Category Archives: Parenting

U.K. Schools: Uniforms, Hymns, and Fish & Chips

With all of my kids in school now I can finally sit down and write about it.

They are LOVING it (not really) and I am so pleased with the way they are getting used to their new environment. At the very least they are getting their exercise! I walk Naomi and Levi about .5 miles to school every day, while Scott bikes with Dan to his school (2 miles away).

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Sophia and Syrena win the prize for distance–they walk 2.5 miles to school AND back. That is five miles a day for them . . . and if you include our Sunday trek Sophia and Syrena walk 30 miles a week.

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The main reason we wanted our kids to go to school here is so they could experience school life outside the United States and gain a broader perspective of the world. We came to the right place . . .  I went to a parents meeting on Friday and the parents were from Poland, Italy, France, Hungary, India, Japan, Brazil and Africa. The true Brits were actually in the minority, and I was the only North American. This is the nature of Oxford.  People come from all over the world to attend or work at this world renown university. (In fact, I just found out that Malala Yousafzai just started at Oxford this month! We will be on the lookout for her.)

My kids have noticed a lot of differences between their British schools verses their American schools, and we have complied a list. But first an important disclaimer: This is not a list to compare the quality of the education between US schools and UK schools. There are good schools and not-so-good schools here, just like their are good schools and not-so-good schools in America, so it would be impossible for me to compare the merits of the education as a whole (plus we are not here long enough to do that). This is simply a list of the minor cultural differences in every day school life.

  • There are no school buses here. Kids walk, bike, bus or are driven to school by their parents. I was told that British kids think our yellow American school buses are “cute” . . . probably the way we think red London phone booths are cute.
  • There is no such thing as paper lunch bags. We have looked everywhere for them. They don’t exist. Or perhaps they reserve them in the back of the grocery stores and only sell them to kids who go to the private schools. I have no idea.
  • Children are taught to do all of their school work in pen–no pencils allowed–even for math (or “maths” as they say here). Apparently British children do not make mistakes.
  • Many (but not all) public schools in Oxford wear uniforms . . . and some uniforms are more appealing than others. For the most part uniforms are not that expensive, unless you are buying for four children. I probably would have spent the same amount of money on school clothes shopping in the US as I did on uniforms. I’m sure some of the private schools here have more expensive uniforms. Also, not everything is “compulsory.” For instance, at the secondary school (high school) that Sophia and Syrena attend, the jacket with the crest on it is compulsory, but you don’t have to buy the sweater to go with it unless you want to. IMG_6656
  • In North Carolina the schools would sometimes have a fundraiser called “Hat Day” and if you paid a dollar you could wear a hat. Here, instead of Hat Day they have No Uniform Day and you can pay one pound to wear your normal street clothes and leave your uniform at home! Woo-hoo!
  • Recess is called “break” and my kids get a lot more “break time” here than their public schools in NC.
  • Naomi, Dan and Levi all attend church schools. Naomi and Levi go to a Catholic school and Danny goes to a Church of England school. During school they have prayers and sing hymns. At Naomi’s school they even light candles at the school, and every week “Father Daniels” comes and prays with them and gives them a little sermon. Even though Naomi’s school accepts Christians as well as Muslims, the children get little awards for memorizing things like the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Lively Virtues and the Apostle’s Creed. Naomi received her first award last week, proving she is on her way to becoming a good Catholic.IMG_6944
  • Kids seem to go on a lot more field trips here. Every other week the kids are going somewhere. Sometimes the school doesn’t even tell me. (The other day Levi *said* that he went on a field trip to an island and they handed out swimming suits to everyone . . . but I don’t believe everything Levi tells me about school.) Right now Naomi is in Wales on a school trip. She’s been there for a whole week! We will all be so happy to see her when she gets back.
  • Children start to specialize sooner here. If Sophia and Syrena were going to be here for the entire year they would have a chance to have work experience in a field that they intend on pursuing and all of their classes would start to focus on this field.
  • Danny goes swimming as part of school. On Wednesdays he spends the entire morning swimming laps. He doesn’t think it is great, but I think it is AWESOME.
  • They start kids a year earlier than we do in the US. That is why Levi gets to go to school.IMG_6947
  • They feed all the younger kids *free* school lunch. A friend of mine who lives here says that that is how the government gets the kids hooked on eating hot lunch. Some of the menu items: Yorkshire pudding (kind of like a German pancake or popover, but you eat it with meat and gravy instead of powdered sugar and syrup) and Dan’s favorite: fish and chips.

