Embracing Now

My middle child drives me nuts.  I mean, they all drive me nuts individually in their own little way, then all together when they combine their efforts, but with the middle child, it’s different.

My youngest drives me nuts with her physical energy.  She moves so quickly from one thing to the next, and not just with her short 5-year-old attention span, but in the entire way she moves.  You can’t hold her between the hours of 9 am and 8 pm.  She will claw, crawl, and bounce all over the place.  Holding her through Mass is like trying to hold onto a moody cat in a large crowd, with its ears turned back and back arched high.  She doesn’t have attention, or focus problems.  She isn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to being a disciplined preschooler.  She is just so very five, which means she has a keen talent for one minute being sweet and gentle, then the next displaying the characteristics of a rabid animal tossing and turing in a fit of rage over silly things like not having another Gogurt.  Or not being able to wear a Batman t-shirt to church.  Or not being able to go outside in shorts and a tank top in 30* weather.  After three children, these are things that I simply step over, and I mean literally.  Unlike my firstborn whose setback in her short ten years on this earth has been learning that she isn’t the center of the universe (which she obviously was until she had siblings), we simply remove our screaming 5-year-old from the room, place her into another one, and shut the door.  She gets over herself very quickly.  I will admit that this is harder for me than it is for her.  Look at this face:

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Our oldest daughter drives me nuts for the reasons stated above, but of course now in a 10-year-old kind of way.  Her self-centeredness isn’t as overly obnoxious as it used to be.  In fact, the older she gets, the more she gains in understanding.  She is becoming more humble, patient, and kind, which I am grateful for.  This is the same child who has significantly challenged us when it comes to academics.  I won’t go into details, using dirty words like “gifted”.  (I don’t believe it is a dirty word, but I have been through this before and you learn as you go.  To the people who don’t really understand what giftedness encompasses, they take the word “gifted” and equate it to things like owning a Mercedes or a multi-million dollar house.  “Look at poor so-and-so with her bright kid…wah, wah, wah.”  It’s impossible to explain it.  When you come across another parent with a highly gifted kid you sympathize, “I get it.  I know,” but you leave it at that.  It’s not worth explaining the difference in gifted and status symbols.  It’s not even remotely the same thing.)

Our middle daughter will be turning 9-years-old this April, and in a lot of ways, she is my easiest kid to raise.  She is pretty calm, mostly quiet, and compliant as long as she is feeling loved and appreciated.  If that feeling of love becomes threatened in any way, she quickly turns on you and the level of drama rises to unprecedented levels.  She has a keen memory and will resurface ever single parenting failure since her birth.  The only solution is to coerce her into her room for a time of reflection, which mostly ends peacefully.  During her time she always writes a terribly misspelled, but beautifully printed note with backwards b’s and d’s, then slips it under her door.  They typically go something like this:

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

Im not lovd.  Im a crubby kid.  Im going to run away.  You won’t need my anymor decase everyone hates me.  Im not sorry.  You will be happy when Im not here.

Your Crubby Kid

We don’t turn these mishaps and twisted sentiments into an episode of the Waltons.  Fuzzy-feeling music doesn’t play while we shed tears over our daughter’s hurting heart.  We mostly fold up the letter, put it on the table, and wait for her to come to her senses.  It doesn’t take too long.  Eventually we hear a sweet, transformed voice at the top of the stairs.  “Mommy, I’m sorry.  Can I come down now?”  We give her a hug.  We say, “I love you.”  We talk about the problem, what was learned, and life goes on.  I always save her little notes of despair, placing them into the desk drawer to use for future spelling and grammar lessons.  They do come in handy.

Most conflicts with my middle child arise from schoolwork.  She isn’t necessarily lazy; she’s a dawdler.  She isn’t stupid; she daydreams and loses focus if something doesn’t interest her.  This year we chose to use a unit studies, literature-based curriculum, which works out beautifully if she is interested in the particular concept we are studying, but if she isn’t interested, it’s easily the most miserable three weeks of my life – much more miserable than the miserable time before that one…or the one before that one…or the one before that one.  But all in all, we have had some really great weeks where she has been engaged and excited to learn.  We are learning together.  For example, the most important lesson I have learned thus far is that we will never pursue a full-curriculum of unit studies ever again.

