questions that emerge at the start of winter break

It was 3:30 p.m. on the last day of school before winter break, but the boys hadn’t burst through the door yet, as is their custom when they race in off the bus. I looked out the window and saw them rolling around in the snow. After a bit they brought their backpacks in and let me know they were going back out to play some more. “No throwing snowballs,” I reminded them. (That game had led to tears earlier in the week.) They resorted to playing with sticks. The possibility of this ending well seemed quite small. Why do boys see nearly every object as a potential weapon?

Soon a neighbor boy got off his bus and joined the game. “Hi, Auntie!” he ran over and greeted me when I was walking to the mailbox. “I’m playing while I’m waiting for my sister’s bus.” I smiled. His smiles are contagious. And I like that he calls me “Auntie” even though we’re in not at all related. He ran back to the “stick game” and played until his big sister walked him home. Why are such occurrences of spontaneous play with the neighbors so rare?

While I was making dinner that evening, our first grader informed me that he had no homework. His teacher had told the class that this was her gift to them – no homework. My son’s take on it was, “Seriously? What kind of gift is that? I want homework.” Why can’t this enthusiasm for school last?

 

 

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how our kids see themselves

“…on the iPad I chose white and African American because, you know, Dad.” my seven-year-old told me a few weeks ago.

“Oh, you’re talking about the thing we had to answer with questions like, ‘My teacher encourages me to work hard,’” my 10-year-old chimed in.

“Yeah.”

“I chose not to answer,” the older boy said. “I thought you could only choose one… You can only choose one,” he told his brother.

“No, Mrs. K. said you can choose more than one. She gave an example about a student she had last year whose dad was black and mom was white. She said that student marked both white and African American.”

“That sounds right – you can choose more than one,” I said.

“I thought you could only choose one so that’s why I chose not to answer,” my 10-year-old said.

“If I had to choose only one, I’d choose white,” my seven-year-old said.

Another day it was the boy’s dad who inadvertently brought up the topic. “You need new ears,” he told our older son, turning his frustration into a joke. “Go to the store and get yourself the best pair of ears you can find.”

“What if they don’t match his skin color?” our younger son asked.

In a biracial family, references to racial identity do come up. Sometimes I wonder whether we’re parenting well in this area. When doubt is high, I’ve been known to go the library and pick up a book like I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla or Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. But the books don’t seem to contain any earth-shattering insights, and I’ve come to realize it’s just one more aspect of helping my sons accept themselves as they’ve been created – and helping them understand that more important than the color of one’s skin is the content of one’s character.

home cooking

Aunt Betty has a stack of grandma’s recipes. She’s been hanging on to them since her mom down-sized and moved out of the house, I think. The thing is, none of them seem to be the recipes for the things that grandma made the most. Those were the recipes she carried around in her head, I’m guessing, and some of them were never recorded. So when I asked Aunt Betty for grandma’s bread recipe she sent me one that was close – it had the same ingredients that grandma used to use, she’d written – but it wasn’t the exact recipe. I pulled it out Saturday morning and made that whole wheat bread. By the time the smell of baking bread was coming from the oven, I was half done frying the bajiya that we were taking to the community garden potluck.

“Why are you making bajiya for the potluck?” one son asked.

“They said bring a food that represents your ethnic background,” I explained.

“That’s not my ethnic background,” he said. Neither of our boys are fond of bajiya, fritters of ground black-eyed peas spiced with turmeric and coriander.

“Yes, it is. You’re half Somali,” I reminded him.

“Well, it’s not your ethnic background,” he said.

“It’s the one I married into.”

Grandma Wolters did pass along some of her cooking skills, though. Perhaps the first thing she taught me was how to make homemade frosting. She’s the one who taught me how to make gravy too. There was never a recipe we referred to for either one – it was a little of this and a little of that until you got the right consistency and the right quantity. Taste and adjust as needed till it’s just the way you like it. That’s actually how I make most of the foods I grew up eating. But I’m an adventurous eater and crave variety more than anything. So I collect recipes too.

When I first asked my husband how to make bajiya he wasn’t even certain what the main ingredient is, but I found a recipe for it online. Now I make it sometimes for company and sometimes just for us. “It reminds me of my childhood,” my husband has said.

