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.

“What to Say When Your Kid is Worried They’re Different” or “Pirate Talk”

This morning, my four-year old Finn wasn’t sure if he wanted to dress up like a pirate for Pirate Day at summer camp.  Wardrobe decisions must be tough for four year olds because we went back and forth on this all morning.  He needs to take some cues from these folks.

Finally, we decided to dress like a pirate, and though we’re confused as to why pirate pants aren’t cuffed (“Why do my pants have holes and rips in them?”), it was a general success.

As we pulled in to the parking lot at summer camp, up pipes a voice from the backseat:

“Dad, am I different?”

“What do you mean, buddy?” I asked.

“Am I different?” he says.

“Well, do you want to be different?  Daddy is different in lots of ways…” I said, trying to throw myself under the same bus he’s worried about being under.

After thinking it through he said, “Yes. I want to be dressed like a pirate.

Finny Pirate

That’s different.”

“Yes, that is different,” I affirmed.

“But I’m still the same me on the inside.  I’m still me, right?” he said with a mixture of confidence and questioning.

“Yes, buddy. You’ll always be you.”

At which point two-year old Al screams, “I DON’T WANT TO BE A PIRATE!”

“…you don’t have to be, buddy.  We can all just be ourselves here.”

I’d say our first discussion on being different and finding identity in the world went pretty well…

My Kid Doesn’t Respect My DVD’s: Living with a One Year Old

We live with a bundle of cells that is now quite mobile.  And apparently he has an opinion about how we’ve structured our household items.escient-fireball se-d1-80-dvd-mess

He generally thinks they are organized improperly.

For instance, recently he’s taken to organizing our DVD’s.

I’ve taken to being irritated about it.

You might say everyone is in their respective camps…

What’s that?  “Who has DVD’s anymore?” you ask?

I do.  They’re going to make a come back, you know.  Like records.  And as soon as you all figure out that cable companies are actually stealing your life (and your brain), and that they’re sucking information about your habits and preferences and then selling them back to you in the form of fliers in your mail, spam in your inbox, and “ads” in your news feed, you’ll go back to DVD’s, too.

Because the only person who can tell if I’ve watched one of our DVD’s is my wife.

Usually because it’s either a) not put back in the box and still in the DVD player (we have one of those, too, although you have to blow in it to get it to run…like a Nintendo Entertainment System…but whatev, it works) or b) it’s stacked on top of another DVD in a different box that was closer in proximity to the empty case at the time it was removed from the DVD player.

But, see, that’s my organizing system.

And now we have this little bundle of cells called Finn crawling around and rearranging everything, including my DVD’s.

And it’s super frustrating for both of us.  For him it’s frustrating because they don’t open like books…so when one doesn’t open, he goes to the next one expecting a different result.  One day life will teach him a valuable lesson about repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results (can’t remember what you call that, but there’s a word for it), but until then…

I just lost my train of thought.

Anyway, he’ll learn he shouldn’t do that one day.

It’s frustrating for me because I’m now going out of my mind cleaning up DVD cases every two damn minutes.

It’s probably why I’m always losing my train of thought these days.  I’m sleep deprived because I’m constantly cleaning up DVD’s.

It has gotten so bad that I’m not even that pissed that one DVD series is mixed into a different one (and that they’re not even remotely in the same genre).  Normally that would be irritating.  But I don’t even find that so irritating anymore.

I’m just generally pissed that they’re all over the floor.

Again. Perpetually.

Having a kid means constantly living in the movie Groundhog’s Day. I continually step on things over and over and over again.  Especially toys.

But it’s always the same toy: that damn tambourine.  And no matter how far I kick it, it somehow migrates back to right in the middle of the hallway outside of his room.

It hides in the dark, playing it’s own little version of The Most Dangerous Game.

(My toes are the prey…)

And that of course wakes him up, which means I have to go into his room and pat his diaper for ten minutes (which, ironically, makes the same noise as like when you wave a pom pom, kinda like you’re cheering him to sleep: “Yay, quiet!  Soooo quiet!”).

And then after ten minutes I sneak back out and step back on that blasted tambourine…and, well, crap.

I’m not a neat freak.  Anyone who has seen my office knows this.  But even I don’t think a valid organizational method is “all on the floor.”

And, yes, I know he’s not thinking like that.  His major mental task for the day seems to be finding new crevices to hide cheerios in (seriously, every time I lift him out of the high chair it’s like a deluge of food comes cascading onto the floor in some “miracle of abundance” demonstration).

But still…if we’re naming things he’s good at, in no particular order:

-crawling

-staring closely at buttons and zippers

-eating and going to the bathroom

-letting us know he’s unhappy/happy/tired/hurt/excited/confused by screaming

Things he’s not good at:

-organizing DVD’s

-picking up toys

-prying off the tops of non-domestic beer bottles

-brushing his own teeth (though he does like to have it done)

I’d go through my own list of talents/growing edges, but this blog has gone on long enough.  Suffice to say, the kid sucks at organizing things.

Especially DVD’s.

And that’s disheartening because, well, they’ll be his one day and he needs to know that The Office does not belong in the West Wing rack (though I can see how he could be confused about that…offices are confusing).