Oct 28, 2009

Parenting: A Study of Frustration

The parenting study group, like parenting itself, was frustrating. We listened to an excellent Kim John Payne CD about how the parenting technique many of us use - behavior modification - is wrong. Every time we say "Good job", with the best affirming and confidence-building intentions, we are actually moving our child away from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation.

So now we've heard about the problem, but what about the solution. The CD was turned off just as Payne was about to outline a different model. Ugh! I want to know the "Right Way", and I want it now!

But frustration - or more generally, identifying the problem - is the first step, and that's all we were trying to do. We now have 3 weeks to watch our parenting patterns, see what works and what doesn't, recognize our own triggers, revisit ourselves and our children through a new lens. By the time we come together to hear Kim John Payne's ideas, we'll be listening with a keener ear and open heart, and with thousands of little insights arising out of the frustration. We'll probably have stumbled across some new ideas to share even before the "expert" CD clicks on.

Frustration aside, it was a lovely gathering, with two powerful moments for me. The first was reflecting on how Ruth so effectively manages the KG classroom with expectation rather than questioning language ("We'll be cleaning the table now"), but when some parents use the same phrasing it still comes out as a question and is shrugged off the same way by the children. The difference is in the confidence and genuine expectation of the adult, regardless of the words used. When we are strong in ourselves, not bluffing or hoping or pleading, the children listen and respond (more often, at least).

"If you ask for their compliance now, you'll be pleading for it later." - Kim John Payne

A minute after this lightbulb went off for me, one mother shared her beautiful story that affirmed the whole lesson.

"Yesterday we had a wonderful morning, got out to the car on time with no complaints. Then the dog was too tired from the weekend hiking to get in the car, and my daughter had a meltdown. She wasn't going to school, wasn't getting in the car, she hated me. I told her we were going now and started the car. She got in, but still hated me and wasn't going to get out at the parking lot.

When we arrived I got out and calmly said that I was going to the classroom. She stayed until I was about to turn the corner of the building, then ran to catch up. But she wasn't going to go into the classroom. I said goodbye at the line-up, then turned and walked back toward the car. I had a friend walk with me and look back for me, to see that she was greeting the teacher and heading inside.

At the end of the day she told me she'd had an awful day. But not because of being forced to go to school. Because she didn't get her hug and kiss goodbye. I'd set a strong boundary and she was thankful for it."

Oct 25, 2009

Farmer's math doesn't add up

Celebrated a sweet Sunday with bushels of garlic. The hundreds of heads hanging from the rafters of the workshop came into the kitchen demanding liberation, so we triaged in the most socially inequitable of ways.

First, the biggest, most beautiful bulbs were savagely dismembered and put into a bowl for planting tomorrow. 800 cloves will return to the soil, enough for household use for us and Joe & Nathalie, enough to replant the following year, and hopefully 500 more for sale. A beautiful seed-saving tradition begins.

Then the almost-as-big-and-beautiful bulbs were de-bearded (the roots that hang down and collect moisture, leading to rot), cleaned up a bit, and tied together in bundles for sale. Anyone wanting one of the last 8 bunches ($20/dozen) you better let us know soon.

Then all the misfits, the lost, the starting-to-rot, the teensy-weensy, those are what we get. 108 unsightly yet tasty bulbs to last us and our land partners till next summer. Of course they'll taste great, and be a great source of satisfaction all the long winter to pull another of our own garlics off the rafters, but where's the justice? Now I understand a bit how Costa Rican coffee farmers feel.

Still, amidst the unjust distribution it was a lovely family activity, a bit of economic yield, and yet another step deeper into this farmer identity.

Oct 22, 2009

A Parent's Dream Vacation

It wasn't a full-out lie, just a half-truth. In my blog posting about how much I missed my children during a trip, I neglected the other truth that it felt really good to be away, free, alone.