Those are few of the most noticeable differences. Since wearing a uniform is probably the biggest change for my kids, I will do a future post on the pros and cons of uniforms after my kids have been in school for a while. But for now I love love love love being here. I love walking my kids to and from school every day, I love that they are out of their comfort zones, and I love watching how they adjust to these new experiences and make new friendships.

 

 

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Home School, Bribes and a Ghost!

This has been a great week, if you don’t count the ghost.
But first I’ll tell you about school.
I started “school” with my kids and is how it goes: We sit down at the kitchen table and I pass out their journals. They spend some time writing about a topic that I have chosen for them. Then we do math, then penmanship, then some vocabulary. And then school is done!
This takes about 8 minutes.
As you might guess, my kids are loving this school. But I’m afraid their teacher is lacking. I have decided that my music/English degree did not train me for this and I am having a hard time coming up with meaningful projects. . . Naomi’s current project is to draw and identify every plant in the back garden.
But good news–! I found out that two of my kids will get into Oxford schools! Sophie and Syrena have been accepted into a very good school . . . and they will wear UNIFORMS. When I broke the news to them, Sophie and Syrena, who had been bubbly ever since we got here, became graveyard-silent. They didn’t laugh for 24 hours. We went to London the next day to sight-see and they walked around all day as if they were on their way to the gallows. There is a lot going on in those two heads right now.
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I think that if those two made it into school the others have a good chance, but we shall see. I will have a more clear picture this week. I don’t think Chelsea’s 8-minute school will last forever. . . but Naomi has already identified two plants!
Now . . . about the ghost.
Remember I told you that my closet door keeps opening when my back is turned? Well, so does an attic crawl space door above Naomi’s bed. At night. And it creaks.
Not only that, but a couple days ago I was on the phone and I heard a tremendous crash. Not just one crash, but a series of crashes. It sounded as if someone had fallen down the stairs with a mirror. But no one was on the stairs (either stairs) and nothing seemed amiss in the house. Danny thought it might have happened outside, but no one was in the alley. It was a mystery . . . until we went into Syrena’s room. And there, in a catastrophic heap on the tile floor, was Syrena’s collapsed desk and all of her books and pens and pencils and a broken mug.
No one was in the room when it happened.
At least no one . . . living.
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And speaking of living, on goes the struggle to keep my boys alive. I decided that boys are born without a common sense gene. I’m sure they develop it later, but they are definitely NOT born with it. Somehow they can’t comprehend that every time we go out for a walk we are inches from death with all the zooming cars. Scott keeps reminding me that the cars are only going about 20 miles per hour, but to me that is fast enough. 
Since the boys still resist holding my hand I have resorted to bribery. I keep a package of Skittles in my pocket, and every time the boys willingly hold my hand to cross the street I put one in their hand and say “thank you for holding my hand.” It is working grrrrreat. I make sure Sophie and Syrena also have skittles in their pockets.
Of course, Scott doesn’t need to have any skittles because the boys *love* to hold his hand. Grrr.
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Here is a parting shot of a street near our home and one of the sweetest kids I know:
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The Year We Changed Our Lives

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After months of deliberating, strategizing, decision-making and then fine-tuning those decisions, Scott and I are finally on the brink of a dream we’ve wanted to achieve for many years: we are taking our family to England.

We gave away our cat, loaned out our dog, put our house in beautiful North Carolina on the market and just finished driving across the country. All of our things are going into storage, and now the only obstacle between us and the biggest adventure my family has ever had is 8 days.

