Archives for April 2015

Sick Days

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So, I’ve been sick for the last week. I’m fortunate to have a job with generous paid sick leave, so I’ve been home with my family. As we homeschool, my wife and all four kids were there as well. At first it was easy; I’d like to think that I’m a “good” sick person, meaning that I don’t whine and don’t put a lot of demands on other people. The problem with our particular situation is that, having been exposed to my illness, everyone else was soon sick as well. That’s when things got complicated.

It’s a truism that parents don’t get sick days. Having children at home does not suspend any of the duties involved in taking care of them. It just means that we do it while we’re sick. So when the kids are all up several times in the night coughing or presenting with fevers (and rarely at the same time), a lack of sleep certainly raises the stakes for adults who are trying to get better.

Last week I went in to the doctor and took the four girls with me. The good news is that none of us have the symptoms of whooping cough, which has been going around. The not so good news is that it is viral bronchitis, for which there is basically no treatment other than to wait it out and to try and not spread the contagion back and forth like a game of volleyball. How many times a day can you remind a four year-old to cover her cough? The answer is many, many times.

As I mentioned, I am fortunate in my job; I know that many working parents have it much harder, as many employers don’t look kindly on parents taking time off to care for sick children. Still. It’s an uphill battle trying to recover when everyone else now needs extra time and attention.

What’s good about sick days? The lowered expectations. The slowed pace of daily life and the imperative to take it easy. Reading books, when my voice will hold up, and watching movies when it doesn’t. A marked increase in board games and drawing. Laying around listening to audiobooks. Sitting in the sun like a lizard, when there is sun. Early bedtimes. And lots of homemade chicken soup. Come to think of it, my time home sick has worked better than some of our vacations.

If it wasn’t for the sickness part, it would be perfect.

More on the Cell Phone Thing

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Last week I wrote about my attempts to use my smartphone responsibly around my children. It makes sense to address the other side of this issue.

Though my eldest daughter is not quite ten, it has already come up. She has a running list of things that she wants to have and/or do as soon as we deem her ready. In addition to being able to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which beckons portentously from a high shelf, she would like to have a phone. It is not an urgent need, and as she is home schooled she is probably missing a lot of the social pressure she would otherwise be experiencing to be “connected.” She is only tangentially aware of Facebook, and she still thinks that her mother and I sometimes communicate telepathically when we are actually just texting. But she knows what a useful and desirable device it is, and after all we have been modeling its use for as long as she can remember.

What we decided is that when she is 16, and has earned her driver’s license (something that has not yet appeared on her list, as far as I know), she can have a phone. So we’re a ways out from this occurrence.

This leaves a lot of questions unanswered, however; among them: just how smart does her phone need to be? It used to be easier to separate the calling and texting functions from the games, apps, internet and social media. But there’s not stopping the hyperspeed evolution of technology. In fact, six years from now it will surely have developed in ways we can’t imagine. Which makes questions of limits and safety all the more important.

This article is typical in its approach to these questions, and it’s useful enough that I want to quote it at length.

“Just remember: When you hand kids phones today, you’re giving them powerful communications and production tools. They can create text, images, and videos that can be widely distributed and uploaded to Web sites. They can broadcast their status and their location. They can download just about everything in the world. If you think your children’s technological savvy is greater than their ability to use it wisely, pay attention to the gap. Times may have changed, but parenting hasn’t. We’re still the parents. And it’s our job to say ‘no, not yet.'”

Our decision to wait until she is in her mid-teens is a common one, but as with most things it depends on your own child and your family’s situation. And it’s okay to experiment and make changes to the arrangement, allowing more or less access according to how safe and responsible they can be.

The Real Social Media

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Here’s what I hope my children don’t say about me when they’re older:

“But he was always on his phone.”

I am of an age. I went off to college with an electronic typewriter, and this is what I used exclusively for the next seven years. It had a little screen that showed one line of text, and when I hit “enter” it typed out the line. I started using email after I graduated from college. I did not become familiar with the internet until I was out of grad school, and working the swing shift at the front desk of a library. I became an adult, ostensibly, without the benefit of this technology.

I didn’t even have a cell phone, in fact, until I became a parent at 32. It was not a smart one; that came a couple of years later. Once I met my iPhone, though, it was love at first sight. There was no turning back.

My phone was extremely useful to me as a parent of small children. I could look up the lyrics of bedtime songs. I could read in bed while the toddlers drifted off beside me. I could fire up Netflix when the baby woke in the night, and watch Battlestar Galactica while rocking her back to sleep. Before my phone had a built-in flashlight, I used an app.

