Michelle: kindness is contagious

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It’s 6:30 am and Michelle rocks sideways from foot to foot as if moving to a beat. She is short and matronly with a loud and clear voice, piercing through the hum of the early morning rush. Air travelers line-up, weary from a string of flight cancellations caused by inclement weather on the Eastern Seaboard. The luckiest had found a bed to spend the night in, many had crashed on an airport chair, none were where they thought they would be this morning. At the head of the line, Michelle hollers: “You don’t throw away the bone when you make stew! It’s what makes it special!” People glance up, look at each other, and return to their soliloquies.

“Keep your smile on, Michelle’s voice cuts through again, we’re going to get through this together!” Timid quiet faces cock sideways: attention-seeking is not the default position in the line-up to the U.S. Customs. Air commuters are gearing for the pat down, taking off of shoes, necklaces, opening bags, taking out laptops, phones, and e-readers, hoping they’ll remember how it all fitted in as the next passenger presses against them. Earphones get tangled and water bottles need to be discarded. Didn’t I just pay $6 for this?

Still rocking from side-to-side like a boxer in a ring, Michelle calls: “Put all your belongings in the trays! Shoes, coats, scarves, laptops. Take as many trays as you need: there’s no charge. Yet.” Like a police officer directing traffic, she points, instructs and manages. “This is a no-frown zone. Put a smile on your face and everything will work better!” Like a wave, a smile spreads across the line-up of passengers, one by one. “Anyone here for a 7:00 am departure? Come here, come to the front, nobody’s gonna miss their flights in my line, come on, this is a stress-free zone!!” Conversations between strangers liven, a man in a business suit with a poster tube offers his spot to a father traveling alone with a small child as Michelle orders: “Now don’t you go shopping on your way! You’ll see some pretty things on the other side but don’t stop, your plane is leaving!”

Soon we are processed, scanned and sent on our way, the throng of harried commuters dispersing like a torrent toward the departure gates. We don’t remember Michelle but we still have a smile on our face, a spring in our step and a kinder disposition toward our fellow men.

Pearson International Airport

 
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Back-to-school debrief

Several people have reached out to me by email and social media to ask how I was doing now that my two elementary-school-aged children are back in school. It’s heartwarming to know that despite the relative anonymity of the Internet, people do care about our family. I work hard at checking my ego when it comes to homeschooling but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that sending the children back to school after three years of homeschooling is a blow to my pride. After all, I have written extensively about homeschooling, I have encouraged people to start homeschooling, heck, I even have a talk and a podcast episode on discerning homeschooling…

Let’s rewind a little in the interest of letting everyone catch up. 3 years ago, we pulled 4 of our 9 children out of school in parallel with our move to the country. Homeschooling was something we had long dreamed about and the move gave us a perfect transition point. We took the jump. Our children were in grade 9, 8, 2 and Kindergarten. The first year went relatively well: hopes were high, and while the teenagers were not thrilled with the move they recognized that taking the time to survey our surroundings before jumping headlong into a new social scene had some benefits. They conflated their doubts about homeschooling with their doubts about the move and we were able to tackle this transition as one big life change.

The following September, I was pregnant with our tenth child and looking forward to a new year of homeschooling. Homeschooling was hard but it was worth it. I was proud of the efforts I was investing in pursuing this dream. Despite our general happiness with the way things were going, we realized that our high-schoolers were getting behind in their academics. It was always important to us that our teenagers maintain or surpass the school curriculum: we didn’t want homeschooling to curtail their post-secondary options.  At first we chalked it up to de-schooling and switching gears. After a year of de-schooling and switching gears, we had to ask ourselves how much longer we could afford to let academics slide: how far behind can you get in chemistry and math before you can’t apply to university anymore?

We decided to register the teenagers in a distance learning program. From my perspective, things were looking up but I had not accounted for the unexpected: in September, I suffered a complicated miscarriage and landed on my butt for 3 months. Complications from the miscarriage started snowballing and my health took a sharp dive. We started to lose ground, not just academically but in the very fabric of our family. My husband had to carry a lot of the management and logistics of the family while I recovered. Relationships started to fray at the edges. By the month of May, I was seriously burned out and we wrapped up the school year early. The thought of homeschooling filled me with apprehension but I reasoned that I needed a break and that I would be back on my A-game by the time September rolled around. During the summer, I started to have anxiety attacks. I didn’t connect the anxiety to homeschooling but as July turned into August and September approached, the anxiety became crippling. It affected all my relationships and turned me into a paralyzed puddle of not-happening.