For a whole week I only had to dress one person. Chose food I felt like eating, when I was hungry. Walked as fast or slow as I felt, stopped at whatever store I felt like, swam uninterrupted laps in the hotel pool. Spent long long days in board meetings talking about societal change and adult stuff without checking the clock for school pick-up time. The first morning I finally threw some whatever clothes on at 1:00 and wandered through Byward Market for half an hour to select the bistro that perfectly suited just my culinary whims of the moment.

Contrast that to a seven-minute space the first morning back home, in which I helped the boys and myself clear the table, wash hands, brush teeth and hair, then find/select-among-options/explain/pack/put-on socks ("They're not matching!"), gloves ("Are they waterproof"), muddy-buddies ("I don't like this kind anymore, i want the ones with no shoulder straps"), jackets ("Will it be warm today?"), hats, helmets, boots, backpacks, snacks, spare socks, bikes (BMX or mountain bike?), pump up bike tires ("Why are skinny tires faster than wide tires?"), and get to the top of the driveway. Each step required an explanation, a negotiation, a frustration, and a focus of energy on what each child was needing.

Life is in the details, and loving our children is no exception. I come home refreshed and ready to embrace my family in all their taxing beauty. But for a whole week away I found the true meaning of the word "vacation." It wasn't a tropical beach or historic tour; it was just a time vacant of taking care of others. A time to stroll along the Rideau Canal singing along with Joni Mitchell, "I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody calling me up for favours, nobody's future to decide."

Oct 19, 2009

Long Distance Love

Every time I call, a little voice reminds me how many days are left. “Have a good 6 days” said the voice message in my hotel on the first night. And a joyful “Only one more sleep” greeted me this morning.

I miss them so much. The squeaky change in a voice about to ask or complain. The resolute blinking back of an emotion too strong for the moment. The quick smile of recognition at a clever tease or subtle compliment. The equally bold confidence in “Can I help” or “Can you help me?”

I miss the touch. The feel of hair ruffled through fingers, the casual lean of a long lanky body against a long lanky papa’s thigh. Fingers interwoven and pulled across the chest at snuggle time. Hot breath on my cheek, wet kisses on the nose, excited squeeze of the hand when a bird is spotted.

Mostly I miss the now. There’s still a purity in how they relate their day on the phone, but not the immediate universe explosion that is every new discovery of a 5 or 7 year-old. I want live-streaming, not the highlight reel. I want the highs and lows, but also the in-betweens, the nothings, the quiet dead spaces where so much happens under the surface.

The realness of their being and growth, and the depth our relationship (with my wife as well as my children), is in these still times. The times that are most unreachable over the long distance of a phone call. I do appreciate the miracle of cheap calls and free emails that let us stay connected while apart, but can’t wait until we can say it with a hug and twinkle at the airport tomorrow.

I need something to believe in
Breathe in sanctuary in the easy silence that you bring to me
It’s OK when there’s nothing more to say to me
And the peaceful quiet you create for me
And the way you keep the world at bay for me
- Dixie Chicks, Easy Silence

Oct 15, 2009

Step aside, John Candy

Planes trains and automobiles? Bah! Yesterday I did bicycle-car-bus-ferry-bus-walk-car-train-run-plane-walk-plane-shuttle (with the train going below, on and above ground). It got me:
  • to school with the boys
  • home to host Zekiah's kindergarten class as they helped harvest the pumpkins they planted last year (and ate roasted potatoes from a bonfire, and a lovely potluck lunch with most of the parents afterwards, which I had to leave early to go...
  • over to Vancouver for an Oxfam Canada regional steering committee (where the locally involved volunteers give input for me to carry to the national board meeting), then
  • overnight to Ottawa for that board meeting
I should be ranting about carbon footprint. I was complicit in our unspoken jetsetting agenda to destroy our children's world, and ironically doing so en route to an Oxfam meeting to discuss how consumption- and pollution-induced climate change is multiplying the food insecurity and hardships experienced by women and children around the world. But I just did what we all do - probably the crux of the whole problem - shrugged and said that it was necessary, then hit the touch screen for some Californication before shutting my eyes to the light and the world.

