Giving my Kids Nothing This Summer

I love my kids and I try to do my best.  The trouble is, it’s easy to think “best” and “more” are one and the same.  They are not.

My original plan this week was to write about our summer list of things to do, you know, to feel like our family has a “successful” summer. Making plans and writing to-do lists does have value. It helps me get things done. But sometimes, a to-do list is a load of garbage.

I can’t speak for past generations of mothers, but in the circles I run in of moms with kids at home, we spend a lot of time trying to do it all right. We try to make meaningful memories, create precious moments, provide engaging learning opportunities, all that. But maybe, just maybe, we need to try less hard, too.

Tree swing: an essential component of doing nothing this summer.

Tree swing: an essential component of doing nothing this summer.

My oldest child is just finishing first grade. What do I remember about my summer after first grade? The only specific thing I remember was that I had short permed hair that my grandma said looked like Shirley Temple. In the summer time I would go days on end without combing it. Much of the time my hair looked more like a rumpled Afro than Shirley Temple’s ringlets.

Combing my hair? What a waste of time.

I had ant hills to smash on the edge of the driveway. I needed to make sure I was the one who raced down to the mailbox first when the mailman came around noon, a highlight of the day. I was busy riding my bike down the field lane and learning to ride down the gravel on the driveway without wiping out and scraping up my knee.

I don’t remember many other specifics, because the summers growing up all sort of blend together in a sort of sweaty, Kool Aid, dandelions, swimming in the freezing water at Whitewater kind of way.

On a visit to Whitewater a couple summers ago, I spotted a mom lugging a huge plastic tote down to the beach while trying to wrangle her kids. The tote was neatly labelled “BEACH TOYS.” I imagined her pulling it from it’s special shelf in the garage and loading it up in the van. As she emptied it, out came every sort of wonderful beach implement imaginable.

Part of me admires that sort of amazing, logical organization. And part of me just wants to puke. That level of perfection is just too much. Many of the toys didn’t get touched.

Seeing that tote made me think of my own days as a kid playing at Whitewater. When we made the trip there as a kid, if I wanted a sand toy, it was my job to get it. If I brought something, it was probably an empty Cool Whip container from the cupboard. Fairly often, we just went there with nothing. Sometimes we dug a pop can out of the beach garbage can to use as a digging toy and water carrier.

No tote full of toys, and we were happy at Whitewater. Very likely, my next older brother suggested we were superior in some way because we were kids that could make our own toys. He was good at always making us feel like we were part of some sort of secret elite force of little survivors.

Sand, water, kids. What else do you need at the beach?

I tell this to remind myself that when it comes to kids, less is often just as good as more. A big tote full of toys is fun, but so are hands, sticks, and rocks.

Sometimes I’m like that mom lugging the tote. I love my kids and I try to do my best. The trouble is, it’s easy to think “best” and “more” are one and the same. They are not. It is a fine line to balance between wanting the best for your kids and crippling them because they get everything they want. Innovation and ingenuity often comes from those moments of creating something out of nothing.

I want to give my kids more “nothing.”

A few nights ago I spent 15 minutes hauling boxes up to the attic. While I was up there, three of our kids played out on the porch. I came down to find discover three kids completely enmeshed in their own imaginary world of playing house. I said hi and then ignored them in that sort of way that doesn’t make them self-conscious of a viewer, putting on a show for mom. They did their thing.

My seven-year-old “Mom” decided it was bedtime, and put her two-year-old baby to bed. She tucked in her sister on the wicker couch using her favorite blanket. Then, while I got the mail and seemingly ignored them, I listened to my big girl sing a lullaby to her little sister, who pretended to sleep.

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a sweeter lullaby than that one I heard that evening. There’s nothing on my summer list of fun activities that’s any better than that.

I give up.

And I think I probably should. We made a list of fun things to do this summer, but most remarkable is that what the kids want is pretty darn unremarkable. They want to go swimming. They want to have bonfires. They want cousins to come over and play. Simple things.

And that’s probably how it should be.

They’re little kids. Hot, sticky, endless summer days with messy hair, scraped up knees, dirty feet, popsicle drips and grass stains…that about covers it. Anything else is just details.

So, it’s settled. We’re doing nothing this summer.

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The Value of a Child-Friendly Nativity Set

Mary and the angel lost their heads this week at our house.  Baby Jesus?  He’s MIA.   It’s ok, though, we have a spare Jesus at ready.

At our house, the nativity set is hands-on.  We get out the tacky glue, and Mary and the angel get back to the action, ready for small hands.  We like lots of traffic around the manger.

In many people’s homes, nativity sets are ornately beautiful and fragile, set up on display as a look-but-don’t-touch Christmas decoration.  I appreciate those beautiful sets; there is a certain amount of reverence inherent in beautiful things.  Some day I’d love to have a set like that.  But right now, that’s just not the way we live.

baby jesus

We are a household with four young kids. I don’t really have a place to set up a fragile nativity set without fear, and I don’t want to anyway.

Our little wooden stable and nativity set currently reside in the dining room on top of my grandma’s sewing machine table.  At children’s eye level.  To make it accessible to even our littlest one, I put the step stool right next to the nativity set.

One of the sheep in our nativity is a three-time amputee.  He now spends his time laying down.  We have a wiseman that lost his legs, another is missing part of his crown.  You get the picture.

We have a backup nativity set, though, so we can create a full “cast” by combining the two sets.

The nativity set figurines sit next to our Little Golden Book called The Christmas Story, a simple version of the Bible story with beautiful traditional artwork.  The nativity set and the story go hand in hand, and we can grab the book and read it whenever the mood strikes.

I give my cousin, Annie, the credit for this child-friendly arrangement.  A few years ago, I spotted a picture on her facebook page: an adorable wooden, hand-painted child’s nativity set, rearranged in some sort of humorous configuration by her young son.  This struck a chord with me, and thus began a quest for a nativity set for our children.

While I loved my cousin’s set, the hefty price tag for that nativity didn’t sound feasible for me.  I’m too busy (or really, just too lazy) to keep track of expensive little figurines that our dog might chew up.