Scott will be working at Oxford for only a semester, so we will be back to the States in December, but it will be enough time for us to have a wide range of experiences in the United Kingdom and surrounding areas that we would not have if we were simply tourists. To make things even more interesting, we won’t have a car and we will be living in the middle of a city.

If you are wondering how we are feeling about all of this, imagine you are about to jump off of a bridge, step into the gladiator’s ring, or are standing on a street in Pamplona, Spain just before the bulls are released and you will have a good idea.

Wish us luck. Updates to follow.

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Teaching Kids about Trump, Canada, and the End of the World

So we just finished with an election which proved to be very historic but not for the reason everyone had originally supposed. You know the details.

My husband and I (dyed-in-the-wool Republicans but not Trump fans) were stunned when we started to see what was happening on the screen as Donald Trump’s numbers went up. As our reactions became more and more flabbergasted, so did the panic level in my kids. And why were they panicking? Because we had been telling them all along that if Donald Trump won it would basically mean the End of the World. But that had been just a joke, because someone as brash as Donald Trump would never win!

But now he was winning, and each time a new red state popped up on the screen my son went to his knees saying, “Hurry, Jesus!”

When we discovered in the morning that it was really, truly so–that Trump really was going to be the new president–we had to regroup. Instead of making jokes about bunkers and moving to Canada we told our kids what we should have been teaching them all along. Specifically, that

  1. There are three branches of the government. The president is only one branch.
  2. There are checks and balances.
  3. A president can’t even be the president for more than 8 years…and if he does a really lousy job he’ll only be president for half of that time, and if he breaks the law than he will be president for even less time than that. It is called impeachment.
  4. America has survived many presidents. Some of them were not so great. Some of them turned out better than expected.
  5. The president should be treated with respect, no matter who he or she is.
  6. The president does not have as much power to make a difference in your world as you do.

When a very young child falls and scrapes their knee they will first look for the reaction in their parent’s face. What they want to know is “Should I cry?” If the parent is fearful the child will react with tears. If the parent is encouraging, the child will stand up, give a shaky laugh, and move on.

After school my kids came home and one of my daughters said, “I’m glad Hillary Clinton didn’t win. Because now I can become the first female president!”

I was proud of her. But there are a zillion other ways she can make an impact on the world that are more powerful than being the President of the United States.

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Writing Without Regret

Today is the release day of my second book, and according to all marketing logic, this is the day I should be posting some big announcement about how awesome my book is and how you need to buy it because it will forever change your life. I should be smothering you with photos of me opening up my newly minted novels, saying things like “here is my sixth baby!” while I lift up the book, pose, and give it a kiss for the cameras.

But today I am going to break all rules of book promotion and tell you that as great as I think my book is, it is not why I breathe. It  does not hold my hand, it does not sing silly songs, nor make me cry, nor make me laugh. It does not crawl in bed with me early in the morning and commandeer the sweet spot between me and my spouse. Besides, I have always been uncomfortable when people kiss inanimate objects like trophies, medals and books, because I don’t kiss things. I kiss people.

A person in the United States can expect to live about 80 years. Raising a child takes 18 of those years. But they are really only a “child” for 12 years, and they are only a young child for five years. So out of the 80 years I will be alive, I have only five years to mother this young child. Five years out of 80 does not seem like much time.

Here is another way to look at it:

It is always tragic when a child dies, but in a way, all children die. They die every year, at every age. I adored Naomi as a three-year-old. She was so spunky and fun and quirky. She and I would dance to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue until I would collapse on the couch and she would tug at my arm to get me to stand up and dance again. (Rhapsody in Blue is a long song.) But the other day Naomi (now age 9) and I were in the car when we heard Rhapsody in Blue come over the radio. I asked her if she recognized the song. She said no. I reminded her that it was the song we used to dance to over and over. And over. She smiled but she could not remember. My three-year-old Naomi had vanished.

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But now I have a 9-year-old Naomi, and she bounces around the house singing jingles. Anytime anyone says anything she makes up a jingle on the spot. When she finishes she says “Woot!Woot!”, makes two kissing sounds, and then strikes a pose. In her spare time she goes out to the garden and belts out Broadway songs to the tomatoes to help them grow. She doesn’t even eat tomatoes. I’m pretty sure she won’t be doing these things when she’s 13. How sad will that be!

