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Look Ma! No Hands!

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“It’s 3:59. Are we still going to basketball?”

Nick continues to drag a stick across the dirt in our backyard. He’s ignoring my question. It’s the 4th time I’ve asked in as many minutes.

“I love you, Nana,” Gabe chimes in, to reinforce his preferred son status.

“Thank you, Gabe. But I’m in the middle of talking to Nick right now.”

“OK, Nana. I like your shirt.” Yes, Gabe. And I appreciate your ability to charm. That will come in handy when you’re older.

At 4:04 I give up. By the time we pack into the car and drive to the park district, Nick’s class will be half over. Even at a mere $10 for the season, it still feels wasteful to miss a class.

“So we’re skipping today, are we?”

Still no response as he shrugs and meets Gabe on the play castle beside our magnolia tree.

“I don’t appreciate not getting an answer. It’s rude. How many times – “ I have to stop myself. I can feel the criticisms building, just waiting for their chance to curtail Nick’s burgeoning sense of self.

Walk away. Just walk away.

I hear the voice of Olivia’s teacher in my mind. How many times have I walked into her classroom at the end of the day and heard Ms. Georgia advise the kids to disengage? Surely after teaching toddlers for 25 years, she must have some special insight into conflict resolution…

From the kitchen window I watch Nick and Gabe point to an airplane passing overhead. Gabe giggles; Nick makes some odd flapping gesture with his arms. Gabe giggles again.

My eldest scrambles over the structure and into the tree, hooking his legs over a branch as he dangles upside down. I marvel at his core strength as he starts swinging his body to and fro, arms up hit the branch, then back to give Gabe a “high ten”.

“Faster, Nick! Go faster.”

He is the picture of effortless grace…until the momentum proves too much and he lands on his head in the dirt.

I am in motion before I am consciously aware of it, taking the stairs in the mudroom two-by-two, nearly tripping in my haste.

Then I stop.

Nick has pushed himself upright, shaking his head. His brother sits beside him rubbing his back.

“You OK, Nick? Do you need some ice?”

Nick doesn’t respond, but absentmindedly pats Gabe’s arm. He finally stands, then works his way back into position – first one leg, then the other, over the branch before he slowly unfurls his body.

“Good job, Nick,” Gabe encourages. He scans the backyard, settling on an over-sized green ball and rolls it towards the tree.

“Here, Nick! You catch, then throw it to me!”

The two brothers spend the next half hour channeling their inner circus performers – Nick still swinging upside down; Gabe finding balls of varying size with which to challenge Nick’s agility.

This is childhood – the beauty of self-directed, unrestricted play.

As much as Nick enjoys learning the perfect layup, he also needs this – time to experiment and explore. To fall, get up, and try again.

The time will come when he will want to leave this house, to be independent from his siblings.
From us.

But for now, he is here.
He is happy.
And that’s all that matters.

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Nothing Wrong With a Little Push, Right?

I probably push this button a little too often.

I probably push this button a little too often.

Last weekend was perfect for a bike ride. Actually, any day of the week is perfect for a bike ride when you have three perpetual motion kids who need to do something outside so they stop tearing up your living room.

So bike we did – Nick as the line leader on his two-wheeler, followed by Olivia, perched on the front of Lori’s bike, then Gabe on his balance bike, with me bringing up the rear. I didn’t so much ride as balance precariously while moving 2 inches per hour because Gabe, being the sweet, adorable, distractible 3-year-old that he is, had to stop and pick every single #$@#% dandelion on our way to the park.

I loved my Mother’s Day bouquet, but sometimes, you want to just screw the journey and reach the destination.

While Gabe stops for weeds, Nick stops for hills – the more dangerous and gray-hair-inducing the better. If there is any way he can figure out how to make a moderately steep hill more treacherous, he’ll do it by pulling out every X Games stunt he can think of.

Legs outstretched? OK, I can be down with that.
Hands raised above his head? Um, ok, but…
Pop a wheelie then spin the front handle bars

NICK! Watch out for that tree!”

I held my breath, trying to get that dang George of the Jungle theme song out of my head as my eldest struggled with the bike, trying to keep his balance and stay out of the groove between the sidewalk and the grass as he applied his brakes.

By some Act of God, he skidded sideways to a stop then did a fist pump in the air…mere inches from the trunk that would have cracked his helmet – and possibly his skull.

“Did you see that, Nana?”

Even though I had been calculating whether it would be faster to dial an ambulance from my phone or put him in the car and drive to the ER…I do have to admit I was proud of the way he handled himself, and his bike.

