Goals and Gratitude

FullSizeRender-1I am generally defiant in the face of cliches, however I can’t help but feel that the turn of the new year really is a great time to make some resolutions.

Like many people, I set goals every January.  Business goals, heath targets, financial plans, personal growth… and even parenting goals like ‘learn the names of five new pokemons’ or ‘make less trips to the ER’.   I also recycle goals.  Some of my goals keep reappearing on the list year after year; but I’ve decided that I don’t mind.   How unexciting would life be, if you accomplished everything you wanted in one year anyway?

To me, New Year’s resolutions have always been about performing my own personal ‘life audit’.  Choosing what still matters, dismissing things that no longer do.  It’s about taking an honest look at where I am across all aspects of my life, in order to map my way forward.

I grew up in a tiny central american country called El Salvador, surrounded by a large, loud and colourful extended family.  My uncle Bruno was one such unforgettable character- larger than life, passionate and wise.  He was particularly obsessed with nature, constantly gushing in awe at the roots of a tree or the colours of a beetle.  He was convinced that mother earth was the gatekeeper to every lesson a person might require.

Uncle Bruno had an Hacienda and coffee plantation where all the families used to gather several times a year on festive days.  On one such trip I recall being bundled into the back of his pick up truck with about a dozen of my cousins, when we suddenly pulled over by the side of the dusty road.

Gruffly, he ordered all the kids to jump off the back and stand in a line.  He then pointed up to the sky and asked us all to face North.  We all looked at each other with confusion.  The truth is that we had no idea where we were, or which way we were facing.  Finally one little kid bravely piped up with what we were all thinking, “but uncle, what does it even matter?”

Uncle Bruno leaned over us with intensity in his eyes and imparted us with the following words: because you must know at all times where you are, in order to know where you’re going.

I’ve never forgotten that and in a similar way, I’ve chosen to begin this year by asking myself the question, “who am I today and who do I want to become?”  Pondering on those two things led me to a minor epiphany: this year, before I write down a list of goals, I’m going to write down a list of gratitude.

It went a little something like this:

Over these past 12 months, I am grateful for…

My family’s health.
The country we are privileged to live in.
The roof over our head, the food on our table.
All the cuddles I’ve enjoyed.
All the kisses I managed to land on my boys.
All the laughs we’ve shared.
Every time it wasn’t a broken bone.
Every bedtime story.
Every Sunday sleep in.
Every magnificent sunny day, and all the cosy rainy days too.
For coffee.
All the “I love you’s”.
All the hard lessons…

The list goes on.  Because really, we all have so much to be grateful for.  And even though I could be tempted to say that this has not been an easy year, when I look at that list, there is such an abundance of blessing that silences any desire to complain.

Every now and again we need to pause, in amongst the gargantuan chaos that life with children can be, and remember the great fortune of each moment.  I’m guilty of missing them- the present so often goes unsavored, in exchange for a constant hunger we carry for all the shiny things that look appetising in the future.

My list of goals is always long, but I’ve decided this year to make my first goal, to stop being obsessed with goals. Things don’t need to change for me to be happy.  I can be happy now, with what I have today, without what I don’t have and before any of my actual goals come true.

In this moment, I am alive.  The evening looms, there is a warm breeze on my shoulders.  I have dominion over nothing but my own mind, and I am grateful for the frightening freedom that this gives me.

Yes, I have goals.  We are hunters and there is no mistaking that I look at 2017 with the desire for achievement and growth.  What I won’t do, however, is put my happiness on hold.  It is not an item to be bargained with, traded against, won or lost.  My happiness is a choice based on my ability to find gratitude in the present.

On this first day of the year, I give myself that gift…. and hope that you do too.

A Merry Little Christmas

Screen Shot 2016-12-25 at 5.06.51 PMHave yourself a Merry little Christmas.  It seems like such an innocuous request, and yet for many, it may not be as simple as that.

Let’s face it, the images in movies and advertising tell a very two dimensional story of Christmas.  Laughing families gather gladly underneath the soft glow  of the tree singing carols in perfectly tuned acapella.  Yet the reality for some, is very different.