I sometimes wonder what foods my sons will remember from their growing up years. And what foods they’ll know how to make from memory… In case they ever change their mind about bajiya, the recipe will be right there in my recipe box.

 

 

 

sharing a feeling

Last week I was subbing in a preschool classroom. Annika was one of the five kids at my table for small group work. Though the other kids had scattered to various play areas after finishing their worksheet, she lingered at the table. “Today after school, I have to say with Nana, but I want to be with my mom,” she said.

“Is your mom working?” I asked.

“Yeah, and she comes back after dark,” Annika said. “She spends a lot of time with her boyfriend. I don’t get to be with her that much.”

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” she responded.

“Maybe you should tell your mom that,” I suggested.

“I already did,” she said.

“And what did your mom say?”

“She said, ‘Oh, I do spend time with you,'” Annika told me.”But I want to be with her more.”

We sat together for a few moments, that sweet five-year-old and I, each thinking our own thoughts, sharing a similar feeling. I wished I could make it better for Annika. I wish Annkia’s mom realized that her little girl isn’t going to be little for long, in the grand scheme of things, and that she should savor every moment.

The only thing I could offer this little girl was a listening ear – and perhaps a story. “Do you want to read a book?” I asked.

She brightened. “Go get one you like from the bookshelf,” I told her. She came back with the colorful I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More and we let the silly, sing-songy story distract us for a bit.

 

 

 

a culture of boredom

During the discussion of Sounder in my son’s book club last week I asked about “night loneliness.” The book tells us it’s part fear, but I wanted to know what else these third graders thought might be involved.

No one had much to add so I made a case for why it might include boredom. As an aside, I added that my husband comes from a culture where the term “bored” simply does not exist.

“Oh, he’s lucky,” one girl exclaimed. “Then he never gets bored.”

I suppressed a laugh and refrained from telling her that her parents were equally lucky because they were from the same culture. And we didn’t have time to get into a discussion of whether something can exist even if there’s no word for it. But according to my sources, people in Somalia rarely if ever find themselves in a situation in which they’d be tempted to declare they’re bored. As city dwellers, at least.

My husband explained that there are always people around, and in an oral society such as theirs, they are skilled at filling the time with narration, discussion and debate. Creating their own diversion is second nature to them, it seems. Kids never have a shortage of playmates, and they know how to create their own toys and games. Even they don’t get bored.

I recall one Somali-American mother telling me about how easily her children toss around the phrase, “I’m bored.” In her mind it is a sign of assimilation. Just for the record, my husband now gets bored too. At least that’s the reason he’s given at times for singing aloud to himself and for making tea.

why you should read to your kids even when they can read for themselves

In honor of “I Love to Read” month, here’s a slightly condensed version of an article I wrote for our school newsletter. 

Most parents understand the benefits of reading to their preliterate children, but too often neglect this important pastime once their kids start reading for themselves. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease asserts that reading aloud helps increase a child’s attention span and improve his listening skills.

A child’s listening level tends to be higher than her reading level, which means that you can and should be reading fifth grade books to a child in third grade, for example. By doing so, the third grader can enjoy a more complicated plot than she can read for herself, something she’s ready to hear and understand. Slightly above-level books tend to be motivating for kids – they want to see how the book ends and want to grow in their own reading skills in order to enjoy more complex material.

Reading aloud to kids is also a nonthreatening way to grapple with difficult issues, Trelease suggests. Through the story, your child can experience a certain kind of challenge – with you at his side – and there’ll be an opportunity for you to talk about it together. You can use the story you’re reading as a starting point for a conversation, asking questions such as, “Do you think the boy made the right choice?” and turn it into a coaching session, which will probably stick with your child much longer than a lecture would.

Besides, reading aloud is a great way to spend quality time with your kids. I find that the conversation about a book we’ve read may continue for days after we have read it. It becomes part of our family’s shared experience.

cultural competence?

Son: In which country is slurping polite?

Me: Korea.

Son: Oh, yeah. We’re in Korea. (Loud slurping as he takes in a forkful of spaghetti.) That was a compliment, Mom.

watch and be amazed

Last week our six-year-old wanted me to see how accomplished he’s become at fixing his own bed. Before he had struggled with wrestling all those winter layers into place, but now wanted to me to see how well he can do it. “Watch and be amazed,” he said in his most dramatic voice.

