Tuesday, March 27, 2007


The kids wanted me to put together a slide show for our dog Sabre who died a couple of weeks ago. We had a small memorial service with friends who have known him for years (and even had him over to stay when we were gone). We planted a cherry tree, and buried his collar and sprinkled his ashes there, and I know every year when it flowers it will remind us of his sweet soul. If you want to see what he meant to us, you can check out his video:

Monday, March 26, 2007

Unschooling Voices: Screen Time

Unschooling Voices, a blog carnival hosted at A Day in Our Lives asks this question for the April edition:

A topic that comes up on the unschooling e-mail groups a lot is TV/computer/video games and how hard it is for parents to let go of control in those areas. What has been your experience?

I think the biggest challenge when thinking about screen time (my all-encompassing word for TV/Computer/Gameboys/Video Games) as an unschooling family is the cultural notion of the television as "the boob tube" and video games as "mind rotting". Dating back to at least my own childhood, the media has been decrying the screen as some kind of intellect-sucking device that somehow evilly inserts itself into one's home without one's knowledge and seduces our children away from us. And you know, I can see some truth to these things. I think that there is much on television that really isn't appropriate for kids to be viewing. Heck, I think there's much on TV that really isn't appropriate for adults to be viewing! And the video games like Grand Theft Auto or the other first-person-shooter games, well I find them fairly horrifying (and they get worse, in the new Wii games, you can use the cool new Wii remote to actually choke your victim on the screen, instead of just blasting them to pieces).

So the challenge comes when you take the concept of unschooling, that kids can make their own decisions, and you apply it to something with such a wide variety of content and moral lattitude and try to make a sensible decision. At first, we were wary about screen usage and in fact had not had cable TV even for ourselves before having kids. I grew up with very limited television and didn't find that experience to be detrimental, so I didn't see any reason to start introducing it when our first child was still in his younger years. Of course, he had other ideas, especially once he discovered the Thomas the Tank Engine video section at our local library! What we discovered was that anything we watched with him became a shared experience like anything else, and that the shows that we watched together always provided fodder for discussion and further inquiry. I remember once when our railroad-obsessed toddler and I were standing by some old rusting locomotives on a siding and he pointed out to me that the engine nearest us was a "Mallet". I had no idea what he was talking about, but he patiently informed me in his little two year old voice that this locomotive had two sets of driving wheels, and thus was classified as a Mallet (something he'd learned from one of his train videos). I was amazed by how much knowledge and interest he was deriving from these beloved videos, even at his very young age.

As he grew and his interests branched out, every age brought new challenges to our comfort level with the screen. From Thomas videos to wanting to see Lord of the Rings at age six, and from Gameboys to more complex systems and games, we've had to revisit our feelings about the content and maturity of games and movies. What we found though was that our kids were very adept at self-regulating. They knew what bothered them and what didn't, and would even stop in the middle of a movie or game if they found themselves in over their head. My son really enjoyed Lord of the Rings, for instance, but couldn't bring himself to watch 101 Dalmations, because the theme involved killing puppies and he found that abhorrent. Yet 101 Dalmations carries a G rating, while Lord of the Rings is PG-13. We've never found that the ratings systems were very meaningful when kids know their own tolerances.

A good example of our child-led approach is Lord of the Rings, which came out when our kids were 3 and 6 years old. They saw it in stages over the course of several years. At first neither of them felt comfortable seeing it in a theatre, after asking my husband and I to view it first and report back to them on the scariness factor (high, it gave my husband nightmares.) So we first viewed it on DVD and they told me when to pause the movie and either fast-forward or let them leave the room. We had read the books though as bedtime stories, and they were as entranced as I was with the screen adaptation, and willing to sacrifice bits and pieces of the movie in order to see the story brought to life on the screen. We also watched and discussed the DVD extras, seeing how the special effects were created, how the orcs were stunt men in heavy makeup and costumes, and how the computer graphics were integrated into the whole. The next year when the second film of the trilogy came out, M. (now seven) wanted to go see it in the theatre, but A. (at four years old) did not. So we waited until it came to our $1 theatre, so that if M. just wanted to leave in the middle of it, we wouldn't really be out much (this is a fabulous strategy if you have such a theatre available, because it's really no loss to just get up and walk away, whereas if you've invested $25 in seeing a movie as a family, you can feel a lot more pressured to stay.) M. enjoyed it, and again A. waiting until the DVD came out. By the time the third movie was out 18 months later, we all went to see it in the theatre together.