In my own circle I know families having their first Christmas without a loved one, couples thinking of a baby they should’ve had, and friends getting through Christmas without money or a job.  I know parents who were in court custody battles this week.  I have a friend waiting for a bed in rehab.

Some are asking questions.  Some are wondering why.  Others are waiting for answers.  Some are waiting for forgiveness.

And then there are the broken hearts.  The type that feels like it may never heal.

I apologise if this isn’t a fuzzy holiday message.   I know that reading this kind of stuff isn’t as entertaining as watching Chevy re-runs; and for that I’m sort of sorry.  But there are two reasons why I’ve chosen to write this particular article-

Firstly, because this stuff is true.  Christmas can be a really difficult time for some and it’s important to acknowledge those families.  Secondly, because there is one simple little thing that we can all do to make a difference.  Someone did it for me, and it transformed my day.

I’m not complaining.  Compared to many, I’m having a wonderful Christmas.  I have my beautiful family around me, a roof over my head and plenty of food in my tummy.  And yet, like most of us, things aren’t perfect.  I’ve made mistakes in my life, and for many of those, I’m still paying the price.

My divorce is one such account.  My ex and I came to the best agreement we could design around the season.  The boys spend Christmas Eve with me, both parents do Christmas morning together and then the boys go and enjoy Christmas day with their dad.  It’s the fairest way that we could do it, and yet,  it never gets any easier to watch my boys leave.

My brain understands, but my heart is always confused.  This morning I walked the boys to the door, wading through discarded wrapping paper, saying goodbye in a gaggle of happy laughter.  I gave them hugs, wished them an awesome day with their dad and assured them that I had my own ‘fun plans’ for the day.  I waved like a happy goose from the driveway…  And then I walked inside to fall apart.

I don’t care what anybody says.  You don’t ever get used to not having your kids at Christmas.  It’s like trying to have Easter without chocolate.  You feel robbed of the sweetest part.

Unbeknownst to me, the kids had forgotten something and had to turn back.  And so there I was, mopping the floor alone, crying to Bing Cosby’s emotional rendition of Silver Bells, when my eldest son surprised me.  It was awkward.  It was also evident that I didn’t have any ‘fun plans’.  I pulled myself together and explained that I was fine.  He gave me a compassionate hug as he left.

I was so disappointed in myself.  I didn’t want my boys carrying guilt or worrying about me.  I spent a few hours feeling miserable about the situation and then one little phone call changed everything.  It was my eldest son, calling to assure me that he and his brothers were having a great day.  And then he finished by thanking me, “for letting them have this special time with dad”.

I nearly choked up.  It was only a brief call, but his reassurance put everything into a new light.  I was able to take the eyes off myself in the situation and was reminded that my sacrifice was actually a little gift.

Sometimes pain cannot be changed.  But it can be framed into a fresh perspective.  And even in the darkest circumstances, there is always some element of hope, gratitude, growth or gift.  There is always something to hold on to.  But every now and again, we may need a little hand.

A twelve year old made a phone call today that changed my day.  In a few moments, I’m going to take my phone and make a call that might improve someone else’s.  And I bet there is probably someone in your phone right now, who would see it as a gift to hear from you.

In all the noise and excitement of Christmas cards, gift paper and presents, let’s not forget to do some real giving today.

My Cubs

Screen Shot 2016-12-18 at 6.13.16 PMI would like to think that I am generally a peaceful person, with calm and rational reactions (insert manic laughter of anyone who actually knows me).  Well, that’s how I try to be anyway.  Except when it comes to protecting my sons.

A whole bunch of kids were playing on the street yesterday afternoon, while I lounged on a bean bag with my laptop on our driveway.  The boys were riding scooters, bikes and skateboards on the road, jumping gutters and spinning out.  It was beautiful warm weather; kids laughing and having good old fashioned sweaty fun.

And then suddenly- and entirely out of the blue- I heard one of the neighbours shout profanities at one of the boys for daring to cross his driveway.  The man in question is already known to the street for his foul temper.  I guess most neighbourhoods have one such tortured soul.  Someone who hates kids, hates anyone having fun and probably hates Christmas and rainbows too.

