Kids have rights AND responsibilities. Yep, even the little ones.

love-copy

We do all we can to give our children the best, most comfortable lives we can – but the danger is that they take such life for granted. It becomes a problem when they develop an unearned sense of entitlement. When they start becoming stroppy and shirking age-appropriate responsibilities, or carelessly wasting resources, we parents draw our hair in desperation. What have we done wrong? we berate ourselves. How could they have turned out as these ungrateful, irresponsible little brats?

The answer may be surprisingly simple. We’re not doing anything wrong by providing our kids with food, shelter, clothing, good schooling, love and care. We’re performing our parental responsibilities, and just because not all children have access to these basic rights doesn’t mean ours shouldn’t. What we also need to provide for our kids are responsibilities to go with these rights.

Responsibilities go hand in hand with awareness. There’s a drought going on in our country. There are people starving within a ten-minute drive from most of our homes. Many children don’t have access to good schools. People treat each other with apathy and cruelty.

Young kids may not be able to solve many of these problems, but they need to be aware of them. Mindful citizens are bred from mindful children. They need to learn not to waste resources and to show appreciation for the opportunities that they have available to them.

Mindful citizens are bred from mindful children

After a particularly hair-pulling week with my ungrateful brats – er, I mean darling children – I decided to take action. I screamed them to bed without a story, slammed the door on them, and locked myself in my office to try to calm down. Then I opened my computer and began typing. I typed lists. Lots of them. I itemized the things my kids had a right to expect, and then wrote the responsibilities that go with them. Without standing up to their (age-appropriate) responsibilities, I decided, they lost their rights.

I stuck the lists in the form of posters all over the house: one about food in the kitchen; one about hygiene in the bathroom; one about education above the school bag hooks; etc. When the kids woke up in the morning, they were wide-eyed. The two literate ones read them out to their little sister, and they began discussing the ideas in hushed voices.

Things have changed somewhat in the Veggietot household. The posters are now looking a little dog-eared, but the principles have made their points. I now say things like, “If you don’t take care of your clothes and put them away nicely you will lose the right to have them” – and I get a perceptive response! At first I actually confiscated the items in question, including their beds when they started treating them as trampoline-rocket-launches at 10 pm one evening. The boys spent a night on the cold passage floor, but they got the point. Fast.

People have reacted to my approach variously with appall and applause. For the latter, here are the signs to print and plaster around your home:

full-set-of-rights-and-responsibilities

Why you need to get your kids into the kitchen

It fosters their confidence to learn new, grownup things.

It helps them to feel like a contributing member of the family.

They learn maths through measuring.

If they’re old enough, they can practice reading.

They learn sequencing through following the steps of a recipe.

They build upper body strength through mixing, kneading or rolling.

They practice their fine motor skills by pinching, cutting and grating.

Getting their hands dirty teaches them about textures and encourages tactile development.

They learn about nutrition as you talk them through ingredients.

They learn about science (melting butter, dissolving sugar and making mayonnaise are hands-on chemistry experiments)

If there’s more than one of them, they learn to take turns.

They learn about consequences (lumpy brownie, anyone?)

They learn about responsibility (cleanup time, or no licking the spoon!)

Tasting new things encourages curiosity and creativity.

You can do it even on a rainy day.

You can get supper done while still spending quality time with them.

BEST JOBS FOR KIDS IN THE KITCHEN:

Cleaning fresh produce Set a race between siblings or let your child beat the clock. If you’re brave enough, let them have a water fight with the water that’s left in the sink afterwards!

Setting the table An important part of eating, and a measurable, manageable job even for smaller children.

Prepping Cordon Bleu chefs call this mise en plus, and it includes chopping, peeling, grating, etc. There’s no time pressure, and you can help fix any mistakes with ease.

Kneading Kids love this, and it’s great for their arm muscles. Next time your kid’s in a foul mood, whip up some dough and let him take out his frustrations on that!

Greasing Use a pastry brush to “paint” oil into a tin, or an empty butter wrapper to rub every last bit of butter.

Anything repetitive Rolling patties or falafel balls, layering lasagnas or potato bakes, cutting cookies.

