Over ninety years ago my great grandfather purchased a plot of land on the Sunshine Coast where he would bring his family every summer, by boat. They built a cookhouse and put up tents and for the entire summer the kids would fish, build forts and play wild and free. Over fifty years ago, as their own children began to have children, my grandparents bought out their siblings, purchased an adjoining property and built little cabins that dot the property to allow the summer tradition to continue.
The property continues to expand as extended family accumulates land that comes available and the summer tradition continues as barefoot children run through the forest, across the creek and kids are dragged in, tired and dirty, far after the sun has sunk. Bonfires, shiner fishing, swim tests, giant sand castles, forest walks – sticky hands from ice cream, huckleberries and (though not quite yet) blackberries, marking the timelessness of tradition.
My grandparents – strong, joyful, charismatic people who loved to be with their large family; eating, drinking, dancing, laughing – just a slight bit of recklessness encouraged, life isn’t meant to be taken too seriously after all.
My great big loveable grandfather, with whom I almost-shared-a-birthday, had big warm hands that would pat my knee, reassuring me of my place in the line. A twinkle in his eye always making me believe that I was, in fact, a favourite, and an ear that always earnestly listened. Its hard to believe the sun chair where he sat, with the paper folded on his knee as he chatted with cousins, aunts and friends passing by, will no longer be read. His scotch glass won’t be refilled. And yet as I hear the water lap up I feel the smile that he shares with his wife of so many years, watching how the gift that they enabled, without likely realizing what an extraordinary gift it was, still shapes the lives of so many people – the children of their children’s children, and likely more to come.
I consider the choices I have made to pass this tradition to my kids, so that they too may spend most of the summer in an endless pursuit of exploration and I feel a quiet calm knowing that these free days, of family, of ritual and tradition will be a legacy that they own, will somehow be an anchor to them and help them define their place in this busy world. And so I take a deep breath and try to let go of the pressures, worries and frets of life and instead focus and appreciate this truly wonderful gift my grandmother’s father started.
So if you are wondering where I am in the summer, you might just find me barefoot hiking up the Creek, chatting books with family on the beach or picking berries with my boys, letting the legacy of those who came before me define my place in life.
A couple of times a year I completely fall for a book. It has happened again. What is the What has embedded itself in my head and though I finished it at least a month ago it keeps on at me, scratching at my thoughts. It isn’t a new book (2006), but it is beautifully written, deeply emotive and a highly informative story. Written by Dave Eggers (who happens to be the inspirational founder of 826 Valencia), What is the What crosses the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction to share the personal history of one of the lost boys, Valentino Achak Deng, of Sudan.
Though I could write for pages on the merits of this book I will refer you to the many reviews available online (not all favourable) and rather focus on one of the thoughts that I could not let go of as I read. When the village of Marial Bai is attacked by Arab militia during the Sudanese civil war young Deng finds himself alone, separated from his family and friends and quite certain that his family has all been killed. He escapes into the jungle where he follows his instinct and after a time finds a huge group of other abandoned, lost and orphaned boys to travel with. They spend months walking first to Ethiopia and later to Kenya. He is around seven years old.
As I read the book I kept peering into the bedroom of my own seven and nine year old boys, considering, imagining how they would possibly cope if they had to survive even a fraction of what Deng did.
Food deprivation was only the beginning. As we worry and fret about the servings of vegetables needed to sustain the growing minds and bodies of our children these boys went days without food – some starving as they walked, some entering into delirium. When they find a tree with bird’s eggs they ravish them as our kids attack a plate of pancakes with whip cream. However, any human being survives hunger if they can. What really impressed me was the psychological determination of young Deng, and the other boys around him.
As they walked they did form the odd alliance, especially if they knew kids from life prior. Mostly, however, they remained detached, weary of who would die next, either by lion attack, crocodiles, militia, disease, combat, dehydration or desperation; the options for death seemed to be endless. Although many died, some made it through, eventually. How does a boy, the same age as my children, whom I worry if I haven’t been home to read to at night, or given enough individual attention to, survive the horror, loneliness and desperation that Deng was forced into and survive? I mean really survive, not just physically exist, but remain an engaged, hopeful human being who despite setback after setback perseveres and continues to try to love and live a life he can be proud of.
I imagine that under the stress that Deng endured most of us would crumble. But maybe, maybe our children still have enough vision, trust and faith to keep looking forward. Maybe they’d be better at surviving than we would. I am a pretty strong advocate of the theory that the first six years lay a solid foundation for the future. Perhaps those children who come from stable, loving families, as Deng did, have a greater chance of thriving regardless of what comes their way after. Perhaps, it is merely a matter of nature – some are simply born with a stronger will to thrive? Most likely it is a combination of these.
What can we take from this to reflect on how we ourselves parent? Maybe Deng was able to survive because he discovered that he could. He was faced with obstacles that he surmounted and in doing so learned that he could in fact survive. Surely if these boys were capable of walking through countries, alone, in the dark, on the brink of death, our children are capable of walking to school on their own, perhaps playing in the park without parental supervision at times, going to the store to run the odd errand, maybe even navigate the difficulties that can emerge from relationships with peers at school? Perhaps even, if we as a society allowed our children to face more obstacles on their own, their survival tactics would become stronger and they would become better leaders.
Eventually, when he is verging on adulthood, Deng goes to America where he expects a safe haven. The reality of what he finds is, of course, quite different. He struggles with poverty, violence, isolation and perhaps most acutely indifference. Apathy. And here is perhaps the greatest challenge to raising our over-privileged and capable children. How do we keep them mindful of the Deng’s in the world? How do we funnel those leadership qualities to create empathetic, conscious and engaged kids in a world that is far too often blind.