For the most part, we all manage to stay out of his way.  But on this particular afternoon, a child had committed a ‘crime’ and the old man decided to take the foulest parts of his vocabulary to express his disdain.  The children scattered, surprised and afraid.  What happened next is not something I am entirely proud of, but there was a lesson in respect I needed my sons to witness.  And sometimes you have to get a little dirty in order to clean up.

I leap up and was on his driveway in an olympic leap.  Bullies usually don’t expect anyone to stand up to them, and by the look on his face, I don’t think he quite expected me to confront him either.  The children gathered wide-eyed behind me while I explained to the man that this street would not tolerate abusive language to our children.

His answer: you need to teach your children some respect.

After I pointed out that he may want to consider improvements to his own example, I reminded him that there were possibly ten other ways he may have wanted to ask the kids not to cross his driveway, including speaking to me directly.

In the end, I turned to my children in front of him and gave them two instructions:

  1. Never, ever go on this man’s driveway again.  Ever.
  2. If the man ever talks to them aggressively again, they are to report immediately to me.  Because respect is not a lesson limited by age.

I heard Aretha Franklin play loudly in my head as I marched back to my bean bag perch on the driveway.  I sat vigil for the rest of the afternoon, watching my kids play like a lioness over her cubs.  Could there have been other ways to handle myself?  Probably.  Do I regret showing my children that I’ll stand up for them when they need me?  No.

I very rarely come to their rescue.  They fall, I tell them to get up.  They complain, I tell them to get over it.  But every now and again, it doesn’t hurt to show our kids that they have us in their corner.  More importantly, I wanted to remind my sons that:

We teach people how to treat us, by what we tolerate.

And whilst the man has the right to request the kids stay clear of his driveway, he does not have the right to insult them.

Later in the afternoon, my second son came and sat down next to me to chat about the incident.  I reminded him of the above and also explained to him that “there are times to turn the other cheek and there are times to protect your cheeks”.

“Yeah”, he nodded, “Otherwise you’ll run out of cheeks”.

Wisdom.

The Catch

gjshuj_qb2s-alan-bishopIt’s December and the thing I’ve done at the end of every year with my children since they were little, is head up to our northern beaches for a week.  There’s a particular spot right on the water in Noosa that is a true slice of paradise.  We swim right off the jetty, take boats up the river, watch sunsets, build sand castles and fish.  Well, we try to fish.

The truth is, we really suck at fishing.  We’ve never caught anything- ever.  And it’s not that the spot is useless either, we see people pull in fish and crabs all the time.  It’s usually fathers and sons; or old leathery guys that look like they could cut fishing line with their teeth.   The pros.   So, ok… we may not look the part, but we came prepared.  My father had bought new rods for all.  We were armed with the best lures on the market.  That’s what the packet said.

The lines were cast and our confidence was high.  And then five days later, it wasn’t.  We had seen kids catch fish all around us, we had changed the amazing lures, the size of our hooks, where we were casting… and still nothing.

Suddenly, it was the last night before we returned home.  I had put all the younger kids to bed and then went to say goodnight to my eldest.  Of all the boys, he had been the most desperate to catch his first fish.  I was tired and had so much packing to do, but seeing him so quietly disappointed, I decided that we wouldn’t go down without a fight.  I reached down to the floor and handed him his shoes; we were going to back out on the jetty for one last shot.

As we sat there shivering and chatting through the cool night, staring out into the seemingly lifeless water, I was reminded of two things:

Firstly – my son is a great kid and I should spend more time with him on our own.

Secondly – the unknown sucks.

We tried to imagine what might be going on in the darkness beneath us.  Were fish about to bite?  Were we casting just a few metres in the wrong spot?  Perhaps all the fish were further, or closer?  Perhaps there were none.

It’s been a strange week in my business.  People I believed were supportive, turned out not to be.  People I had expected little from, surprised me by coming through with a nice catch.  I spoke to my son about the parallels between going after a fish and going after anything in life.  I drew analogies from a very neat little formula that I came across in an Anthony Robbins book that I’ve been reading:

  1. Be clear about what you want
  2. Launch massive action towards getting it
  3. Review what is and isn’t working
  4. Make adjustments
  5. Repeat cycle until you get there

This deceptively simple approach is something I can apply whether I’m chasing a business target, or a health goal or the relationship of my dreams.  We talked about how it might be relevant for my son and his goals as we stood on the end of the pier pulling in seaweed and sticks.

