Friday, November 23, 2012

The Idle Parent

The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids

The kids and I were at the local pool, playing ring-a-rosy. I was having a ball pulling them underwater; judging from their giggles and shrieks, they were having a ball too. Behind us some older kids were fooling around, aged maybe nine, ten and eleven. Above us strode an anxious lined middle class mother, watching them like a hawk and shouting an instruction every few seconds. ‘Stop that! Leave him alone! Go left! Watch out! Be careful! Move to the right!’. On and on and on it went.

I felt myself cringing at her, and then at myself as I rebuked my six-year-old for launching herself into a group of toddlers. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ I wanted to shout – both at her and myself – , ‘leave them alone!’

How can kids enjoy themselves when their every move is noticed and critiqued? How can parents enjoy themselves when they are convinced that every move their kids make will result in disaster? And yet that is the tone of so much middle-class parenting, and so much parenting material. For the most part I avoid parenting books. Sanctimonious and puritanical things, I want nothing of them. But at right angles to the essay section of my local bookshop is the parenting shelf; and catching my eye the other week was The Idle Parent.

What a title! It sang out to me. I have three kids, aged nine, six and four, and I just can’t be bothered being a proper energetically hovering middle class parent like the woman at the pool. As all the other mums rush their kids off to karate / jazz ballet / Chinese / drawing / whatever, I certainly do feel idle; even so, I don’t have the energy or interest to do likewise. The thought of watching some six-year-old learn a dance move makes me want to scream with boredom; worse, standing over them as they leap about the local swimming pool makes me want to slit my throat. I want to fool around in the pool myself, or I want to read a book; either way, moderating their fun is not my idea of a good time. So I picked up The Idle Parent, and devoured it overnight.

The book’s thesis is simple: Leave them alone! We are not kids, and kids are not adults. Our interests only sometimes overlap. So, suggests the author, the simplest recipe for a healthy happy family life is to give your kids the freedom to do their thing while you go and do your thing. Be there when they need you, but don’t hover. Just let them be. His ideal parenting situation is a large field, many kids romping at one end and many parents drinking beer at the other. Everyone’s safe, and everyone’s happy!

Such a scenario brought a big smile to my face, because I have often thought that my ideal parenting situation is a house party, with twenty kids running around and twenty adults drinking wine and talking their heads off. My kids tend to agree, which is why they beg for such events. Who are you inviting over? they ask most Saturdays, There must be someone!

(For that matter, our other favourite parenting environment is a large field at a friend’s block, as long as we have a couple of extra kids with us. The kids run down the hill and over the next ridge, and we can talk, enjoy the view and inspect the new growth while they’re gone. Last time the horde came charging back up the hill, screeching and laughing themselves silly, dangling leeches from the ends of their fingers and waggling them about. It was hilarious.)

By now any non-parents must be rolling their eyes; do we really need a book to be told to leave the kids alone, even if it is to get sucked by leeches? But those among us with children know just how hard it is. Our culture highly values present and attentive parents, lest little Johnny have his fragile ego squashed because Mummy is more interested in a book than in him, or lest little Cindy have her hopes of being a professional ballerina dashed because Mummy couldn’t be bothered with dancing lessons. Even the author of one of the more interesting recent books about child raising, Last Child in the Woods, which is about the urgent need to get children back in touch with the natural world, admits that he never lets his sons out of sight when they’re hiking. (When I read that, I didn’t know whether to throw the book across the room, or cry.)

In that light, I am a wicked mummy. I have friends and interests that have nothing to do with my kids; I remind the kids about snakes then let them roam through field and forest; and so it is a great relief to read a book which backs up my more carefree approach.

Of course, Hodkingson doesn’t advocate absolute freedom. He has strong ideas about what is and is not helpful as kids explore the world. Television gets the thumbs down, as do plastic toys and having too much stuff; inside isn’t the best place; and neat clean tidy places aren’t ideal, either. He argues kids need space to roam, lots of access to trees, bushes and wild spaces, and things to make stuff with. Good books, wrestling on the floor, a bit of dirt and mess... it all sounds about right to me. The result of such an approach is resilient, creative, competent children (and parents) who are resistant to the lies of consumerism.

