Wednesday, October 22, 2014

No Need for Matthew to Complete any Further Education

Yesterday, as we were driving on route somewhere, I made an offhand comment about a mistake that I'd made that morning...I was a little frustrated with myself.  Lizzie right away assured me that it was going to be all right, and Seth said that it was ok to make mistakes.  Matthew was silent.

Then, a couple of minutes later, Matthew said:


"Yes," I responded.

Matthew:  "You know, I've been thinking.  I actually think it's ok to fail at things.  It's really ok to fail.  Because that's how we learn best how to do things better or differently the next time.... The more we make mistakes, the bigger the mistake, the more we learn."

My response, after I got over my shock?  I told him that he no longer needed to do any school.

"Seriously, Mom?" he doubted.

"Seriously, Matthew," I replied.  "You've just learned and were able to express the most important part of education.  You're done."

Again, silence.  Then this, from my still-new reader:  "OK.  But I still want to read, ok?"

Ahh.  Sometimes, during moments like these, I really do think my job is done.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kitchen Production

At the moment, all three kids are involved in the kitchen, which is lovely to see.

Lizzie is making traditional Ethiopian shai tea.  She has measured out milk and water in the proportions that we have come to love the most; and she has counted out cloves, cardamom, peppercorns, bay leaves, star anise, and cinnamon sticks.  And it's now warming up, getting ready for black tea bags and...

...for dunking!  Seth and I made Ethiopian bread this morning.  It's about a 2.5 hour process, with two rising times, and it's just come out of the oven and is resting on the counter.  In just minutes, we will enjoy our late breakfast treat...which has really become brunch!

Just as lovely, Matthew has our dinner on the go!

Yesterday afternoon, Matthew announced that he wanted to make soup from scratch for today's dinner.  Who was I to deny him??!  He pulled out a bag of beef bones from the freezer, dumped them into the crockpot with water and big chunks of veggies for flavouring, and that stock has been simmering away for the past 18 hours or so.  This morning, he looked through our fresh produce (mostly direct from the farm - yay!) and, with the help of two little sous chefs, he chopped up carrots, celery, tomatoes (beautiful organic tomatoes that I slow-roasted last week and which taste divine), and sausages.  He also pulled out of the freezer some of the onions that I had chopped up last week.  This afternoon, the plan is that Matthew will cook everything up together with his stock and the seasonings he has chosen:  S&P; basil; paprika; and freshly chopped parsley.

I'd like to say that, as a result of all of the kitchen activity, I've been able to put up my feet for a while.  However, any parent who has done any cooking with children will know that this can be a harried process...which results in an enormous mess to clean up afterwards.  Sigh...if only you could see my kitchen at the moment...

But mess aside, it really is a lovely thing that the kids enjoy learning and doing in the kitchen.  Matthew and I wrote out his soup recipe just a short time ago, and he has added it to his recipe's great to see that growing right along with him!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Unschooling Assessment (Part 2 of 3): The Challenges

Overall, on our unschooling journey, we have experience many more positives than challenges.

But there are a few challenges I'm having to become accustomed to:

1.  First, it's really hard to track what we're doing and what the kids are learning.  I'm working at developing a system of note-taking, but I'm not terribly disciplined about it and am constantly struggling to find time for so many things; as a result record-keeping often falls behind.  But I really should be tracking things better because when I do, I see trends in the kids' interests and in their learning; this is so important when unschooling, if only to be assured that we're making progress, but also so that I am able to capture and maximize the learning that is possible in given area(s).

As a side note, I'm actually quite grateful to be required to submit government reports three times/academic year because they force me to sit down every few months and go through my diary and calendar and recall what we've been doing.  Although the government reporting forms are very, very minimal in requirements (I could write a mere sentence or two if I wanted), I've used them instead as a bit of a tracking device; I break down the reports into various categories of my own choosing:  Extracurricular activities; fitness; math; reading; out-loud reading (mine); printing; technology; play & crafting; social/recreational life; family life; spiritual life; geography; science; travel; general observations.  Our government liaison has, shockingly, been very, very supportive of our unschooling and highly encouraging of what we're doing; he has even stated that he thinks my kids are very, very lucky.  Thsi summer I got a lengthy email from him, in which (among other things) he said that he is confident in my approach and believes that we are on a "very conscious, deliberate right track in how you are approaching your unschooling program with both boys"!!  Huh - who'd have thought it from a government rep about unschooling?!

2.  Second, and for sure the biggest challenge for me, has been the need for my own transformation to being an unschooler.  For an academically-oriented woman who would be far more comfortable with a curriculum and a schedule and book learning to throw all of these things out the window and focus on in-the-moment learning has been (and is) a massive transition.  I've had to slow down our life so that I am simply there when something happens that I can help a child capitalize on.