Man, I really wanted Jack to catch a fish.  Not only because it would have been a fantastic demo of the principle we were discussing, or a great story for this blog, or because I wanted so badly to go to bed….  I just wanted my boy to catch a fish because he deserved it.  But life has nothing to do with being owed and sometimes you need to call it a day.  It was nearly midnight when we packed up, empty handed and headed back up to our unit.

We stopped outside the door and I turned to him to say that I was sorry we hadn’t caught our first fish.  He turned to me with a grin and the best attitude I’ve ever seen, and added one word to my statement:

Yet.

We haven’t caught our first fish yet, mum.

And there it was, the 6th and most important point in any recipe for chasing down a goal: move through steps 1-5 like you believe it’s going to happen.  Maybe not tonight, maybe not exactly how you wanted.  But walk with the certainty that eventually you’ll have your prize.  It’s only a matter of time.

We are looking for new places to fish.  Even though I already went home with an incredible catch.

Come on, fight.

1ihpsdizyfa-martin-knizeIt isn’t often that we ask our children to challenge us, but that’s exactly what I did the other night.

It was around 9:30 in the evening, the small children were in bed and my eldest son was still up playing Xbox.  He had his headphones on and it took me some effort to get his attention- which got me annoyed.  So I snapped at him- telling him to get off the machine  (said with appropriate levels of disdain) and get to bed.

He looked incredibly disappointed, but being the great kid that he is, muttered a reluctant ‘yes, mum’ and took himself to his room.  I went to kiss him goodnight a little while later and sat down on the edge of the bed to talk.  Something about the way he had looked at me, wasn’t sitting right.

I asked him about it and he explained that he had been wanting to connect with one of his friends in Canada for months.  Turns out the two boys had only just been able to find each other on Xbox live, all the way across the world, for the very first time… when I walked past and told him sternly to turn the machine off.

I couldn’t believe it.  I felt so disappointed for him and his friend.  In his eyes, he was being obedient.  In reality, I wish he’d spoken up.  I lay down beside him and explained to him that as long as things are said with respect, we all have an equal voice in our home.

I especially wanted him to know that when something is important to us, we should ALWAYS make the choice to speak up.  Even if it means potential friction.  I shoved him playfully, “challenge me, ok kid?  Do it with love, humour, a quiet word or whatever… just know it’s never wrong to fight for things that matter”.

Whilst I value obedience from my children, I am determined not to raise pleasers or push overs.  I’m always looking for ways to celebrate questions asked, initiatives taken, changes proposed.  Even when my answer is ‘no’ to something, I often commend them for asking.

“No, I will not buy that dangerous sling-shot for you.  But good on you for asking a tenth time.  Loving your tenacity, son”.

I’m not joking, I really say that sort of thing- often with a smile and a playful shove.  And every now and again, I surprise them with an unexpected ‘ok, sure’.  Just because I want them to know there’s always value in asking.  Life doesn’t have to be black and white.  Spending another half hour with his Canadian friend, would have been a reasonable exception to regular bedtime.

As Jack and I spoke about it, an analogy came to mind from something that happened in my own life this week.  I’ve recently started training the Brazilian martial art of Jiu Jitsu; it’s great fun and incredible for both mind and body.

The one thing I’m struggling with however, is the full contact combat.  Being the most inexperienced person at the gym, I’m getting hurt.  A lot.  I would have less bruises on my limbs right now if I’d fallen down twelve flights of stairs.  On roller blades.

Naturally, I’ve become a little nervous.  Then in one of the sparring sessions, my grappling partner made a statement that surprised me: “You’ve stopped resisting.  Come on, fight!”   It was true- I had stopped struggling against him in a subconscious effort to avoid pain.  My aching body had decided that it was easier to fall, than to be thrown.