I watched and was amazed – at how much he’s changed since August 2010. It’s rather gratifying – yes, even amazing – to watch one’s children grow in their skills and talents. It’s a shame that I don’t pause more often to be amazed, to be thankful for abundant blessings.

As I reflected on the past year, there have been many reasons to “be amazed.” I’m especially thankful for

meaningful work that gets me out of the house enough to prevent boredom

the 800 books people gave to share with refugees

our two part-time salaries, which have consistently provided enough money to pay all the bills – plus some extra to rebuild our emergency fund

my column on local food

the little free library

thoughtful, generous friends and family who have offered encouragement and support of many kinds throughout the past year

our summer bucket list

This morning we stopped by our community garden spot to pick snap peas before heading to the library. Just-from-the-garden fresh and crisp, those snap peas disappeared in no time. “As sweet as candy,” my older son declared.

At the library, the boys each got to choose a book to keep for completing ten of the reading program activities. Then they participated in a dinosaur scavenger hunt. We checked out a week’s worth of reading material and arrived back home just in time for lunch. There’s much to savor in the simple summer routine that we’ve settled into, and Friday library visits are one of our anchor activities. (During the past three school years, it was just me and the preschooler.)

Summers also afford the chance to do things we may not get around to during the school year. I recently read an article in Minnesota Parent advocating for a realistic summer bucket list. I quite agree that an attainable list of meaningful family experiences and activities is better than an over-the-top list that goes undone. So I’ve written down some of the things that have been and I’d like to see continue to be a part of our summers:

attend VBS

make popicles

complete the library summer reading program

take swimming lessons

memorize a psalm

grow our own tomatoes

go camping

check out a new swimming spot

read one of the Chronicles of Narnia

participate in a Lego Mini Build

send the boys to Camp Clair

bake zucchini bread (because there is nearly always someone who wants to pass along one of those “too-big-to eat” monsters and we can only eat so many zucchini fritters)

We’ve already completed – or have in progress – about half of these. My plan is to hang on to this list for inspiration as we move in to the second half of the summer.

What’s on your summer to-do list?

 

learning from failure

I recently read The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey.

Gift of Failure This book offers an alternative to today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting approach, which “has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” Lahey begins the book by describing her dawning realization that she had been overparenting and chronicles some of her own struggles to grant her sons more freedom and more responsibility. She makes a compelling argument for allowing children the safe space they need to fail – and learn from that failure – at a young age when the stakes are still low.

The controlling parent or the one who always comes to the rescue of her child is challenged to begin parenting for autonomy and competence, which involves setting clear and specific expectations, being physically and emotionally present and offering guidance when a child is frustrated or needs redirecting. She argues for giving children responsibility around the home as an important part of helping kids feel autonomous, competent and connected.

In a discussion of motivation, the author describes how overparenting inhibits intrinsic motivation and essentially teaches children that without parents’ help they’ll never be able to surmount challenges. By protecting kids from failure, she argues, we’re communicating that we don’t have faith in their ability to overcome the challenges they face.

Throughout the book, Lahey offers some practical suggestions for parents, including the following:

Allow for mistakes and help children understand the consequences of those mistakes.

Don’t offer to rescue your child from the consequences of his or her mistakes.

Value the mistakes as much as the successes – in other words, support and love them just as much whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Acknowledge children’s feelings of frustration and disappointment.

Provide feedback that supports effort and guides a child toward seeing his or her mistakes and then finding a workable solution.

Praise kids for their effort, which encourages them to draw the connection between effort and capability.

Encourage risk-taking in learning; fear of failure undermines education.

Emphasize goals rather than grades.

The Gift of Failure is a worthwhile read that may have you rethinking your expectations for your kids. It challenged me to consider what level of independence I will expect of my kids by the time they are young adults and to make parenting decisions in the present that will help them reach that goal.

This school year, after reading the book, I’ve taken more of a hands-off approach to the getting ready for school routine each morning. My son packs his own lunch, though still with some supervision. He’s responsible for getting things into his backpack too. So far, he’s forgotten his homework at home once and forgotten a book that he was supposed to take to school. This is when my temptation to take over kicks in, but for the sake of fostering independence I’m trying not to.