend.

9) Enjoy the fruits of your labor.

It’s as easy as that folks. And really, it doesn’t take 9 steps, I’m just imagining you’re a simpleton. Which actually, I appreciate in directions. Please always assume I’m dumber than I am because you’ll be correct half the time.

Got a good recipe? A better one? Share it below. We beg, borrow, and steal in this life.

And when it comes to the kitchen, just remember what my Dad always said,

“If you can read, you can cook.”

So get (cold coffee) cookin’!

Ingredients

-6 cups water

-5(ish) heaping tablespoons of coffee grounds

-Time (26 hours)