It sounds like a flawed theory: don’t resist and you’ll spare yourself some pain.  But if you think about it, we do it all the time to avoid conflict.  Go with the flow, it’s not worth the trouble.  It’s easier to put up with it, than to try to change it…

The only problem with this passive attitude is that eventually, we do get tired of getting pushed around.  Be it by your boss, your partner, or the guy you’re wrestling on a matt.  Eventually it’s going to start to hurt anyway.  Something’s gonna have to give.

We need to give our children opportunities to challenge us.  I’m not talking about celebrating aggression.  I’m talking about reminding our kids that they have a voice.  Gone are the days of being ‘seen and not heard’.  He who isn’t heard these days, gets lost.

I grabbed Jack’s arm and twisted it into a playful submission.  “So what are you going to do, kid?  When stuff happens that you don’t like?”

“I’ll speak up,” He shoved me sideways and wriggled out, “I’ll do something.”

Good.  The world needs more people like that.

Play.

scooterIf you search in the dictionary for the technical definition of the word ‘relationship’ you’ll find:

Relationship                                   [ri-ley-shuh n-ship]

The way in which two or more people or things are connected, or the state of being connected.

On the surface this means that we define our relationships by titles such as ‘spouse’, ‘sibling’, ’colleague’ or ‘friend’.   But what if we dug a little deeper into the way that we connect with each other?

Let me explain.  You may have two good friends, but the relationships you have with each, are likely be totally different based on the way you are connected.  It could be the interests you share in common, the experiences you’ve had together, geographic or situational correlations.… but anchoring all of these, is history.

The memories that we share form the structure of the bridges that connect us.  So if connection equals relationship, then making memories equals building relationships.  It’s not rocket science.

When it comes to our children, I’ve always tried to remember that a ‘great relationship’ with my sons is not a given.  It’s not an automatic result of my title as ‘mother’.  Plenty of men grow up with average or even negative relationships with their mothers.  A great relationship is something that is built, nurtured and earned.  It is not something you wake up with one day accidentally.

Getting it right can feel like a difficult dance.  I hear parents anguish over the right amount of discipline versus the right amount of leniency.  Are we being too relaxed or too stern, too permissive or too structured?  Are we supposed to be teachers, coaches, mentors or friends?

Probably a little bit of all.  But in the end, there’s only one thing that in my experience, trumps everything when it comes to building relationships with our kids:

Play.  

It doesn’t matter what you play.  Climb a tree, build a lego spaceship, chase each other with the hose.  Ride scooters in the street till dark.

Just to be clear, I’m talking about much more than just ‘doing things’ with our kids.  There’s a big difference between taking your kids to the beach and actually getting busy building a sand castle with them.  The only genuine way to connect with a child is to step into their world.  And then maybe when they grow up, they’ll want to be part of ours.

I once heard someone say that children spell ‘love’ with the letters: T-I-M-E.  And with the currency of ‘time’ being at an all time high, it’s what we do with that time that makes it really count.

I begun to do some research on the benefits of ‘play’ for this article, but it just got too boring.  Co-ordination, experiential science and maths, creativity, tactile development, sensory exposure… I mean, yes, all these things are great.  But how about just doing something because it’s ‘fun’ to do together?

I looked outside my window and my sons were playing scooter soccer on the street with friends.  Screw the research; if I ever need ideas on great things to do with my kids, all I need to do is join them. 

Getting on a scooter is scary enough without also trying to manoeuvre a ball towards a goal and avoid getting tackled.  But whatever, I’ll get on scooters, I’ll get grazes and cuts up a tree, I’ll get tackled for a ball, I’ll watch Pokemon and play Minecraft.  I’ll read books that are gross and laugh madly when I step on dog poo.  I’ll sit on the garage floor with chalk and draw bums.

I’ll stop waiting for the kids to grow up, and instead, I’ll find ways to remember that I too, was young once.  I don’t ever want to get so busy being a ‘parent’, that I forget to also be their friend.

It doesn’t even matter if they tell you that you suck on a scooter , or that you kick a ball like a princess.  Trust me, a relationship is building.   And so on the days that your ten year old requires discipline, or your teenager requires guidance… you’ve already built a bridge.

