Thursday, September 28, 2006

Chez Noah

True to character, Noah wanted a birthday celebration that was "family only". Fine. But he wanted to do something memorable too. So we decided upon a formal restaurant meal -- at home. With the parents waiting on the children. Very fun!

We moved a table into the living room and covered it with our best (read: only) tablecloth. We added napkins and full place-settings for four. The kids arrived and were given menus. They had a choice of drinks (un-margaritas, unbeer, apple cider or milk) and appetizers (they ordered both choices). There were choices of main dish and side salad, and red or white no-alcohol wine with dinner. Followed by the obligatory cake for dessert, with optional ice cream and caramel syrup, and gift-opening.

We all had a blast. Chuck played the maƮtre d', I was the cook, and Fiona was loud and demanding, to choruses of laughter from the rest of us. The kids drank their "wine" and ate their meals until they thought they would burst, and tipped their chairs and talked with their mouths full and dribbled lasagna all over their chins and Chuck and I said things like "would the young lady like some assistance finding her napkin?"

I think we'll all remember this birthday.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Fiona was the only one who wanted to come to the GRUBS garden with me this afternoon to do a bit of digging. I wanted to make some progress back-filling the marsh-garden-in-progress. She watched, and dug, and scrabbled around a bit, got hot, sat in the shade, came back, got bored and asked to go home.

"Yeah, okay," I said. "In a few minutes."

I finished levelling out the rim where the liner lies. Then I looked over at the sunflowers. They're immense, and gone to seed, and the birds were having a heyday plucking the seeds out.

"Hey Fiona," I said, sitting down on the picnic bench a couple of metres from the nearest sunflower, "look at the birds having a feast."

She came over and slid up onto my lap. We sat there, entranced, for half an hour or so. We whispered to each other, noticing the chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches lining up on a series of perches and taking turns. The nuthatches were "bossier". The chickadees were "crazier." They went back into the forest for a few minutes and had "a bird party" with lots of calling back and forth. We listened to the competing calls of the two species. We noticed differences in their flight patterns and in how they attacked the sunflower seed heads. We speculated about where they were putting all the seeds. We tried to count the birds. We just sat together and tried to notice everything we could.

"I like doing this," Fiona whispered. "This is my favourite thing. I want to stay here forever."

Well, we didn't. Eventually we decided it was time to go home. But it was an absolutely magical half hour for both of us.

Knitting a learning curve

Sophie started knitting this week. Almost a year ago she learned a basic knit stitch and was keen for a week or two, but never really developed the skill and stamina to find it gratifying to continue. This week she decided, on her own, that she wanted to do a practice project just a few stitches wide, so I cast on 10 for her and she set to work. By the end of three days of on and off work, she had a narrow "scarf" done in stocking stitch that was a wonderful illustration of a learning curve. The first thirty rows are wild, with dropped and picked up stitches and mis-turns of the project. The next thirty rows seemed better. The next thirty were not really much better, but this was the stage at which she was figuring out how to correct her own mistakes... and the last fifty rows were beautiful! What an object lesson in persistence and practice and gradual improvement!

I have to add a recommendation for Melanie Falick's Kids Knitting while I'm at it. This is the ultimate knitting book for beginners of all ages, with beautiful illustrations, sensible varied projects, excellent instructions and wonderful knitting-related ideas and projects like felting, finger-knitting, making wooden needles, adding embellishments and the like. Sophie has moved onto a hand-puppet project now.

Structure and confidence

Sometimes you know things but you just need a nudge. I know Noah has difficulty creating structure and consistency for himself. I know loses confidence very easily when he falls short of his own expectations -- expectations that can only be reached with some consistent application to the task. And I know that when his confidence ebbs, his motivation bottoms out in ways that begin to affect all areas of his life. When his confidence level is down he tends to sink deeper and deeper into a whole of self-blame and lassitude. He feels stupid and useless and stupid and useless people don't suddenly decide they are going to master arithmetic with fractions. He needs someone to say "you can do this, and I am going to stick with you and make sure that you prove it to yourself."

Nudges from mom are not always welcomed, nor do they come naturally to this mom. However, this fall Noah and I had to work together to come up with some sort of plan for his self-designed homeschool program and in a fit of optimism he said "Yeah, I'd like to get ahead in math. I'd like to work at math almost every day." The nudge was coming from the opportunity the SelfDesign program offered him to create some structure. We looked at where he was at (he's done almost no math in the last three years, moving at glacial speed through Singapore Primary 3) and he decided he'd like to finish Primary 5 this academic year. All fine and good while we're driving in the minivan en route to vacation. I wasn't sure how it would pan out when we got home and he actually had to do the work.