I saw the same ability to self-regulate apply itself time after time. When it comes to playing games, using the handheld gaming systems, or watching TV or movies, the kids are very good at knowing what feels appropriate for them, and when they've had enough. Of course, this doesn't happen in a vacuum. Like every decision in their lives, they have us right there beside them to discuss the pros and cons, and to give context and meaning for movies or storylines that they might otherwise not understand, and to provide a sounding board for their own thoughts about what they feel is appropriate, as well as our own opinions based on our life experiences as adults. Whether it is a prolonged discussion about violence in the media, providing historical or moral background for what they are viewing, or talking about the way corporations insert advertisements and product placements into shows, they are not having to come to terms with the media by themselves. Moreover, because we have a relationship based on mutual trust and respect, instead of power and control, they trust our opinions and will frequently ask us to tell them if a movie is something we think they would like, or something that might disturb them.

Recently, we went through the latest step in this Screen Time Saga when our son requested a James Bond 007 game for the Gamecube video system. This would be the first time he played a first-person-shooter game, so we had a discussion with him about our concerns (largely involving the desensitization to violence that can happen, as well as concerns about handgun safety and having the knowledge that guns are never toys.) When he got the video game, he and his sister had a blast playing it, blowing away all the bad guys, while I sat back and quietly bit my lip. I also told him that it was not a game that I myself felt comfortable playing (though I've played other Gamecube games with the kids) because handgun violence is just not something I'm personally comfortable with. Within days though, the game had lost its glamour, and within a couple of weeks he re-sold it to the gaming shop. I wondered in my head what would've happened if, instead of discussing it with him and letting him follow his own lead, we would've banned the game and forbidden him to play it. He spends plenty of time at friends' houses these days, and undoubtably would've come across the game, or a similar one, at some point. When that happened, the game would've been doubly attractive as "forbidden fruit", and knowing that we had forbidden such play, he might've chosen to lie to us or omit telling us that he had played it. A wedge of distrust would've grown between us, instead of the closer bond of discussion and mutual respect.

In the end, that's really the biggest benefit to approaching screen time as we do any other aspect of life. When we provide context, meaningful discussion, voice our own concerns, and listen to our children's input, we give them the power to make good decisions for themselves (or perhaps even bad decisions, which might be a learning experience on its own.) If instead, we forbid such devices and programs, there's no guarantees that our children won't eventually find them anyways. When they do, it may be in a secretive and guilty way, instead of a joy-filled sharing way. Personally, I'd rather share in my children's joy and have interesting discussions with them about what we're watching.

Just this week, my son and I watched the fabulous movie The Prestige together. And there's no one I would've rather watched that movie with than my Sherlock Holmes-like son! We enjoyed dissecting the plot as we went, and reveled in the fact that we guessed the plot's twists before they were revealed. Since this movie is PG-13, most parents I know would've forbidden their kids from seeing it based on the rating alone, yet I know that the effects of watching it together were all positive. And my daughter? It wasn't her cup of tea, so she watched a Disney movie upstairs.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Rites of Spring

As the seasons change and the years go by, adventures that we have taken once, or perhaps a few times sometimes begin to take on the nature of a ritual. Our annual spring pilgrimage to the sheep barn is just such an occurrance. A local university has an extension service that just so happens to birth hundreds of lambs a year, and their barn is open to the public for a few weeks every spring. At any point during this time, you can waltz in and watch real live sheep giving birth. Or so it would seem. In reality, there have been years when we have waited patiently watching a mother sheep whose time to deliver seemed imminent, only to go home without having seen her deliver. Or the sheep, being sensible, will suddenly go to the farthest corner of the enclosure and then turn their backs to the fence to have their babies. Any mother who has given birth can probably relate.

But this year was extraordinary. We walked into the barn to find a mother sheep with one tiny brand new lamb on the ground, and she was walking around restlessly and getting ready to deliver the twin. She obligingly turned her rear toward us only a few feet away and within moments of our arrival gave us front row seats to the miracle of birth. A tiny hoof appeared and disappeared, she lay down and whooooosh came the entire slimy bundle of baby sheep.