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But when she is 13 she will be doing something else interesting . . . and on and on. So there is loss, but there is also such great discovery! How wonderful children are! Yet how fleeting!

It was always the great dream of my heart to have a family. But hearts do have room for more than one dream, and when I got the idea for my first book I knew that it had to be written down, and I had to be the one to do it.

So I started writing, and right away my imagination took me to places that were far more interesting and exciting than laundry, sweeping, diapers, repeat. My mind was electrified with ideas–ideas that turned doing the dishes into brainstorming sessions and vacuuming into opportunities to solve plot dilemmas. Everything around me was punctuated with meaning and symbolism, from the feathers of a bird to the perfect swirl of hair at the back of my baby’s head. I certainly knew my life had “meaning” as a mother, but now I had a dazzling new purpose. I had become an idea volcano. If someone had hooked up a brain scanner to my head during those first few years of writing I’m sure the machine would have exploded.

Mothers need kids. But mothers also need something to keep their minds from petrifying. My antidote was writing, and wow, was it effective. I could easily sit in my room and write for hours a day, oblivious to the world, and I would be as happy as bear at a boy scout jamboree. It was my husband who stepped in and made me realize that my writing had become my drug. He reminded me that the real stories are happening outside my bedroom door. And if I am sitting in here typing away while they are out there, I will not be in their stories.

Scccrreeeach, went the brakes.

After that I restructured my writing schedule. I did everything I could to not write when my kids were around. I wrote early in the morning, while they were at school, and while they watched tv. I sacrificed my free time, not theirs, and I never wrote on Sunday.

What this means is, my progress was very, very slow.

But that was okay, because I was consistent. And ultimately it all worked in my favor. You see, I always got interrupted before I could conclude my writing sessions, so during dull moments (folding clothes, driving, loading the dishwasher) I would re-work the scene in my mind, and in the meantime my kids were constantly giving me new ideas to spice it up. It was the perfect writing environment: I was surrounded by inspiration yet I was kept away from my computer. Then, when I was finally able to get back on my computer the ideas poured from my fingers like Niagara Falls.

And now I have two books and five kids and I don’t have regrets about the time I spent because I did everything I could to put my kids first. I didn’t let writing bewitch me into slicing away time from my kids. I was part of their stories, just as they were part of mine. Plus, they had a mom who was energized and happy because she was in the midst of creating something extraordinary. And when Mom has a skip in her step and a sparkle in her eye, the kids are the first beneficiaries.

I went to LDStorymakers conference last spring. It was bigger than I expected. There were 700 writers there! Who knew that many Mormons liked to write? The conference chairperson was Jenny Proctor, author of several books and mother of six kids.  I was not acquainted with her and wanted to introduce myself (since we are both from North Carolina), so after the opening ceremonies, as people drained from the room to go to their classes, I followed her, waiting for my chance.  As she was finishing up her conversation with the conference photographer, I couldn’t help overhearing what she was saying.

“I want you to take a picture of me when I am up at the podium. Only, I want you to take a photo of me from behind so that you can see me and the audience. I really want to my kids to see what I do. I want them to see how big this is.”

She didn’t say “I want to post this on Facebook so people will see what I do and how big this is,” or “I want to post this on my blog so people can see what I do and how big this is” but she wanted to show her kids. Because kids trump everything.

My favorite characters are not the ones who live in my head, but the ones who live in my home, and my favorite stories are the stories they are making for themselves. They constantly surprise me with their plot twists and cliff-hanger endings, their unpredictable, entertaining, laugh-out-loud fun. I want to keep turning the pages of their stories for as long as I live. They are books I never get sick of (though they DO make me tired) and books I want to keep reading over and over again.

When you have the opportunity to choose between your child or your muse, always choose the child.