I then looked at the nativity set made by Little People.  While I love those little figures as toys, I didn’t want them as a nativity set because they really just look like another toy.  I wanted the nativity figures to look more realistic, and somehow different from “just another toy.”  Not finding what I wanted in any stores, I hunted around on the internet and almost bought a set there.

Inspiration struck, though, and I headed to the thrift store.

Eureka!  I found a classic wooden stable, complete with a working(!) light.  Conveniently attached was a plastic nativity set with traditional-looking figures, super-glued in place.  I spotted and then snatched up another nativity set made of resin for a few bucks more.

Those figurines seemed like just the ones: worn just enough to not worry about future nicks, and very similar to the set from my childhood.  For less than fifteen dollars, I now possess a lighted wooden stable and two nativity sets, one plastic and one resin.

Wanting an interactive nativity set experience for my kids, I pried off the plastic figurines that came super-glued to the stable.  One king refused to budge, as did all three sheep, which tend to be stubborn animals.

It’s not quite perfect, but it’s not meant to be, which actually makes it perfect.  From a distance, the set looks nice, and up close, the apparent wear and tear makes our nativity fuss-free for our kids.

So why do I intentionally allow my children to potentially damage these semi-sacred objects?

We all know that children benefit from hands-on learning.  Both educators and parents alike know that children learn by seeing, touching, and doing.  So often, though, when it comes to “the reason for the season,” people set up nativity sets that are off-limits to children.  To me, that looks like a missed opportunity for learning.

Child-friendly nativity sets provide the visual and tactile opportunity for kids to engage with the Christmas story.  Learning about something that happened so long ago is an abstract concept, but seeing, touching, and manipulating the characters in the story helps kids to sort it all out and create understanding.  The teacher in me likes that.

And the kid in me says it’s just plain fun.

When I took out our nativity set and stable for the season, I never actually pointed it out to our kids.  I just set it up, turned on the stable light (“open for business”), and waited.

A few hours later, I noticed our 19-month-old daughter sitting on the step stool, playing with the figures.  I overheard her little monologue: “Mama, baby.” “Dada!” Then the holy family climbed the roof of the stable, “Stays (stairs)…up, up, up!”  Soon the wisemen took turns riding on the cow, “Weee!!”

Perched on a step stool, our baby plays with our child-friendly nativity set.

Perched on a step stool, our baby plays with our child-friendly nativity set.

As she played, I told her the names of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.  That’s enough for her for now.

Our kids aren’t always reverent with the figurines.  I already mentioned the missing heads.  Sometimes the donkey fights with the cow, and sometimes the figures are stacked in pig pile fashion.  Kids are kids, after all.

However, our 19-month-old often carries baby Jesus around the house saying, “Aww, baby,” and lovingly kisses him and gently covers him up with tiny blankets.

My three-year-old son, also a baby lover, has the same reaction.  When he plays with the nativity set, he always makes sure that baby Jesus has his mom and dad close at hand.  And after seeing and playing with the set at home, he can easily name the “characters” in the story when he sees them in other places, like church or TV.

One night as I read The Christmas Story book to our kids, my six-year-old daughter jumped up off the couch and grabbed the nativity figures.  Giggling and using exaggerated gestures for comedic effect, she made the figures act out the play as I read the book.  Afterward she took an especially grand bow, and we clapped.

I think the person who said “let the little children come to me” would approve.

And as for Mary and the angel, they might lose their heads again before Christmas, but hey, don’t we all sometimes?

Lessons Learned from Gardening‏: Letting Kids Plant is (Mostly) Wonderful

I really need to get out more often.  Sometimes show tunes from Oklahoma pop into my head for no apparent reason, especially if I don’t get enough sleep at night.  Looking out at the end of the summer garden from our porch on a lovely fall day, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” popped into my head.  I resisted the urge to spin around grandly like Julie Andrews atop a mountain meadow (since that’s the wrong musical), but since nobody else was around, I started singing it, but then I had to fix the lyrics, since our corn really didn’t do much this year.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow, there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.  The corn is as high as only my thigh, and the weeds look like they’re climbing clear up to the sky…oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day, I’ve got a pretty strong feeling, sometimes things don’t go my way.

Anyway, the garden is on my mind today.  Anyone driving past from the road probably takes a gander and thinks, “Man, those folks should just mow down that weed patch,”  or maybe at best, “Look, I see a few sunflowers in that big pile of weeds.”

All in all, if ample opportunities for learning equate success, then I’d say our first garden “on the farm” is a success.  Perhaps the garden is not a success by traditional standards, but I’m all for learning and didn’t have delusions of weed-free grandeur, anyway.  Without further ado, here are my Lessons Learned from Gardening:

1.  Letting Kids Plant is Wonderful.  Planting days with kids playing in the freshly tilled black goodness rank among my favorite days this year.  I love letting kids feel ownership about our garden.  They planted in a fairly free-form manner, with creative rows and non-specific marking techniques, a very fun experience.  This leads me to number two…

2. Marking the Rows is Even Better.   The downfall of casually marked rows is that weeds overtake the whole darn garden by the time seedlings grow big enough to identify.  This isn’t any great epiphany I’ve revealed, but some things you just have to learn by experience.

3. String and Sticks: Cheap, Yet Priceless.    Mark my words! Next year, sticks and strings will mark the rows!  And if I forget this over the winter, please remind me so we can keep the weed population a little more in check.

4.  Sunflowers are Awesome.  Nothing gratifies kids and adults alike like planting a seed and seeing phenomenal growth.  Our sunflowers blew past the weeds, shot up during the July drought, and just give us a grand sense of awe everytime we stand near them.  It really is a little bit of magic to see something dwarf even the tall neighboring field corn.  I can’t wait to have sword fights with the gigantic dried stalks.  I know I can out-joust a five-year-old.

5.  Eggplants and Swiss Chard Thrive in Hot and Dry Weather.  We have boatloads of both in the garden.

6. We Don’t Really Like Eggplants and Swiss Chard.  At least, not in the quantities they proliferated in our dirt.

7. Mulch = Good.   It really works.  I spread several inches of straw around our cucumber and muskmelon plants, and the areas remained fairly weed-free all summer.  The sad irony: the cucumbers and muskmelon plants all died.  But hey, at least they weren’t weedy, right?