Anything messy Tossing salads with their hands, stuffing veggies or cannelloni. Kids love to get their hands ‘dirty’!

Washing up Perennial favourite with the littlies; older kids may need the incentive of dessert…

Harvesting If you have a herb or veggie garden, let kids gather what you need for each recipe. It gets them out in the fresh air and reminds them where food really comes from.

Just a little note:

ALWAYS SUPERVISE CHILDREN WITH KNIVES,

NO MATTER HOW OLD THEY ARE. DUH.

 

How to discipline your child: take him to the beach

Seaside selfie

They say there’s nothing that can’t be cured with salt water: sea, sweat or tears.

When you want to rip your hair out over your children – and you will, no matter how many positive parenting books you read or zen meditations you listen to – you may both just need a change of scenery and some headspace. What better place to get this than at the beach? (Advance apologies to all landlocked readers. You can achieve very similar results at a lake or a nature reserve with a stream. But somehow the beach just trumps.)

After coming head-to-head with my seven-year-old about his homework one day, I was ready to hammer his head into his neck with his lunchbox. I’d asked nicely, encouraged, cajoled, explained the rational reasons why homework is necessary and to his benefit, warned, threated, begged, and yelled. No go. Eventually I stormed out of the room. Why couldn’t I get through to him? What was wrong with him? What was wrong with me as a parent?

It was too early to start drinking, so I had to get creative. This homework was NOT going to get done now. Ignoring the problem wouldn’t make it go away. There was a disconnect between us – how could we reconnect? I decided we needed some “special time”, so I strapped him in the car and drove down to the beach.

He was a little surprised at first that his misbehaviour had resulted in a treat, but he rolled with it, bless him. I let him loose on the sand and he went wild, letting out pent up energy and no doubt frustration. I climbed up onto a rock and let the waves hypnotize some calm into me.

He clambered up next to me and sat down. I put my arm around him. For a while, we didn’t need to speak.

When I did speak, he was ready to listen. We talked about the homework: he told me it was boring and “not fun” and he didn’t want to do it. I heard him and repeated all my logical arguments. He nodded. We brokered a deal. I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me too. Must be the sea air.

Concrete Values

We’re building a house. It’s all very exciting. Since my husband has the visualization skills of a mole – and even less interest – I get to handle the fun stuff like choosing taps and tiles and putting plug-points in the right places, but he’s on site, as it were, when it comes to the real structures of the thing.

The plans, with all their little squiggly lines which I have to translate for him into walls and windows, downlights and ducts, read like a map of our future. There are the kids’ rooms (for when the boys grow up and no longer want to bunk in together, and the baby is finally out of our bed…). There’s the kitchen with the open-plan counter where we will prepare many happy family dinners. There’s the garden where the kids will play hide and seek (and probably cricket and soccer and all those boy-ish things I’ll no doubt have to learn to love…). There’s the porch where we’ll spend sunsets sipping beers (juice for the kids) and discussing how our days have gone.

When the builders were about to “throw the slab” (I’m learning all sorts of new jargon these days), the bundle of mush that is my dear father-in-law came up with the idea to write down our family values and bury them in the foundation, so that our home will literally be built on those values. Twee alarm! I loved it immediately.

So I sat down to write out a list of our values. And I came to the astonishing and somewhat frightening realisation that I didn’t actually know what they were!

The family conference I called backfired spectacularly. The one-year-old can’t talk yet, the three-year-old was more interested in his trains, and the five-year-old couldn’t quite grasp the abstract concept of values (he thought I was going to bury all our family valuables under the house – ‘but Mommy, what if we need them??’).

So Veggietot Dad and I stayed up many nights after we’d put the kids to bed, asking difficult questions. What do we believe? What are our values? How do we define them and how are we going to teach them to our children?

Then last week, armed with our rolled-up list of values printed on pretty paper and tied with ribbon, we traipsed down to the building site. What fun, I thought as the boys pulled on their gumboots and Bob the Builder dress-up gear, complete with plastic hard hats, tool belts and tools.

What have I done, I thought as we stepped onto the site. Note to the timid: do not take small children to a building site. There are lots of dirty, sharp, deep and/or heavy things that are not supposed to be played with.