I am truly thankful that such an efficient web of transport modes is in place for us to get around these days. It let us be with Sarah's family for Uncle Ben's wedding, let me do truly impactful work in Africa, let us explore the wild west coast of Tofino with Texas friends, and expands our world in beautiful connective ways. But we can't just keep closing our eyes to the reality that every single trip we make - to Mexico or to the grocery - negatively impacts our health, our environment, and our children's future.

I feel it every time I jump in the car. I feel it when we plan vacations or even a summer swimming outing - will we really enjoy the water 10 miles away that much more than the river we walk to down the hill? Would our wedding anniversary get-away be that much more romantic in Belize than on nearby Mayne Island?

Hopefully we can move about with this awareness in a way that is constructive, not guilt-ridden and paralyzing: carefully weighing our choices then accepting the consequence. This board meeting, I believe, is important enough for the dozen of us to all fly here for it - the good sustainable work that Oxfam does will far outweigh our carbon blast. The swimming sometimes is a better learning or family bonding or relaxing experience at a newly-discovered hike-in swimming hole.

OK, so this posting did end up being about carbon footprint and travel, but I hope it's not a rant, but a call to consciousness (and true conscientiousness). We live in a mobile world, and should be able to enjoy that without visions of drought-parched Fulani women every minute. But Sarah, my darling wife of 10 years who deserves to be celebrated and schmoozed and smooched, that mud-walled B&B with a wood-burning stove will just have to keep our fires burning - the Belize Beach is just too far away, too high a price for our children to pay for our pleasure.

Oct 10, 2009

It's All About Not Me

A few weeks back i posted a blatant brag about how much work I got done on a Sunday. I don't apologize for the brag - we should all do it more, quite frankly, more often than just job interviews and speed dating. But there is more to the story.

Re-reading the entry, what's striking is how all the work was in care of others. I spent the day working hard to care for the chickens, the cows, the renters, and my cold-footed wife and children. This is quite typical of this new life, a never-ending medley of caring for others.

Or maybe it's the medley of a man's life. Before this, I would spend up to 70 hours a week at the ACCES office to provide education for children in Africa, and to earn the paycheque for our family. Then come home to put the kids to bed, and hopefully do something nice for my wife. Twice-a-month yoga and once-a-week hockey were the only regular ME time.

Or maybe it's the medley of an adult's life. Fulfilling responsibilities, shedding some just to take on more. My wife runs Mama Renew, an entire business devoted to supporting women's journeys back to themselves, to finding balance and a bit of room for the woman inside them who isn't mother and worker and cleaner and something for everyone else. Probably the only surprise to the women in her groups is that many (most?) men feel the same way.

But this wasn't meant to be a lament. The truth is that I love it, and that I'm just as nurtured and nourished as those I'm serving. The Sept.27 brag was really a celebration. What I meant to say was that I spent the whole day working on tasks that meaningfully helped the many other beings and land to whom I have a responsibility, but also brought me deep Joy. I loved cutting that wood, building that roof, caring for those animals. It made me genuinely happy, spoke to my soul in a way that a men's retreat or night at the pool hall doesn't.
The place God calls us to be is where the world's deep hunger and our deep happiness meet.
I am at my best, in my right place, when I am using my powers and energy and passion to the benefit of others. It's not ego, and it's not duty, it's just the way my soul is aligned. My happiest times have been at a Guatemalan orphanage, an African village, helping ACCES to grow, and now helping our chickens and chick peas to grow. The manifestation of the world's deep hunger changes over time, but the deep happiness is always there.

Oct 7, 2009

Social Inclusion? Let the Kids Teach Us

There's lots of buzz at our school about social inclusion. Making sure all kids feel safe and included, free from bullying and part of the magic.