8. Bugs =  Bad.  We didn’t use any sort of chemical herbicide or pesticide on our garden, and apparently, that made it look like a bright, shining beacon to every insect in the county.  It’s hard being the organic island in the sea of treated corn fields.   Bugs saw our garden patch and thought we were saying, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  They huddled and breathed free all over our garden, and ate our lettuce, cabbage, an entire zucchini plant, and on and on…  We had a grasshopper infestation of biblical proportions, and being so well-fed in our garden, I’m sure they’ll return nice and strong next year, too.  Yay.

9.  Not Pickin’ a Bale o’ Cotton.  My husband found a packet of cotton seeds in the novelty seeds section in a hardware store in Montana.  We took them here to Minnesota, and I had grand visions of my children toiling under hot sun, learning the trade of picking cotton.  The image of Sally Field, crawling on hands and knees with bloody bandaged hands, harvesting the last puffs of her cotton crop in that movie Places in the Heart came to mind.  Or more likely, a home-grown cotton ball fight would’ve been a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  Either way, cotton didn’t show up.  It probably didn’t help that this Minnesota farm girl had no clue about cotton seedling identification.  Never really weeding that part of the garden probably didn’t help, either.

10.  Amish Tomatoes Rock.  We bought our tomato plants from the Amish Auction, and those buggers produced like champions.  Before the plants flopped over from weight of tomatoes and kid trampling, some were as tall as me (5 feet 7 inches, if you’re curious).  My one-year-old daughter loves the deep burgundy-colored cherry tomatoes that grow on those plants, and frequently has tomato seeds stuck to her chin, her hair, and behind her ears.  Among several failures, those tomatoes are a shining success.  Hallelujah!

Our tomato-lover, chowing down with a cherry tomato in each hand.

11. Operation Bean Tent = Success.  Thankfully, our bean tent worked just as planned.  The custom-engineered maple pole frame survived every windstorm, and the beans climbed up and produced just as promised on the seed package (which is more than I can say for some other seeds).  Yep, those tree-trimming scrap branches and that $1 packet of bean seeds produced bucket loads of enjoyment this summer.   Our tomato-eating baby girl is also now a bean-picking machine.

Standing in front of the towering sunflowers, happy to discover more string beans.

12. Our Soil is Par Excellence.  One neighbor told us that the soil in our neck of the prairie tests as the most fertile anywhere, even better than the soil in Iowa, where people feel quite lofty about their soil quality.  This makes me puff up my chest a little bit, even though I have absolutely zero influence on the innate soil quality of the area, and it was pure luck to stumble upon such nice land.  Just the same, with my lackadaisical weeding practices, I fully believe in the quality of our soil.  We grew weeds more resplendent than any I have ever seen before.

Finally, a few garden notices…

AWOL: Potatoes, peas, and carrots.  If any of you know the whereabouts of these vegetables, please contact us.  Our potatoes went AWOL after a promising beginning, and the peas and carrots never really reported for duty.

RIP:  Cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds, zucchini, watermelon, and muskmelon. (Or do you call it cantaloupe?  I never know what to call it.)  Whether it was the bugs or the over spray from the helicopter crop dusting the nearby corn field, either way, you died before your time.  You looked so promising, and so many unfulfilled dreams lay in your wake.  You are missed.  Thankfully, we can just resurrect you next year in our new-and-improved garden.  See you then.

An Interview with Kids: Ten Minutes Well Spent

Go find a small child and take ten minutes to interview him or her.  I don’t know what you’ll hear, but I do know that you won’t be disappointed.

A few weeks ago I sat down with each of our three oldest kids and gave them a one-on-one interview.  The entire process immediately took on an air of importance to them because we went off somewhere quiet and private (those being relative terms, of course).  I spoke with only one child at a time, so I could really listen to their answers with undivided attention.  In a house with lots of activity and competition for attention, believe me, that got noticed.  Just Mom, listening to me?  Not cooking lunch at the same time?  This must be important.

We sat down at the kitchen table and outside in the back yard.  For ten minutes with each child, I did nothing but ask, listen, and write.  And of course, giggle, nod, and provide an “Oh wow!” when appropriate.  For all of the time I spend with my kids, around them day in and day out, I spend relatively little time intently focused in on any given child.  As a parent, I don’t think I’m unique in this.  At any given time, my mind is sorting through a million things while I’m doing the simple tasks at hand.  When I’m helping someone brush teeth, I’m thinking about that insurance form to drop in the mail.  It’s pretty easy to not be present.

An interview, however, by nature requires full presence and engagement.  I wish I could say I came up with this meaningful activity all on my own, but I didn’t.  I borrowed this idea from Kate Riley’s blog, Centsational Girl.   In my chosen profession of teaching, it is standard practice to beg, borrow, and steal good ideas, so that’s what I did.

I now present the interviews with my 6-year-old daughter,  5-year-old son, and 3-year-old son.  For simplicity, I’m labeling their responses by their ages: 6, 5, or 3.  Their responses are endearing to me as their mother, but I also know that ideas out of any child’s mouth always entertain.

What was the happiest day of your life?
6: Christmas! No, the last day of school.
5: The day when you didn’t have to cook at all.
3: Happiest day is my mom.

Christmas, the almost happiest day of my daughter’s life. (Practicing the traditional Christmas Shoot Out.)

If you could change what thing in the world, what would it be?
6: Candy!  Plant a candy tree and make it grow everywhere you want.
5: I’d change lunch to brunch.  I’d only make brunches.
3: My mom.

When were you most afraid?
6: Late at night. It scares me if a wolf will come.
5: The Wizard of Oz.  I couldn’t get to sleep thinking about the witch.
3: I think a monster makes me scared, because because my dad just kills the monster.

“I’ll get you, my pretty!” keeps my 5-year-old up at night.

What do you want to do for a job? 
6: A person who draws and paints.  Kind of be an artist.
5: Artist.  Use lots of colors and makes some splatters and drips, use some sand, even tree leaves.  Like Antique that paints on TV.  Her paintings are so beautiful.
3: Hmm…let me think about it.  Do what makes me happy, that way I’m not so sad.  And I’ll step on the monsters.