But here we are a couple of weeks later and he's not only begun level 4, but he's a day away from finishing the first workbook (4A part 1, which is nominally "a quarter of a school-year's work"). Not only is this great progress, but he's developing great confidence and pride in where his efforts are getting him. We're monitoring the pace and comparing it with his goal and he's carefully making sure he's "ahead of schedule".

He's eager in other areas too. I see the enthusiasm and confidence beginning to grow over into music, language arts, science and the rest. He's ten in a few hours. It's a great place to be on the cusp of two digits, riding a wave of confidence and accomplishment. Happy birthday, Noah. Let's both of us remember how gentle structure -- nudged into your life by external circumstances, thoughtfully considered and willingly undertaken -- helps you learn and feel good about yourself.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Nursing and Allegro

On the SuzukiChat List a year or so ago someone posted about nursing a toddler who was predisposed to hum Suzuki's "Allegro" whilst nursing. A similar post had been made three or four years before. Having had a similar experience with both Sophie and Fiona, I commented that the group of moms who have nursed to the humming of "Allegro" by a nursling was a very special and exclusive club.

Now I'm the parent to a nursling who not only hums Allegro while nursing, but hums Faure, Debussy and Chopin piano pieces as well as Book 5 viola repertoire. But I wonder if I'm a member of the most exclusive club of all -- the club of moms who are nursing children who can play Allegro on their violins.

Fiona is now simultaneously working on playing D-string Twinkles (in preparation for Allegretto and Perpetual Motion in D), on clean finger-hops and string-crossings in "Song of the Wind", on a 4th-finger exercise, on nice staccato tone in the first phrase of "Perpetual Motion", on the phrases and up-bow starts in "O Come, Little Children", on saving bow on the half-notes in Long, Long Ago, and on the A-major arpeggio that opens "May Song." Along with flat bow-hair and a relaxed "banana thumb" in the left hand. Her appetite for picky detail work is insatiable -- tonight she chose to do thirteen repetitions of each of the five exercises we decided to do. While I've never seen anything like this, and have been forced to turn much of my teacher training on its ear to cope with Fiona, I'd hesitate to call her musically gifted ... because she works so hard (and with such easy-going pleasure) at what she does. Still, there's no doubt she's frighteningly unique, and has earned me a place in an exclusive club that doesn't even exist.

I keep waiting for the bubble to burst. So far it just keeps growing. I keep waiting for her interest in breastfeeding to wane. So far she's holding steady. Good heavens, what a child!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Siblings and ownership

Lately I've been thinking a bit about our family approach to the ownership of the "stuff" the kids have and how it plays out in their relationships with each other. I didn't set out with a particular policy in mind, but I have four kids with a fair bit of "stuff" accumulated over the years, almost no sole ownership, and almost no sibling rivalry. I can't help but wonder if these things are related. Thinking back to my own childhood ... most stuff was shared, and my three siblings and I got along pretty well overall.

I also think it's important to understand that young kids' conceptualization of ownership is a very different thing from ours. For a young child, having control of something in one's own hands means owning it. I think that when we ask kids to "lend" or "share yours with her" they are really thinking "it'll be hers for a while and then it'll be mine again." And in our family, I guess we've really not got fussy debunking that fluid sense of ownership. The kids grew into children who just accepted that ascribing sole ownership, within the context of the family, wasn't really something to get one's knickers in a knot over. I've found that my kids do not use possession or ownership as a pawn in situations of rivalry -- I never hear them claiming "no, it's mine and you can't have it!" I might hear "no, I want it right now and you can't have it!" The important difference between these two is that the latter de-escalates as soon as the emotions abate because no one has claimed eternal control over the object. In the former, even once the emotions have calmed, the child still assumes the object falls under his or her control, to things could flare up again at any point. Over the years, in playgrounds and parks, on playdates and out and about, I have heard so many children using the fact of their ownership of something as a weapon against other children. It doesn't seem to happen in our family, thank goodness.

My kids have special things that they treasure, things that they refer to as "mine." These are generally things that have special meaning to each child rather than things that have value in general to all. With the many shared items of value that our family owns I prefer to encourage in the kids the value of responsible custodianship (caring for something well while it is in your possession) rather than the value of pride in ownership.

As I write this I realize that while I didn't set out with a particular policy in mind, the fact that I put more value on custodianship than on ownership has been a guiding principle.

My kids each get their own allowance. For the past three years they've chosen to pool almost all of their allowance to make joint purchases together. I guess that speaks highly of their comfort with our family tendency towards joint, rather than sole, ownership.