Yesterday after school I was reminded that we often forget or underestimate the goodness and wisdom of children. The kids know social inclusion. They know how to be good to each other, probably better than we grown-ups do. Maybe we just have to help them remember sometimes.

What happened was that Galen, fuelled by a courage that just exceeded his anxiety, pedaled his BMX up to where some kids were doing bike jumps. The group ranged from grade 1-7, with a few grade 7's who were running the show. That my grade 2 boy could approach this pack of older kids is already a testimony to the basic level of safety he feels at the school, as well as to his own immense courage. How many times do we parents shy away from joining into a conversation in the parking lot?

The way Galen was received was magical. No-one made a big deal, a special welcome as we adults would have done. They just incorporated him into the play, let him have his turn, and genuinely praised his good jumps and gently laughed at the bad ones. "Niiiiiiice, dude!" was ringing in his ears and beaming out of his suppressed smile after the first jump. He was in.

Charlie, the grade 7 ringleader, organized a competition. There were beginner, intermediate and expert jumps so that everyone could be part of it, and the adjudication of who made the best jump was done much better by the panel of kids than by any Olympic judges. As the sideline parent I was probably the only one who really cared if Galen won - the "comp" was all in fun and everyone enjoyed it.

I called Charlie over afterwards to tell him how cool he is, how I really respected the way he made sure everyone was part of the fun. If that's the way our school is shaping our kids, then I feel safe and confident with our boys in this system.

Do we need to address social inclusion in our school? Absolutely. Let's just remember that the children may be our best teachers for how to make it work. And let's remember the lesson that Charlie and those kids taught me: to start from a base of appreciation and respect. We're not trying to curb the base natures of our beastly children; we're trying to nurture and celebrate the innate goodness that our children - all children - are born with.

When the goodness of children becomes the pervading culture of our school and our society, we'll have finally learned our lesson.

Oct 3, 2009

The Bitter Taste of Julia's French Cooking

It's actually a good book, this Julie&Julia. Original concept, alternately mouthwatering or bilious, outrageous characters, and sharply written. I've laughed out loud more often than any book since Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" chapter about turkey breeding. But it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

It's because negativity is just such the easy cop-out humour. "The world sucks - isn't that funny?" "Gee I'm so fat, my boss is a leech, we haven't had sex since the last lamb kidney souffle...". Why do we thrive on Woody Allen self-denigration and Jerry Seinfeld put-downs? Why do we still allow the genre of "If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits" to permeate our cultural mindset?

I've written elsewhere about not watching horror and violence movies because they make us start seeing the world in that scary way, and I feel the same way about negative humour. After half an hour of the TV stand-up comedy during my hospital stay, I started to believe that mothers-in-law really do install webcams in our bathrooms to see if we clean the toilet bowl, and that all of us men are insufferably underserved and pinned down by our fat wives. It did make me laugh, but I just don't need that cheap high when I could find some equally funny situational or relational humour in my Mary Tyler Moore Collection (yes, I own the first 3 seasons). In grad school, no matter how bad the day had been I would watch Mary reruns at 1:30 and 2am and go to bed truly believing that love is all around.

The last straw with Julie came at recipe 465. She had just spent pages weaving a beautiful rich tapestry about the building of community in a disaster, and about how her own project had brought people together. She ended with,

"Maybe just believing in goodness generates a tiny bit of the stuff, so that by being so foolish as to believe in our better natures, if just for a day, we actually contribute to the sum total of generosity in the universe."

Beautiful. But she undoes it all in the very next cop-out line: "That's naive, isn't it? Dammit, I hate it when I do that."

Julie, why did you back away from beauty; a beauty you created for us? I don't even believe your little cover-up, so why did you feel it was necessary to step away from a strong statement of faith?

I suppose my writing will never reach the bestseller list because it's too happy, but that's OK. I hope I don't hide from difficult issues and challenges. But in the end, I hope that my writing and parenting and life and person do exactly what Julie suggests and Mary models - contributes to the sum total of generosity in the universe.