Once we’d gathered the children away from the large machines with the spades and blades, we found a nice spot towards the back of the site and held a little ceremony where I read out the values while Warren listened dutifully and the kids played in the dirt, and then we laid down the list in the foundation trench just under what will become the porch, and retreated to a safe distance to watch the real action.

The five of us watched, enthralled, as the massive concrete mixer churned to life. We observed the machine feeding the wet cement into a huge flexible tube controlled by hydraulics and a remote control (my five-year-old had to explain this to me), and saw the muck gush into the trenches.

In no more than 20 seconds, our little list of values was covered in concrete, never to be seen again. It struck me as a bit of a metaphor, actually. Too often our values get so obscured by the rush of every day life that it’s hard to see them, and even harder to find them. Sometimes we need to sit and chip away at life’s concrete to get to them. Unless they are stored safely in our souls.

This whole exercise has taught me so much. I learnt that that thingamajig attached to the concrete mixer is called an aggregate hopper (this also from the five-year-old). I learnt that cement doesn’t come out of a dry-clean-only blazer. And I learnt that if you really want something to be meaningful, you have to put in the meaning.

Our values are what give life meaning. We don’t all get to design our dream house, but we all have the chance to design our dream life. I feel so blessed to have had both of these opportunities in one month.

Sure, building a house is a lot of work, but you get out what you put in. Ding-ding-ding! Life metaphor alert! Each small improvement to the plan, each carefully repositioned brick represents the things we do to improve our lives, like tweaking the master plan of our goals and dreams, rearranging the bricks of our actions – the bricks and mortar of our daily lives, if you will.

There are times to build, and then there are times to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour. As we sit on our porch in our new home, it will be comforting to know not only that our values are there, but what they are.

 

Is religion a choice in childrearing?

Religion is usually a topic I tiptoe around. On this blog, and in life in general. It seems to be so touchy. Of course, religion comes with a fair amount of judgment, but that’s supposed to be done by The Big Guy, not by us lowly practitioners of the faiths! So to avoid accusations and assumptions, I often find it’s easier to just talk about sports and politics…

Sometimes, however, religion becomes an inevitable topic of discussion, and one of those times is when it comes to childrearing. I just wrote a column on the subject for Hashalom, KwaZulu-Natal’s monthly Jewish journal, and I thought I’d share it with you here. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

SpiritJEWality

I have a friend who is an atheist. She had a really negative experience of dogmatic doctrine as a child, and has decided that organized religion is the root of all the world’s evils. We have many colourful debates on the subject, and haven’t yet come to a firm conclusion.

She believes religion is a choice (and a misguided one at that); I’m not so sure. Of course, I’m coming at this from a very entrenched position. I am and always have been very Jewish. Mom’s Jewish, Dad’s Jewish, school was Jewish, hubby’s Jewish, kids are Jewish. Very heimishe, but is that enough to make a life decision on? Just because something has always been a certain way, do I have to continue it? Is it really a choice?

“Is religion really a choice?”

I suppose it is. Well, halachic authorities may um and ah about whether a shul-shunning, bacon-bolting, tattoo-flaunting, Friday-night-disco-jiving type should still get a hechsher (kosher stamp), but at the end of the day it is my choice whether or not I follow my faith. Hashem (God) blessed me with that very free choice. He’s not going to thunderbolt me down if I drive to town on Saturday and order a cheeseburger (at least, I don’t think He would!).

Jewish by birth though I may be, I do choose to practice my Judaism. And today I was reminded why. This morning I came across an article in a parenting magazine that informed readers how to foster “non-denominational spirituality” in our children, and I couldn’t help but think of my friend. Fascinatingly, our discussions have intensified since we’ve both become parents. The stakes are suddenly raised – we’re not just debating our own lives, but the futures of our precious children, too.

She begs me not to “brainwash” my kids with dogma. She expounds upon the spiritual restrictions that indoctrination will place on them. So I’m alive to the “risks” of religion. But this article gave me a lot of food for thought. Some of the more interesting points that were suggested were:

  • Develop your child’s sense of wonder. Point out the miracle of life – a new flower, a snail making tracks across the garden.
  • Use reflection. People benefit from shutting down the noise of technology and quietly reflecting, whether this includes prayer or not.
  • Take time to be together with your family. Spend the weekend unplugged from electronic devices.
  • Teach gratitude. A tasty meal, a warm bed at night – gratitude is about being aware of what has been received.