“Happy little trees” make Bob Ross a favorite with my aspiring artists.

His first landscape painting. The new Bob Ross is a red head.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
6: My “blankie” and family.
5: You.
3: Hmm…That little baby over there (pointing to his sister).  She’s a cute little baby.

She’s the one thing her brother can’t live without.

Describe your perfect day.
6: Go to the big park with Mom and Dad and my family and my friend.  Spend some time with my family and play with my friend.
5: On a hot day going to the Mississippi, watch a little TV, swing, jump on the trampoline.  That’s all.
3: Maybe I’d fly an airplane when I get bigger.  I’d just be flying all by myself.

Who are your friends?
6: McKayla, because she’s fun. Boston, he asks me to race.
5: Carter, Shelby, Jackson, Keara (his cousin).  I know that cousins can be friends, but you can’t marry your cousin.
3:  My friends just be nice to me, and not eating me because they’re nice.

And then I asked them about myself!

What was Mom like as a child?
6: Fun.
5: I don’t know!
3: I think you wanted a toy to play with.  And I was a little girl, too (this is my son).

What does Mom do when you’re not around?
6: Take a nap if she’s really tired.
5: Clean the house.
3: When I am sleeping, you are just making lunch for me.

What’s Mom’s favorite food?
6: That pizza that’s new.
5: Salads.
3: Dandelions.

What’s Mom really good at doing?
6: Cooking!
5: Writing your articles.
3: Good at making supper for us while we’re all sleeping.

What’s Mom really bad at doing?
6: Jump roping!
5: Hmm…That’s a hard one.  Can we skip it?
3: One time my mom was sick, and I was very sad that she wasn’t coming into my room and nursing me.

What’s Mom’s favorite place?
6: With her friends.
5: Olive Garden.  Some day can we go there?
3: My mom’s favorite place is at home with me.

How do you know your mom loves you?
6: Because she takes me to bed at night and doesn’t want me to be too tired in the morning for school.
5: You give me hugs and kisses!  That was easy.  Not hard at all.
3: When I was a baby, I was just born out of your tummy.

After interviewing my kids, what did I learn?  My daughter knows that I send her to bed because I love her.  I am perfection in the eyes of my 5-year-old son.  My 3-year-old’s ideas reach far beyond his current speech abilities.  And as for me, I just need to slow down and be intently present every now and then.  To everyone.

Go on.  Take ten minutes.  From the mouths of babes…

When the TV Went on Vacation

Sometimes a TV should be seen and not heard. Or maybe not seen at all. Right now our TV is hiding out behind a tent, taking a little well-deserved vacation.

Roughing it in the living room for a night.

This all started a few nights ago. I came downstairs after putting the kids to bed, meaning to do the dishes, wash diapers, and fold laundry. I was tired, though, and I sat down for “five minutes” in front of the laptop. And an hour and a half later, I peeled my eyes away from the screen and went to bed. No dishes washed or laundry done. I was mad at myself for it and decided it was time for that business to stop.

When I’m tired, I sit down in front of the computer. I let the kids sit down in front of the TV. Meanwhile, the sun is shining outside on our limited summer vacation time, or the moon is up and everyone should be sleeping. Screen time interrupts all of that. The lazy, hazy days of summer fly by at a dizzying pace, and I want to absorb them all.

So, the next morning I told the kids the TV was going on vacation for a week. The laptop was, too. I braced myself for the “No, c’mon, Mom!!”. Surprisingly, it didn’t happen, because as much as they like watching PBS Kids, they felt even more excited knowing Mom wasn’t going to be in another world on the computer. We shut off the TV, put the laptop away in a drawer, and ate breakfast. That was it.

Four kids chopping up rhubarb for a yummy dessert. Even the baby gets to wield a knife.

And then we started living. We played kickball. We made strawberry rhubarb crunch together. We rode bikes around and around the driveway. We watched the chickens peck the ground. Literally.

Before this summer, I never spent any length of time around chickens. I discovered, though, that watching chickens industriously amble around on the hunt for bugs is strangely satisfying. I love when a chicken runs full speed in pursuit of a fluttering moth, or snags a big grasshopper and then scurries away to protect the treasure from other chickens. And who doesn’t appreciate a nasty earwig meeting its end? What good little chickens. Sitting in a comfy chair while watching chickens go about their quiet business provides the same soothing effect as watching a bonfire or a snowfall. Who knew chickens could be mesmerizing?

Turning off the TV also made ample time for creative, inventive play. On Sunday morning, in the lull between getting dressed and heading to church, I overheard the kids in the living room playing charades. Stomping around the room with arms chugging and plenty of sound effects I heard, “What am I?” “A train?” “Yeah, but what kind?” “Passenger?” “Freight train?” “YESSS!!! Ok! You’re turn!” And so, full engrossed, their game continued for another 15 minutes. I’m not sure where they even learned to play charades. Ironically, maybe they saw it on TV.

My ever-so-industrious kids also engaged in plenty of creative activities even when I was not even around. At some point, apparently someone hosted a dance party in the kitchen. On my loaf of bread. When I made toast one day, I pulled out a slice that looked a bit rumpled. I straightened it out a bit and popped it in the toaster. Once toasted, a very clear foot imprint revealed itself, complete with five little toes. A little foot-identification confirmed the foot stamp belonged to a certain very adorable baby girl. I’m not sure, however, who kindly put the slice of bread back in the bag after she stamped it.

Always return stomped bread into the bag, so nobody will ever know.

I bet someone could find all sorts of crafty applications for baby foot prints on slices of bread, but for right now, the toast is just sitting on a plate on top of our microwave. It’s just a little too cute to throw away. Perhaps I should varnish it into a Christmas ornament.

My three-year-old, not to be outdone by his baby sister, spent some TV-free time experimenting in fluid dynamics. His great discovery? A wide orange juice lid, installed horizontally, deep inside a drinking glass, creates a water tight seal and is nearly impossible to remove.

A fun experiment: Shove an orange juice lid in a glass while Mom’s not watching, and create a water tight seal.