Then the drama began. The ewe ardently cleaned off lamb #1, encouraged her as she got to her feet and began searching around for some breakfast. But she ignored lamb #2. He was tinier than the first and very thin. She didn't even lick him clean as she had the first lamb, and he started to shiver in the cold barn. Now my kids have an extremely strong sense of justice, coupled with an absolute passion for animals, and this was just too much for them to witness. Although both myself and a volunteer explained that this was normal and that bummer lambs are not unheard of. We were sure that the people in charge of the barn would come over and help it out, but minutes ticked by, the lamb shivered harder, and no one came to the poor lamb's rescue. So Miss A. set off to find someone to rectify the situation. She found one of the barn workers and he came over and fenced the mother and two babies together, then wandered off again. That didn't seem to make any appreciable difference in the situation, so ten minutes later my daughter set off with even greater determination to help the poor little thing. After barn employee #1 didn't seem to be willing to disrupt his conversation to come help, the kids beseeched the volunteer to go and find someone. Eventually a man came over who looked like he knew what he was doing. He picked up the non-slimy lamb and smeared the slimy lamb's goo all over him. The ewe began licking lamb #1 off again. When she was done, she turned to lamb #2, who now smelled like lamb #1, and licked him off as well. He began to get to his feet and as we finally left, and hour after the saga began, he was searching around for a teat as well.

We spent the next hour or so in the sunshine at a local park with a real locomotive that you can still climb on (where are the lawyers and why they haven't closed down this potential childhood injury waiting to happen I don't know, but I'm grateful there's still one place left that a child can really climb around on something thrillingly high and dangerous). After that we headed for home, feeling that spring, like the lambs, had finally arrived.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It's A Rhetorical Answer

Here's a couple of my favorite quotes from the kids this week:

#1: We were riding in the car when my daughter made a statement about something we saw. As I often do, I asked her why she thought that. Her reply was "Mom, that was a rhetorical statement."

"What's a rhetorical statement?" I asked

"Wellll, a rhetorical question is a question that does not require an answer, right?"


"Sooooooo, a rhetorical statement is a statement that you don't need to question!"

Oh. Okay.

#2: It's been a rough couple of weeks on the kids since our beloved dog died, and we had a small memorial service for him this weekend with our friends. My son was seeming quiet and contemplative this evening and I asked him what was wrong. He said he was still thinking about our dog. He put it this way: "When an asteroid hits the surface of the moon, it's not the end of the moon. But it still makes a very big dent." I thought that was a great metaphor, since I've been feeling kind of dented this week as well.

Monday, March 19, 2007

That Time Again

We had an incredibly hectic weekend that included karate belt tests for the kids and I, my mom visiting, my husband and I going out for our anniversary and spending our first night ever away from the kids, and then on Sunday a memorial service for our dog. I feel pretty wiped out right now and ready to sleep but we've launched into Monday and will be going full-tilt for the next few days.

My husband has decided to join the karate class, which will be fun for the kids because they will outrank him for awhile. I just got my blue belt, so I'll probably be moving into a different class, and the kids will be testing for their gold belts in three months. I couldn't believe how many students were at the test. There was a gymnasium full of gold belts and blue belts for my test, and then another gym full of white belts with various color stripes for the kids' test. And that didn't include all the rest of the colors! As always, I am blown away by the kids' focus, determination, and abilities. And not just my kids, it's really cool just to watch all of the kids out there trying their hardest at some techniques that are really quite difficult to master.
They had to remember three kata (series of movements) for this test, along with the associated bunkai (application of the kata to self-defense), sparring techniques, other self-defense techniques and the basics (kicks, punches, blocks). It's a lot of stuff to remember! As for me, I had to remember this kata, which we had just finished learning all of the moves to in the last month, and I was pretty nervous that I'd get lost somewhere in the middle and have to just stop. But muscle memory kicked in and I just got through the whole thing without any major hitches.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Finding the Gifts in Challenges

One of my favorite all-time books, Illusions by Richard Bach, has so many inspirational quotes that come back to me at various times in my life. One that occurred to me this week is:

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.

One of the challenges in our weekly routine lately has been getting to our karate class in a timely manner, all dressed in our karate gis (white uniforms with belts). Since we carpool with friends, getting out the door in time is important, not just for us but for them as well. Transitions can be challenging for my kids. My oldest finds moving from one activity to another to be a big challenge at times, while my youngest can get distracted from something like getting dressed by a bead on the floor or the sudden notion to get out her puppet collection or an idea for a new hairstyle she wants to try out this moment. Getting everyone in the right gi and moving toward the door by 9:30 was shaping up to be an exercise in major frustration.

In our culture, frustrations with kids and timelines often results in rules, star charts, or simply pulling one's hair out and yelling louder. In a house where positive interactions and creative problem-solving are stressed over top-down rule, those answers are simply not an option. So our ongoing getting-out-the-door issue continued, involving frustration for all of us.