Every point was valid. Can’t argue with any of ‘em. But the question that gnawed at my mind was this: what made these ideals “non-denominational”? Who says these values are incompatible with religion? In my religion, anyway, they are an integral part of it.

“What makes these ideals “non-denominational”? Who says these values are incompatible with religion?”

Judaism is all about building a child’s (and indeed an adult’s) sense of wonder with the world. We even have special brachot (blessings) for extraordinary things we encounter, from fragrant flowers to rainbows, shooting stars, mountains and oceans. (I’m not sure about the snail, but I’ll check the Talmud and get back to you).

Reflection is also built into our lives as Jews. Not just through prayer, but through structures like fasting or sitting shiva over loved-ones, and symbols like mezuzot or the seder plate that cause us to reflect on what they stand for. And of course Shabbat (Sabbath) gives us a regular occasion to unplug from technology and plug into family time.

And as for gratitude? We have mitzvoth (commandments) designed to teach awareness and appreciation of almost everything in life: the laws of kashrut for food, bedtime rituals for peaceful sleep, rites of thankfulness when we wake up. (Aside: I’ll let slide for now the question about from Whom the author of the article assumes these blessings have been received.)

The obvious question, then, if I can cultivate spirituality in my children without divine instruction, is this: why bring up my children with any religion at all? For me, the answer is simple. It’s because I can offer my kids all that and more through Judaism. The practice of Torah laws and lifestyle compels everything the author encourages, as well as providing a sense of history, heritage, belonging, and a deep culture. Call it spiritJEWality, if you will.

That’s not to say that one can’t inculcate good morals into children without religion. Of course you can. Everyone knows you don’t have to be Jewish to be a mensch. But you do have to be a mensch to be a real Jew. It’s part of our value system, and part of our religious law. Rules for tzedakkah (charity), shmirat halashon (guarding one’s speech), and gemillut chassidim (acts of kindness) help us to become better, more virtuous, dare I say more spiritual people.

You don’t have to be Jewish to be a mensch. But you do have to be a mensch to be a real Jew

Judaism gives me a framework for all these things my friend is going to have to figure out and teach her kids on her own. Halacha shares a grammatical root with the word holech – to walk – because it teaches us direction in life. Why shouldn’t I want my kids to learn that?

It’s not “brainwashing” or “indoctrination”. It’s laying a foundation from which they can make educated decisions about how they choose to live their lives. I’m no fan of dogma, but – to keep with the parenting imagery – I don’t believe in throwing out the beauty of religion with the spiritual bathwater either.

Our job as parents (and with the help of our teachers) is to enlighten our children to the infinite possibilities of the universe, and then to let them choose for themselves.

Yes, it is a choice. Huh. I guess the atheist was right about one thing. Anyway, I sent her the article. I hope she gets something out of it. And I hope you get something out of this column. Until next time.

 

For more columns like this, click here.

odd socks

This morning I had an idea for a post but it all pivoted on a photo I snapped on my phone of the two odd socks I found in my son’s drawer. The last two in the drawer, obviously. But they were clean, people!!!

Unfortunately the internet was being uncooperative and I couldn’t upload the pic, but the image just summed up my mothering at the moment: odd and sometimes spare, but clean and soft and THERE, even if lurking at the back of the drawer.

That’s how it goes in life, especially if you’re self-employed. They call it feast or famine and some people talk about Balance (Their capitalization). I’m out of kilter right now. Too much work and too much on the plate. But still, at least my kids have clean socks, even if they don’t match. And at least I wrote the blog post, even if I can’t post the photo.

I’m working on an action plan to cut back the stress and take some things off the proverbial plate. Not to the point of famine, hopefully, but then that’s how it goes.

Any tips you guys????