I think that this transition needs to impact Geoff a little more than it has to date.  It's true that he's not nearly as involved as I am in our learning endeavours, but there are many ways in which I can see greater opportunity for him, too.  For example, when he took the boys to my parents' cottage for a couple of boys' weekends this summer, his intent was to build campfires and roast things on it, etc etc.  It was me who had to suggest that he take the opportunity to teach the boys about it:  How to build the fire; the necessary ingredients for fire-building; the chemistry of it all; the different kinds of wood/kindling to be used; and then to extrapolate into other areas, such as forest fires, care for the environment, safety issues, fire fighting, conservation, renewal, etc etc etc.  That's the thing that's challenging for us (at least, for me) as unschooling parents - to grab natural, life experiences that interest the kids and take the time and put in the thought to add a wonderfully educational component to it...and those are the times when information gets virtually sucked into the kids' brains...not just for the moment but for the long term.

Here's another example of in-the-moment life learning that I've had to recognize.  I can't remember if I've shared this example here or not...forgive me if this is a repeat.  A number of weeks ago, on our way out of church on a Sunday morning, Matthew saw a 3-tier shelving unit along the wall that was filled with Bibles.  He stopped and said that he was curious to know how many bibles there were on those three shelves.  Rather than making some offhand comment and hurrying him along (as I absolutely would have done a year ago), I stopped, too, and also wondered out loud how many volumes there were on those three shelves.  With people milling by and around us, I stood there while Matthew lay down flat on his belly in the foyer and started counting the books on the bottom shelf, one by one.  After a minute of this, he observed that adding quickly by grouping them and multiplying them would be a faster way to go.  He then noted that most of the volumes were in stacks of seven and he counted that there were 12 stacks; then he noted that three stacks had only 6 volumes and wondered out loud how to account for those differences...he was stumped.  Again, though tempted to offer up a solution, I suggested that it would be interesting to think about how to figure out the total number.  Two nights later, while I was sitting with him at bedtime, he told me that he'd figured out that there were 81 bibles on those shelves.  He was right.  I asked how he'd figured it out.  He said that he'd been practicing at night counting by 7s (and he demonstrated this by counting forward and backwards by 7s from 0-84); he then said that there had been 12 stacks of bibles, and that all but 3 of them had 7 volumes in each stack; and that the remaining 3 had only six.  So he multiplied 7 x 12, and subtracted 3.  Conclusion: 81 bibles.  That is the kind of learning Matthew does best....when I recognize opportunity by really listening to him, allowing him the time and space to make observations about the world around him (and not rushing him), and by giving him the time to process what that means.  Today, weeks later, I think he can still count by 7s up to 84 and can figure out the times table for all 7s up to 12.  It became real to him and he understood first hand the benefit of being able to do he learned it.

This is hard for me.  I could easily and willingly and simply have shown him quickly how to calculate the number of volumes on those shelves.  I almost did.  Almost...I was so close that my mouth probably opened to speak before I clamped it shut again.  A year ago I would have done it.  He would have picked up some form of learning.  But the learning would. not. have. been. the. same. for him.  It's taken a full year for me to find it a little easier now to simply provide the time and space for the learning to happen happen.  This takes time and thought to just be in the moment and, quite honestly, it takes a whole lot of patience to provide the right environment and then just support it.

The other (related) aspect that's hard for me to become accustomed to is timeliness.  For example, often the kids express some thing or another that they're interested in, and I'm very happy to accommodate - tomorrow, or a week from now, or two weeks from now...when it fits into the schedule.  But the problem is that by this time the opportunity (ie. interest) has passed and it becomes a missed opportunity.  So when, one Sunday night in June, the boys suddenly expressed (a little on the late side for the planting season!) that they wanted to plant pumpkin and tomato seeds to watch something grow, we got into the car immediately following breakfast the next morning and visited a nursery to buy seeds...and then planted them immediately.  That same morning, when they were excited to learn how to take care of their seeds, was the perfect opportunity to have conversations about the differences between living and non-living things; what it takes for a plant to grow; and how plants convert the sun's energy into food, etc etc.  That meant for me that, the night before, I stayed up a little later researching and remembering how plants do this work, so that it could form part of our casual conversation the next morning.  And the boys have been talking about these things off and on since, as they have watched their pumpkin vines grow - Matthew still remembers the word 'photosynthesis.'  So immediacy, which is often so hard for me to do, has become a critical part of our unschooling journey and a key to helping the kids learn...and learn deeply.

These things have never been strengths of mine: Just being; or being timely.  When I was a student, I procrastinated and crammed at the last minute...and paid the price by forgetting everything the moment the exam was over.  For me to remember the details of how plants convert energy into food took research for me on that Sunday evening because my personal history is one of cramming and forgetting.

3.  Another challenge has been time time management of our days.  I think our days over the past year have been a little too loose.  There are clear advantages to being flexible in our days but we've gone a wee bit too far, in my opinion.  I won't be implementing anything like from 9-10 we will do xyz and from 10-11 we will....  Nothing that rigid.  But I am working at adding a bit of structure...more on that on my final post (I think).

4.  In Part 1 on this subject, I noted that I believe that my kids will ultimately be ok, even academically, as a result of our decision to unschool.  One of the challenges I face, however, is always maintaining this belief.  I get discouraged at times and start to doubt myself.

