*This is a narrative piece I’ve been working on for a creative writing class. A much longer piece than I normally would blog. I would not directly write a ‘how to’ narrative either, except that it was the assignment. Anything near “How to Parent” seems presuming. And the longer I’ve parented, the more I can declare, I wouldn’t write a parenting book (I could only have written that before they were born).
How to Spend Eighteen Years with Your Kids
I don’t mean the years where half the day is spent finding everything for their backpack, dropping them and their permission forms off at school for 0830 then seeing them again at 3.
I mean eighteen years, 8-3 included.
I mean bad dreams at midnight turning into five hour cuddles…three people in a queen bed and the six year old getting the blankets, while you and your husband spoon to maintain body temperature.
Mornings require no alarm clocks. The clump clump clump down the stairs guarantees a seven o’clock wake. The bedroom door creaks open and an expectant ten year old and her little brother hold a breakfast tray with an overflowing coffee mug splashing beside the plate of cold toast and a lump of overly sweet jam that was bought for them. Their smiles beaming, your body achy from scanning the Houzz app past midnight and, oh yeah, the new bag of mini chocolate bars you purchased for Halloween two weeks too early resting in your tummy.
But you want to set the morning right, so you start it with hugs. “Come for kisses. Thank you for my coffee.” You kiss your son’s forehead and push back the front patch where he cut a chunk while you were explaining mixed fractions to his older sister. Make sure to get their hearts before you get them to start their day.
“Have you done your top five?” you ask like a drill sergeant. They all know this means their rooms need to be tidied, their hair and teeth brushed, and breakfast eaten before Duolingo or MineCraft. They have to be dressed too. In real clothes. Not combinations of pajamas or pants from yesterday that were somehow tucked under their covers before bedtime kisses. “Oh yes, mommy. I’ve done it. But Zachary didn’t really put on new clothes. He just took what he found from the playroom floor. He wore that before.”
There is always that. One child ratting out the other. Not so much hoping to get someone else into trouble, but rather to get a smile from mom that says, “Thanks for always doing what you’re supposed to.” Of course, Zachary has his ammunition too. “Rachel didn’t really brush her teeth. She just used her finger.” These mini wars can be overwhelming with their regularity, but with all that parental guidance and relational practice, you will often hear, “Your kids consider one another, help each other, look out for one another. Those are good kids.”
“Okay, okay,” you gather them, “tattling doesn’t do anything for anyone. Do you want to play a round of rummy while the bread is toasting?” The dishes are overflowing at the countertop. A dishwasher would be useful for a family of six, but a few more months till the new house is finished. You play a round of rummy till Zach realizes that this game will be cut short if runs aren’t in the same suit. “How ‘bout gin rummy? All in the same suit?” he asks. So you switch games until an older sister comes downstairs to ask what the plan for the day is.
But you need a little quiet too. So head into your room with a cup of coffee and read an inspiring word or two. Early on, they won’t believe that a closed door means you’re unavailable. So when they peak their little noses into the doorway, you can ask in your most shocked tone, “Is the house on fire?” They’ll back out of the room. Apparently, the house isn’t on fire. Continue sitting in quiet for ten minutes in your house clothes. It’s not just the home educated kiddos that have a hard time getting out of pajamas. Home educated mamas have five sets too. Some of them appear to be yoga pants, with loose t-shirts. So when a neighbor shows up unexpectedly, no one will wonder why you’re still not dressed for the day. You may have changed yesterday morning, but you are dressed.
Sit in the Great Room with a cup of breakfast tea at nine. All four kiddos piled onto the blue tufted sofa. Different heights, different sizes occupying the space, maybe even different grades. But officially grades don’t mean anything here. Where the youngest can outplay any of his older sisters in chess. The eldest outstrips her mother in historical accuracies. Or the third daughter can outanswer any of her siblings in mental math, grades seem a nominal notion. They each have aptitudes unlike the others.
“Let’s shop for a gymnastics outfit before you go to class today, Rachel.”
Pointing to the twelve year old, “You’ll be dropped off at dance at 5.” She nods yes.
Remind everyone, “Anatomy will be finished by 2:30 so you can get ready for town. Bring your history book to read for the drive. Hannah will get to voice by 4. Then the other girls will meet Penny for a playdate at the park. Any questions?”
There’ll be a writing prompt for their journals and a prayer to start the day, then everyone leaves to their own spaces. Gather their minds second, and you can direct them to their activities.
The youngest two sit beside you near the fireplace. “How do you spell boat?” the six year old asks.
“B-O-A-T, two vowels in the middle — the first one does the walking.” He goes back to writing between the lines and answering what words he hears on the beach. Though the beach is ten minutes away, and no one has waded through the water since it cooled a month ago. When he’s finished his imagining, he’s proud to show his good work.
Then the ten year old bursts, “I can’t do this.” For the third time this week, you’ll tell her “just watch” as you add and subtract mixed fractions. But she doesn’t want to watch. She wants to not do it at all. When you feel like telling her you don’t want to do it today either, you have her pass the book back to you, take a deep breath and show her again, with a picture this time.
“This is a pie. It’s cut in four. There are two slices. This is another pie. It’s cut in two. One slice is left. If you want to subtract one pie from the other, you have to compare them with equal pieces. Are there equal pieces?” You’ll go through this twice, three times. You’re thankful that you figured out fractions four years ago when you were learning alongside your oldest. This seems easy now.
Finally she’ll brighten and tell you, “Let me try it,” and she figures it out…for this day.