Thank you for judging me

Mothers Day ~ 13 May 2012

Dear Mom,

This Mother’s Day, I’d like to thank you for judging me. Don’t think I don’t see you rolling your eyes. I know you think I’m nuts for making my own baby food when you can buy perfectly good stuff in a jar. I know you think breastfeeding is gross and bedtimes completely unnecessary. I know we disagree about methods of discipline. We look at things differently sometimes. But nevertheless:

Thank you for judging me. It makes me really think about the decisions I take as a parent (if only to try to prove you wrong, which I don’t always manage to do). Always thinking “what would Mom say?” keeps me on my toes – and on more than the odd occasion, I even learn something. But more than anything, my stubborn railing against your judgments has shown me just how strong I really am.

And while I’m at it – thank you for screwing up. According to modern childrearing recommendations, you did everything wrong when you raised me. You fed me with formula bottles and used disposable nappies. You propped me up in the kitchen drawer and let the TV babysit me. You put me on a leash in public places despite the strange looks you probably invited. You let me sleep in your bed until I was way too big and then you still made me a cozy little nest on the floor.


And yet, I still seem to have turned out okay. In fact, thanks to you, I am a strong, confident individual who’s not afraid to try things differently and make my own decisions.

It’s really comforting to know that even if I sometimes do things upon which the books frown, my love for my kids is really all they need. On those days where I put on the TV, chuck them a box of crackers and crack open a beer (that one’s for me, not the kids), I don’t feel like a complete failure as a mother, because I know that that tactic sometimes works wonders for all involved.

I have no doubt that I will criticize my own kids for buying into whatever newfangled nonsense is on offer whenever they become parents. I, too, will roll my eyes and mutter under my breath (what, you think I don’t hear you?). But amidst the constructive criticism, I hope that I am able to give them what you have given me: the conviction to be the best parent I can be. Now that’s the best Mother’s Day gift I could ever hope for.

I hope that seeing what a strong, resourceful, self-assured (clever, poised, cute, talented – I’m never sure when to stop with these things?) mother I have become brings you some joy and satisfaction too.

Thank you for following your heart, and thank you for letting me follow mine. I may be choosing to do some things differently with my own kids, but I love that you respect that and only break my rules about crackers for supper and juice which rots their teeth when I’m not there. My kids adore you for the same reasons I do.

To sum this all up in one line: Thank you for loving me.And for making that love so unconditionally, abundantly clear. Yes, even when I change a poo nappy on your lounge carpet. And thanks for loving my children. They get it too, you know.

So from all of us:

Happy Mother’s Day!

We love you so much.

X X X

On having my pie and eating it

Something came to me the other day while baking a pie.

Baking a pie? you cry. Who has time these days to bake pies?? With work, kids, a home to run and a million other things that need doing, what on earth was I doing baking a pie?

Here’s my secret: when the world gets too much and I feel like I’m never going to have time to indulge in those status symbols of domestic bliss (like, I don’t know, baking a pie), I drop everything else and do just that.

Some people think I’m nuts. They ask me why on earth I would put that added pressure on myself. When there are emails waiting, laundry piles growing, dishes congealing, grubby children needing baths and bottles and projects lying half-finished like festering monuments to shoddy time management – what’s wrong with peanut butter on toast?

The answer: absolutely nothing. In fact, I am a huge fan of PBT. But sometimes it’s nice to remind yourself that you CAN bake a pie from scratch and lay it on the table with a modest sigh, wiping an only-slightly-sweaty strand of hair from your forehead and basking in the grateful oohs and aahs from your family and friends (even if they did have to be prompted).

It makes me feel accomplished and domesticated. It reminds me that – as important as work is for my self-esteem and my bank account – I am needed and appreciated more by the people around this table, who would love me and nurture me even if I missed a deadline or lost a big job.

There’s something about food that is sustaining – not just physically, but spiritually. A good meal, cooked with love, nurtutes my soul and gives me the energy to get to all those other bothersome things like work, running after children and running a home.

But here’s the big message: as I was losing myself in the process of pie-making, I realized that we can learnt a lot from pies about time management. Allow me to explain. We all know that there are only 24 hours in a day, and that most of us rule out great chunks of those to sleep, work and other non-negotiable commitments. To speak in scientific terms, there is only so much pie which we can cut up.

We then have to divide what’s left over between the other priorities we create in our lives. The key word here? Anyone spot it? Well done: priorities.