The book draws from a broad range of thinkers, from John Locke, Rousseau and DH Lawrence to AS Neill (Summerhill School); ideas from more recent authors, including Skenazy (Free Range Kids) and Louv also surface. The synthesis is cheerful, intelligent and convincing. Above all, I appreciate that it is not just about kids (and therefore about what parents should do (and fail to do) in raising them); instead, The Idle Parent is really about families. Hodgkinson asks good questions about what parents want from life, and encourages the reader to critique his or her own approach, and to recognise and critique the at times suffocating limitations of the dominant culture.

For example, he asks what is enough – do both parents need to work full time or could they both be home with kids more? Why do we live where we do: could we live elsewhere and pay less rent or mortgage? Could we live in a smaller house closer to work and spend less time commuting? What do we spend our money on, and why – do kids really need or want manicured houses, expensive holidays, amusement parks and fancy toys, or are they consumerist furphies? What do we enjoy doing as a family, and what do we hate doing together? Do we enjoy holidaying together, or are there times when separate vacations would be more restorative? Do we need more adults around to contribute to family life, and if so, who can we call on: friends, family, paid employees? In short, he questions how we adults constrain our lives (particularly with regards to happiness) and how we might liberate ourselves, using a refreshingly utilitarian approach.

It’s a lovely book and terrifically opinionated. It opens with a manifesto ‘We pledge to leave our children alone / We reject the rampant consumerism that invades our children’s lives from the moment they are born / We drink alcohol without guilt / We reject the inner Puritan...’, and follows with chapters including ‘Seek not Perfection’, ‘The Myth of Toys’, ‘Down with School’, and ‘Let Us Sleep’, familiar territory for most parents. Best of all, he offers no one-size-fits-all solution, but encourages each family to find what works – or, in the words of the Manifesto, ‘There are many paths’. Hodgkinson has strong opinions about what doesn’t work – long hours at work, large mortgages, too many toys and bits of plastic, guilt – and many suggestions about what could.

I happened to go on a family holiday right after reading the book. I was going to spend the first week largely alone with my girls in a beach house twenty minutes’ walk from town, with no car. It had the potential to be fantastic, which is why I had organised it so; but it also had the potential to collapse into nightmare. I’m not overly fond of the beach. I’ve had little kids for so long that it feels like I spend my whole time hovering there. I don’t get to sit, and I don’t get to swim; and I don’t like building sand castles or helping anyone else do so, either. But this time, I was determined it would be different. The kids are a bit older, the beach was on a shallow bay, and I was going to be Idle. The holiday wasn’t going to be just for my kids – I was going to have a holiday too.

Day One. Resolve and book firmly in hand I sat in the sand, ignored my girls, and read while they built sandcastles and splashed in the shallows. Nobody drowned. I was so relaxed that after fifty pages I shut my book and went and dreamily dug a moat out of pleasure, not duty. My girls were delighted. We went home for lunch, then I taught them how to do the dishes, explaining that I would do the cooking and the dinner dishes and this was a fair division of labour. When they kicked up, I pointed out I would take them back to the beach after the dishes were done, then walked out. I lay on my bed and read my novel; and after a while I heard the sounds of them washing, drying and putting things away. I also heard them make up a dishes song that lasted them through every batch of dishes for the entire two week holiday. And then I heard them each find a book and a quiet corner and read too, for an hour. Bliss.

So each day went. They did stuff they wanted to do; they did a bit of housework; I did stuff I wanted to do; I did a bit of housework; and sometimes we overlapped. I didn’t shout at them or watch over them closely; and because I was reading and dozing and feeling relaxed, when I did spend time with them it wasn’t a duty but a pleasure – and so it was fun.

And this, I think, is Hodgkinson’s point. We are born free, and everywhere we are in chains. Parenting is a prime example of this; it sometimes feels impossible to have a conversation about parenting without whinging or listening to others whinge. But Hodgkinson reminds us that we in the Western world are free. We choose to partner and we choose to have children; we choose where we live and how we work; and so on. As free adults we should take responsibility for our choices, stop whining about them, and start finding ways to enjoy ourselves while we and the kids co-exist. And if we do so, we will all find ourselves having a lot more fun.

With his words (‘I am free! We are all free! I am being Idle!!’) ringing in my ears I found many ways to enjoy myself that holiday. I read a dozen books, and we all caught up on a heap of Japanese anime. My legs lost their ghostly winter pallor. The kids learned French cricket and how to dig for crabs, catch, cook and eat a fish, and wash the dishes afterwards. There was very little yelling by anyone. I came home renewed and ready to step even further back as a parent. It mostly works, and that’s good enough. Oh idle me!

Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Childern from Nature-deficit Disorder Summerhill School

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Response: Stuart Brown's Play

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

I have long noticed that when I am flat I become obsessed by Getting Things Done. The dishes, the floors and the dinners become important and difficult and time consuming and I find it hard to enjoy my children or anything else. The old adage suggests that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – but they are not in opposition. I find that when I regularly engage in play, I work better and life goes rather more swimmingly. The jobs get done quickly, my kids are delightful, and I find the time to play even more. I recently read a book which, rather gratifyingly, supports my observations: Stuart Brown’s Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul suggests that the opposite of play is not work, but depression.

The triggers for depression, of course, are another thing. Our society’s frenzied and selfish pursuit of financial success and personal happiness is a major trigger; so are the self-help books which encourage these twin and very tedious foci, and Play toes the party line. According to the blurb, ‘our ability to play through life is the single most important factor in determining our success and happiness’, which suggests to me that Play is designed to be picked up at the airport and read on the plane by middle management. As a result, many claims in the book are justified by the suggestion that they might increase one’s marketability, profit margin and, of course, happiness – whatever that is.

It would irritate me more but for my many crappy experiences of work which suggest that middle management has much to learn about how to set up interesting, rewarding and effective workplaces, and if Play will help them with that task, then it has my blessing. In any case, being pitched at middle management makes it a quick and easy read. Meanwhile, those of us not in middle management who are willing to overlook the success-and-happiness formula (and a few gross generalisations, such as which are playful thus creative countries) will find many interesting and salutary points.

Brown has studied play for many decades, and this book outlines his understanding of the nature of play, its necessity to human health and development, and the benefits of a playful approach to the whole of one’s life. An activity not just for children, Brown defines play as a state of mind: ‘an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time’. Thus it might range from filling in the cryptic crossword to kicking a ball to going for an aimless wander. Play is vital because it is in this unconscious absorption we tune into the world and are freed from our limitations; and it provides an outlet for our deepest most creative selves.

As a result, Brown claims that people who play are more creative, energetic and insightful; they are better at solving problems and negotiating difficulties and conflicts; and they continue to grow intellectually and emotionally.

Of course this is good for the workplace, but it is also good for everything else, and Brown writes convincingly about the importance of play in child development, parenting, marriage and old age, as well as in education and vocational discernment. When so many of us are bogged down in the rat race, it is helpful to be reminded just how invigorating it can be to step out of the rut and play with one’s kids, one’s spouse, one’s friends, one’s neighbours, or even, shock horror, alone.

Brown does not specifically mention meditation, but as I read I found myself reflecting on the relationship between it and play. They are, to me, two sides of a coin, as good play, particularly solitary play, often precipitates in me a meditative stance. For example, letting the busy part of my mind wander through the cryptic crossword can provide the space for deeper insights than simple anagrams.

Much of what Brown says is common sense: of course your marriage is more interesting if you have a playful approach to it; of course playful people are better at solving problems. But sometimes common sense is not so obvious, and our natural desire to play is often suffocated by societal pressures to act ‘grown up’, as if being adult requires that one become stultifyingly dull. Therefore, despite my reservations about the success/happiness paradigm and my dislike of a few generalisations, I recommend Play to you, along with a good game of Scrabble, an evening of parlour games, or a thrilling round of hide and seek.

Parlour Games for Modern Families

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The 100-Mile Diet

The 100-mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating

Very belatedly for one who is interested in local food, I have finally picked up The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Alisa Smith and JB McKinnon (published in the US under the title, Plenty). I admit I avoided it for a long time. I had already read a book on similar themes, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating by Barbara Kingsolver; the thought of a whole book about what a couple ate for a year seemed too boring for words; and anyway, I know the theory of why we should eat locally and didn't see the need to be told all over again. Of course, my assumptions were completely wrong; this is a fine book. Richer than a food diary and more engaging than a polemic – and much funnier than Kingsolver – here is an intimate portrait of a Vancouver couple. The story is structured around the year they ate only food grown within 100 miles of their home, but it is much more than a story about dinner.

The book certainly has aspects of a food log, telling where and how they found local produce. They write nicely of the satisfaction of a successful run to the farmer's market, or finding an unexpected farm gate. They learn the intricacies of honey and squash; gorge on blueberries; pick strawberries; meet local fishermen; and learn how to cook, preserve and eat all sorts of new things.

