The Family Taste

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A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children. In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.” Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into Enlish. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

Bored Games

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up, because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

You’re a Poet

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Kids like words. They use them all the time. They put them together in different combinations. Some are funny. Some are very serious, because they describe how they think and feel and see the world. Some are magic, because they make things happen (“what’s the magic word?” We know it, right?).

Thus kids like poetry. They may not know it, but they do. After all, poetry is made of up words that are funny and very serious and, most of all, magic. So why not read and say and write poetry with them?

Wait. You like poetry, right? Oh, did you have to learn poetry in school? Right. Sorry about that. I hope you like poetry. You like songs, anyway, right? That’s poetry. You like jokes and Quentin Tarantino movies. I know you do, because. Poetry.

According to Merriam-Webster, poetry is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Hmm. Not very poetic.

According to Emily Dickinson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s more like it. It sounds pretty alarming and painful, but imagine that it is painless, and there’s no mess, and then the sky can get in. There.

Where to start with kids? You have probably passed along those nursery rhymes that you learned inexplicably yourself, and which are also poetry. You may have played the game in which you and your child try to one-up each other with how much you love each other: “I love you to the moon and back.” “Well I love YOU to the end of the universe and back.” “Yeah? Well I love you infinity.” And so on. That’s poetry and also math! There’s math in poetry, but that’s okay.

Here’s an easy way to make poetry: start with a formula. There are many ways to do this, and some of them have been used for hundreds of years. You can try a haiku. Haiku are Japanese nature poems, and there are a lot of rules that would apply to you if you were an ancient Japanese poet, and I don’t want to make any assumptions, but for our purposes it’s all about the meter.

It goes:

Five syllables

Seven syllables

Five syllables.

 

Without getting into what a syllable is, if you’re with your kids you can tap it out together.

 

Try one yourself.

 

Is this my new friend,

Nodding with its hornless head?

No, snail. It’s my toe!

 

Cat on the rampage

Flips backwards off the sofa:

“I meant to do that.”

 

We’re getting hungry

But it’s too hot for cooking

Ice cream for dinner

Reading Ahead

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I’m about to come across as not only a curmudgeon, but a hypocrite. Let me explain.

I learned to read quite early. I credit the constant presence of books and, of course, Sesame Street for helping me along with this. And as soon as I could I started reaching for books that were way beyond my emotional maturity. I may have been able to read, as an eight year-old, my dad’s James Bond and Conan novels, but I was not able to process them. This trend continued as I grew up, with the result that I had “book knowledge” of the adult realm of drugs, sex and the intricacies of suffering that I was in no way prepared to live in reality. If I always felt that I was getting away with something, it’s because I was. Only in later years—and especially now that I’m a parent—did I realize that, rather than gaining something from my transgressions, I actually gave up a fair bit of my childhood.

Things are different now after the explosion of what is now called Young Adult literature, or YA. Spurred on by the success of the (wonderful) Harry Potter novels, the category of books featuring adolescent protagonists, largely under the umbrella of science fiction, horror and fantasy but sometimes taking in historical fiction or even stark realism, increased exponentially. As with most styles in popular art, some of it is brilliant, much of it quite good, and most mediocre to awful (this is not the place for me to weigh in on the relative merits of YA books you have probably heard of and/or read).

The new thing about this, and something I have been noticing more and more, is how often younger readers have been encouraged to pick up YA books under the assumption that, since they are not adult books, it is always a good idea for kids to read them. But more than ever before, there is such a wide spectrum of psychological and emotional content, relationship and identity issues in YA literature that it is risky to assume that a given book is appropriate for your young reader simply because of the section of the library or bookstore it was found in.

Let me be clear: the concern here is not that there are books that address all of these things, or that kids may benefit greatly from finding them portrayed in fiction, because both of these are, I think, very good things. The issue is that readers who may be intellectually, but not emotionally, ready to take on particular subject matter will at best not get anything out of it (as I came up empty with the adventures of James Bond) and come away with confusion or misunderstanding, and at worst could be traumatized. Heck, even the Harry Potter series becomes increasingly dark and emotionally complex as its characters age toward adulthood.