Combined with my pre-existing poor health, my anxiety over homeschooling threw our family into a maelstrom of stress and unhappiness. Homeschooling through the conflicts and the fighting was eating me alive and not doing it kept me up at night. Our children fought all the time, my husband and I were short with everyone and compassionate with no one. Our grade 5 son refused to do any work, my grade 2 daughter was progressing in her reading at a snail’s pace, one step forward two steps back as we didn’t have the wherewithal to give her the attention she needed every single day.

Homeschooling didn’t come naturally to me. It required a sustained effort in overcoming my temperament, my personality and my own ambitions. Every day was a fight against myself. Normally, my approach would be to fight the fight. But while I thrashed and fought to provide a modicum of education to my children, I was taking everyone down with me. My usual drive and energy were depleted and I had nothing left to fight with.

Last December, we decided to send the elementary school-aged children back to school.

How is school doing? Things are still in flux. On week 2, the children are still learning to navigate the social landscape of the classroom. Our very gregarious 10 year-old made friends who happen to be girls — he and his older brother have always related better to girls being largely surrounded by sisters — and he is getting flack for it. He is strong in his determination to be friends with whoever he well pleases. On day 2, we had an interesting experience with our daughter in grade 2 who came home saying it had been the worst day ever. We probed her quite a bit before learning that some of her classmates had to be disciplined for talking when they were not supposed to. We asked her if she was one of them and she said, mortified “OH NO! But I felt really bad for them!” Seeing her new friends get in trouble had completely ruined her day. I know that in time she will learn not to care and this breaks my heart in a million different ways.

The children are showing signs of stress but their attitude is positive. They are thrilled to be back in school.

The truth is that I’m relieved. But I’m also disappointed. There is no doubt in my mind that sending the children back to school was the best decision for them and for our family. But my pride is hurt, I won’t lie. I still believe that homeschooling is a beautiful thing. I still wish I could pull it off. In my life, I try to see failures as learning opportunities, so that failures are never pure losses, they bring with them a nugget of wisdom, new knowledge for the road. But for now, I am at a crossroad unsure of which direction to take.

8 things I still do for my teenagers

Teenagers, grumble grumble. Self-indulging, self-centred grumble grumble. Give them an inch grumble snort. Can’t stand on their own two feet, grumble, bah.

I came across a popular blog post this week about things you should stop doing for your teenagers right now. “How can we raise competent adults if we’re always doing everything for our kids” is the heart of the question.

It’s an excellent question. One that is front and centre in the minds of thoughtful parents. We don’t always know what we’re doing or where we’re going but we sure have a general idea of where we would like to end up.

I often tell parents of young children that it takes some effort to ruin a kid — a lot more than loving concern over which baby cereal to start with — and the same can be said about teenagers. We don’t suddenly wake-up to a self-indulging, basement-dwelling hermit or a rude disrespectful potty-mouth: a modicum of situational awareness goes a long way in noticing trends in our growing children’s behaviours.

It takes some effort to ruin a childhood and helpless teenagers are not born they are made. As with anything parenting, intentions and motives matter and I’m ready to bet the farm that you can bring your teenagers their shoes twice a week for 5 years and still turn out a productive member of society. As I am sure that some parents let their teenagers fail classes, wear dirty clothes and go hungry with less-than-stellar results.

When it comes to forming our children’s characters and habits, our actions matters as much — if not more — than our principles. This is why when given the opportunity I always err on the side of showing a spirit of generosity and service.

Here are the 8 things that I should stop doing for my teenage kids but still do, time and weather permitting:

1. Waking them up in the morning. In Hold on to your kids, Gordon Neufeld writes about the importance of “collecting” our children in the morning. It’s hard to forget when the children are little and wake-up whiny and unsettled: we take a few minutes to cuddle with them before they are ready to digest their breakfast. The practice of starting the day off on a friendly note shouldn’t stop when the children grow up. Waking up our teenagers gently, physically touching them to rouse them from sleep, saying good morning, sets the day off on a good note even if they hate being woken up. It tells them that no matter what happened the night before, no matter what argument we might have had, every day is a new day. There is also something to be said for going into their rooms once a day to remind them to bring up their dirty dishes… The world — in the form of their first job — will teach them soon enough to wake-up on their own.

