I had no idea that there were such things as ultramarathons until I made a friend who runs them. We're talking 50+ miles at a time and on purpose! Dude ran 31 miles last weekend for fun. I am in awe, and tired, and eating dark chocolate and pretzels and sipping wine just to recover my aching muscles from even thinking about running at all. Sometimes, I am amazed at what we humans can will ourselves to do.
The end of the school year is kind of like an ultramarathon, isn't it? Suddenly, we have to pack it all in: the last concerts, plays, awards ceremonies, science fairs ... For some reason, they pile up at the end of a year that seems otherwise well thought-out and balanced. But all of the sudden May Happens, and parents are at loose ends. It's not the kids who are losing it, nor the teachers; they are still in school, and they have work to do. It's us, especially the at-home parents, who are suddenly thrust into the fray of getting to The End. We have teacher gifts to buy, and lots of people to thank, and we have to get to all of these events, making sure that our kids have the appropriate costumed attire or whatever is required. We prepare so that they show up ready. It is, at times, exhausting.
But ... we run the PTAs. We come back year after year, and we know that we don't like May -- but we do little to change it. We don't say to the head of school "why was the spring concert the night before the science expo? Two major events in the evening per week doesn't work for our family!" And we look at next year's calendar and groan, for it is planned the same way. And we roll with it, swearing under our breath the next May, and the next one, and so on, for not doing things differently. We fear repercussions, perhaps, so we say nothing. We not only show up every stinking time -- we show up and out-do the last time. No wonder our lives never get easier while we're so busy making them harder!
C'mon. Really? Is this where we are? When Jan Hatmaker posted "Worst End of School Year Mom Ever," a whole host of friends linked to it. It's a riotously funny piece on its face. But is it funny, really? Or is there something very, very wrong here? I think that there is, and I don't think it's the absence of humor. I think it's the expectations that parents are placing on ourselves and the positions we're putting ourselves in -- and I think our kids are suffering for it. I don't think we need to slack off with regard to what our kids are doing at the end of their school year (which is part of what rubbed me wrong about Hatmaker's piece); I think it's the rest of the stuff that we need to let go.
In my book, we owe our kids one major thing: our presence. And it is on this front that I believe many parents fail. We sign our kids up for soccer, kung fun, language school, chess club ... We send them to school from 8-2:30, then to an activity, then we're rushed to get dinner on the table, then there might be a spare hour before bedtime. Lather, rinse, repeat. At what point during that schedule do we let them just be kids -- and play with them as such?
One mom approached me this year, concerned that her son had ADHD. She said that the teachers aren't complaining, but she volunteered in class one time (literally ONE time) and thought her son squirmed more than most other boys. And she said that it's even worse in the language school to which he goes daily after school. When I told her: "Gee, your son is in school from 8-2:30, and then he's in another school for a couple of hours afterward ... and he's 8? I'd squirm too. Have you thought that maybe that's too much for him?" her reply was "I don't think you understand my culture."
Honey, this issue transcends culture, for I understand children. I understand that they don't sit still, and sometimes, they wiggle. They need good food and good sleep and yes, a good education -- but more than anything, they. need. to. play. They need to get their hands dirty. They need to run outside, and throw balls, and fail to catch them, and make kites out of sticks and paper and string. They need to build Roxaboxens every year. They need to stay in their PJs all day, and have ice cream for breakfast or breakfast for dinner sometimes, and feel like they have a little bit of control over their world. Moreover, they need us there with them, pointing out why certain mudcakes stick while others don't, teaching them how to catch and release lizards safely, encouraging them to experiment and teaching them all of those wonderful things they don't learn in any classroom, like how to check each other and the dog for ticks. Mudcakes and lizards and ticks are the stuff of real life, for, as kids grow, those lessons transform into those of chemical solutions and behavioral science and epidemiology. The stuff of lazy spring afternoons can grow their little minds easily, casually, and exponentially if we just make the time to play with them.
But instead, we outsource that. We often don't have or make the time, yet we treat them like they are on schedule to be future Harvard prodigies if they just pack enough in each day from our hired guns -- and then, the ultimate indignity: we expect them to behave like little old men at age 8. Sit still, fold your hands, and listen. Have something intelligent (and RIGHT!) to say. FOCUS! Don't be silly. There is no time for that. And don't you dare make a mistake, young man, or we will tutor you into perfection with yet more school. Forget failure -- mere mistakes are not an option.
