Memories on the roof

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Our laneway was too quiet for a Sunday afternoon. No bikes, skateboards, soccer balls or their owners in sight. As I approached the driveway a voice came from above: “Mum’s home.” I looked up and there they were playing on the roof.

Before I could scream their names and ask them to come down, I had a flashback to the 80s when I too was in the roof of the neighbour’s house, getting my volley ball back. To get there, I had to climb the back wall of our apartment block which was a bit higher than the neighbour’s roof, then  jump down to the roof clearing a meter long divide that separated the buildings. Looking down, I knew the fall could do a lot of damage but I still crossed to the other side. I don’t know if my parents knew what I was up to, but I don’t think they would have been too concerned.

As I pictured my roof climbing adventures I reached for my phone and recorded that moment for posterity. Children in the 21st century still have fun climbing fences, trees, and roofs. If only we let them. But most times we make sure they are safely indoors (and this often involves a screen) or engaged in after school activities.

We do this because we are good parents. There is danger outside and we have to prepare our children for a very competitive market place – there is no time to muck around with their education or safety.  But the reality is, child abduction in the streets is rare and if we pay less attention to the media and do our own homework, we will see that by over scheduling our kids’ lives, natural fun and spontaneity get squeezed out. I think parents are equally so busy that they don’t even realise that these essentials are being stripped from their children’s everyday life.

I recently came across this research about the role of free play, day dreaming and independent discovery in building emotional maturity, developing cognitive skills, and boost physical health in children. The research reveals a link between unstructured activities and the development of executive function.

Executive function is an umbrella term for mental skills that help us control our attention, impulses and enable us to plan. These skills have long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other lifelong benefits such as health and wealth.

My boys are always complaining that they don’t have enough free time and like most parents I don’t always have the courage-energy-time to let my kids just muck around and be kids. But here are a few things that I’m doing to create more opportunities for free play:

  • I’m encouraging my kids to do their homework in the morning before school so they have time to play when we get home
  • Friday and weekends they can play outside until dinner time (sometimes I end up having dinner before them)
  • They can ride their bikes and take the dog for a walk in the neighbourhood without supervision
  • No tablets or eleconics at night so they can read, write, draw or play

Free play, however, has a boundary – they are not allowed to go on the roof. After that incident, I explained why I didn’t want them up there and it looks like their are using their executive function, I haven’t seen them up there since then 🙂

 

 

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From kale to chaos – But I feel fine

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Last week started so well. Lots of kale juice and the fridge was overflowing with luscious greens and colourful, vitamin rich fruit and vegetables. Then the work week began… and the picture above summarises well how it ended.

It’s really hard for working mothers to find the time or the energy to put a healthy meal on the table every night. This week was particularly difficult because of the school holidays and the demands of work–I saw myself doing much longer days than usual. Even though I was working from home most days, by the time I shut down my laptop, I was feeling drained and guilty. It was the holidays and I had barely seen my children. Cooking a healthy meal wasn’t any longer at the top of my priority list.

I’m very proud of my boys, they behaved so well–played with their toys, watched tv, spent time on their electronics and ran outside with the neighbours. I only had to leave the room to feed them. But instead of celebrating that they are growing up and becoming independent, as the week progressed I was feeling more and more deflated. It felt like I was managing a cattle feedlot.

I know that research after research tells us that there is no negative consequence for children of working mothers. But I think mothers secretly worry that they are not giving their kids enough quality time and that this could have an adverse effect on the children. I don’t fear in silence anymore, I write about it instead.

My concern with this ‘quality time’ is what made me decide not to work full-time while my kids are still young. Although mind you, I work four days and more often than not I end up doing more hours than a full week of work. But at least this gives me the flexibility to wait for my kids at the school gate a few times a week. And at 2:55pm when the school bell rings, I know when I see them scanning the sea of parents and our eyes meet that they are happy that mum is there for them.

So back to my week, by Friday the house was a mess, it was raining and the kids spent the entire morning playing with video games, and the hot water system had stopped working – it was total chaos and I was growing increasingly irritated. About 3pm I had enough, put the kids in the car, drove to the shops, spoiled them with a sweet treat and let them spend their pocket money. It was my way of making up for the week in the ‘farm’ (and I needed a good dose of caffeine!). We browsed books and told jokes and stopped at every department store to look at Lego sets and Star Wars merchandising  (the new family fever). The sugar overdose made me feel guilty again but honestly, I thought bugger all health eating messages right now, I just want a break from the chaos of the week and connect with my kids doing something I know they enjoy.