It is also a fascinating history of a local area, charting the shifts in agriculture over the last few centuries. From an abundant food region for the Salish and other coastal tribes, to a self-sufficient colony feeding itself and exporting crops, to an area which imports most of its food while shipping out monocrops, the use of the land has changed dramatically. In that time, the stocks of wild foods, particularly fish, have also plummeted, so that an area which was once unimaginably abundant with seafood now enforces fishing controls to try and preserve what is left. Most sad are the devastating effects industrial accidents have had on the area; during their year of eating locally, half a million river fish were killed by a caustic soda spill. In the face of such devastation, however, the authors refuse to despair; instead, they choose to live responsibly and orient themselves towards hope.

These stories of shopping, eating and growing are interesting. Even more engaging, however, is Alisa's story. Alisa and James wrote alternate chapters, interweaving their views into one story. James's chapters are more finessed, but Alisa's are more personal; and I found her writing moving. She has suffered from cyclical depression since childhood, and although she doesn't dwell on the depression, it certainly has an impact on their year. She writes of what is, to me, a very familiar way of life, that is, living with one eye always on the alternatives, obsessing about real estate, other places, other houses, other lives, and that which might have been. The key to the book, and what is for me the key to local eating, is found in the pages where Alisa argues that eating locally has helped ground her into her particular existence, her particular time and place, in a way that is deeply and psychically healing; so much so that once the year was up, she (and they) decided to maintain, in large part, the diet.

I resonate very deeply with this part of the story, recognising myself in her description of living with one eye always fixed on the alternatives. I don't really know why I feel this way. It may be the curse of colonialism: I am the descendant of colonists; I live two thousand miles from the city of my grandparents; I have no long family history which links me to this place. It may be the curse of third culture kids: I lived in a couple different countries as a child, and all and none of them feel like home. It may just be a pervasive sense of saudade.

Whatever it is, I find this rootlessness and its corresponding restlessness corrosive. It's exhausting; I long for somewhere to relax and belong. I look at other cities, other houses, other lives, with the illusion that somewhere I may find my rest; but deep down I know that the answer does not lie elsewhere. Wherever I live, I will soon feel the same way.

Instead, what matters is that I work towards making whichever place I am in home. This takes learning: learning the seasons, learning the weather patterns, learning the annual changes of particular trees and the visits of particular birds. It's noticing small things: our May visitor, the thrush, which turns up for a week or two every year; the almond, which always blossoms in July.

And a crucial aspect of this project of rooting myself to this place is to learn the food – the people who grow it, the places it is grown, the seasons when it is ripe. Food is so primal, and so intimately linked to the land and our bodies, that it has the potential to locate us firmly in the present.

My family is by no means fully committed to local eating. By the time we factor in our family's multiple food allergies, intolerances and ethical choices, we'd just about starve eating solely local foods; and anyway, I'm not cooking potatoes for breakfast. However, over the last few years, as I have made an effort to source and feed my family with as much local food as reasonably manageable, I have found myself feeling correspondingly more grounded. The delight I take in knowing that in Koo Wee Rup, asparagus is growing its way towards spring; that fresh potatoes from Gembrook have skins so thin they are translucent; that Brunswick honey is at the base of my lip gloss is profound, more than just pleasure: it's the deep slow rooting of my life to the here and now.

The authors of The 100-Mile Diet, with their insights into place and belonging, clearly articulate what I have been fumbling towards on the other side of the world. They do this in between simple recipes for often overlooked foods; hilarious stories of separating grain from mouse poop with a credit card; and rollcalls of species and varieties that are now but a memory: the fish, the wheat, the potatoes, the apples that once stocked the region around Vancouver.

It is an engaging book, clear and well written, gentle and self-mocking even as it is inspiring. We might not all be freelance writers with the time to cook every meal, even breakfast, for a year; but in telling their story, the authors encourage us to think about how we might reconnect with our own locality and give us reasons beyond ethics. In short, in their view and mine, eating local food feeds more than the stomach: it is deeply grounding nourishment for the soul.

'We felt like pioneers setting foot on a strange place called home.' (James, on eating an indigenous camas bulb for the first time).

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating

Friday, February 17, 2012

Riding the Bus with my Sister

Riding the Bus with My Sister

Just up the street from me live some 80 people in supported accommodation. Their problems range from intellectual disabilities to schizophrenia to frontal lobe damage caused by stroke or other injuries. Some of these neighbours are easy to get along with; we lean against our garden wall and chat about the weather or the footy. Some are just familiar-looking strangers we pass by on the street. And several are more difficult: paranoid, verbally abusive, erratic and even, at times, physically threatening.