Okay, I’ve said enough. Buy my book if you want. It really is good, and it gave me a lot of joy to write it. But if I accomplish anything of importance in my life it will not be writing novels. That is why you will never see me kiss my books, and you will never hear me call my book “my sixth baby” because my baby are sacred words, reserved only for the choicest people I know, with whom I have the privilege of sharing my home, my life and all my stories.

 

 

 

 

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Rowing Off Into the Sunset

So there once was a mom who was jealous of her kids.

She was jealous because they got to have piano lessons and violin lessons and swimming lessons and soccer and tennis and etcetera.  The mom watched them learning all of these wonderful things and she wanted to learn something, too. So she decided to sign up for lessons of her own.

IMG_9127She had had her eye on rowing for a long time, and finally a friend told her about a nearby masters crew club that had lessons for novices. The only requirements were that you have to be fit, know how to swim (no one wears life jackets), and you have to be able to lift 40 pounds over your head and walk 75 yards. (The team carries the very long and heavy boat from the boathouse to the water.)

She had the first two requirements down, but she was a little nervous about the last one. (Have you seen the size of her arms? They are like broomsticks!) IMG_9105

Fortunately for her, she was not as tall as the other rowers and once they had the boat over their heads she couldn’t even reach it. A lucky break!IMG_9111

The coach was a fountain of rowing knowledge, and most of the other women were experienced rowers so there was nothing to fear. (Except catching a crab, which she did on the third day of practice. Yikes!)

There were lots new things to learn. Anyone even casually familiar with boats knows that when facing the bow the right side is starboard and the left side is port. But in a row boat you are all facing backwards. So your left side is starboard and your right side is port. It took some getting used to.

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The coach was careful to teach by degrees . . . Sometimes only two rowers would row while the other rowers kept the boat set with their oars. Then the coach increased it to four, and the six. When it wasn’t her turn to row the star of our story would close her eyes and pretend like she was Cleopatra going down the Nile.

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I am in seat number 5, right in the middle with the white hat.

It wasn’t until the third practice that the coach allowed all eight rowers to row and she could now understand why her coach had added rowers by degrees. Eight people rowing with no one to set the boat was quite exciting! And a little chaotic, at first. But eventually she got the hang of it.

IMG_9113The whole experience was a little dream come true and definitely one to repeat in the future. But now it is back to taking the kids to lessons, and watching them grow and learn. Which is not so bad, especially when you have a view like this:

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Teaching Children Obedience and Other Great Mysteries

If there is one thing that gives me panic attacks it is reading parenting books.

Once I read one about raising sons. In it the author encouraged mothers to develop a Look. Some kind of glance, some sort of frown, some frigid, I-am-this-close-to-mailing-you-to-Australia facial expression that would strike instant repentance in the heart of even the most mischievous boy. I practiced The Look in the mirror until I scared myself, and then vowed to incorporate The Look into my parenting as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Recently I took my kids up to D.C. to see the sights with my sister. My husband had a business conference and could not join us, so it was I, the single mother, who felt the awesome responsibility of preserving her offspring from a myriad of metropolitan dangers.

I wasn’t worried about my three older daughters (a mistake, as you will soon see), since it was my two younger sons (ages 6 and 2) that were the main source of my anxiety.

The Look was a major part of my method.

First there were the metro trains. (Don’t get too close to the tracks–you’ll get electrocuted. Hurry on, hurry off–you don’t want to be left on the train by yourself! Don’t stick your hand out and touch the trains while they are moving, unless you want to look like a pirate for the rest of your life. STAY RIGHT HERE ON THIS LINE until I am done with this gosh-dang-it-ticket machine.)

And there were the streets. (Get off that ledge. Look both ways. Just because you can see the car doesn’t mean it can see you. Hold my hand. I’m serious, you have to hold it or your head will be smashed like a pumpkin.)

And there were the museums. (Stay by me. Don’t get separated. Don’t climb on the statue. Wash your hands. Don’t crawl under the bathroom stalls! Wash your hands again. Please.)

All the while The Look was heavily employed.

Then we went to the International Spy Museum, and while I was engrossed in Looking at my two younger sons, my phone buzzed. It was my 9-year-old daughter calling from a stranger’s cell phone, informing me that she had been lost . . . .for the last 45 minutes.  I eventually found her, teary and trembling, in the part of the museum called “Behind Enemy Lines.”