Kitchen creations aside, a few days into our TV’s vacation, the quiet in the house became apparent to everyone. My five-year-old son remarked, “It’s been kind of quiet and nice. It’s just peaceful around here.” And it was.

Hanging around in the quiet on a cloudy, rainy night, my five-year-old asked if maybe he could go camping “back by the sheep fence in the trees.” I felt bad that we hadn’t done any camping this summer, not even in the yard. But I didn’t feel bad enough to head out to a cold, rainy night in a tent.

So I did what any parent would do, I told him yes. All he had to do was get the tent out of the attic, haul it outside, carry it through wet knee-high grass, and not get it in any sheep p…resents along the way. And then he needed to do the same with all of his blankets and his pillow.

Considering it for about two seconds, he said, “How about a tent in the living room?”

Now there’s an idea! I couldn’t deny that one. Filed away in my memory bank are many happy times building forts with my cousins for sleepovers in my grandma’s living room. As a veteran living room camper, I knew that the building of the tent and preparing beds would be far more exciting than the actual camping part. A tent, after all, is a tent: first it’s too hot, then it’s too cold. The one consistent is that it’s always uncomfortable. But I certainly would not deny my children the experience of all that adventurous living. No siree. We hooked together the poles, applied a little duct tape help as needed, and they had a fine camp out ready in our living room. All courtesy of the TV going on vacation.

That night, three kids excitedly headed to bed in a tent-filled living room. Giggles, excitement, a little nervousness, and an over-active three-year-old kept them all awake still at 10:30. Sometime around 2:00 AM, all that excitement and ensuing exhaustion led to a wet sleeping bag. Then around 3:00 AM, we had another wet pile of blankets. Who knew that less TV = more laundry? I swapped out wet for dry, tucked in the kids again, and they spent the rest of the night in camping bliss.

The next morning, triumphant in their camping experience, my daughter proudly deemed the living room tent sleepers now had the official title of Junior Campers. Every important feat deserves an equally important title.

Many thanks to our TV and laptop for taking much-needed breaks last week. Turns out we don’t need you two nearly as much as we thought.

Operation Garden: Full Speed Ahead‏

Little hearts filled with dirt and sunshine and the promise of amazing things that would someday soon be growing in the garden.    

The dirt’s been flying at our place lately (sometimes even in a productive direction), and aside from another 15 minutes of daylight to throw a few more seed packets into the ground, the garden is planted!  And like a garden probably should be, the whole thing has been a community effort.

This whole garden process started before we even moved in, when we had conversations about the best spot to make our garden in our new yard.  It wasn’t until we actually moved in that we discovered there already was a garden plot, and a massive 5,000 sq. ft. one at that.

It’s funny, but it never dawned on us at first or second or even third glance that the giant weed patch north of our chicken coup, the one full of forbidding-looking adult-sized weed stalks, was the garden.  After being left to its own devices last summer while the house sat empty, it looked like the kind of place where a kid and dog wander in, and then they emerge somehow three years older.

We set out to reclaim it.  My husband, Jarred, knocked down the dead stalks and then we burned the entire garden to get rid of it all.  On the night of the burn, we lit the garden on fire a little before sunset when the wind died down to the right amount.  Our five-year-old boy didn’t come into the house until well after dark, hands streaked with black ash and a grin glued on his face, happily helping out on a job that involved hanging out with Dad and lighting things on fire.

Then, a few weeks later, we had a neighbor chisel plow the whole thing for us, as a trade for use of some shop space.  Plowing doesn’t make the soil as smooth as tilling the garden, but we knew it would get the job done, so a few days later, we started planting with our pumpkins.  The day we started planting the garden was one of those days that I could happily take repeated all summer long: clear blue sky and sunshine, warm but not too hot or humid, and calm.

Sometimes pesky balls of dirt get stuck between pudgy little toes. Remove said pesky dirt balls, and eat them.

As we were out there in the sunshine, another set of neighbors noticed us as they drove past our place, and later they pulled into our yard and offered to bring a tractor and their tiller, and turn it all into that smooth, crumbly black goodness that’s so great to plant in.  We could hardly believe that our neighbors were offering to till up our garden for us, not exactly a small undertaking.

We accepted their offer, and half an hour later, just as I was pulling the ol’ pot roast out of the oven for supper, sure enough, there was a tractor in our yard, tilling up the garden and carefully avoiding the far end where we already put in pumpkins.  Sometimes we just shake our heads in disbelief that we’ve stumbled into an area with such friendly, helpful neighbors, and we only hope that over the years we can return the kindnesses, as well.

With the garden now tilled, I put some meat in the bellies of our four ravenous little kids, and then we turned them loose on the garden.  I don’t think any of them have memories of what a freshly tilled garden is like, so tearing into that pristine, gigantic, smooth pile of blackness was brand new and pure ecstasy for all of them.

They tore all over the garden, leaving little sunken foot print trails on our big black tabula rasa.  Then our oldest two, setting the proper example, began digging like dogs.  Heads down, using their hands to burrow some holes, they sent rivers of dirt flying up between their legs, and took turns digging and flinging the dirt piles on each other.

When digging in a freshly tilled garden, it’s important to fling dirt with optimal height and distance. Always thoroughly cover your sibling with the dirt spray.

Meanwhile, our two-year-old made dirt fountains that launched up over his head, and our baby took her bow-legged just-learned-to-walk steps across the soil, frequently landing on her back side, which made convenient opportunities to stop and sift the dirt in her pudgy fingers and sample enough to leave a dirt goatee around her mouth.

Then, of course, it was time for business.  The kids got out the shovels and hoes, argued over who got to run what, and dug up all sorts of vitally important random holes in the garden.

During planting, we added a few kid-friendly features to the garden.  We trimmed our smaller maple trees earlier that day, and the cast off branches became the interwoven stakes for what is going to be a bean tent, once the beans grow in and wind themselves up the stakes.  Right now it’s still fun as a maple-tree-branch-tent, and it’s been strong enough to withstand a few raging thunderstorms unscathed.  (That’s what happens when an engineer whips up a little 5-minute branch tent for his kids.)