Every study day won’t be this smooth. No. There will be fights for seats. “I was going to sit there.” Someone sits on someone else’s feet. “No I was going to sit there.” There will be fights of all varieties. And if there are just enough fights, with just enough characters playing their contentious parts, you’ll throw down the gauntlet of vocal projection and yell, “Stop it, just sit down!”
In more shining moments, you’ll respond, not react. You’ll walk outside to ease your irritated nerves and devise a plan. Gather your intentions towards this speedbump, and expect to enact your response with cool delivery and appropriate consequence.
Nothing is so important that you must keep going without lunch. Gather the kids for a full stop at lunch o’clock. An hour to eat, chat, wash dishes, or practice piano, while you make a second coffee. Your room is off limits for a fifteen minute break — you pull out the tray of hidden Oreos from under your corner chaise and sit with your writing utensils and drift to other places, playing your part in creation.
Infuse your day with things intended wholly for you. Apart from your family’s characters, you’ve created your own too. Mostly it’s in Italy where your character is starting her agriturismo and learning why she is in the world. Sometimes it’s with Robyn as she hopes to fly to freedom, away from her parents’ confusing world, and to her seeming saviour, Adam.
Sometimes you’re with your on-line friends, encouraging them to home educate with courage, pushing past the culture’s expectations, free of convention, so their families can learn to learn and live unfettered while learning to love each other. You say you write to encourage others, but really you write to encourage yourself.
After your coffee siesta, and after the kids burned energy running with the neighbor dogs or made fantasy worlds in the apple orchard, you gather to watch a rap video on cellular mitosis and memorize the bones of the hand. Or read the Landmark History book about Civil War and teach how to note take on the reading. Answer their questions, discuss why the war wouldn’t have been called the Civil War at that time. Engage their minds, stimulate their thoughts and build those neural connections growing them into more rounded little humans. You get to extend your education too.
After an hour and everyone begins to fidget. That is your sign. Why keep reading or discussing when no one’s brain is in the room? More is not better. So stop.
Left to their own devices, they might play a strategy game, visit a friend, and play loud music in their rooms while decorating their walls with self-made posters. Thinking time, considering time…What do they like? How do they think about the world? What kind of friends do they want to hang with? Give them separate space and they become quieter in spirit and happier to be with one another.
Give them time to prepare for the trip to town. Not enough time means scrambling and dissension. Remind them to grab their history books. They’ll go into their imaginary historical worlds, while you plug in those earbuds and tap on a podcast…encouragements from Empowering Parents, or energize through Brendon’s Charged Life, learn cooking skills from the Splendid Table, or technology education design from TED talks. Assume that your kids aren’t the only learning animals in the family; you’re still learning, always learning.
You’re not just dropping kids to their playdates and extracurricular activities. This is your chance to connect too. Meet someone new, chat with someone you’ve known for a while, really see people, listen to them. There are stories in every person you meet. New things to be learned in the most unexpected connections. New people are new places to visit, minus the expensive plane flight. Include people on your journey.
When you get home, teach them to cook. If you dare, leave them in the kitchen and walk away. Stay, and you’ll be telling them, “No, not that way”, “That’s too much baking powder”, “Can you do this without making a huge mess?” You, mom, are no help helping in the kitchen. Give brief instructions, a list of ingredients and let them go. Surely you have laundry to do. Find a cup of tea and back away from the kitchen. Teach them to cook and you’ve taught them a lifetime skill, enabled their curiosity neurons and opened up your schedule.
Beware though, there’ll be a few more dishes. And stuff found on counter cabinets not there earlier. You’ll marvel at projectile splashes. So teach the kids to wash the dishes. You want to teach your kids how to cooperate anyway. Yes, it’s more time. It’s definitely more effort. But when they learn to work together, you’ll have a higher baseline harmony in your home. Expect that opportunities to learn harmony will present themselves every.single.day. Anticipate them. Make the most of them.
When someone doesn’t want to learn to be harmonious, consequences that are short and sweet will get their attention (eventually). Don’t lecture. They’ll resent you (It’ll just tap you of your happy energy anyway). Short n’ sweet. Mistakes can be looked past, but stubborn resistance to helpful rules equates to consequences that will change their approach soon enough if you enact them every.single.time.
After dinner, limit their screen time. Too much of it will make them edgy and ironically, also more likely to complain of being bored. Use it like seasoning. But when you need a full break, turn on that television. Lots to enjoy and learn there too.
Family games…stratego, chess, Settlers of Catan…evenings fixing the iPad to the stars outside…these occupy your evenings. Walks in the dark. Marshmallow roasts. But always, ALWAYS, a chapter of a book before bedtime. Attend to those little hearts and you’ll pay back your heart in happy memories.
Occasionally plan for a quiet date night with the hubby outside of home—a restaurant that offers an extensive wine list is the right place. Time away is valuable, no, required. You’ll often feel like you’re just not getting enough of it. So when you get it, leave the kids in safe hands, and pretend you’re not a parent for a few hours.
But when you’re with the littles, always be with the littles. Bedtime kisses and a bedtime prayer is required. For you. You’ve earned those hugs and kisses, those requests for childhood stories, those teary discussions on not being chosen at an audition or frustrations with a friend. The teenager will choose bedtime for that chat. Find a bedtime song and sing it with all the range of your vocal chords, fearless, for those littles will grow up thinking you have the most beautiful voice in the world.
They’re tucked in their covers, the last of the reading lights are off, and you tiptoe downstairs, to sit, kerplunk, on a chair in the corner. You’ll gladly accept the husband’s offering of a gin and tonic, or a glass of Malbec, ponder over the uncertainties, share the irritations, encourage each other to see what perfection already resides in this imperfect home. And be grateful for the life story you’re writing, spending a full eighteen years with your kids.