2. Make breakfast. I can’t make breakfast for the family every day but I would love to. Countless research has linked shared mealtimes with healthier eating habits, lower incidence of disordered eating, better psychological well-being, lower incidence of obesity and improved family relationships. We usually think of the family dinner as “the family meal” but between part-time jobs, extracurricular activities and different school schedules, my family is rarely together at dinner time. However, my family often meets in the kitchen in the morning. Teenagers are as sensitive to regular and healthy meal times as 3 year-olds and it’s a lot harder to be rude to someone who just put a plate of bacon in front of your face. The next time your teen is having a “moment” try saying “Here’s a sandwich” instead of “what the hell is your problem” and watch magic happen.

3. Fill out their paperwork. Confession: I’m the worst deadbeat when it comes to paperwork. By grade 6 I have trained my children to fill out their own paperwork by sheer force of inertia. That said, the world of death and especially taxes will teach my children the cost of not filing paperwork in a timely manner. I have no doubt about it. What’s so wrong with learning by (not) doing? They can forget to fill out their passport applications and miss their flight on their own dime. As long as my signature goes on the dotted line, I’ll make sure the paperwork is filled as it should.

4. Delivering their forgotten items. Whereas most parents see this as bailing out their children, I see it as an opportunity to connect midday. We live 20km away from the school: I don’t do special trips to deliver forgotten items; but if I’m running errands or somehow driving by, I make it my pleasure to rescue them from shame and starvation. I sometimes even bring them coffee. Way to reinforce forgetful behaviour or to show my teenagers that I’m in their corner? Your pick.

5. Making their failure to plan my emergency. Our teenagers can’t count on parents being able to bail them out if they don’t plan their work carefully. They are very aware of the constraints caused by living in the boonies with a bunch of young kids. But if we can help, we will. It may mean that a parent or grown child will pick up some items on their way home. Or I may reorganize a necessary grocery run to accommodate their last-minute errands. Yes it’s a failure to plan. But in our family, we prefer to err on the side of being helpful.

6. Doing all of their laundries. In our family, the teenagers have their own washer and dryer, meaning that I never see their laundry. But when our entire family was using the same set of appliances — as most people do — I did all the laundry. I don’t know in which universe having 5 kids washing 6 items of clothing each is a time-saving proposition but in this universe, it’s a logistical nightmare. It’s not like I’m washing it by hand in the stream. I open the door, throw laundry in (at this point whether I’m washing 25 pieces of clothing or 30 is almost irrelevant) and start the machine. Magic.

7. Emailing and calling their teachers and coaches. This may seem counter-intuitive but having good lines of communications and a cordial rapport with your children’s teachers and coaches is good policy (who would have thunk?). Blame Gordon Neufeld for making sense again: parents, teachers, and coaches should be working as a team. Having open lines of communications doesn’t mean that we pre-manage every issue that arises between our children and their teachers or coaches, but it means that we have a better chance of seeing something coming and handling it in a concerted manner. It also means that the one time your child is treated unfairly by a teacher or a coach, you will see it coming and will be able to support your child through it. In our family “support” means that we help our teenagers make sense of a difficult situation in ways that are mature and constructive.

8. Meddling in their academics. We keep a close eye on our children’s academic results and outputs. We don’t do their work for them and we don’t ask teachers for favours. But keeping a finger on the academic pulse of our teenagers can help us identify areas of concern early. Early detection: it works for school just as it works for prostates. When would you rather find out that your teenager needs tutoring or remedial help in chemistry? When they flunk the first quiz or when they flunk their semester? There are many ways in which we raise our children and helping them understand the importance of hard work can be done on the job. There is no teaching value in watching them fail in high school. Yes they have to learn how to work but it can be done by helping them develop good work habits instead of letting them fail and curtail their post-secondary opportunities.

While it’s true that what we teach our children to do themselves will determine their success as adults, it’s about more than packing their backpacks and making their breakfasts: it’s about teaching them to self-regulate, to give of themselves, to prioritize relationships over things.

Emotional intelligence and resilience are the skills that set our children up for success in their adult lives and relationships, not lunch-making.


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