Four kids hanging out in the shade of what is going to be the Bean Tent.

We also took our package of mammoth sunflower seeds and planted them in a large square, so that when those 10-foot buggers grow in, the kids can tuck themselves inside and have a secret hiding space, which of course, is extremely important.  One can never have enough secret hiding places.  Our kids officially named it the Sunflower Garage, because it’s next to the Bean Tent.  It’s also important that secret hiding places have names.

In the midst of our playing, Jarred managed to actually plant several things and I got some seeds in the ground, too.  For the record, and for Jarred’s mom’s benefit, I must state that Jarred did the majority of the planting.  His mom told me on several occasions that back in high school, when she asked him to help with planting potatoes, there was an extreme amount of protest about gardening from her son.  But this year, he was planter-in-chief.

By the time our kids finished their garden free-for-all, they had just enough energy to help sprinkle a few seeds, and then I decided bath time was the next order of business.  A fine powder of black dirt coated their ears and stuck to all of their scalps, not to mention their clothes.

The dirt river heading to the drain after they’d all been cycled through our claw foot tub was nothing short of impressive.  We were all happy that night as I sent them off to bed nice and clean, their little hearts filled with dirt and sunshine and the promise of amazing things that would someday soon be growing in the garden.

Written June 4, 2012.
© 2012

Our Summer Sand Pail List

In the course of unpacking some boxes, I came across a “Bucket List” that I’d made in high school, back before Bucket Lists were called Bucket Lists.  The movie by that name hadn’t come out yet, so my list was just “Things I’d Like to Do” (with the implication “before I die,” but at 17, who wants to write “die” on an inspiration list).  Anyway, of the 45 things I thought of that day, I’m happy that I can now put a little “x” next to 16 of those things.  I’ve gone skydiving, but I haven’t been to Australia.  Yet.  Seeing that old list makes me think that it’s time for me to update my Bucket List with some new life goals.

In the short term, though, summer is on my mind.  Judging by the weather, it’s definitely time for summer vacation to start.  And strangely enough, it’s not my kids that are itching for summer vacation, it’s me. I’m sick of putting the kids to bed when there’s still plenty of daylight.  The responsible parent in me says “get the kids in bed, they’ve got school tomorrow and need some good sleep,” and the irresponsible kid in me says, “but I don’t want them to go to bed yet.  We’re having too much fun playing outside.”

This is our first summer living in our new place in Minnesota, and that opens a whole new world of fun possibilities.  There is a freshness and excitement that comes with living in a new place and having new things to discover.  And even though I grew up in St. Charles, our new house 15 miles away is just far enough to be a new territory for me to explore.  With all these possibilities swirling around in my mind, I decided to take the suggestion I found in some magazine, and create a “Sand Pail List,” the summer equivalent of the Bucket List.  None of the things on my list are particularly earth-shattering or profoundly life-changing, but they all add up to living the kind of life that I want for myself and for our family.  It’s easy to forget the big picture in the sea of diapers to change and cereal bowls to wash, so this is my start on making sure we fully take advantage of the joys of summer.

12 Things to Do in the Summer of 2012 

1.  Less Screens–My smart phone is my vice.  I way too frequently grab it, and suddenly 20 minutes disappears, and then I’m mad at myself.  I gave up facebook for Lent, and I want to do something similar with my smart phone in general for the summer.  Our television also might go on vacation for at least part of the summer.

2. Lots O’ Gardening–This year marks our first time planting our very own family garden, and we’re all so excited to play in the dirt and see what we can grow and eat from our own  piece of land.

3. More Books–In the mess of moving, I got sidetracked from reading nap and bedtime stories, and I plan to go back to that.  Reading to our kids is one of my very favorite things, and I plan to make regular trips to see Grandma at the library to keep a fresh supply of books around.  We’ve got two emerging readers in our house, and it thrills me to see them learning new words.

4.  Streamlined for Summer–I want “less is more” for summer.  We’re still living in moving clutter, and I want all the extra clothes, toys, and stuff put away so we have more room and time to breathe, play, and create.  The last thing I want to do is hang out inside the house cleaning when there are so many fun projects outside to tackle.

5.  BBQs and Bonfires–Yes, lots of these.  Gazing into flames is a satisfying caveman television, and wood smoke smells like good times.

Our curly-haired boy gazes into the bonfire well past his usual bedtime. Item #5 on our Sand Pail List: Check.

6.  “Mom Cave”–We have a sun room upstairs currently filled with moving boxes.  At some point, the grand master scheme is to make it into a laundry/guest/sewing room, my “Mom Cave.”  We need room for friends and family to come and stay, and I finally have a spot where my sewing machine can live relatively undisturbed.  It’s been over a year since I’ve sewn a thing, and I want to teach my kids how to sew, just like my mom did for me.

7.  Playing Farm–Growing up, I loved living in the country, but my contribution to help on the farm was pretty much zero (my siblings will confirm this).  But now on our own place, playing farm sounds fun.  We’ve got the neighbor’s sheep munching away weeds in our pasture, and we’ve got plans for chickens and who knows what else once we get more settled.  We really just need more hours in the day to execute all our schemes and dreams with our new land.

8.  Porch Swing–My life will be complete once we have a big ol’ porch swing for our porch.  I’ve fantasized about porch swings my whole life.

9.  Date Nights–As far as I can remember, we last went out for a date night over a year ago.  Our last date night included a two-week old baby along for our anniversary dinner and movie, but I think this summer we just might actually get a babysitter for all of them and go out, all by ourselves.  I can hardly wait to eat my food while it’s still warm.

10. Kayaking–For whatever reason, kayaking is on my mind.  I’ve gone canoeing, but I’ve never been in a kayak, and it’s high time that I took that plunge.  I want to feel like a waterbug gliding through the water, and now that we live pretty close to the Root River, I think this summer is the time.

11. Run Baby Run–Somehow, between moving out and moving in and driving cross country time and time again, I just haven’t had time to go running lately.  Before kids, I ran a few times a week, then it went to maybe once a week, but lately it’s been more like once every month.  This summer I want to get back to running once or twice a week, and do a few local races.  Running for me is a colossal stress reliever and now with four kids, it’s one of the few times that I ever have complete solitude.  That is priceless.