Sometimes we all need a reminder to revisit our priorities. My Priority Pie (as it shall henceforth be known) did just that. And just HOW do we evaluate these competing priorities? For me, the key is keeping it interesting. I wouldn’t want to give up any slice of the pie (hell, seriously, who would really want to give up a slice of pie??). But I’m sure you know the feeling when you have too big a slice of pie: the bloated, overstretched, guilty discomfit that pangs of slow penance. Well, that goes for metaphorical pies too, you see.

If any one slice of our pie gets too big, we take strain. We therefore aim to keep our time neatly balanced between the tidy portions of our lives. (Har har.) Sure, watching what we eat is important – and watch this space for the soon-to-posted AMAZING dietary achievements in the Veggietot household – but I’d hate to live in a world of mental weight watchers where our scheduled priorities were measured out daily, gram for metaphorical gram.

I love that I can cut my pie any way I want. I am holding the knife, so to speak. Some days I cut a nice wedge of work and a sliver of housework to see me through the week; others I carve out a hefty portion of quality time with the kids and leave a nice serving of sleep to be enjoyed afterwards. Some days I gorge a chunk of me-time with my bare teeth, gluttonously licking my chops and bearing said teeth if anyone should so much as eye the rest of my pie.

When I get too bogged down in any one (blessed) aspect of my life, I need to be reminded to change focus. And to blog more often. So you see? If I hadn’t made time to make the pie, I wouldn’t have learnt its life lessons.

Disclaimer: Veggietot Mom is not a dietician. Please consult your healthcare practitioner before making any major dietary changes, whether they involve pie or not!

PS Watch this space for the recipe!

perspectivizing

For those of you who were filled with awe, envy or umbrage by my post onearly morning baking the other day, here’s the complimentary reality check:

 

This morning the screeches had us up before dawn again. We tried to settle them. We tried to be positive. We tried to ignore them. We tried to be reasonable. But eventually we realized that we weren’t going to win this one and we dragged our sulky selves to the family room, tots in tow.

 

Veggietot Dad had a scheduled gym slot but he didn’t even ask me if he could leave me with both kids – my expression probably said it all! So he dragged the smallest one with him, leaving me and the slightly bigger one sprawled out on the couch with CBeebies.

 

I think Dad and I both needed some alone time to think and perspectivize anyway (yes that is a word because my brain is too sleep-deprived to find another one). To the tune of the Tele Tubbies I counted my blessings: two beautiful, healthy children; a supportive partner; a sturdy roof and a warm bed (which I even get to appreciate for a few hours a night); a career which brings me joy; a fridge full of food; a body which serves me well; a closet full of clothes…)

 

And I realized that sometimes, recognizing your miracles is another blessing all of its own.

 

So slowly, while Tinky Winky and Po were slurping their tubby custard, I hauled my attitude from Bad to Glad. I summoned up all the grace of flexibility and began rearranging my day to incorporate four tired people, their schedules and their needs.

 

And when Hubby returned from gym, he’d had an attitude adjustment all of his own. Instead of shoving the baby in the corner and ignoring him while he got on with working out, Hubby had incorporated little Shai into the routine. So he’d had an excellent workout (using Shai’s 12.5kg instead of the usual 7kg weights) as well as physical play time with his little boy.

 

This is the conclusion to which I am drawn: Sometimes when life doesn’t go according to our plans, we bake cakes and sing show tunes. Other times it’s tougher; but with a little flexibility and awareness, we can still turn circumstances into precious – even productive – moments.

(Yes I made him pose the pic – as a reminder to incorporate the joy our kids bring into our lives at every opportunity)

What a lovely day for a flower hunt

The Western Cape is famous for its flowers at this time of year, but I didn’t know that Durban is also blessed with an amazing variety of flora.

 

Today on our way to the park, not-quite-three-year-old and I collected a sample of nearly every colour, shape, size and texture. I don’t know all of their names, so we made some up, like “red fluffy”, the “prickly ball” and the pale purple one which he titled “vi-lo-let”, after the last colour in the Rainbow Song.

 

We had an absolute blast today. And what better way to raise kids who are conscious of our planet than to let them interact with it – in all its verdant splendour?