In all seriousness, homeschooling is a daunting task to take on, but there are so many good moments that surprisingly make the bad moments seem like tiny little mishaps not worth much consideration.  In between some bad hours, or bad days, we have a really good time together.  I am getting to know my kids in an intimate way instead of merely rushing them off from place to place to place.  I know what they love and what they don’t; what bores them to death and what makes them come alive; what their desires are for themselves and roads they wish not to go down; their fears and their curiosities.

Next year will be a hard pill to swallow in some ways and a huge relief in others.  Our oldest child will be entering the 6th grade – middle school.  Elementary school is fairly simple.  With good lesson plans, a schedule, frequently refreshed art materials, a stack of books, paper, and a strong math curriculum, it’s pretty impossible to screw things up.  In these early years, it is important to build a strong foundation, and there are some benefits to homeschooling that heavily outweigh the drawbacks.  Homeschooled children have more time to spend investigating their surroundings, moving at their own pace, and not having to worry about preparing for a battery of tests to measure their teacher, school, district, and state.  They have insurmountable freedoms that even the most prestigious private school can’t provide.  They have the freedom to just be who they are without any outside pressures to perform according to someone else’s standards.  There’s a certain peace about a young school-aged child who can sleep in in the morning, wake slowly, take the time to eat a healthy breakfast, and dress themselves.  They can take a few moments to read their latest library books before diving into their schoolwork for the day, and if it takes an hour to do math one day and fifteen minutes to do it the next, that’s OK, as long as the child is learning, engaged, and making progress.

While I have a child coming into kindergarten next year and look forward to her possibly entering our homeschool (this is a decision that is still very much up in the air), I have my oldest child who will be moving outside of it.  We have had to play the system with elementary school, trying different avenues and doing whatever worked best at the moment, which has more-or-less been a method of survival for educating a gifted child on a budget.  While I love the fact that she has been able to develop into her own unique person outside of the social stigmas most other children have to grow up within, I know that the time is drawing near that she needs to start preparing for more – a life that does rely heavily on schedules, tests, and meeting the expectations of a teacher who didn’t give birth to her.  Eventually we want her to successfully attend high school and then college, which seems absurd to think about with a 5th grader, but time moves quickly.  The lessons she is learning now will impact her for a lifetime.  There is a nervousness about wanting to keep her little, pure, and innocent to a world that moves too fast and expects too much, but it’s a reality that we can’t ignore.  We have to give her the opportunity to adjust and grow into it before she leaves our home for good some day, while she is still under our roof, care, and watchful eye.

For our middle child, she still has at least two years left with me, next year homeschooling alongside a younger sibling, and having the opportunity to be the big kid in the household for eight hours a day.  Her needs are a little different than our oldest, and homeschooling has allowed me to grow in appreciation for the things she brings to the table that are completely unique to just her.  She communicates ideas on the peripheral, which gives me a heck of a time trying to ask her comprehension questions following a reading.  For example, the answer to a question a few days ago was “the park”, but instead of simply answering with that, she explained it in a huge, never-ending, breathless rambling of words that “the children went to the place where there are slides and there were swings and they got on the teeter-totter and we have one here where we feed the ducks and walk over the bridge”.  YES, BUT WHAT IS THAT THING CALLED for crying out loud! 

Reading with her has been a challenge since day one.  She came into it on her own and much more slowly than most other children, but nevertheless, she has gone in a single year from reading at a middle 2nd grade level to reading 5th grade level books.  And as time goes on, we evolve together when it comes to tactics that will make our school day run more smoothly.  We bounce ideas off of each other – things we can apply in the future that will help her to become more fully engaged with what she is learning.  This past weekend we were at Barnes and Noble, and I had done what I normally do when looking for books.  I will take the children with me to make my selections before taking them back into the children’s section where I sit at a table to review my books while they look through the toys and books that spark their interests.  Anne came up to me with a book about Martin Luther King.  She informed me that she doesn’t really like reading books with cartoon characters.  I asked, “What do you mean?  You don’t like books with illustrations on the front?”

