Category Archives: Fourth Grade

Nine is Divine

ImageMommy? Wouldn’t it be cool if we discovered that this whole life we’re living was actually a dream? And then I’d wake up and hear a doctor say, “It’s a boy!” because it would turn out I’d been dreaming it the whole time I was in your tummy.

Happy 9th Birthday to Lyle, a boy whose keen intelligence, sharp humor and lovely sense of wonder make me see the world differently every single day.

A Year of Yes

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Dear Baxter & Lyle:

I have never been so sad to see a summer end.

It was a pretty fabulous one. We got to spend a whole lot of time together and I loved every minute of it.

It was our Summer of Yes. If the three of us wanted to make it happen, we did. We went on our first of (I hope) many camping trips together, road tripping to Northern Michigan and camping in the woods with friends for four days. We canoed and swam and ate ice cream and explored and listened to great music and podcasts for hours and hours on end in the car and came home smiling. I pulled you both out of a scary river current and let Lyle poop at the side of the road when we ran out of options. Those are the things you’ll never forget, while I will always remember the laughter, cooking over the fire, waking up under the tall oaks, twinkling fireflies, and the deep sense of empowerment I felt by the end of the trip. I want to cover some real distance with you one of these summers because I see now that we three can do anything we set our minds to and there is so much to see in this world. Let’s do it.

We also had a wonderful week in California where I went in another direction for a few days so that Nana and Papa could spoil you epically, away from my watchful eye. You swam, saw movies, ate insanely syrupy breakfasts, and went to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk where you rode all the wildest rides together, screaming, over and over. When I joined you we hiked and climbed rocks along the coast, visited with your great-grandmothers, and had lots of laughs with Nana and Papa. You met your newest cousin, tiny baby Oden, and fell in love with him. You didn’t want to come home to Chicago, you were so happy there.

But we did make it home and then it became the summer of Spot the baby leopard gecko, whom we added to our family as a birthday gift for Lyle. You both adore that cool little guy and take good care of him.

You didn’t get along every minute, god knows, but the two of you are real pals. When Lyle returned a gift at Target yesterday that he couldn’t use, he turned around from the register and gave Baxter half the money he got from the cashier. Baxter hadn’t asked, nor had he complained as he watched Lyle get so many special gifts, but Lyle showed enormous empathy, remembering what it feels like to be the brother not getting anything on a birthday and simply said to his big brother, “Here, Baxter. You can get something, too.” There was so much love and generosity in that exchange.

Although we have wished aloud for this summer to last forever, the final day arrived today. We wondered how it could be, that today really was the last day and that you’d be back at school tomorrow. But walking up to our beach blanket after playing in the lake this glorious afternoon, you both agreed that you were ready. You want to see your friends and to know what’s in store for you in fourth and eighth grades. And so after dinner you made tomorrow’s lunches uncomplainingly and have headed to bed early to read for a while before I go in for snuggling and lights out.

Let’s make it a whole Year of Yes. Yes to new classrooms and friends and learning and new experiences, to travel and time spent relaxing at home and snuggling in bed at night. Yes to reading funny chapter books aloud and baking together and Jedi training in the basement and feeding live crickets to the lizard. Yes to watching you two, who have all my love, growing up more beautifully each year.

Love,
Mommy

City Living

Raising kids in a big city can be challenging.  The difficulties that typically send parents running for the hills aren’t necessarily the things that have been difficult for me; I revel in the busy-ness, the racial and economic diversity, and even the loud Loyola students and occasional singing drunkard in the alley outside our bedroom late at night.  Those things give the neighborhood a lot of character, and I love that there’s a coffee shop, bank, movie theatre, used bookstore, Chinese take-out, dry cleaners, and music store all within half a block of my front door. I don’t mind that we lack a backyard for the kids and dog to run free and the privacy of a single family home: I like our daily forays into the big park along the lake or the small play lots nestled between houses where we run into friends and neighbors and meet new people.  And we’re lucky enough to like our condo neighbors and have a great situation where kids can get together and play in their pajamas if they so choose (and they do).

But other things are challenging about raising kids in a city as big as Chicago. Getting them into a good public school takes time, energy, and the resources to know how to navigate a complicated and often frustrating system. Happily, there are quite a few families close by whose kids attend our kids’ magnet school (which is 20-25 minutes away), so the boys do have friends very nearby and we have a great carpool community, but it’s still not the same as walking to school with friends every day. (There are no school buses here for public school kids unless your child has transportation written into an IEP. By the middle school years – and certainly high school – my kids will be on public transportation to and from school.)