12. Learning by Doing–If the school year is the time for desks, papers, and pencils, summer is the time for hands-on learning by doing.  I want my kids to garden, build stuff out of wood, get confident enough on their bikes that I get nervous, start learning to swim, and be active, busy little creatures figuring things out for themselves.

Another item on the summer list: share cold treats with friends. Enjoying Hawaiian shaved ice in Lanesboro, MN on Memorial Day weekend.

If at the end of the summer I see lots of dirty feet, scabby knees, no propane left in the BBQ, permanently dead grass under the fire pit, fines racked up at the library from stacks of books getting checked out, piles of grass to sweep off the floor at night, and counter tops buried in garden bounty, I will definitely call Summer 2012 a success.

Written May 28, 2012.

© 2012

Celebrating Cornmeal: Three Fabulous Ways to Enjoy that Box in the Back of the Cupboard

Written May 7, 2012.

With Mother’s Day on my mind, I become more and more amazed each year at my own mom’s feat of raising a baker’s dozen. Growing up, I didn’t give much thought to the enormous challenge of raising all of us, but now as a busy mother of four, it is all the more impressive to me to think of being pregnant with and raising triple the number of kids that I currently have. Wow.

My mom did it all with a lot of hard work and plenty of on-the-fly creative innovation. This week’s column is inspired by one of those ideas. Back in the day, my mom did something that amazed the ladies in her Homemakers’ Club. During a meeting at our house when all the ladies in the neighborhood got together, one of those times that we tried to have our house looking like everything is beautifully in order and always clean, my mom deliberately made a big mess on her kitchen island.

Doing Cornmeal”

Taking the container of cornmeal, my mom dumped a pile out on the counter, pulled up a little stool, and gave my then preschool age younger brother a selection of little tractors. While she bustled around the kitchen getting ready for her gathering of ladies, my brother happily farmed the cornmeal, plowing rows, scooping it into wagons, and dumping it into piles.

A pile of cornmeal became a staple on our kitchen island for years. Sometimes we swept the cornmeal and tractor collection into a little plastic container that lived on the island, but much of the time a generous cornmeal pile resided on display on the counter top with tractors in various states of farming and it made a ready play spot that attracted all ages. We all loved “doing cornmeal,” and even adults in the family absent-mindedly smoothed the cornmeal into piles or steered a tractor through a pile while we mingled around the kitchen island during a Sunday noon conversation.

Growing up, my mom let us “do cornmeal” in the least restricted way, as an uncontained pile on the counter. Today, kids in our family still play with free spreading piles of cornmeal on Sundays at grandma’s (my mom’s) house under the helpful supervision of my older brother. He’s an always willing uncle who holds little kids on his lap and helps them with their cornmeal farming (and keeps the pile of cornmeal from dumping all over grandma’s carpet).

A pile of cornmeal, some tractors, and an uncle around to catch any spills is a great Sunday afternoon at Grandma’s.

As for me, I usually contain the piles in 9 x 13 cake pans when we play with cornmeal at our house. Giving each kiddo their own pan and pile prevents jurisdictional disputes, and the Ziploc labeled “Kid Cornmeal” always gets plenty of use at our house.

Cornmeal as a toy has undeniable appeal. It’s cheap, versatile, the grainy, smooth texture of cornmeal sifting through hands is irresistibly satisfying, and it feels just slightly naughty to get to play in a mess. In the middle of the winter, a pile of cornmeal becomes an indoor sandbox. Tractors pulling mini chisel plows and discs make beautiful little trails in the cornmeal, and little skid steers can scoop it up and fill any number of things. Add a few measuring cups and spoons, and a cornmeal pile becomes a pretend kitchen. I really don’t need to over explain it. Dump out a pile in front of a kid. Add a few play things. They will be happy for a long time.

Sweet Cornbread

And as much as we love to play with cornmeal, we also love to eat it as cornbread. Cornbread is one of those foods done poorly way too often. You know the kind, perhaps when you sink your teeth into cornbread, it reminds you of the spray foam insulation you used to seal up your attic. Or maybe when you take a bite, your mind travels back in time to the Civil War, and you wonder if perhaps the soldiers’ rations tasted about like this: a dry, tasteless, grainy belly-filler that could remain in the same miserable state for weeks and still taste just the same.

If you’ve spent a life eating cornbread that shatters in your mouth instead of crumbles, or think it is only an acceptable food product once it has been liberally slathered with a layer of butter and honey, today is the day to try something new. I have a cornbread recipe that is sweet and moist, and so good that you don’t even need to coat it with butter or honey (although that certainly is not against the rules).

I found this recipe on the back of the Albers Cornmeal box. Since discovering it ten years ago, this is the only recipe I use for cornbread. The recipe claims 12 servings, but our family of six (four of which are six and under) eats most of the pan in one sitting.

Cornbread this soft, sweet, and tasty is probably illegal in some states. Go on, make a batch. Eat it warm, and it’s better than cake. (photo from albers.com)

Sweet Corn Bread

(Makes 12 servings)

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar

  • 1/2 cup corn meal

  • 1 Tbsp baking powder

  • 1/2 tsp salt

  • 1 1/4 cups milk

  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten

  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil

  • 3 Tbsp butter or margarine, melted

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 8-inch square baking pan.

Combine flour, sugar, corn meal, baking powder and salt in medium bowl. Combine milk, eggs, vegetable oil and butter in small bowl; mix well. Add to flour mixture; stir just until blended. Pour into prepared baking pan.  Bake for 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve warm.

So, it’s time to take that box of cornmeal out of the back of the cupboard. You know the one. You bought it out of a sense of obligation, feeling like you should have cornmeal on hand because that is the proper thing to do as an adult, because your mom always has some.

Then you stuck the cornmeal in your cupboard, and it slowly worked itself to the back where it still sits today, probably years after you first bought it. There is a good chance that the plastic on top is still intact. And there is also a good chance that even if it has been long neglected, that cornmeal is probably just fine.