“Well, no.  Not like that.  You know, the characters are drawn.”

Still puzzled, I looked at her, trying to figure out exactly what she was saying.  “You mean that you like books with photographs on the cover?”

“No.  Not like that.  I like books that are real.  I don’t like fiction books.”

“Oh!  You like nonfiction…like this book you’re holding.”

“Yep!”

She handed me the book.  I looked at the back cover, and while we hadn’t planned on the girls getting a new book this particular trip, I decided that I could spare $7 even though I was sure this book would sit on her shelf amongst the other books she had picked out and never finished.  I had come to the conclusion that this kid wasn’t destined to become an avid reader.  She loves math and science, but reading and writing are not her favorite subjects.  However, there are times when she will surprise me, and typically when I least expect it.  It will be like pulling teeth to get her to write a simple three sentence journal entry, but later in the day she will bring me a ten page well-written play.  She will complain over reading a simple book that is below grade-level, then will polish off a book three grade levels ahead with no problem.  Take the Martin Luther King book for instance.  We bought the book, she brought it home, and it sat on the kitchen counter for two days.  Last night she decided to crack it open and half an hour later brought the 100+ page book to me.  “Here, I finished this one, and tomorrow I am going to read the one I got in my stocking for Christmas about Marie Currie.”  And she did.  She woke up this morning and read the entire book in one sitting.

As we move through our last semester together, my oldest and my middle daughter homeschooling under my roof, I will try to take each day a step at a time.  While conflicts arise that get the best of me – I yell and throw fits like any good stressed-out mother with too much to do – I realize that the time we have now is a gift that I must embrace.  While one moment I can be crying that no one is getting along, a few moments later I can find joy in the laughter that comes from the girls being together at the kitchen table playing a board game.

There are so many materials out there when it comes to things like parenting and homeschooling, and often these materials all conflict with one another.  Do we let the baby cry it out, or do we pick him up to remind him that he is loved?  Do we send our child to school where they come home crying every single day, or do we bring them home into a productive environment?  Is it the right time to hold them back, or to let them spread their wings to see if they can fly?  The answers to these questions are as individual as each family…as each parent…as each child.  At the end of the day, it’s what makes us who we are, through the good times and the bad, through the things that draw us closer together and the annoyances that drive us to seek solitude under our own roof.  Nevertheless, at the center of everything…always…is family and home.  It’s a place where our children can come for as long as necessary to seek the tenderness they need to grow in their own right, but it is also the place they must eventually and carefully be guided away from so that they can step out into a world that is more harsh and less understanding, where they must learn to stand on their own two feet.  Time moves swiftly and our children are growing and changing so quickly from one season to the next.  No matter how much they drive me crazy one minute and melt my heart the next, and no matter how many times they make me reach my threshold which quickly turns me from a peaceful and understanding woman to a bawling, uncomposed mess the next, I will cherish this whole big, crazy idea of bringing my kids home when something didn’t quite work out, cracking open books at the dining room table instead of in a classroom.  I have none other to thank than my oldest who has driven me nuts with her self-absorbed and unquenched desire to learn quickly, my emotional and passionate middle child who uses an abundance of words to describe simple things, and my physically exuberant youngest who can take any single moment and turn it into a marathon.

Life is short.  Too short.  If we don’t take the time while our children are little to step off the grid, throw away the parenting books, and live life with purpose – teaching our children to do the same – we will miss out on the reward of living life with intention and we will miss out on the opportunity to learn about who our children truly are.  One day these little children will grow bigger, they will step out of our door, and God knows we will want to have given them plenty of reasons during all of that time we were gifted with them to make them want to keep coming back home.

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