Although they have many benefits, by and large, city schools don’t have the resources many other schools have.  One reason we chose our kids’ school was because of the strong level of parent support and commitment we saw there. Parents raise tens of thousands of dollars each year for the music program, among other things, and we make an automatic donation to the school’s fund-raising organization every month.  The school is amazing and well worth the extra funds and commute – I always say if this were a private school I’d gladly pay the tuition – but once in a while I dream of being at a neighborhood school where the daily logistics would be easier and my kids’ friends wouldn’t live all over the north side.

Despite the day-to-day challenges, there are near-constant reminders of why I love raising my kids in this urban environment. Over the past few days my kids have had a string of really amazing opportunities that remind me of the advantages of our city life.  And if you’d like to consider the following to be three-posts-I’ve-been-meaning-to-write all crammed into one, I would support that.

First, on Saturday morning, I took the boys to a family drop-in class at the fabulous Lill Street Art Center.  I love Lill Street, and not just because I am obsessed with both First Slice Cafe (where a portion of the proceeds go to the homeless) and the gallery shop inside. My new office is only two blocks from there so they may fear I have actually moved in.  I’ve been encouraging the boys to consider taking an art class or camp session but they’ve been reticent, so when I noticed this family drop-in hour for only $10 per person, I signed us up so they’d get more familiar with the place.  We all loved it. For an hour, we sat together and let our creative juices flow. The boys made dogs, each in their own way (Lyle’s has a miniature bowl of food and Baxter’s has a huge bone and stands on a rug) and I learned to make a bowl. We used various tools, chatted with another family, and had fun painting on the glaze. We’re looking forward to picking up our work in two weeks.  The boys were so enthusiastic about the class that we decided to go back frequently and make Christmas gifts for relatives there this year.  They are disappointed that I suggested we go once a month; they’d like to go more often. And I’ll add that it was wonderful to see my two boys engaged in a fine motor task that was so motivating for them.  I wanted to take a photo or two here but since my hands were covered with clay it just didn’t seem like a good idea.

On Saturday afternoon we drove Baxter up to Northwestern University, where he is participating in the 4-week L.A.B.S. program (Laboratory Adventures in the Biological Sciences).  This is an incredible opportunity for kids interested in science – they wear real lab coats and work in small groups with students in an actual university science lab for two hours a week. The department has a grant to run this program, making it very affordable.  I can’t express how much Baxter loves it!  I am also pleased with the emphasis on health in their experiments.  One week they studied the effects of SPF-30 on cells and last week he ran an experiment on the effects of nicotine on human cells, and he’s been struck by the very obvious results. Yesterday he sat with me and showed me all the work and information in his binder and I was impressed with how much he knows and how much of it I didn’t learn until high school.  He goes into the lab with his widest grin. The older he gets, the more I see his strengths in math and science. The dude impresses me.

And finally, today: Baxter’s school band performed at Meritfest, playing three challenging pieces of music on the main stage at Chicago’s Symphony Center with other bands from the city.  As my mother-in-law wrote after looking at the photos tonight, “Can’t believe our Baxter is sitting just feet away from podium used by CSO greats like Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti.” My boy asked to iron his own clothes (and quite nearly ironed his entire hand before I jumped in, which proves that mothers are helpful!), strutted into the kitchen proudly this morning, and was incredibly excited to be on that stage in front of a big audience playing his flute.  The acoustics were – naturally – beautiful.  It was a special day and I was reminded of why we work so hard to raise money for our music program (run by Merit School of Music).

So, yes, there are challenges to raising our kids in an urban environment.  But we also live in a world-class city with all kinds of unique opportunities right outside our door. Every time we are involved in one those things I am reminded that our efforts are worth it.  Tenfold.

Circles of Kindness

Oh, the squabbles. You know the ones I mean: not the Real Arguments™ or Actual Disagreements©. The ones that start small and stay small but go on endlessly, throughout an entire interaction such as a car ride or an after-school snack. They begin as a few off-kilter notes and usually they continue along, a quiet low disgruntled hum. On occasion they hit a sudden angry crescendo when you least expect it over something minor that turned out unpredictably to be The Last Straw.

I am fortunate.  My kids don’t tend to squabble that much.  In general, they get along better than most siblings I know, and are genuinely good friends. But when one of them is tired or in a bad mood, things get rolling in a bad direction quite easily. I generally try to stay out of their arguments, counseling them to talk to each other about it and work it out. Sometimes they get really stuck and do need my help.  My tendency is to listen while they each share with the other what their needs are and facilitate them working it out.