After that I hovered over everyone, slathering The Look over my children like poisoned peanut butter, and after three days of non-stop anxiety in Washington DC The Look had become my face. I felt like was trying to gather my children like a protective hen gathers her chicks, but to my children I seemed more like Cruella DeVil trying gather puppies. It is no wonder that when we got on the Metro my kids fanned out among the seats to be as far away from me as possible. At one point my six-year-old son turned to me and said, “Next time we come to D.C. I want it to just be me and DAD.”

 

Another Reason to Hate Little Dogs and Love Little Boys

A couple weeks after the Washington D.C. Naggathon, it was Sunday and time for church. It was a rare morning when my husband didn’t have early meetings and we were going to go to church together as a family in one car! Yippie!

Normally I leave for church 45 minutes early, even though the church is 15 minutes away. Why? Because it takes 15 minutes to get from the door of our house into the car. I’m not sure why, but everyone, myself included, has to go back and get something, and sometimes several somethings, before we are actually settled in the car. And what about the other 15 minutes, you say? I also have to allow 15 minutes for the ritual “dog escape” that happens Every. Sunday. Morning.

Inevitably, when the door of the house is opening and closing so many times in succession the dog will find an opportunity to escape and then we have to catch him. The dog was getting faster and faster and running further and further until this particular Sunday when I had not allowed for my extra 15 “dog escape” minutes, and on cue, the dog escaped. There was no time for this circus, so I told everyone to get in the car anyway, the dog will just have to face the consequences of running away: abandonment. No food. No water. No love. For five hours. Because that is how long Mormons are at church. (We tell people it is three, but that is a lie.)

But my son didn’t listen. “I’ll get him!” He shouted as he ran after the dog down the driveway. “No! Stop! Come back!” I called. I put my hands on my hips and gave him my most deadly Look but he was already gone, running across the street, up the hill and disappearing into the trees.

Now I had a runaway dog and a runaway son. Nothing obeys me!

Alas, we would have to take two cars after all. I took the rest of the kids to church, and left my husband to stay behind and find our son and dog.

Eventually my husband and son made it to church, and I silently noted that my son was wearing a different set of clothes than the ones I had ironed and put on him that morning.

When I got home and found the original set of church clothes, caked with mud, on top of the washing machine, I couldn’t suppress my smile and admiration for a son who is willing to chase down a runaway dog no matter what the distance or terrain. What determination. What tenacity! What a great sense of responsibility. With all of those great virtues, who cares about obedience?

Kidding.

We recently went to Kohls and found the perfect shirt for Danny: IMG_8400As you can see, he was totally excited about it.

But we ended up getting him a shirt that says “Nothing But Awesome,” which is more his style.

As for The Look, after much experimentation I have found it is not very effective, for, not long after I had started using The Look I found that my son developed his own Look, so that when I narrow my eyes and draw my lips into a tight line, his smile widens, his eyes sparkle, his cheeks get all rosy and, ever so slightly, one eyebrow lifts.

Do you know how hard it is to glare at someone who looks at you like that? Especially when he has golden eyes and long black eyelashes?

So now here I am typing this at the foot of my son’s bed. He is asleep now, and since one cannot disobey when they are asleep, it is most likely he will live for at least another 12 hours.

How do six-year-old boys ever make it to seven? To ten? To sixteen? But then, when I am around people who have sixteen-year-olds it makes me oh so grateful Danny is still little enough that when we are mad at each other I can pick him up and flip him upside down and hold him until he is laughing.

Perhaps I am making this too complicated. Maybe instead of giving The Look I need to focus on giving The Smile.

Luckily, tomorrow is a new day. Tonight I will review my parenting approach, amend it, refine it, rehearse it, pray over it, etc. Perhaps I will even spend some time in front of the mirror and practice my smile. And tomorrow I will try again.

And if you see happen to see a child running though the streets after a dog, please send him home. You can keep the dog.

 

 

 

 

 

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