My 9 year old son, sick on the couch, wrote a guide to annoying grown-ups…
How to Annoy Grown-ups
Okay, so your wondering how to annoy grownups, right? Well, strangely enough there is one rule. And that rule is: repeat, repeat, repeat. But there are some things that work better than others. You are probably thinking that the best thing to repeat is blah. Well no. Repeating the sound, blah, is probably the worst thing to try and repeat. One of the best things to repeat is saying, ‘hey mom/dad, hey mom/dad, hey mom/dad.’
If they answer then just ignore them and keep repeating. The reason why put mom/dad is because it depends on who you are talking to. If you are talking to your mom you say mom and if you are talking to your dad you say dad. But never, never say dad if you are talking to your mom. They just get confused.
Another good way to annoy a grownup is to sing: “baby, baby, baby ooohhhh” like (and keep repeating). But you have to sing the OOHH part like you are about to burst into tears. By the way, I hate that song.
One of the best ways to annoy grownups is to sing. Wait, let me pause here. Have you ever heard of the new Madagascar movie?
Well, you just sing “de de de de circus, de de afro circus, afro circus, polka dot, polka dot, polka dot afro!”… over and over and over again. You know, after you annoy one grown up then you might want to do it again, and again and even again. It is really hard to stop.
It depends on what kind of mother and father you have. What I mean by that is if you have a grumpy mother and father then it isn’t a good idea to try and annoy them. You will probably get in trouble. But if you have a really nice mom and dad then that is better (keep that in mind at all times).
PS: After your parents or whoever you try to annoy says stop 2 or 3 times then stop. And if you are a beginner, then it is best to start on your grandparents. Have a fun time annoying! THE END
WAIT! Do not put this book down yet. I still have some advice to tell you. Can you try and start a club of annoyingness? But never let grownups in it. If everybody around the world makes clubs of annoyingness then we will annoy grownups so much they will give up and kids will rule the world! Wouldn’t that be awesome? Anyways, sadly this is the end of this wonderful book and this time I am not joking. See…read the next words…
SUMMER WRITING WITH KIDS, as published in Island Parent
This summer many kids will go to the beach, create art, even read a stack of books. But how many kids will decide to sit down and write stories. My bet is not too many.
Most kids inherently enjoy the process of creating, however, when they are encouraged to go write a story or write in a journal they are not usually quick to the uptake.
Most parents feel that by encouraging reading they have done their part to promote literacy with their kids. And yet, when children engage in creative writing their relationship with literacy and books becomes so much richer and more personal. The tools and lessons that they learn through literacy are experienced on an entirely different level when they realize ownership over a written product.
When they write creatively, children develop:
Motivation to learn
Tools to navigate their own emotional development
Creativity, like any other skill, must be developed. Children develop creative skills through everyday activities including art, music, lego building, imaginative play, access to nature or storytelling. However, many kids learn to associate writing with work rather than a creative process and therefore don’t often readily engage. But if you have ever seen a child get so excited over the ideas of a story swarming in her head that her ideas can’t keep up with her spoken words, you will understand that most kids love creating stories, they just need to believe that they can and they need to experience enough success from the effort that it is something that they want to do.
So how can we, as parents and caregivers, support and encourage our children to write and to view the act of writing as a positive and enjoyable task?
It doesn’t matter how old your child is, whether three or sixteen, there are similar stimulants that will help motivate and foster a love of creation. The following are some suggestions that can be adapted to suit your children and family.
Take the ‘work’ out of creative writing.
Kids who don’t love the task of transcribing think they don’t enjoy writing. However, the transcription skills will eventually come. Encourage your child to believe in his or her writing abilities by allowing an older child access to a laptop, sitting and transcribing for young or reluctant transcribers, offering a recorder to tape the story and then volunteering to type it out.
When kids separate the task of transcription with the joy of creation they may begin to envision themselves as capable storytellers and authors and will embark on a new relationship with literacy.
Create an Audience.
When kids don’t think that their work will be shared it seems a futile exercise. There are so many ways to create an audience. Encourage your child to enter a writing contest (for example this summer through the library), make a storybook and mail it as a gift to someone your child loves, host a ‘reading’ with goodies and a little stage and encourage your child and their friends to ‘read’ their work, encourage your child and their friends to write a play and then enable them to act it out. Other fun ideas would be to create a blog, write a travel book on a family trip that you will either post or give to other people you know heading to the same area. Even simply reading your child’s story aloud, with great diction and enthusiasm and an enthusiastic response will go a long way to encourage them to keep on writing.
Find something to praise.
Your child will only want to write if they feel positively rewarded from doing so. So, unless your child specifically asks you to edit or critique their writing don’t evaluate it. Instead, look for a couple of points you find strong or interesting in your child’s work and point them out. If they have written a particularly interesting sentence, if they have used a great description, if you can hear your child’s personality in the work, let them know. If your child is not yet ‘writing’ and their story looks like scribble comment on choice of colour, an effort at showing an emotion, or just that you appreciate how hard they worked.
Save the comments about punctuation, grammar, linking thoughts, rambling dialogue, even incoherency for those times when you are helping with homework, or if they specifically ask for it. Let them just embrace the act of being creative and being praised for it.
Create a Writing Space
Kids need a space to create. This may be a quaint little reading nook in a window, a blanket under a tree in the summer or a desk in the house. It should be somewhat private away from siblings distracting influences or the general noise of a household. If possible, they could have a ‘bookmaking’ box, filled with writing tools, papers and drawing pens to start creation whenever they wish.
If your child feels like they are in control of their writing, have a purpose to write, have an opportunity to share it and receive positive feedback, you may just see that writing becomes a new favourite pastime!