The truth is that unschooling flies in the face of the norm and I'm not always comfortable being so 'out there' in our differentness.  I feel continuously highlighted, spotlighted, and I have to struggle not to not be defensive when confronted about why we're doing what we're doing - by family or by perfect strangers - like the worker in Home Depot last Monday who, when he learned that we were h/schoolers, said (in front of my kids) that he thought h/schoolers were a "bunch of weirdos" and then proceeded to grill my kids repeatedly on facts (like the imperial measurement system that hasn't been taught in schools since I was in fourth grade!!) that he thought they should know (which forced me to intervene time and again until finally simply suggesting that he stop).  

There's no doubting that we're a unique little unit around here, which is not instinctively comfortable for me.  1.  We're h/schoolers, even unschoolers for Pete's sake, and this is not always understood or welcomed.  2.  We're Christians, which is the one thing not to be in today's world of tolerance-for-anything-but-Christianity.  3. We're a trans-racial family, which garners us attention virtually every time we're out.  4.  We're an adoptive family, which adds an extra layer of issues or complexities that most people don't really understand about us.  5.  And Geoff and I have this weird goal of trying to parent our kids from a developmental perspective, which sometimes looks a little different than our behaviourally-oriented society of parents (imagine the tennis coach's surprise, for example, when he gave my child a time-out for bouncing the ball past the time when he was to be bouncing the ball and my child didn't know what a time-out was).  

Being always so different, so against the current, is sometimes hard for me and I get discouraged.   I grew up knowing not to rock the boat, to please others; I grew up knowing order and structure and academics and achievement.  It's an ongoing struggle and I have to give myself almost daily pep talks about this being the right course for our family.


...where to from here?

Well, that's the likely subject of what will become the final part in this series of posts!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Unschooling Assessment (Part 1 of 3): The Great Parts

We had a really good summer around here.  Days, and even weeks, spent at my folks' cottage; the kids enjoyed a tennis camp (which meant that mama had a whole week of days to herself...the only time this has happened in the past year!); the boys took in two days of a parkour introductory course (which they loved and which is pretty much the only thing that I've ever seen tire Seth out!); we hung out at home for endless pyjama days; we swam; we hung out with friends; and so on and so on. It was lovely.

Now we are transitioning back into fall activities, like pretty much everyone around us.  And with the changing of the seasons, I've been reflecting quite a bit on our past year of schooling at home.  It's been just over a year since we made the transition to unschooling and there have been both high points and low points.  Overall I think it's been a success, but there have certainly been challenges along the way.

First the positives. And there have been quite a few!

1.  For one thing, my kids are generally pretty relaxed these days, which might not sound all that noteworthy or even all that desirable to some, but for us it's pretty important.  As you know if you've been reading here for a while, my oldest is highly sensitive and, thus, prone to anxiety, and so for him to be relaxed is pretty important when it comes to being willing and able to learn...much more so than when, for example, he's in a state of high anxiety.  For my middle child, who has had so much to cope with in his nine years, this year of being more relaxed has meant that more of the walls guarding his heart have come down and he's been able to move from barely grappling with all that he has to learn about survival to being able to start to learn about things purely out of interest.  It's like the internal alarm system that used to be blaring in his head almost continuously in order to protect him has quieted to an occasional flare up...which is amazingly helpful when it comes to being able to learn things beyond basic survival.  My youngest, despite her many foibles and challenges, has perhaps been the least affected by our transition to unschooling - but she is the most adaptable, anyway, when it comes to learning and learning environments.

2.  For another thing, this year has been a blessing in the sense that it's the first year since Seth and Lizzie have been home that the kids have actually learned to really play together.  Don't get me wrong - they fight regularly (especially oldest and youngest) and they quibble and quarrel with each other (especially the younger'd think they were a 60-year married couple to listen to them) - we're not some saintly family where the relational roses are constantly in bloom!  But they've learned about each other and about what works and doesn't work in relationship, and they can now spend regular times in play together without it necessarily having to erupt into chaos.  Even now, as I write this, they're on the trampoline together, jumping and shrieking as they get sprayed by a sprinkler throwing water on them - I was outside with them until ten minutes ago, and I was totally fine coming inside knowing that they will be ok for the next half hour or so...I can hear them right now, screaming with delight, ordering each other out of the way, and loving just being together out under the sunshine.

3.  I have also experienced, quite profoundly, how much better the kids learn when it's something that's of interest to them, or something that they're developmentally ready for.  I love watching them discover something that they really learn about and then just doing it...and it's got that wondrous quality to it because they're ready for it and interested.  For years I have believed in my head that the developmental process is the way to go (ie. waiting until a child is ready and willing and able to learn before offering up learning); but now I believe deep down in my core that this is the ideal way for my kids to learn...not the only way, to be sure, but in my books, the ideal way.  I could think of many examples of this, but for some reason three particular examples jump to mind:  Seth figuring out on his own that counting in multiples is faster than counting one-by-one (even if he can't do it quite yet); Lizzie deciding that she's ready to learn how to read and so she's starting to charge through stuff with me and is actually able to read simple words on her own now - she's almost teaching herself to read (amazing!); and of course, the biggie this year was Matthew deciding that he wanted to read and then just doing it and demonstrating that he's pretty much at the grade level he would have just completed in the school system.