Then we got home and I had to remorsefully throw away lettuce and bok choy that had passed the ‘use by’ date. You can’t have it all-or at least I haven’t pulled off having it all. But one thing I have is my breath to go back to. Sometimes it helps me make better decisions, other times it just prevents me from going totally nuts and at the end of the day it always reminds me at that with sugar or without, life can be… well, sweet.

The reluctant runner and a pushy mother

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Born to run? He dashed up the hills in Roseville today at the Rotary Fun Run, I just couldn’t keep up with him.

Ok, I’m not that pushy and I’m often wondering if I’m giving my children too much leeway in deciding how to spend their time. My boys are not big fans of holiday camps, after school activities, organised sport, homework or even family outings. Their picture of a perfect day is a day spent at home playing with their friends, toys and electronics. Even getting them to their weekly swimming lesson can be a drama. They don’t have a competitive nature either, to the point that they don’t even collect the merit cards they receive at school.

Maybe I shouldn’t worry as creative play, writing and reading is ever present in our home and the boys are still in primary school but they are growing up in a very competitive culture. I look around and see so many kids over scheduled with extra curricular activities, competing with their peers, trying super hard to win and upset when they don’t take the trophy home. I think we, parents, are under constant fear that we are not doing enough to help our children succeed both now and in a cutting throat world of work in the future.

I recently had an interesting experience. Every now and then I invite my boys to run with me and they always decline the invitation. Then about a month ago my 10-year-old agreed to join me and I was amazed at this performance–he ran two kilometres at my pace. Since then he’s been running with me twice a week. Most times there is nagging involved but at least he’s been joining me.

So, I thought to keep him motivated I’d sign him up to do a fun ran. He initially agreed but without much enthusiasm. Today was the big day but since yesterday he’s saying he isn’t really keen to go for a run on a Sunday morning. This morning he was cranky, didn’t really wanted to go but I didn’t take no for an answer. Long story short, he ran 5Km in  00:24:36 – impressive, he beat me by 12 seconds! And he actually enjoyed it and asked me if he could join Sydney Striders-there were lots of kids at the race wearing the striders uniform.

The moral of the story is that I continue to find it hard to draw a line. Had I not created this experience and put my son a bit out of his comfort zone he would have missed out on this exciting achievement. That’s why it’s really hard to find the right balance. I don’t want to be pushy but at the same time I think that parents have some responsibility in creating opportunities and inspiring their children to achieve their potential. The question is how many experiences is too many, how much pushing is too pushy?

I don’t think my parents had this dilemma–I was the one that pushed myself and I turned up all right. Would I have been more successful in certain areas had I had pushy parents? Who knows. But I have access to much more resources and information now than my parents ever had. I hope I’m combining the right amount of motherly instinct and knowledge to create well adjusted, happy human beings.

 

 

Give them time to be kids

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The daylight slowly fades in the small backyard of our suburban home and the house is filled with the sounds of birds and children. The birds are retiring for their nightly rest but the kids show no signs of getting tired – or hungry! It’s 8:30pm and if I don’t insist they won’t come in for dinner.

Through the kitchen window I see my backyard transformed into a magical classroom where the children are exploring and learning and destroying my herbs garden. During daylight saving the kids end up going to bed at 10pm, but I don’t mind. At the end of the day I know they’ve been exposed to more sunlight than blue light from electronic devices and they’ve exercised their bodies and minds, not just their little fingers.

There is no denying that technology is an important part of children’s education but it saddens me that most children are spending more time staring at a screen than playing outdoors, reading, playing with friends or even interacting with a parent. The Department of Health recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day for children aged five and up but research suggests that over 58% of Australian children spend more than two hours per day consuming screen based media. The older they get the more they consume.

Those two recommended hours include screen time spent both on educational and recreational purposes but judging by my own kids, most of the time spent staring at a screen is unlikely to be on educational grounds. And what’s worse is that it’s more likely to be at the expense of time they were supposed to spend on good and old ‘free play’.

Free play for many children today means time on electronic gadgets. We all know they want and need to play with their devices – using their tablets, phones and computers wisely can be beneficial. But I think there is so much over parenting and over scheduling these days that children don’t have the time, and sometimes the freedom, required to strike a good balance between electronics and traditional play. And with limited time it looks like electronics always win!

As parents we have to think critically about how much we schedule or allow our children to cram in. My son this week announced he no longer wants to play soccer and I immediately went looking for other sports options. Thomas has turned down all alternatives, he said he just wants to be home. And that’s how it’s going to be. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my children won’t be traumatised or disadvantaged if they miss a sport’s season.