But recently the two of them were grumping at each other incessantly as we walked to the car after school. Little nitpicky, mean comments were flying back and forth. I stopped short and crouched down next to them.  At first I was at a loss for words (yes, me!) because I was so incredibly annoyed with their behavior.

Finally able to talk, I noted sternly, “You two are stuck in a circle of unkindness. It doesn’t matter who started it or what it is about. The problem is that this could go on all afternoon because you both keep it going. This will take all the fun out of our afternoon and I will be much less likely to want to spend time with you.” They were listening intently. (Although maybe this is because I was kneeling in front of them and had them backed up all the way against the schoolyard fence.  But, hey, small details.)  I went on, “The only way to stop a circle of unkindness is for one of you to make the choice to start a new circle: a circle of kindness. It’s not easy but I know you are both capable of it.  I hope one of you will choose to do that so that we can have an enjoyable afternoon.”  And then I stood up and walked with them to the car without another word.

For a moment both walked along quietly. One (and I won’t name names here, but one of my children might be a wee bit less flexible than the other and it might surprise you to know which one that is) continued to walk with a deep scowl on his face.  The other, however, walked alongside him a few paces and then suddenly addressed his brother in a cheery voice about a new topic. And it worked.  That particular meaningless spat was over and he’d effectively hit the reset button on our afternoon.  You’d better believe I heaped on the praise.

It sounds so basic. If you told me this was trite I wouldn’t argue. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  I believe it’s one of the hardest things to do, because you’re not only “dropping it”, you’re given the onus of making the effort to start over in a kinder way. It requires practice. A lot of it.

Please understand, I am not suggesting we should all just get along.  I don’t think we ought to stop fighting the good fights, and we aren’t always going to be nice about them, nor should we be.  But I do believe that if we stop and think about it, there are many people in our lives (partners, siblings, neighbors) with whom we have these relationships filled with meaningless, continuous little spats that really amount to circles of unkindness no one is willing to break.

I challenge you with this: if my grade schooler can do it?  So can you.

Baxter: Spring 2010


We are Studious…

…very, very studious.

Overheard

Baxter: I want a snake when I grow up

Lyle: But I thought you were going to be an inventor!

Baxter: I can have a snake and be an inventor…

Lyle, shrugging:  Well, I guess you can invent the snake.

Nine!

Happy Birthday to the sweetest of sweet 9-year olds!  You’re the coolest ever.  I love you, Baxter.

Love, Mommy   xoxoxo

Where’d that Big Kid Go?

photoFor years I’ve watched as other bloggers grapple with the issue of their children’s privacy in the blogosphere, always with valid and understandable reason.  At its inception, my blog was intended for the eyes of my personal friends and family, and I wasn’t going to be writing things about my inner life that would require privacy.  It never occurred to me in a million years that someone I didn’t know might find it and read it.  Furthermore, although I know many people do, I have no concerns about pictures of my kids being on the Internet.  So it was a no-brainer to  use my kids’ real names and post photos of them.  At this point there’s no going back, even if I wanted to.

But as Baxter’s 9th (!) birthday approaches next month, I am acknowledging a shift that I started to make unconsciously last summer, and that is to pull back on what I share about his life.  I have no doubt there will be stories and photos and God knows what else going on here that relates to him, but I will be leaving the hard stuff – the struggles – out.  He’ll have his tough times, but I won’t be discussing them here unless I am able to judge with confidence that it wouldn’t be embarrassing to him to have it shared, and some useful parenting lesson lies within the story.  He is old enough now to tell his own stories, and in fact is writing stories from his personal history for school these days, and so I hand that job over to him.  And he’s an excellent writer, let me tell you.  Maybe I can talk him into starting his own blog.

And so The Wonderwheel may seem a bit Lyle-heavy at times (maybe it already has, as I started this practice a few months ago quite naturally), or perhaps it will seem as if my older child is heading into the tween years without a care in the world. Should this bother anyone (including Baxter someday as he reads this), I remind you that I started blogging four years ago because of Baxter and that he has his very own blog all about him, my first blog Baxtergarten, still out there on the Internet for all and sundry to enjoy.

Routines and Independence

photoBack in August, a few weeks before school started here in Chicago, I read this post on one of my favorite blogs, Christine Carter’s Half Full: Science for Raising Happy Kids (in which she uses scientific research to back up everything I happen to believe about parenting!).  Christine was writing about ways she was planning to get her girls prepared for the necessary routines of school, such as getting out of the house on time each morning.