As a result, it’s more important than ever for parents to be aware of what their children are reading. There are summaries and reviews online for every book that’s out there, though this can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to look (in my experience nothing is more full of contradictions that two reviews of the same novel). A reliable place for this information is Common Sense Media, a website offering “independent reviews, age ratings, & other information about all types of media.”

Another great way to find out about what our kids are taking in is much more low tech. You can take a look at the book, of course: read the jacket copy and see if there is a recommended age range. Skim it if you can. Or better yet, talk to them about it!

How to Throw Like a Dad

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I’ve been thinking about what I’m passing along to my children. And what I’m not. There is some pride in the former and a fair bit of panic in the latter. I’ll explain.

My wife and I are big readers. We both started reading at an early age, and in recent years we have made concerted efforts to supplement our smartphone addictions (an affliction of life in the 21st Century) with the presence of real books. The girls have always been surrounded by books, and we make vigorous use of our Audible account; both car rides and afternoons at home are full of audiobooks. As a result, books are an important part of their lives. The eight and ten year-old have read the Narnia series several times through, and are currently both working their way through The Lord of the Rings (this especially impresses me because I know they’re tough going; I’ve never been able to get through them myself).

Another thing I know they have down is art. I’m pretty sure this mostly comes from my wife’s contribution of genes, as she can pick up seemingly any project in any medium and excel at it. We have never scrimped on art supplies, and we give them ample time and freedom to create. A coworker has remarked—jokingly, I hope—that I must display my childrens’ drawings at work in order to shame other parents.

So, there are things my girls love to do that we have encouraged and enabled, and at which they show great skill and talent. This is good, right?

Last year I took my three oldest girls, champion readers that they are, to the culminating event of the library’s Summer Reading program. There were a variety of activities here, including crafts, games, karaoke, and, outside on the lawn, games of physical skill. It was while we were outside that I witnessed my eight year-old attempt to throw a ball at a target. To put it mildly, I was…surprised at her lack of skill in throwing. It immediately struck me (the thought, not the ball, though it was a close call) that I had never taught her to throw or catch properly. Of course, it next occurred to me that I was obviously a bad father.

I should mention that (apart from a good stretch in track & field in first grade) I have never been athletic. I grew up both physically and socially awkward; I was a nervous child. Twitchy, and not terribly coordinated. I was teased for my lack of ability and was never a preferred pick for any team captain. Needless to say, I was never a team captain. I finally learned to dribble a basketball (and make a basket) when I worked at a psychiatric facility for children. I learned from the children. I was in my mid-thirties by this time.

As the days start to lengthen and the idea of Spring starts to take root, I feel increasing urgency to teach my girls about sports. They are vigorous and active, and they love to be outside. They run, jump, and like to hurl chunks of rock into the river. They all love to swim and have had regular lessons. But unlike with reading and art, they have never seen athletics modeled in their family. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, this has become an important issue for me.

So, going back to the idea of resolutions, I have decided it is time for me to buck up and start thinking in sports. I can’t wait to get a softball and glove, a basketball, a soccer ball, a Frisbee. Turns out that, once again, in thinking about what to teach my children they have something to teach me in return.

A Day in Homeschool

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I called in sick to work today, which means that I was granted the rare opportunity to experience a day of homeschool with my family. I wanted to report on what I saw there.

My wife Kyrie has been homeschooling the kids for a few years now. She has been switching things up as she goes, as new and better ideas come to her. Kyrie is trained as a Montessori teacher, and taught for several years in both Montessori and public preschool. She recently attended a weeklong Waldorf homeschooling conference in Portland. And now she is integrating elements of the Charlotte Mason curriculum. Honestly, I don’t know how she does it. But what she’s doing now is what she has determined is best for the needs of each child (remember, we have four girls, aged 4, 6, 8 and ten).

We got up and made breakfast (pancakes) and the girls worked on their chores, got dressed and made their beds. School started promptly at 9:00. Kyrie had everything on a timer, so each subject or activity went on for the scheduled time and then we switched to the next. My times are approximate, as they are from memory. Be patient with me.