Why are we doing this to ourselves and to our children? When do they get to be kids, and us, just parents? For what if we do all of these things, and our kids fail to get into Harvard? What if there is no finish line to this race? What, then, shall we do?
I don't purport to have an answer to that, but I do know what works for me: saying no.
No, when we partner for a class party, and you, SuperMom, bring me a project that you found on Pinterest that may hold the attention of exactly 2 little girls but not the rest of them nor the 13 little boys in the class, I am not okay with that. Give them a sheet of paper and stickers and crayons and have at it. There are no bonus points for Pinterest.
No, when you ask me to do something for, say, staff appreciation that my child does not see nor care about, I will not do it. Staff appreciation should not be a week. It should be a day. More days inconveniences parents, and teachers do not feel five times as special as they do at other schools where it's only a day. I show my appreciation to my kids' good teachers all year long. When they are exceptional, I let the principal, the superintendent, and, in one case, the entire school board know. Trust me: that is of more value to teachers than another tote bag.
No, when you tell me your kid can't have a playdate because they're doing soccerswimmingchessclubflagfootballballet, I won't make my Sunday available. If your kid has no free time after school, you are doing it wrong. Seriously. There is no exception to that statement. If your kid lacks a single afternoon/evening of free time (daycare excepted) because you have overscheduled him/her, you have a problem as well as a likely-overtired child. There is no age limit to this platitude. Whether 6 or 16, kiddo needs downtime. Period. The kid needs family time, too, so follow my lead and put a blockade around one weekend day. What, your kid's soccer team practices on Sunday? Quit. If God rested on the seventh day, so, too, should your child.
No, when you comment that my kid's handwriting leaves much to be desired, I do not need the name of a tutor. No thank you. It's called Second Grade, and also Kiss My Ass. I don't comment on how your second grader seems so tightly-wound I mistook her for a slinky. My kid's busy inventing things in his head and has no time for making the a b c's line up in perfect order. So. Friggin'. What.
No, I am not concerned about my child's ability to get into HarvardYalePrincetonStanfordMIT. Shh, don't tell anybody, but I do higher education stuff for a living. If I don't overschedule my kids -- as in, they have one sport and maybe one other activity (e.g. scouts) at a time after school -- what does that tell you? Might it indicate that you don't have to check a bunch of boxes to get into a good school? Hmm, I wonder...
But I don't want to end this blog post on a negative note. I want to end it on a big summer YES, for school is out, and summer is the time to say YES to a whole lot of fun stuff -- unless you've scheduled your kid for camp every damned minute of the summer, in which case, I feel sorry for your kid -- yes, even if you work. They need a break from changing out of their PJs every day, even if it's only for one week. Probably you do, too. As Ghandi said, be the change you wish to see in the world! Say yes!
Yes to coming up with creative projects, whether from the God-forsaken Pinterest site or from instructables.com. Dash and I are building some sort of go-cart this summer, likely self-propelled. He, Petunia, and I have also planted a garden. Since we're living in the country now, we'll do some other fun stuff, like a scat scavenger hunt. I know -- I'm a shitty mom. (Ba dum bum ching!)
Yes to PJs all day, ice cream waffle sandwiches for breakfast, a movie marathon, and flashlight tag at night every so often.
Yes to interminable hikes in 90+ degree heat followed by jumping into the pool in our clothes.
Yes to long conversations about crazy ideas, like flying cars and what if we made up our own language.
Yes to kids cooking dinner, and yes, I'll eat it even if it's stir fry that somehow accidentally involved chocolate chips. Yes to doing dishes all together afterward, even if it does make a huge mess.
Yes to dirty feet and showering tomorrow and sleepovers in Mama's big bed anyway.
Yes to all of these good memories we're building and the good lessons being learned that life is for living, not for outdoing each other, competition, and some kind of endgame with no rules and, as far as I can tell, no point other than bragging rights.
Yes to running for no special reason, and no to the race, because, ultimately, we are our own best and worst competition. And at my finish line, I want to look back and say "I did right by my children" -- not "I won."