Now, my kids weren’t going to be challenged by getting up earlier for school because they appear to be the only children in America who maintain their usual sleep schedule in the summer – no staying up later at night, no sleeping later in the morning.  This was not our preference, it’s just the way they are hard-wired. However, I did know it was going to be a stretch to fit in everything that needed doing in the mornings; there would be no sitting in our pajamas watching Curious George at 8am.  And I also knew that Lyle had never experienced the morning rush, lucky little man, and so this would be a big change.  I share Christine Carter’s belief thatfamily happiness is all about being in good habits so that we don’t have to beg and bribe our kids to do routine things, like brush their teeth. I want my family to be like a well-run school: kids are in the habit of washing their hands, helping out, putting their things away.”  I couldn’t have said that better myself if I’d tried.

I took her cue and that night, Matt, the boys and I sat down after dinner and discussed it.  Although both kids approached the new school year with some anxiety and ambivalence, they were interested in what was going to be expected of them, and they always love to be part of the creation of family rules and routines. I think most kids do because it gives them the sense that they are important members of the family and they gain a sense of ownership about their lives.  We talked through what needs to be done before and after school, and made decisions as a family – such as coming up with the idea that this year we would try making lunches after dinner to take that job off the busy morning list (a huge help – they make their own lunches every night, as pictured above).  I wrote a draft of our ideas as we talked and once we’d all agreed to the routines, I typed them up.  All of them are posted on the refrigerator and the before school list is also posted in their room.

To give you an idea, here is their list of expectations for independent tasks to be completed each school morning, in kindergarten & fourth grade:

  1. Get dressed – is it gym day?
  2. Straighten out bed
  3. Eat breakfast
  4. Clear dishes
  5. Wash hands & face
  6. Brush teeth
  7. Put your lunch in backpack
  8. Is everything in your backpack? (Lunch & drink, Folder with homework, Agenda book, School books – each one is broken down on its own line)
  9. Use the bathroom
  10. Put your jacket and shoes on
  11. Be ready to go by 8:15!

The after school and after dinner lists are much shorter but no less clear and sequential. The boys come home and they know that after their snack the first order of business is to unpack their backpacks, empty their lunchboxes, and get their homework done before anything else can happen.  There is no reward for doing what we all call their “responsibilities”; they are not tied to an allowance and we don’t praise the kids overmuch for taking care of them all.  At times we certainly note that they are doing great taking care of things all by themselves, but the expectation is clear: this is what you do as part of the family, and we expect you to do it all the time, just as we adults do the grocery shopping, prepare meals, and clean.  Sure enough, from Day One, there have been no problems. Of course, on occasion someone gets distracted and starts playing while the clock ticks down towards the school day, but rather than harping on him to brush his teeth, we can simply ask him to check his responsibility list and we all move on.

For Baxter, our older son, this is really no big deal.  He could’ve done it a lot sooner, but we didn’t think of it; probably, in part, this is because Lyle wasn’t on the same schedule and things weren’t as streamlined as they are this year.  Baxter was previously in the habit of sitting down with a Harry Potter book in between every step of his morning routine, which was highly irritating to us as we raced through the morning, but this has completely stopped.  I thought it might be a stretch for Lyle to follow these routines, but he loves taking care of things independently.  This week he’s even getting out a crayon and running back to the fridge to enthusiastically check jobs off as he does them, just for fun.  Yesterday he recited the entire 11-step morning responsibility list to me during breakfast, so proud that he knew the routine by heart.  He clearly feels like a very big kid to be doing these things and going to kindergarten, and he’s embraced all of it.  For us, it has taken much stress out of our mornings in particular, not to have to call out reminders and stay on top of everything the kids are doing.  It allows us to get ready for work and get everyone out the door on time, which is happening every day as a matter of course instead of being a rare occurrence.

I can easily imagine a parent thinking, This is way too structured for me – I like more spontaneity and fun in my home! I might lean towards that philosophy myself if I hadn’t tried it.  To this parent, I want to say that by turning these uninspired (but necessary) chores into smoothly sequenced routines, we get the “work” done faster and there is little to no discussion or arguing about them. This leaves a whole lot more time for fun and games around here – and we’re all in better moods, too.

I believe firmly that by putting these expectations into place as early as a child is ready – and by keeping the responsibilities reasonable and appropriate for each child’s developmental level – it’s possible to instill a sense of pride and a certain level of habitual independence in a child than what can be achieved if started later on.