He is fearless, that one.  His younger brother could learn a few things.

“So Gabe…” I said to my second boy, still seated on his balance bike. “Do you want to go down the hill like big brother?”

He looked at me like I’d lost my freakin’ mind.

Instead, he dismounted and walked his bike veeeeeery slooooooowly down the incline, which was fine for the first 2 minutes or so. But then I got impatient, and started to worry that his reluctance was actually a sign of something much worse, like a future failure to launch. With his fear of over-sized silk plants at Grandma’s house and men with facial hair, would Gabe grow up to be an adult paralyzed by his overcautiousness?

It could be a stage…but what if it isn’t?

What if he’s that “well-he-really-kept-to-himself” guy who collects miniature cat figurines and lives in his parents’ basement?

Spurred by this vision, I launched into what I thought was a string of encouraging words, “C’mon Gabe, don’t you want to go a little faster? Nick went superfast. You can do it, too. You’re a big boy, remember? Who’s such a strong, brave boy? Get on your bike, Gabe. We’re almost down the hill and you won’t have any more room to zoom. Who’s the man? Who’s – ”

Gabe stopped walking his bike and turned his whole body to face me, eyes squinting in the sun, as he said very firmly –

“Not. Yet. Nana.”

Wait, was his scolding me?

Oh snap! He was.
Oh, double snap! He is so right.

I played my words back in my head.  Ugh! I sounded like a playground punk – “All the cool kids are doing it. Don’t you want to be cool?”

Push. Push. Push.

And I was so busy berating my parenting skills that I almost missed it when Gabe hopped on his bike and just took off, his laughter filling the air, legs outstretched, in full control of his bike.

On his terms.
On his own time.

We push our kids – for their own good, we tell ourselves – to do more, to be better, to live up to their full potential. And there’s a time for interventions – for tutors, assessments, and the like.

But there’s also a time to accept that where they are is exactly where they need to be, whether it’s reading, potty training, or riding a bike. Instead of spending hours on sight word flashcards, stressing over training wheels, or trying to come up with new hit-the-cheerio potty games, we can take the higher road, the winding path.

The one that leaves a stack of Ninjago comics on the coffee table.
The one that leaves a two wheeler and a bike helmet by the back door.
The one that moves the Kitty Kommode into the kitchen for easier access.

The one that takes fear, failure and frustration out of the picture, and replaces it with love, support and unwavering confidence in our children…no matter how long “it” takes.

Later in the week, Nick was so engrossed in a book that he ran into a door (not as bad as a tree, but still…). Gabe insisted on racing down every hill he could find, and Olivia demanded to use the potty at the most inconvenient – for us – times.

We think these days will never come.

But they do…in due time.

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If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Practice makes perfect…but why do we need perfection?

Nick had his tae kwon do belt test yesterday.

He failed.

He didn’t practice his forms – the 21-step combination that made up 20% of the test.  So when it came time for him to do them in front of the judge, his peers, and their parents, he choked.  He had no muscle memory to fall back on and simply froze.  He grew smaller, retreating into himself, then brought his green belt up to his mouth and chewed on its tag.

There would be no replacement belt this evening.

On the way home, we talked about what he could have done better, and while I tried not to get all Tiger Mom – he’d been asking to quit and I wouldn’t let him – I told him that all we asked from him is that he do his best.  He hadn’t, and that’s why I was disappointed.

He was very quiet after that, and when we got home, he went upstairs to bed.

I stayed up mulling over what I had told him, and realized that I had given him a condition.  If you do not want me to be disappointed, you need to do your best.  Translation: My happiness has conditions.

Ugh. 

I didn’t sleep well last night, racked by the guilt of over-thinking this never-ending task called “parenting” which is really just being present for the wee folk who have chosen to walk this path with us.  It’s easy to promise unconditional love when our kids are still new, cuddly and dependent.  It gets harder once they get older, moody and independent.

This morning I received the following poem in my inbox, courtesy the Panhala Yahoo group:

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

~ William Stafford ~
(The Way It Is)

I wasn’t familiar with William Stafford’s before today.  His career took off at the age of 48 when he won the National Book Award for Poetry for his collection Traveling Through the Dark.  His last poem, written on the morning of his death contained the following lines:

“You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said.  “Just be ready
for what God sends.”

Thanks, Universe for giving me exactly what I needed when I need it.

Now excuse me while I go find my hair shirt…

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Fly Arrow – Straight and True!