The ease with which they learn when they are developmentally and neurologically ready is phenomenal!  I shake my head just thinking about the seeming miracles I've seen in this regard.  All of the struggling that I previously had to endure when trying to teach specific things at specific times has entirely disappeared!  Gone.  Gone.  Gone.  And let me tell you, given the daily tantrums we were going through just over a year ago when I asked a child to learn something, not having these kinds of events any more is remarkable (though we're at the beginning of piano lesson practising, so this might change!)...and is itself far more conducive towards a more relaxed environment, which again makes the learning environment that much friendlier.

4.  As I've spent time over the past year really paying attention to the kids' interests and dislikes, and their means of learning, I've also gotten to know each of them better.  It's fascinating what one can learn when forced to pay more attention - and I say 'forced' because when unschooling it's easy to believe sometimes that the kids aren't learning anything...after all, the learning happens very organically and with (often vastly) different content than is set out in the curriculums.  So I've forced myself to become more observant, to make notes, and to take advantages of opportunities to help the kids learn something and to learn it at a developmentally-ready time.

One current example I can think of is how we've capitalized on Seth's love of dogs for learning purposes.  When I finally understood (I'm a slow learner!) that his interest in dogs runs deep and wide, I decided to use that to prompt some learning.  I put together a bunch of books (including a few from my childhood - 'cause I was a total dog fanatic, too!) and dvds and sticker books about dogs and I used the age old technique of strewing (see note below) to peak his interest further and to help him learn.  So he's currently learning about things such as:
  • dog breeds and the breeding of dogs;
  • animal care, including diet and exercise (which also led to further discussion about human diets, etc);
  • puppies - when they're able to open their eyes, sit, walk, etc etc
  • reinforcement of the concept of mammals (live birth; fur; nurse mother's milk; etc);
  • dogs' skeletons (and a bit about how they compare to human skeletons) and other pieces of information about their body make-up (for example, we reinforced the notion of our five senses by talking about a dog's senses);
  • the ancestry of dogs, and their classification as canines;
  • what domestic vs. wild means;
  • watching a dog's body language and understanding more about how animals communicate;
  • reinforcement of the food chain and the dog as predator, etc; 
  • how to sound out words such as dog, and puppy, and cute and a reading-related element, too.
  • so many other things!  I may even try to arrange a meeting with a vet and help Seth develop some questions of interest to him.
Seth's eating this stuff up, not even realizing how much he is actually learning.  This kind of interest-based learning is huge for Seth...frankly, for all of my kids.  It's often just me who can be rather slow on the uptake with regard to noticing and taking advantage of opportunities.

Side Note:  Strewing is a simple technique often used by unschoolers (and others, no doubt!) and it's effective in our household.  Strewing involves leaving things out and about around the house so that the kids might 'happen across' something interesting and feel motivated to dive in to the material.  Once the interest has abated, it's time to strew something else about.  This is how I introduced Seth's dog learning; and it's how I continue to spur on Matthew's interest in reading, by leaving interesting-looking books in the car seat pocket in front of him so that he can 'happen' to find them and read them out loud to us in the car.
I recently noticed that my boys are loving their small rock collections, so I'm about to strew various things around the house about rocks and minerals...books, dvds, trays of actual rocks and minerals broken into their main groupings, a magnifying glass, and so on.

5.  I really do like having flexibility:  To enjoy pyjama days regularly; to have time to play and visit with friends; to take off on vacation for two weeks in May or whenever; to spontaneously go swimming just because we feel like it; to learn stuff that happens to be in our path rather than relying on curriculum; to not have to pack lunches very often (seriously, moms of schooled kids - don't know how you do it...I was tired out after a week of making lunches during tennis camp!!); to cuddle in bed and read all morning if we want to.  I think that giving up these things would be the hardest things for me to give up if we someday, ever, stop schooling our kids at home.  It's the time together that I love.  The time and the flexibility.  It's truly awesome, even as it's utterly exhausting at times.

6.  I really, really, like being able to teach my kids things that I know will be practical and helpful to them in their adult life.  I love that all three are interested in learning how to cook and clean, for example, because it's going to be such a help when they're on their own someday.  I love that my boys already know how to throw in a load of laundry (while I supervise, still) and that they know how to fold clothes and put them away and that we often do this chore together and that we can talk or listen to music while we're doing the job.  I love that all three kids can and do empty the dishwasher and that, even though they can be utter slobs in their bedrooms and leave a tornado of crafting messes behind them, they are usually willing to dive in to help clean up.  I love that Matthew has started a recipe book to reflect foods that he's made that he loves; and I love that the kids sometimes fight about who's going to help me get ready for dinner.  I love that almost every life experience seems to have the potential for learning if we see the opportunity in it, and I love that the kids are curious about a lot of things.