But one day, a fun and simple solution presented itself to me. I threw all of our karate gis in the dryer for a few minutes until they were nice and toasty warm. Then I called out "Gis for sale, get your nice warm Gis here!" and the kids came running and put on those nice, warm, fresh-smelling gis and I have to admit they felt really good getting dressed all warm like that. It change the whole tone of trying to get ready to go from a struggle to a really pleasant experience that we all share. We ooooh and aaaah over how nice and warm they are. So now I've started doing that with pajamas in the evening too when the kids want me to.

I'm always amazed at how if you take a problem and really look creatively at it, you can almost always find something that makes it better. Sometimes I get too heads-down and don't use that creativity, get stuck and don't see a good solution. This was a great reminder about how easily an experience can be transformed by something simple. When we're presented with challenges, we can always be looking for their gifts.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Life Goes On

I really haven't felt much like writing in the last week or so. It's like all the words were drained out of me for awhile. But we've still been busy and life goes on. We did make it to the Egyptian exhibit, Quest for Immortality, which was well worth the drive up to Portland. The self-guided audio tours they have these days in museums are terrific, and give you a wealth of information at your own pace, which is great when you are going through with kids. We had carpooled up with some friends, so we took a little side-adventure on Portland's trolleys down to my favorite end of town and got some dinner, discovered a new gelato place, and the kids played and ran halfway back to where we started from before tiring out and finding a trolley stop.

Other projects and fun we have going include taking the World Widlife Fund Earthday challenge to raise $50 apiece in spare change before Earth Day. The kids and I are planning some fundraising ideas to raise our money since they are very into wildlife conservation these days. There's almost no piece of mail they look forward to more than the WWF newsletter (except maybe M's Nintendo Power magazine subscription or the Lego catalogs). I also just took Miss Diva to auditions for the play Little Women, and both of the kids have been writing music for Sabre's memorial service, slated for next Sunday.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Lifelong Friend

I've been looking through old photos and came across this wonderful trio from when my son was a baby, and then this last one from an autumn trip to the beach. Sabre has truly been a lifelong friend to my kids. Things are getting easier, a day at a time, but we will be missing him for a long time. The weather has gotten sunnier this week, a big improvement from the sleet, hail, and freezing rain of the last ten days. We can be outside more and everything looks brighter, even emotionally, when the sun is shining.

Last night, I had a dream that left me strangely reassured. I was walking by a park with the kids, someplace we had never been before. Steve Irwin was standing on the corner of the sidewalk and the kids recognized him and ran over to him saying "You're not dead! You're alive!" over and over. He shook his head and said that he really was dead, and at that point the kids started crying. He said "No worries, I just came here to tell you that I'm with all the animals and they're just fine."
He gave me a hug and everything was so vividly real - touch and smell and sight seemed just like real life. I woke up feeling very peaceful and well-rested, for the first time in over a week, and the sense of peace has stayed with me all day. If there really is an animal heaven, I would love to believe that Steve Irwin is up there looking over them all and keeping them company. They would be in good hands with such a wonderful soul as his.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Coming Face to Face With Grief

We had to say goodbye to our wonderful dog Sabre this week. He was our friend, companion, protector, and he loved the kids immensely. They've both known him their whole lives, and my husband and I have had him since before we were married. For all of us, it is the closest experience with grief that we've had in a long time.

Sabre was more than just a dog. He went everywhere with us. Every homeschool park day, every camping trip, every beach day, every evening we played games or read books in the living room, he was there. He is in the background of most of our family photos, right there by our sides. He went to work with my husband and charmed everyone he met. His kind face and loving soul were evident to all, and his faithful shepherd nature gave him a sense of duty to watch over us all. I think it was hard for him to let go of life, just because he felt so strongly that he was here to protect us.

As with so many of life's most joyous and saddest occasions, I'm grateful to have had the sheer amount of time to spend together. I'm grateful for all of the time we had with Sabre, a dog who didn't like to be alone (as a puppy, if we left him he would dig out from the yard and go spend the day with any neighbor who was around) and thankfully was always surrounded by family and friends. And I'm grateful now to have the time to spend with my kids as we all grieve his loss. Homeschooling has given us this gift of time, which I know I've talked about here before, but it can't be emphasized enough: life is short. The hours we have together are all that we have, when all is said and done. If the kids had been gone all day, I probably also would've been gone all day. Sabre's life would've been very different, that of a dog waiting by himself. Instead, he was part of an exciting maelstrom of kids, activities, and fun places to go. Mountains, snow, beaches, parks, we shared it all with him.

We're lucky to have had him, such a beautiful and sweet soul, in our lives. We're lucky to have had all the time and the wonderful experiences to share with him. Now we're just trying to adjust to the emptiness that's left behind. The beach sure won't feel the same without him.