The trouble started later. It was all too easy to be staring at my little screen instead of looking my children in the face. Somehow, I was always terribly busy finding out about something. Now Facebook was a thing. It is a lot for a child to compete with.

I would like to say that I put my phone away now when I need to be present as a parent. I’m not there yet. For a variety of reasons I left Facebook sometime last year (for one thing, I realized that it’s not healthy to argue with strangers; for another, I just don’t need to have an opinion about everything). This has helped tremendously. But I still find it all too easy to pick up my phone and let it soak up my time and attention. I imagine that this is a common experience.

Is there a middle way? I wanted to learn about how parents could use their devices in a moderate and balanced way. I found a lot of useful information (on my phone, of course). Some articles are more alarming than others. But I have also been working on some principles of my own.

  • If I’m going to spend time reading in the presence of my children, let it be a book. Having books around, reading and holding them, showing that they have value, is a much clearer and more powerful way to model literacy for kids.
  • Writing is also an important thing to model, and I’m often making lists or jotting down notes. I try to do it on paper. Handwriting is in danger of becoming a lost art (heck, a lost skill). As with books, showing the work brings it into the physical world and children notice and will emulate it.
  • When I want to spend time on my phone, I can do it when they’re sleeping, or when they’re occupied elsewhere, or when I’m taking a break in another room.
  • Since my phone is obviously such a useful and fascinating machine, I can use it to share things with my kids. Look things up when they ask questions; show them photos of animals and planets and works of art; let them watch tutorials and documentaries and, yes, videos of cats. They love that.
  • Most importantly, I can put my phone down during times in which I value our being together. Meal times, for example. I would not want them to have devices at the table, and they will do what they see much more than what I say.

Face to face conversation: that’s the real social media.

On Chores

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There are a lot of ways to present chores to kids. They can be tied to allowance or to other privileges, and this is fairly common. But I would like to propose a different approach.

I grew up under a straight system of chores for allowance, and given my comic book habit this worked nicely for me. However, this arrangement encouraged me to cultivate a somewhat mercenary attitude: I failed to see the use of raking and bagging leaves, for example, other than as a source of income; and if I did not have plans for the money my enthusiasm for the job was…lacking.

More useful, though, was my weekly job of mowing the lawn for my grandparents: the expectations were clear, and the wage ($10 per job) allowed me to steadily accumulate funds for movies and role-playing game modules. More importantly, it prepared me for the exchange of labor for pay that goes into any future job, particularly of the sort available to teenagers. I was expected to show up each Saturday morning, and my grandfather was good enough to inform me of when I needed to do the job with a different emphasis or with increased vigor.

As a result of these experiences, I have come to see the use in framing a job as a job and chores as something else entirely.

In my house chores are presented simply as expectations: they are what need to happen in order for the home to run smoothly. There is a place for everyone to chip in, and we emphasize the importance of each chore in our day-to-day home life. It is important for chores to be age-appropriate, and there are a number of resources that can help ensure this. I like this list put out by Montessori educators, and it has served as a useful guide.

Recently, inspired by a Nurturing Parenting training, I decided to formalize the process. I bought a whiteboard (though a piece of paper, or any of a number of online templates, would serve as nicely) and created a chart, with chores listed down the left-hand column and days of the week along the top (no chores on Sunday, as we go to Church in the morning). I found a set of magnets and labeled them with names, with two magnets (two daily chores) per child. I rotate them daily so that they are performing different tasks each time—their preference—and place them according to age. I allow the girls to write and/or illustrate each chore.

Here is the current list of chores for our household:

Ages 4-6

Trash patrol (gather bits of paper and other detritus and put in trash bin)

Sock matching

Sweeping

Dusting

Laundry patrol (gather clothes and put them in hamper)

Ages 8-10

Put away dishes

Sort and put away clean laundry

Vacuuming

Library (gather and shelve books—we have a lot of books)

Take out trash

Clean bathroom (Scrub sink and bathtub, tidy and clear floor)

Making beds is a daily chore for everyone.

Sometimes we assign “big girl” chores to the little ones with the expectation that an older sibling or adult will assist them. This helps to familiarize them with tasks for which they are not yet ready.

We have been using this system for a month now, and it seems to be working. The kids are more willing to do their part when they see that it is consistent and part of an organized system. I expect that changes will continue to be made, which is why I use a whiteboard and dry-erase markers.

This is not the only way to do it, and it may not be ideal for your family. I encourage you to explore resources, talk to other parents, and come up with something that suits you.