7.  This is a more subtle positive that's come out of the last year:  I believe that my kids are going to ok, academically, even if we continue to unschool them.  They are learning.  They may not have all of the knowledge their school peers have about certain subject areas.  I can guarantee, in fact, that they don't know what a subject or predicate is when it comes to breaking down a sentence...and the grade 3 and 4 English curriculums are all about such grammar subjects....I know because I've looked.  Two of my kids don't read yet.  None of them print very well yet...well, Matthew does, but for him there's the issue of spelling...  And yet....  Honestly I'm intensely glad to be spending the time that they might otherwise be learning about grammar, etc, reading to my kids so that they learn language (and grammar) organically.  I'm glad that Matthew's understanding of similes and metaphors came first from the reading of books like Inkheart (in which the author masterfully and extensively uses such techniques) and was then deepened during crazy car conversations when we tried to think of the silliest possible examples of similes and metaphors!  Whether they learn about subjects and predicates now or in eight years (or never) matters not one iota to me...when they need to know it, or when the time is right, they'll learn it in the time that they can snap their fingers.  They are all three intelligent, curious, observant kids (even with some potential learning disability on the part of one) who can increasingly hold their own (even shine sometimes), and who are increasingly comfortable holding on to themselves even when it means being different than other people.  Just two days ago, when some (unkind) person called homeschoolers weird (actually the term "weirdo" was used), Lizzie unexpectedly and enthusiastically said "Thanks...that's such a kind thing to say."  Even my baby is learning to be comfortable with herself, even if that means being a little different than the world around her.

There's a flip side to this point, in that it's hard for me to always maintain this perspective of believing that my kids are ultimately going to be ok, even academically.  But I'll talk about that more in my next post, which has to do with some of our challenges in being unschoolers.

Overall, it's been an awesome year and our intention is to continue down this path throughout this year. I do think a few small changes are warranted, but that's the subject of yet another post...also soon to come.

It's been good to think through some of the positives of our past year.  And now lets' move on to explore further some of the challenges.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Hello!  Anyone still out there?

It's been a far my longest hiatus since starting this blog over five years ago.  At some point since I last put pen to paper, summer has morphed into fall, and the kids and I have fallen into the schedule that will see us through the winter and into spring.

Yesterday or the day before, as I was puttering about the kitchen Lizzie, having taken all of one piano lesson, was ticking the ol' ivories in a way that I never imagined possible.  My poor piano, I thought.  Then she began to sing - in a completely unrelated key, and in a tempo so different than that produced by her drumming fingers that I wondered how she could maintain both.  But what cracked me up were the words to her little song:  "I love my mo--mmmy with my whole whole hearrrrrrt, and I knnnnoww that I must, must must obeeeey her even when she's mean and tells me it's tiiiiimmme for bed and even though I knnnnnowww that she's wrrrrong about bedtime...I don't wwwwaaaannnnnnt (screeched) to listen to her, but I probably shooouuuld..."

It went on and on.  All of the indignities that Lizzie has apparently faced at my hands were brought forth in song:  The injustice of having only brothers and no sisters; the fact that she wasn't allowed to have a sleepover; the torment of not being able to eat as much junk food as she'd like; the horror of having to brush her teeth twice in one day.  I could almost see her rolling her eyes through parts of her song, feel as much as hear the sneer in her voice.  Her song of lamentation went on and on and touched upon a surprising number of subjects.  She could have written the book of Job...starred in it, actually.

It was awesome!

My first thought was that this was a moment I needed to remember.  I needed to blog it so that I could bring back, even years from now, the sound of that screechy little voice letting out all of her angst.

And so, with that small jolt to my system, I'm back.  It's been a great break, but there's still and always this part of me that can't quite conceive of staying away from the written word.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Still Here

Just a quick post to let you know that I'm still around!  The kids and I have been spending time at my folks' cottage, where there's no internet access, and otherwise having a good and relaxing past few weeks.  It's been a nice break.

But we're gearing up for fall again and I have lots of things on my mind...just need to get a little back into the swing of things.

Back soon.  Enjoy the week!


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Photos - Covering Up the Joy

Even when he's happy (as he is here), Seth's basic instinct is still to cover up the emotion.  The great news is that he's feeling more and more comfortable as time passes.  In the scene below, he was so excited about his birthday gift (learning about his two riding lessons) that his joy started out as an involuntary smile.  Within a sparse second, however, he quickly covered it up with a fist and tried so hard not to smile in an effort to gain control over his face (even as he's smiling in that first photo, his fist is poised, ready to cover his face).  In one picture, you can see him pulling down on his face near his eyes - this is his attempt to (literally) wipe the smile off his face.  Often at this point he buries his head under blankets or behind our backs or under our arms.

But, in a testament to the long way he's come in the past few years, you can still see that, despite his efforts, the joy is still there!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pictures: Seth at 9 and Lizzie at 7

Every year on and around the kids' birthday I try to take a few photos of them to mark the occasion.  I forgot to post these ones from Seth's and Lizzie's recent birthdays.  Aren't they beautiful children??

Seth at age 9:
His birthday gift from Geoff and me was two riding lessons...the kid is a total animal nut.  This was taken during his first lesson, riding bareback on Chicklet...he loved his first lesson...and his teacher said he was a natural.  Sigh...couldn't he choose something cheaper to love??!

Seth in his glory...holding a puppy (no, not ours!)

Such a beautiful, fine-featured boy...the spitting image of his First Father!

Best buddies...even when it's hard for Seth to admit that!

Seth with Matthew and two of his best buddies, off to ride bumper boats and go karts to celebrate his birthday.

Let them eat cake!  Seth wanted a homemade coffee ice cream cake with a graham crust...and so that's what I made him...complete with marshmallow cream and toasted mini marshmallows on top!