Each person is, of course, an individual, and their problems are only one facet of their personality; but there are certainly times when I lack patience with some of them: those who chat one day and treat me as a stranger the next; those who scream abuse; those who shout and sing just in front of our house when I'm trying to settle a baby.

Meanwhile one of the crossing ladies at school is well and truly on the autism scale, and to my shame there are days I find it difficult to greet her cheerfully yet again as she obsessively calls out everyone's name, holds the same short conversation as yesterday and the day before and every day for three years before that, and refuses to believe that a young child could be terrified as she shoves her large face into the pram.

So it was with great interest that I read Riding the Bus with My Sister, by Rachel Simon. Simon's sister Beth has mental retardation (Simon's phrase). Beth is able to live by herself in a form of supported accommodation, but she does not, and possibly cannot, work. Instead, she spends her days riding buses. Every morning, she rises early and heads to one bus stop or another, then criss-crosses town meeting up with her favourite drivers. On the bus she sits in 'her' seat, cattycorner to the driver, plays music on her portable radio, and makes loud observations about life, the bus drivers, fellow passengers and whatever else excites her attention. One year, Beth exacted a promise from Simon to spend twelve months riding the buses with her whenever possible, and the book is the result of that year.

Simon uses the book to tell several stories. The first is, of course, the story of riding the buses with Beth, who is spirited, belligerent, defensive, large, loud, opinionated, bossy and unforgiving. Simon charts a year of early starts and sisterly conflict; bus drivers and health professionals; and mad dashes to public bathrooms at timing points. Some of the bus drivers are particularly charming. Among their ranks are story tellers, philosophers and comedians, and their hospitality towards Beth far exceeds their duty as drivers; these stories alone are worth the read.

The book also documents the relationship between the sisters. Before the year, Simon and Beth lived in different cities and had grown apart. Simon writes quite honestly of her discomfort with Beth's issues, both historical (having the sister in the 'slow' class at school) and current. Beth sounds exasperating, and Simon struggles through the year to come to terms with who Beth is now, rather than with who she wishes Beth might be. She investigates how much of Beth's personality may be an expression of her disability, and gains some new insights into why her sister is the way she is. Despite her ongoing ambiguous feelings about some aspects of Beth's personality, Simon documents a growing respect for her resourcefulness and a much gentler love for her.

Her year with Beth was also an opportunity for Simon to reflect on her own emotional state. Her significant relationship had fallen to pieces; she was working insanely long hours and was deeply lonely. Slowing down and spending time with Beth, as well as the more philosophical, pastoral or compassionate bus drivers, helped her reflect on what she had prioritised in life, and enabled her to make some different choices.

The final part of the story is their shared history, told in flashbacks through the book. Their parents split up, and their mother fell into a pattern of abusive relationships which ended in the abrupt abandonment of her children.

Simon's slight tendency to make everything neat is more than compensated for by the dynamic people in this book: Beth, her long term boyfriend Jessie, the bus drivers, even Simon herself. It is a pleasure to read. But what makes Riding the Bus really valuable are the questions it raises. What is it like to have a sister who is largely oblivious to one's own needs and the needs of others? How do you talk with someone like this? Who is responsible to care for such a person, and what supports need to be in place? What are the emotional and relational costs of caring for such a child? How liberating is self determination if the person making decisions is constantly self-destructive? What are the ethics of sterilisation when someone is sexually active and loves small children, yet is incapable of caring for a baby? How can someone express hospitality through their work, and what are the limits? Over the course of the book, Simon grapples with these and other difficult questions from a very personal vantage point.

It's a book which makes me think carefully about how I treat my neighbours, my crossing lady, or anyone else with a mental illness or disability. There are certainly times when I want to shun one or another because, quite frankly, they are a pain in the butt. Other times I am tired and grumpy and lack the patience to have yet another boring conversation about the weather. Riding the Bus with My Sister is a great gift because it shows how one such person is a dynamic whole person, embedded in a community. It reminds the reader of the obvious but easily forgotten point that people with mental disabilities have families, histories, stories, secrets and desires, just like everyone else; and, like everyone else, they come bearing gifts. Whether or not we take the time to recognise and receive those gifts is up to us.