9:00 Circle time; greetings, prayer and Scripture reading.

9:20 Math for the 8 and ten-year old; worksheets at different levels with Kyrie available to help. The 6 year-old took this time to draw while I helped the 4 year-old occupy herself in the play kitchen in her bedroom.

9:35 Read Aloud. Kyrie read from Mary Pope Osborne’s retellings of American Tall Tales: today was Davy Crocket, and all the kids found this highly amusing.

10:00 Copywork. Girls took out their notebooks, whose pages have space for both drawing and handwriting. They copied out a short passage and illustrated it.

10:15 Morning Tea. Tea with milk and honey, and cookies!

10:30 Play time. We’re big on play time.

10:50 Nursery Rhymes. Kyrie read some assorted nursery rhymes and we ran outside to play “London Bridges.”

11:00 History. I was recruited to read from Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s illustrated biography of Benjamin Franklin. It was a hit.

11:50 Science. Kyrie read the excellent children’s book Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies. Girls did an exercise in which they took a sheet of paper and cut it into increasingly smaller pieces to simulate the rapid division of microbes. We discussed the importance of air and sunlight in keeping microbes at bay.

12:45 Lunch.

This ended the school day proper. After lunch girls have “rest time,” which usually consists of dividing into older and younger pairs and playing or drawing while listening to an audiobook. On special days they watch a movie.

In the afternoon they took a trip to the library in Corvallis, and played at Central Park.

It was a breakneck day! I was surprised by a couple of things. One was how engaged all the kids were in each activity. Kyrie reports that keeping everything to the timer helps to prevent burnout. They packed up whatever they were doing when it was time to move on to the next thing (that was the other thing that surprised me).

So, that’s what I’ve been missing out on. I kind of wish I could be going to homeschool every day. But I’m glad to let Kyrie run it.

Mommy, Why?

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This week’s guest post was written by Julie Whitus. We hope you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Julie.

Toddlers are like little scientists, toddling, as they do, around their environment gathering information and trying to figure it all out. At one point children will start asking, “Why?” As an adult who still loves to question why, this is one of my favorite stages of human development.

Recently my four year-old daughter has been asking her whys. “Mommy, why is there a sun?” “Mommy, why do we have necks?” “Mommy, why do I have a belly?” My reaction is always to turn this question back to her: “Well, why do you think?” I enjoy her answers greatly, especially the most recent response to why she thinks she has a nose. “So I can give you nose kisses,” she replied.

As these whys continued, I thought to myself that I needed to buy my daughter a book with information about the five senses. But upon further investigation I realized that no book could possible encompass the answers to all my daughter’s questions. Suddenly, the creative mommy part of my brain clicked on and I thought, “Why not make her a personal Why Book?”

Now, creating a book for a child can be as extravagant or as simple as you want it. As a working mother of six children, I prefer the simpler version. For this Why Book I printed out some coloring pages depicting the five senses, gathered some blank colored paper, printed a picture of my daughter, bought some stickers, crayons, and a 50 cent pocket folder with three prongs. I hole-punched all the pages and put them into the folder, then printed off a page with my daughter’s name and the title: Why Book.

When I presented this to my four year-old she helped me to decorate the front of the book with stickers. Then we discussed eyes, and I asked her what types of things she saw with her eyes. She responded, “a snowman.” Together my daughter and I drew a snowman and I labeled it.

This project created quiet time for my daughter to explore the world, color, and look at new words. She really enjoys the book, and there are plenty of blank pages to utilize for more why questions. I love the idea of being able to capture her questions and answers and save them for the future.

Julie Whitus is an In-Home Safety & Reunification Services Advocate at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

A House Full of Music

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We listen to a lot of music in our family. Thanks to our Spotify playlists, we have suitable music for mealtime (The Meatball Monday mix, which is heavy on Sinatra; the Sushi Night collection with its Japanese flute), for chores (mostly folk songs about doing things), and for transitioning into rest time (various ambient and nature sounds). And they each have their favorites, from the eight year-old knowing the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” to the ten year-old’s devotion to Enya.