Lizzie at age 7: 
Lizzie's main gift from us was a beautiful (second hand) doll house....which she had really wished for.  The picture on the left is of her face when she came up to her bedroom and saw what was waiting for her...the picture on the right is of her posing with the new doll house.

Lizzie with her beloved cousin.  I took the two of them swimming for Lizzie's birthday, and they had a blast!

Lizzie also requested an ice cream cake with marshmallows on it...only her ice cream flavour of choice was strawberry.  The cake was blinking hard to make and you can see that the top layer is a little uneven...but the taste...mmmmmmm!

Happy Birthday, Seth and Lizzie!!

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Mama's Full Heart

Last week, my boys independently told me something that completely melted my heart, and filled it up at the same time.

On Tuesday, my birthday, Matthew said this to me:  "Mom, you're the best mom ever...better than a boy could even dream of.  I love you with my whole heart!"  He's repeated these assertions a few more times since then, and has surprised me with sudden, fierce hugs and hand grabs, too.  And a few times lately, he's said things like "Mom, I have a really great life...thanks for working so hard for us...".'s been awesome.  I've worked with and loved that boy so hard and for so long, and in moments like these, I can just feel the blessing of that love pouring over me.

And then there's Seth.

Mid-week last week, while sitting at the dinner table, I glanced over at Seth and couldn't help but notice that he was staring at me intently.  I did a double take.  He looked almost angry, he was so intense.  Those eyes.  I asked what was wrong and he immediately said "nothing."  So immediately that I knew I needed to follow up.  I wondered what I'd done to merit such a look.  I asked if I could speak privately with him for a moment in the library and we excused ourselves from the table.

Once sitting on the couch, I asked again what that look had been about, and said that he looked angry at me about something.  He covered his eyes and said that he couldn't say it...he just couldn't.  I told him that it was ok, he didn't have to, but that I was very curious and that, no matter how awful it was, nothing would change my love for him, and that our relationship was more important than any hard feelings he was having towards me.  He said that he wanted to tell me but didn't think he could tell me (classic sign that mixed feelings are coming).  I said something like "no worries" and that he could tell me another time if that was easier.

Seth:  "But part of me wants to tell you, Mommy."

Me:  "Well, if you want to, why don't you try to tell me one word at a time."

Seth:  "OK.  The first word is I."

Me:  "OK.  'I -.'  What's the next word?"

Seth:  "Think."

Me:  "Ok.  The next word is think.  So far we have 'I think.'"

I had no idea what was coming but I knew nothing could be as horrible as warranting his hiding his head under my arm.  His first instinct, always, always, is to defend his heart; it's so hard for him to share his heart.

Me: "What's the next word, Seth? Can you try to tell me?"

Seth:  "You."

Me:  "All right.  Got it.  'You.'  What's next?"

Seth:  "Are."

Me (trying to guess where this was headed and bracing myself inwardly for the worst):  "Got it.  So far we have 'I think you are...'.  Do you want to tell me the next word?"

Seth: "A."

Me:  "OK.  'I think you are a....'  Can you keep going?"

Seth:  "Gr."

Me:  "What?"

Seth:  "Gr."

Me:  "Gr?  Do you mean Girl? Green? Grinch?"

Seth:  "Not those words."

Me, stumped:  "Well, what word is it then?  I have no idea Seth, I'm sorry.  Do you still want to try to tell me?"

Seth:  "Yes."

Me:  "All right.  What's the next word?  No matter what it is, Seth, I love you and nothing will change you and me.  So...what's the next word?  I'm ready for it."

Seth (hiding his head under a pillow on the couch beside me):  "Great!"

Me:  "'Great?'  OK.  So far we have 'I think you are a great - .'  What is great?  That I am a great lizard?  A great big meanie?  What?"

Seth (still ducking his head, pushing hard against me with his full body weight):  "The last word is Mom."

Me (stunned...waiting for the bad news to drop):  "What?!?  Mom?  You think I am a great Mom?"

Seth: "Yes."


Seth glanced up then to see how I was reacting and saw the tears in my eyes.  He grabbed me around the neck and hugged me hard.  I was overwhelmed, and had to fight the big wave of emotion that threatened.  So much that child and I have gone through, including lots of the bad and the ugly, even recently, and still he believes that I'm a great mom.  I was floored, totally taken aback.  Never saw that one coming.

I told him that I thought he was a great son and that I loved him so much that my heart hurt with it sometimes.  Shortly after, we walked back to the supper table hand in hand and he ate the rest of his meal from my fingers while he sat perched on my lap.

Two beautiful moments in as many days.  I don't know how it could possibly get any better than that!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Recovering from the Mistakes I Make as a Parent

A number of weeks ago, Matthew was involved in an unfortunate situation where he was pushed and kicked and called names by a few kids.  As I understand the situation from both of my boys, towards the end of the incident, Seth also joined in with the others and shoved his brother and likely even punched him.

It wasn't a great situation; Matthew was pretty bruised up the next day in all of the places he said he'd been kicked, and it's taken him a while to recover emotionally; but thankfully all's well on that front and it's been talked and cried out to the point of exhaustion and, ultimately, I think, adaptation and recovery.