Let the boys be boys…

Last night at Navy Pier, Nick and Gabe could have collected more numbers than The Biebster at Old Orchard Mall. Unlike their parents, our boys have charisma up the wazoo, which is why people stop what they’re doing to talk to them.

Nick and Gabe love the attention.  With men, they are polite. Engaging, with a hint of reserve.  But with the ladies, the charm goes to 11.  They smile, chat, laugh – in other words, they flirt.

Yup, our boys are straight.

We had hints with Nick.  When he was 4, he kept staring at a girl who looked about 5 across the street.  Long hair, prairie skirt…

“Nick, do you know her?”
“No, but I want to.”

They start so young….

Gabe, being the younger brother, trumped Nick by about 3 years.  As a baby, he began copping feels anytime a buxom broad picked him up.  At first it was cute, then it became comic after we corrected him with a gentle, “No, sir” which he then added to his repertoire:

Cop feel.  Smile. Say “No, Sir” with cute toddler lisp. Rinse and repeat.

If he’s doing this at 10, it’s a problem.  Then again, if women are picking him up at 10 – either literally or otherwise…yeah, a much bigger problem.

Where oh where did we go wrong?  Was it something we did?  Or didn’t do?

But what if…they were just born this way.

We’ll have to remind ourselves that God doesn’t make mistakes.  Even when the non-stop calls from HS girls start coming – which is why we plan to bury these hyper-athletic boys in sports to keep them TIRED and BUSY – we will say we are not here to judge.

Unless the girls are skanks.  Then all bets are off.

We’ll do our job as parents and raise them to be the best versions of who they are, no matter who they love.  That’s what our parents did for us.  How could we do anything different?

I’ll wrap up with a tribute to the late Donna Summer.  I love to love my disco, but I feel love for her duet with Musical Youth – my absolute, all-time fav 80’s song.

clip art courtesy: valentine-clipart.com

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Sock It To Me

How I spend two afternoons each week

Watching Little Tiger Tae Kwon Do sparring is like seeing the drunken version of the Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em robots as reenacted by 6 year olds.  The full-throated “KYAAAAAA” that erupts from their heavily padded bodies stands in sharp contrast to their poorly-placed kicks and delayed-response blocks.  And while I know that these green and orange belt novices will eventually achieve the effortless precision of the black belts in weekend class, watching this mini martial arts display makes we wonder just how long it will take to get there.

Last fall, we enrolled Nick in Tae Kwon Do to give him a place to explore “discipline” and learn what’s important in a given situation. For example, if the teacher is writing simple addition on the board, it’s probably not the best time to regale your classmate with the feeding habits of great white sharks.

Fascinating, yes.
Appropriate, no.

Nick is the type of kid teachers, friends and family as “energetic”, “exuberant” and “spirited” which can be code for “hyper” which can become code for “get that kid on meds so he calms the ‘ef down.”  We have been fortunate thus far with teachers who have channeled that delightful energy into constructive activity.  But woe is the day when he gets a teacher who has neither the time, patience nor desire to deal with his particular brand of enthusiasm.

He is less Little Tiger and more Larger-Than-Life Tigger.  He’s got a LOT of bounce and while he needs space to get his jump on, he also need to develop the ability to “read the room” – to develop that inner voice that asks, “is this appropriate right now?”

Last week, while the Little Tigers were lined up practicing their kicks, a late-comer, upset that he has missed the start of class walked to edge of the mat and starting crying softly to himself.

“He was fooling around in the car,” the boy’s father explained.  “So…” he shrugged by way of explanation.  “This is the consequence.”  I totally got that – letting kids experience the results of a choice, rather than listen to a potential outcome from a parent.  Pfft!  I’m 6.  I know everything!

Up to that point, Nick had been doing well in class, completely focused on his Tae Kwon Do Master and the kick that he was learning.  Pivot.  Lift.  Kick.  Return.  Pivot. Lift.  Kick.  Return.  Pivot –

But there was the boy, still at the corner of the mat, still crying softly, still unsure if he could join a class already in session. While the boys continued their kicks, Nick looked at Justin, then back to Master Kwok, then back to Justin – then broke away from the line.

“Are you ok?”  I heard him whisper as he rubbed Justin’s back.  For the next minute, the two boys sat and watched their classmates, Nick’s hand moving to and fro until Justin’s cries resolved with a deep exhale.

“Ready?”  Nick asked.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go.”

Pivot.  Lift.  Kick.  Return.  Pivot.  Lift….

All this time, we thought Nick needed to learn “what was important”.

Turns out, he already knows.