As much as I love a huge swath of genres, periods and styles, I try to be careful what I play around my small children. So as much as I would like them to appreciate Iron Maiden as much as I do—songs about history and literature!—I just don’t think they’re ready for it yet. I have many friends with a different approach: they are reassured, they tell me, by their kids finding the same things cool that they do. I disagree, preferring them to figure these things out for themselves (for the same reason, they have not yet seen a Star Wars film). As far as I remember, though, all four children were born to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis in the background. Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi visit just about every morning. And barely a week has gone by in our house without Bob Marley.

So as eager as I am for my kids to partake of the full breadth and depth of recorded music, and introduce them to free jazz, minimal techno and Viking war metal, I don’t think there’s any way to force it. Kids respond to what they will, and this is often based on age and development. At what age did you discover the Beatles and wonder where they’ve been all your life? And what seven year-old boy’s day would not be absolutely made by the one-two punch of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions?” We recently played Toto’s “Africa,” my favorite childhood song by a fair distance, and my ten year-old latched right onto it.

That’s not to say that current pop music does not infiltrate our fortress of parenting. I am an active champion of Taylor Swift, but for whatever reason she has not caught on with the children. They were baffled by Daft Punk: “Why would you stay up all night to get lucky? That doesn’t sound like fun.” But the recent heat wave has cemented “Uptown Funk” as a referent. Daughter: “I’m so hot!” Parent: “Make a dragon want to retire?”

Once we hit the teen years, music tends to hit us hard (and as Bob Marley sang, “when it hits you, you feel no pain”). At that time I intend to start the mixtapes flowing. And then the indoctrination will begin.

Music to Their Ears

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I’m a bit of a music geek. Much of my free time is spent discovering music old and new, mainstream and obscure, making mixes (on CDs, because I’m old), reading, thinking and writing about music and, whenever I can do it, listening.

I also have four daughters, and as much as I want to share my enthusiasm with them, this has proved to be tricky. For one thing, much of what I listen to is simply not appropriate for children (the same can be said for what still gets played on Top 40 radio). For another, my girls are free with their opinions and have made it clear what they want to hear and what they don’t (my seven year-old is alone among her sisters in appreciating a good synthesizer).

What works for them? We play a lot of classical music during the day. It has been claimed that playing Bach and Vivaldi and especially Mozart can have a positive effect on a child’s brain development; and though the evidence for this has been disputed, there’s no doubt that it makes a nice backdrop for them as they work and play. Jazz and folk music have always been popular in our house. While the kids love the soothing sounds of New Age music, I…don’t, so much.

It is only recently that my kids have discovered the musical mainstream, in the form of the soundtrack to Frozen. You are probably familiar with this, especially if you have girls. There is nothing like hearing four children sing “Let It Go” at the same time in four different tempos and levels of volume.

Children are always listening, and will soak up whatever is around them. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents playing Janis Joplin and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and not surprisingly they stuck with me. It made me very aware, as a parent, of what I am exposing them to. So what’s the best way to introduce music to kids?

  • It’s important to help children connect what they’re hearing to the people making the music. If you have musicians in your family, let your kids see and hear them playing instruments.
  • If you can, practice an instrument, any instrument, at home. I own a banjo, and regardless of my lack of skill, it is good for them to see me struggle with it. After all, we want them to know that we take on skills through practice, and that failing is part of the process (I am good at failing on banjo).
  • Show them performances on YouTube and point out what’s happening. Help them to identify the sounds that they’re hearing and where they come from.
  • Encourage them to make music on their own, whether it be through the music program at their school, or with instruments (bought or made) at home. Countless studies have made connections between music making and other skills, especially math and problem-solving.
  • Most importantly, sing! Make up songs for bedtime, cleanup time, bath time, and crossing the street. Sing lullabies. And yes, sing songs from Frozen. Using songs to prepare children for chores, transitions and other routines has proven to be very effective.