However... the week following the incident, I had a hard time with Seth as a result of his involvement in the incident.  I had a hard time looking him in the eye; I was undoubtedly a margin cooler than usual in my treatment of him; and I just had a difficult time overall being as warmly inclined towards him.  I was furious, or maybe just deeply hurt, that he would be involved in hurting his brother; devastated that he would choose to 'follow the pack' by mimicking what others were doing rather than protecting his brother or getting help.  And, as much as anything, I was also pretty angry with myself for not having monitored the situation more carefully in order to prevent the situation from happening in the first place.

In my hurt and anger that following week, I lectured Seth too often:  I told him a story about how my sister protected me when, as a child, I was beat up by another kid; I started talking to him about the importance of being a follower who chooses the right values to follow; I told him that we always protect family; etc etc etc.  I felt a little out of control in my need to manage and correct the situation, even though I knew as the words were coming out of my mouth that I was messing up with Seth.

I wasn't harsh.  I still hugged him and said kind things to him.  But I'm embarrassed that it all felt forced on my part; it didn't come from a soft place inside of me.  And given that my middle-born comes from a place of trauma and struggles constantly with defendedness and a need to prove his worth, this was the exact wrong thing to do with/to him.

At the same time that this was going on, my sleep was suffering - I was experiencing a downward slide into my come-and-go battle with insomnia.  As a result, when the kids got up in the mornings, I was getting into a habit of offering them tv for 30-45 minutes a few mornings a week so that I could rest a little more.  This went on for almost a month.  This wouldn't be a huge deal under normal circumstances, but sadly this affected Seth, too, because usually the early morning is when I get concentrated cuddle time with him and have a chance to talk with him and read him stories.

These things combined did not have a good impact on my beloved boy.  The effect was to create alarm in Seth.  I alarmed him with my disapproval of his actions and by seeming (from his perspective, when I didn't have as much time with him in the mornings) to distance myself physically.  After three years of working hard with him, after three years of helping him bring down the walls that had worked so hard to protect his heart, I alarmed him and made him insecure in the relationship he has with me and made him doubt his own sense of right and wrong.  I made him feel like there was something wrong with him.  It's a terrible feeling, with the clarity of hindsight, to know that you've hurt your child and your relationship with him.

The only thing I'm thankful for in that situation is that I noticed what was happening.  Over the next few weeks, after I got back to my usual self, I noticed that Seth was a little more withdrawn than usual.  He was also very insecure about whether or not he was doing the 'right thing;' he was constantly coming to me and asking "Mommy, is it the right thing to..." or "Mommy, I don't know what the right thing to do is...."  He seemed rather paralyzed in his ability to make decisions, even about trivial things.

So Geoff and I booked an appointment with our wonderful Gordon Neufeld consultant and it was she who helped us put the pieces together...about how what I'd really been upset about was that Seth appeared to have chosen loyalty to his friends over loyalty to his brother...that my lectures had led him into a state of feeling badly about himself and insecure...and that my physical absence a few mornings a week just confirmed for him his sense that he wasn't worthy of my attention/love.  The thing is, she said, when Seth joined in on the gang-up on Matthew, it was instinct, not a decision to hurt his brother, that was driving his action.  He's at the age and development level where he wants and needs to be accepted and to appear funny to other people, so when he saw others laughing at what was happening, he instinctively jumped into the fray.  She assured us that he had no intention to hurt his brother, and that he didn't choose to be involved in hurting him.  We talked about a recovery plan.

That helped.  A lot.  I immediately formed, and implemented, a plan of action to help Seth recover.

The next morning, despite another hard night of sleep, I was up before Seth and was available for our old cuddle and reading times.  He wasn't terribly interested in being very close to me that first morning (or the one after), but I was determined to work my way back under his heart walls; I hoped that it wouldn't take too long because Seth really does love his mama and because there'd previously been so much trust between us that I was very hopeful that his defences would come down again with a little patience on my part.

My plan was to spend the next two weeks of mornings regaining the physical proximity that we'd previously had and then, in a moment of attachment/closeness, raise the issue of 'the incident' with Seth and to start the repair work that needed to be done.

I didn't have to wait two weeks for the right opportunity to talk to him about it.  On the fourth day, something happened that took us right there.

On the morning of that fourth day, the kids and I met up with some friends at a nearby park, where the boys like to wander off into the forest a bit and build forts or collect branches or whatever.  On that morning, it was decided by the moms where the boundaries would be for their wanderings, and we asked them to always be with a buddy.  The kids had a great time, but I could sense on the drive home that something was bothering Seth.

When we got home, I sent Matthew and Lizzie into the backyard to play and sat down at the kitchen table with Seth.  I pulled him in to me and kissed him and asked if there was anything he'd like to talk about.  He pulled away.

"I did a wrong thing, Mommy," he said, starting to cry.  "You're going to be mad at me."

I had no idea what he could possibly be talking about but I was sure of one thing:  No matter what he'd done, I was not going to be mad at him and risk pushing him away again.  This would be a chance to get us back on the right track.

"You know, Seth, I really don't think I'm going to be mad, but even if I am, we'll get through that, too.  Our relationship is waaaay to important to me - we'll get through it no matter what."