Blow the dust off the top of your cornmeal box. Give a pile to your kids to play with, and while they are busy, make a batch of corn bread. No need to feel guilty if you eat four of the twelve servings. You can work it off by sweeping up any cornmeal your kids spill on the floor.

Cornmeal + Ants = “Cornage”

Or, better yet, don’t sweep the cornmeal. Most fabulously of all, a little known value of spilled cornmeal is that it is a natural pesticide for ants. Ants take the food back to the nest, but cannot digest it. The cornmeal swells in their stomach until they burst. KERPOW! Goodbye, ant problem. Now, don’t you love cornmeal even more?

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

© 2012

Preventing Mutiny with Playdough

Written March 19, 2012.

My little Montana natives are getting restless. They tell me repeatedly they want to go home. “Home” as in our new house in Minnesota that they only saw for a few hours total, six months ago.

It was a full month ago now that their dad hauled most of our stuff to that house. At the time, when we loaded up two full trailers, we thought another two weeks here in Montana would wrap up all of his work projects here. And now, a month later, it looks like we are still two more weeks out from that elusive moving date. If you listen closely on a calm day, you might be able to hear our collective sigh from 1,000 miles away.

Understandably, my kids are getting tired of it all. We’ve all been living out of duffel bags for a month. When I set aside their clothes to keep here, I grabbed only long-sleeved shirts since it was the middle of February at the time. Now, with this stretch of crazily warm weather here in MT (and even hotter in MN, I hear), I’ve been accusingly asked more than once why I didn’t pack them some t-shirts.

And of course, when St. Patrick’s Day rolled around, they wondered why one month ago I didn’t think ahead to make sure that they each had something green to put on for that day. Silly me.

For several weeks they’ve been troopers about living in a mostly empty house, devoid of their usual assortment of toys and their own comfy beds and blankets. But a few nights ago, when the end of the day weariness kicks in and emotions heighten, my 6-year-old came to me with tears rolling down her cheeks, telling me that this house here “doesn’t feel like home anymore. Now it just feels like an ‘icky’ old house.” Then she asked if we could just move to Minnesota in the morning. I told her I wished we could.

It’s certainly not for a lack of effort that we are still here in Montana. My husband, Jarred, has been logging long hours for weeks. Every morning he leaves after breakfast and doesn’t get home until supper has been cold for a long time.

Three nights in a row, he didn’t get home until after the kids were already in bed. The older kids understand that he is working hard to finish his scale projects so we can move, but at the same time, they really just want their dad around to play with them. With their favorite live-action super hero gone installing scales until bedtime, hanging out in this empty house feels all the more, well, empty.

One morning this week when our almost one-year-old sweet baby spied Dad after not seeing him since breakfast the day before, she giggled and leaned toward him so he would hold her. Then she laid her head on his shoulder, grabbed onto his shirt with one hand, and patted his back with the other. That’s the sweet side of it all.

On the not-so-sweet side is the bickering and arguing of kids who are getting tired of the empty surroundings and miss being in a house that feels homey. My two oldest kids are just fifteen months apart, and being that close in age, they know each other all too well.

They sit next to each other at meals, and lately, they bicker and push each other’s buttons like a grumpy old married couple. “It’s not actually peanut butter and jelly. It’s really jam.” “Well, I say jelly.” “Well, that’s wrong. It’s jam.” “But I call it PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY!!!!” Follow this actual exchange with an angry growl and one squeezing the other’s arm, and you’ve got an accurate picture of family meals these days.

After several of these days this week, I knew we needed a little something different in our lives. So, I dug in our kitchen cupboards and I made a toy that cost next to nothing and can happily engage them for an hour at a time. Playdough.

Growing up, I thought homemade playdough was a sad, sad excuse for the “real” stuff that came from the store. My childhood recollection of homemade playdough was a stiff, salty, grainy mass that dried out too quickly, was too hard to shape, and not pliable enough to roll. It was useless (and tasted terrible, I might add). We added water to it trying to fix it, and it became a thick spackle that probably wound up in the garbage.

Apparently, we didn’t have the right recipe, because now I absolutely love homemade playdough. The recipe I use makes a wonderfully soft, smooth, easily pliable dough that is a tactile dream. And the beauty of it is that it’s a two-for-one: a science experiment/cooking project in the kitchen, and a fun toy when the project is complete.

On the day we whipped up a batch of fun, my three oldest kids eagerly gathered around to stir together the dry ingredients in the saucepan before I cooked the batch on the stove. In bickering mode, they argued over who got to dump in what and how the mix should be stirred, but we forged ahead because I knew eventually they would be too engrossed in activity to argue.

The big kids stir together dry ingredients and argue a bit while Kathy held the baby and kept her out of the flour mess.

Once I cooked the dough, we divided it into baseball-size clumps. Then each clump got a few child-selected drops of food coloring, and they eagerly kneaded it until the ball became a satisfyingly bright color. My kids are into rainbows, so they decided we needed all the colors, including indigo and violet. I mixed and tweaked food coloring drops, and they smushed and squeezed away, until we had seven bright balls of playdough.

A complete rainbow of playdough colors, including indigo and violet. Thank you, Cat in the Hat, for teaching my kids the Rainbow Song. I sing it in my sleep.

Best of all, once we finished making the playdough, I turned them loose. Snakes, circles, birthday cakes, pizzas, and animals took shape and then got smashed into oblivion. Sure, our baby was fed a few pieces of playdough “food” by a kind two-year-old brother. But when the ingredients came straight out of the kitchen, the kid squabbling was gone, and quiet, industrious play reigned supreme, I called the playdough project a great success.

Contentedly slicing playdough cookies before rolling them into snakes.w

It cleans up nicely, too. And I mean it. I would not make a playdough that would smear in the carpet and hold up this eagerly anticipated moving process…

Kathy’s Peace-Making Playdough

2 c. flour

1 c. salt

2 tbsp. cream of tartar

2 c. water

2 tbsp. oil

food coloring

Mix dry ingredients together in a saucepan. Add water and oil. Stir until smooth. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens and sticks to spoon. Cool. Add food coloring as desired, mixing by hand. Play until you feel happy. Store in an airtight container.

© 2012