Cell Phones

I’ve been quite happy with our decision not to have cell phones. I know we’ll get them eventually, but I feel no rush. I’m not saying there aren’t moments when instant communication wouldn’t be handy — there are — but we live a pretty predictable life and those moments are few.

So I had ambivalent feelings about Dave’s idea, about a week ago, to get a couple of ten-dollar, on-clearance smart phones for the kids to play around with. We wouldn’t be getting a plan to go with them; they’d be used purely to connect to our wifi, and the kids could download free games for them. On the plus side, this would (hopefully) quell their insistent desires for cell phones, a topic that arises roughly once a week in our house. On the negative side, they would suddenly have portable screens.

But I have a long-standing policy of not arguing with Dave over technology — it’s probably useless to do so anyway — and so shortly we had cell phones in the house.

And I must admit that, once the initial euphoria passed, the cell phones became less of a big deal. Occasionally one of the boys remembers to take one in the car, in order to while away our long commutes to Village Free School, but they’re little used at home. There is a limit to the entertainment value that can be found, for our game-experienced sons, in the sorts of games you can get for free.

For Mica, though, this is less true. The cell phones are actually very well geared toward a two-year-old. The interface is a touch screen, which is helpful to her since she is still a bit sketchy with a mouse. And the free games that can’t hold a seven-year-old’s attention are actually about right for her.

In particular she likes Pou. Pou is a little blobby creature that lives on the phone, and who needs occasional feeding, sleep, medicine, etc. There are also tiny sub-games involving Pou that mostly involve tapping the screen at the right time. Mica is terrible at this but still goes back to try roughly once a day. “Aw, I died!” I heard her little voice say from the other room today, followed by, “Dammit!” (I’ve needed to have multiple conversations with the boys about not passing on taboo language to their sister.)

So I still have ambivalent feelings about this endeavor. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that, if it becomes necessary, any toy can conveniently “break.”

Teaching

Today Ryan brought me a piece of lined paper, with the words “I LOVE YOU” printed halfway down the page.

“Oh, thank you!” I said, taking it. Nathan, who’d come with his brother, began pointing out how small and neat the words were, which was true; though both of them have learned to write letters, their writing tends to be large and uneven, often wavering between capital and small letters and meandering across the page. This time the words were neatly between the lines. Pleased just as much by Nathan’s obvious praise as by Ryan’s note, I said, “Ryan, how did you learn to write like this?”

“You taught me,” he said.

“I taught you?” My every attempt to assist with their letter formation has been at best ignored, at worst loudly rejected. Searching for a delicate way to point this out, I settled on, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, because I’ve seen you writing, and I thought ‘I can do that’,” said Ryan.

And that, I think, is our homeschooling in a nutshell.

The Beans’ Last Hurrah

Play beans seemed like such a good idea — inexpensive sensory play, totally simple and absorbing and engaging. When I first put together my little play bean kit (when Nathan was two), it consisted of several pounds of dried beans and some containers from Goodwill, and I loved it. Simple! Engaging! Over time it has morphed into a big plastic tub of beans, with a sheet to be spread beneath the tub for (theoretically) easy cleanup, but the core (the beans) remains the same. It is still simple and engaging.

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And messy. Because no matter how assiduously I hover over the children involved, whether they’re one year old or eight, there is a very limited span of time in which they’re happy with the beans being in the bin. Then other questions surface: Can I pour these out? Splash in them? Throw them? Stomp them? Pretend that my hand is lightning striking them?

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I’ve come to really hate those beans.

Which is why, after reluctantly pulling them out again a few weeks ago, I came to a decision: they have to go. They’d been sitting in the bottom of the closet for so long, with my discouraging their use, that I finally admitted I will never want them out. I hate scraping them off the carpet. I hate the fact that for weeks after every use, beans pop up in random places. When Mica started picking them out of her diaper, I realized that this was stupid. It might be wonderful, healthy sensory play, the sort that every parenting magazine seems to think is love-in-a-bucket, but I am just not the sort of parent that grins and shrugs at beans all over the place.

Initially I just wanted to dump them, but then I realized I might be able to get one last bit of use from them. So I planned a grand finale for the beans, with the absolute most important requirement that it take place outside. We’ve had two 90-degree days lately, so why not?

I added water to the bin as an extra incentive and let the kids loose on them. This time there was no reason to hold back. Throw them, kids! Scatter them everywhere! Let them sprout into lawnmower-chow!

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Impulse

Dave and I have tried not to make gifts the main point of Christmas, and so it’s quite possible that it never actually occurred to our kids that they might give us gifts — until yesterday, when they saw one of the neighbor kids labor with our paper and ribbons to wrap up a gift for her mom. (The gift was a fancy chocolate from our stash, but it was a great impulse so I was happy to donate it.) Suddenly Ryan was interested in this whole gift-giving idea, and I was interested in encouraging it, and thus Dave ended up taking Nathan and Ryan to Fred Meyer to pick out something small for me. My turn to reciprocate is yet to come.

Dave reports that they got some enjoyment from the exercise. (Nathan is sick, so it isn’t surprising that he was a bit slow.) I don’t know the details of the gift-wrapping session in the sewing room, but I do know that Dave, coming out to get the tape, shook his head at me and rolled his eyes. I gather that gift-wrapping is not an inborn skill. But poor Ryan simply could not contain his excitement over his gift. Despite several interruptions from me where I assured him that I’d rather it remain a secret, he eventually managed to get out: “Do you think a Snickers would be a good present? Because that’s what I got you!”

Oh, my sweet Ryan.