"I didn't know what to do," he cried.

"About what?" I asked.

"At the park.  You said that we had to stay with our buddy."

"Yes," I prompted.  "You were buddies with M.  Do you want to tell me what happened?"  I kept my voice as gentle as possible.

"He went past the line, the boundary thing.  Where we weren't supposed to go past.  I made a bad decision, I think."  He was crying hard now.

But ahhhh....the light was turning on for me...I could see where this was headed and the opportunity that was coming my way.

"Seth, it's going to be ok, really," I said.  I reached out to hug him but he pulled away to arms' length...a manifestation of our recent distance.

"I didn't know what to do," he cried in an anguished voice.

"It sounds like you had a huge struggle.  Why don't you tell me what happened?" I asked, already knowing but wanting so much to hear him say it.

"You told us to stay together but he went past the line and I didn't know what to do!" Seth responded.

"You must have been so confused, Seth.  What were thinking or feeling when you saw M go past the boundary line?" I asked.

"I was scared because I didn't want to do the wrong thing.  I wasn't supposed to go over the line, but M did and he didn't come back and I was scared that he would get lost and he's my friend and I didn't want him to get lost and you said to stay with your buddy." All of this came out in a gush.

"Seth, oh Seth," I remember saying with great feeling.  "Those are such big, hard things to have to feel and think all at the same time.  You were all mixed up about what to do and such strong mixed feelings.  On the one hand you really wanted to honour the rule about not going past the boundary; and on the other hand you wanted to honour the rule about staying with a buddy.  Is that right?"

"Yes!!!" he shouted, sounding almost relieved.  "And I think I did a bad thing then, made a wrong decision."

"I doubt that, but tell me.  What happened then?" I asked.

"I crossed the line and stayed with M because I didn't want him to be alone or get lost!!  Soon we came back.  Did I do a wrong thing?"

"Seth, my Seth, that was such a hard thing to have to figure out all at one time and all by yourself and no, you didn't do a wrong thing.  I am so proud of you for thinking through everything you thought through all at the same time.  That was a very, very hard situation for you and you managed it and made the best decision you could when it was a hard situation."

"So you're not mad at me?"

"No, love, I'm not mad at all.  I'm proud of you for working through that situation and trying so hard to do the right thing and for making such a hard decision, and I'm proud of you for telling me about it."

He took a step closer and leaned on me, the way he used to when all of his walls were first coming down.

"Seth," I said.  "I want to tell you one more thing, ok?"  This was my opportunity to start repair work on the past incident and my response to him.

"OK," he said.  "About what?"

"Remember a few weeks ago the incident with Matthew...?"  I used a few specific words to remind him, but he needed no refresher was still uppermost in his mind.

"I remember," he said.  "I did a wrong thing then.  I'm so sorry.  I'm very sorry."

"Seth," I said.  I gripped his shoulders and looked him straight in the eye.  "I don't need you to be sorry.  You have nothing to be sorry for.  No more.  And I want to tell you this.  You know how when we're at home here and one of your siblings might hit you and hurt you, and I get frustrated with them because you've been hurt?"

"Yeah," he said.

"Well, when that thing happened with Matthew, it was kinda like that for me - I was frustrated when he got hurt.  And I didn't handle it as well as I could have - you got a lot of my frustrated voice and face those following days and I think that hurt you with so much frustration."

"Yes."  He was crying now.  I put my arms around him, where he was leaning against me, and I squeezed him tightly against me.

"Seth, I want you to know something about that.  First, I never wanted to hurt you and I wish I could do those days over.  But more important, I want you to really, really understand that I know you didn't mean to hurt your brother; and I know you love him and would never want to see him hurt. I totally and completely know that about you and that you have a kind and soft heart and that you didn't mean to hurt your brother."

It was a classic, textbook response:  Seth sighed deeply, still crying, still leaning against me.  Then he turned to look at me and he climbed up onto my lap and put his head on my shoulder.  I started to cry a little, too.  I put my arms around him and Seth put his arms around me and I repeated those last words to him and then told him how much I loved him; a few seconds later he said that he loved me more, and we started that age-old game of words about how much we loved the other.

And then he said, out of the blue, with tears still on his cheeks, "Mommy, could you and me have some chips and dip together?  And can we eat from the same plate?"

I have no idea where this came from because we don't often have chips and dip, but I could tell that something in him wanted us to break bread together and that sharing a plate was a sign for him that we were one again.  Of course I said yes and we went to get some chips (thankfully I had some!) and dip.  We put some of each onto a small plate and Seth dipped a chip into the dip.  Rather than place it in his own mouth, however, he reached over and held it in front of my mouth until I took it in; I then did the same for him.  There was something intimate and uplifting about that action.

It was, quite honestly, a beautiful moment, sitting there, munching our chips together and feeding each other.

I certainly know that I mess up as a parent; sometimes, as now, with greater impact than at other times.  But I'm so thankful that I'm close enough to Seth to see how I'd impacted him and then to have some help figuring out what to do about it.  Mostly, though, I'm just thankful that Seth and I are in right relationship; that the walls around his heart that we worked so hard to break down didn't have a chance to get really built up again.

I have my Seth back; and he's got me back.