I don’t know if it’s just in my home but I find that when kids are not deprived of free time it’s easier to negotiate with them a better balance between screen and non-screen play, and once they engage on play that involves all their senses they end up forgetting about their devices.

When I look back at my childhood my happiest moments weren’t those in front of the TV watching The Flintstones or playing pac-man. One of my favourite memories is of my friends and I bringing home a litter of six kittens that we found in the neighbourhood. Childhood was about playing with other kids, exploring, getting into trouble, was about having time and being allowed to be kids.

Surely, we live in a different world today but while technology is an integral part of our lives and it is not our lives. I fear that without enough screen-free play our future adults will look back in their childhood and say that the best moments of their lives were spent on Minecraft. This will be a dull, conforming world, full of people disconnected to themselves and to others. But I still hope it won’t be so. I hope when the daylight slowly fades in the backyard of my grandchildren’s suburban home the house will be filled with the sounds of birds and children.

My grandparent-less upbringing

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My mum with baby Thomas

I was in a cafe the other day when an elderly woman set down at a table next to be. She reminded me of my mum. A few minutes later a mother with two children arrived. They greeted the elderly lady, gave her big hugs and sat down. They were giggling and chatting for about thirty minutes and finally left with the kids holding grandma’s hands and I was left holding back my tears. There was so much love among them and that made me think of my own grandparent-less childhood. My parents moved from Rio to the Northeast coast of Brazil when they got married, and travel was not as affordable as it’s today, so me and my siblings grew up without any connections with our extended family. We had relatives that came to visit here and there and as lovely as it was to have them around for a few days, they were  strangers to me.  I’m talking about the pre-internet age here, there was no Skype or Facebook. We knew very little about each others lives.

Kids that grow up with grandparents, aunties and uncles around are very fortunate. In fact, these children are happier than kids without grandparents. I was reading about a study that shows that “the emotional relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren can significantly affect the children’s academic, psychological, and social development.”  Another study found that kids that have a close relationship with their grandparents have less symptoms of depression and have better emotional health.

I remember from my own childhood feeling a bit jealous of kids that went to their grandparents home on the weekends or were picked up at school by their grandparents. I always thought it was exciting to have a ‘second’ home to go back to and if something happened to your parents, you knew that you would still have family to love and care for you. In addition to creating an extra layer of security, grandparents pass down unique life lessons and values that you don’t get from your parents.

Fast forward 30 years, history repeats itself. Like my parents, we also moved away, much further away. Thankfully my kids were born in the digital age, so even oceans apart, they know that their grandparents, cousins and relatives are just a click away. My mum and parents-in-law are now too frail to endure an ultra long-haul flight, so we keep going back to Brazil whenever we can. We probably won’t be able to leave a lot of possessions for our kids but they are surely collecting lots of stamps in their passports and memories that will last a life time.

 

 

Let’s not burst our kids balloons

Adulthood is getting longer - Let children be children

Adulthood is getting longer – Let children be children

Yesterday I posted on Facebook that I wanted my kids to be kids forever. I’ve been a mother for a decade now─and have loved almost every moment of it─and when I look into future and think that in 10 years my youngest child will be finishing high school I want to stop the clock and enjoy their childhood for longer. I know I’ll continue to be a mother beyond childhood and that the next phase will be full of new discoveries, but children are such a special type of people, I’m always amazed at their wit and views of the world and the way they make sense of the crazy and hectic world around them. I want them to live in the fantastic world that they re-invent everyday for longer─ before life starts to become too serious. And I wanted to enjoy my kids in this fantastic world for longer too.

When I look around and see children doing too many afterschool activities, being pressured to excel academically and at sports I often cringe thinking that these kids are being robbed of their childhood. But at the same time, I question if I’m doing enough to give my kids the opportunities they need for future success. I see so many parents stressing out to send their kids to private schools and planning their kids’ busy schedules. I often wonder if this is really necessary.

Then today, suddenly something hit me. We are living so much longer than 50 years ago. A growing number of people are living healthy, active lives well into their eighties. If we are adding years to our adult life shouldn’t we then look at our lives are a whole and really enjoy childhood a little bit longer or at least let kids be kids without rushing them into their adult years. They will have plenty of time to be grown ups. Children born today will have comparatively more years to catch up on anything that society expects of them than their parents had.

My kids, 10 and 7, today asked me if I had any balloons they could play with. I inflated the balloons for them. The neighbours arrived and asked for balloons too. They drew faces in their balloons, gave them names and went outside to play. I thought it was magical to watch kids this age playing with balloons. I don’t want to burst their bubbles anytime soon. I hope that my boys and all children out there are allowed to enjoy their childhood for as long as they can.