He tried to convince Dave that he should keep the little oblong gift on his table, just in case he decided to eat it himself, but Dave resolutely steered him toward the tree. Several times one or the other of us saw him search it out to consider it. We reiterated for him that the best way to resist something is not to think about it; staring at his gift almost guaranteed that he’d succumb to temptation. We’ve gone over this lesson with him before.

Nevertheless, that evening he asked me to come into our bedroom so he could talk to me. He started to cry almost immediately and told me that he’d sneaked away and eaten my present. “And now I wish I gave it to you!” he told me in a tiny voice, snuggled in my lap, his eyes squeezed shut in misery. We talked a bit; I told him that I appreciated him having picked it out for me to begin with, and that really he’d resisted the temptation for a long time, and would get better at that with practice. I suggested that I could get another Snickers when I was at the store next, and we could try again. He thought that was a good idea, but that I should hide it in the shop so he couldn’t find it. Each time he thought about it he would get sad again.

So eventually I went with distraction. I made my hand into a Tickling Spider (an old game), and gave him a Spider Hug on his hand. After he’d fed the spider, and made a bed for it, and told it a bedtime story, he felt much better.

My boys are so different. It isn’t merely that Ryan is two years younger than Nathan; he truly does have more trouble with the Marshmallow Experiment. But I also see such a sweetness in him, such a capacity for empathy and caring. Sometimes that’s easy to overlook when he comes up behind me and punches me, but it’s a strength I definitely want to encourage.

Service!

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Thus far Mica’s life has, I think, been pretty good. There’s been between one and three adults around since she was born, all happy to hold her and snuggle her and basically attend to her every need. She has her moods, like any baby, but most of her cries are single, peremptory calls, which Dave and I like to interpret as her yelling “Service!”

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If she were capable of more advanced cognitive modeling, I suspect she’d say that the accommodations here are adequate, the food pretty good, but the service somewhat lacking. She’s occasionally set down despite her explicit objections; the smaller servants are erratic and inefficient; and even the larger servants, although clearly trying, make obvious mistakes — one of them, for example, consistently fails to lactate.

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At this stage she’s more of a human critter than a full-blown person. She seems to have two primary states: “Everything’s All Right” and “Something’s Wrong,” with perhaps a very, very narrow band of “Yellow Alert” in between the two. None of this keeps her parents from indulging in long periods of baby-gazing, or from melting into adoration every time one of those enigmatic proto-smiles flickers across her face.

Friends

Several weeks ago we were in the park near our house, and Nathan made friends with a girl who lives nearby. We’d seen her before, of course; she lives in the apartment complex between our house and the park, no more than a block away. But somehow she and Nathan had never previously connected.

In the mysterious way that these things happen, the circle of neighborhood kids we knew grew almost overnight from zero to four. She and her brother and two other kids from the same apartment complex suddenly started coming to our house every day. There are six kids around now (not always at the same time) ranging between four and ten years old. They play Minecraft, tag, hide-and-seek, a game involving an invisible monster (I’m not entirely clear on how that one works), and a huge variety of other things.

This has completely changed the tenor of our lives. Overall it’s an awesome development. One of the ongoing uncertainties I’ve had about homeschooling has been the difficulty of getting the kids together with other kids on a regular basis. This became more challenging after both of the older kids in our old playgroup went to kindergarten. Occasional playdates were insufficient for Nathan. Attempts on my part to get us together with other homeschoolers haven’t led to any ongoing relationships — not because the kids were particularly averse to each other, but because the kids could only spend as much time together as the mothers were willing to sit and chat. I tried, but I am not by nature much of a chatter.

This is different. These kids drop by whenever they’re around, and although I still expect that to taper off as the novelty diminishes, right now that means every afternoon and evening after school and practically all weekend. We’ve had to set some strict limits on how early they can come on weekend mornings, that they have to give us half an hour for dinner, and they must leave when we start our bedtime proceedings. They play, fight, scream (usually for fun), argue, and endlessly negotiate the rules of whatever game they’re playing. It’s precisely the kind of ongoing social engagement that Nathan seems to have been wanting.

There are some challenges for me, too. Some of these are obvious and logistical: six kids is more than two, and despite the fact that they are all nice kids, every child comes with its own share of entropy. The rope swing is highly contested, as is computer usage. I have to be careful not to assume they’ll understand our rules and boundaries, and also to be sure I’m being fair during those (frequent) times I’m asked to mediate.

But more than that, I spent much of the first week fighting simple anxiety. I did not generally have drop-in friends when I was young, or many friends at all for that matter. I was always more comfortable one-on-one than in groups, and home was more of a sanctuary than a social gathering point. Despite the fact that I’m now theoretically in a different role, the old social anxiety is still triggered when I meet new kids and has to be worked down every time. I’ve started to acclimate, but at first I would watch Nathan run delightedly for the door at every knock, take a deep breath, and try hard not to feel that my house was being invaded.

But as I said, overall it’s a good thing. At the moment Nathan is out riding his bike with one friend, and Ryan is playing on the computer with the oldest boy in the group. (Oddly, the latter two are often on the same team in their games. Maybe it’s because they’re both more interested in guns than anyone else.) Life is definitely different than it was a month ago — busier, more varied, slightly less comfortable on my part, but I think generally better.

Parenting Humor: Honest Toddler

If you’ve never been in charge of a small child’s bedtime before, this link to the Honest Toddler may not be worth your time. But if, like me, you’ve ever been involved in ongoing negotiations which you diplomatically refer to under the title of “Bedtime” but which should really be labeled as “Why I Don’t Want You To Come Out Of Your Room Once I Put You There, For The Love Of God,” then it might kill you. It almost did me in, but fortunately when I laugh too hard tears blur my vision and prevent further reading until I can breathe again. This is apparently a protective response provided by evolution to prevent death by humor.