 

When something bugs you

IMG_0329Last week I led my boys through an experiment on the driveway which involved the smashing of an egg to demonstrate the power of the spoken word.  Much like the unrecoverable splat of shell and goo on the driveway, once an insult is thrown, it can never be taken back.

The intended moral of the story?  People are fragile and we need to treat each other with care.  However, as I thought about it some more, I realised that there was a second part to the lesson.  We can’t walk around on egg shells after all.  The world isn’t always a kind place.  We are all recipients of harsh words at one time or another.

We can’t just crack under the pressure each time it happens.

Alright, no more ‘egg’ puns.  It’s getting eggsausting.  For this next demonstration, what we needed was a swarm of bugs.

So one evening during the week, I left the outside light on for longer than usual and once I had a good gathering of moths, geckos and assorted bugs, I called the boys to the screen door.  From behind the mesh, they could see the bugs, but were not affected by them.

I stepped out bravely into the swarm of bugs and begun by making an analogy out of the situation.  Whenever we shine in life (like the light bulb), we are likely to draw some criticism (like the bugs swarming around it).  It’s annoying, but it’s just life.

What do most of us do?  We step right into it.   I invited the boys to step out from behind the safety of the screen door.  Now they too were exposed to the bugs.  We stood there uncomfortably for a few minutes, noting that there is a clear difference between being observant to criticism, and allowing ourselves to be affected by it.

Sure, it’s impossible to ignore what goes on around us.  If people are cruel, unjust or aggressive, it’s going to be something that we notice.  But much like the screen door, we have access to emotional filters designed to manage how deeply we allow things to affect us.

In a practical sense, how do we do this?  The answer comes from knowing WHY certain things affect us.  It’s not necessarily what is said, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about what is said.

A statement is made.  It touches a sore spot.  We feed the statement with other lies, sifting through the dregs of our fears and insecurities, looking to build a castle around what should have only been a brick.

We are natural storytellers and it’s our tendency to feature ourselves as the dramatic heroes of our personal Shakespearean tragedy.  It makes for a more interesting read, right?

But…. what if we are reading the story all wrong?  What if the real message behind each insult was “I’m afraid,” or “I feel threatened,” or “I’m hurt”?  Would it still affect us in the same way?

I invited the boys to make a choice: would they prefer to stay outside swatting bugs, or did they want to go back inside, behind the screen door?  We couldn’t get back inside fast enough.   As we shuffled in, I reminded them that whether it was bugs or insults, we always have the protection of a door, depending on where we chose to stand.

We may not be able to change what is said, but we always have a choice about how we interpret it.

It’s our right to shine brightly, our responsibility not to throw eggs and it’s within our power to close the door when others do.

The Egg-xperiment

IMG_0164

Of all the things that kids do, this has got to be one of the things that annoys me the most: name calling.    In all honesty, I would prefer that they gave each other a shove than called each other a derogatory name.   No, I’m not about to start high-fiving my child for kicking his brother in the shin, but still.  Name calling sucks.

I get it.  Hurt people, hurt people.  We react by using words that are deliberately designed to damage.  With those close to us, we tend to know each other’s weaknesses and so we head straight for those buttons.  We prey on insecurities and throw darts at the very places that are exposed.  It’s cruel, and what’s worse, it can be permanent.

I wanted to find a way to illustrate this to the boys, in order to help them think twice next time they feel like throwing insults around.  At this age, the words they use a pretty mild, but as they grow into creative teens, they could possibly get more aggressive.  Take those same patterns into adulthood and you’ve got a recipe for trouble in relationships, work and in social circles.

Words are either tools or weapons.  Whichever way we chose to use them, once they are out, there is no going back. 

To illustrate the power of words, I decided to do a little experiment.  I asked the boys to come outside with me and line up on the driveway.  I gave my youngest son an egg and on behalf of all of us, I asked him to smash it on the concrete.  He looked up at me with confusion- for real?  I nodded.  Yeah, go for it.

Splat.  We gathered around the broken egg and then I gave them the strange instruction to ‘please put it back together’.  Confused and amused, they squatted down to give it a crack (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

“You can’t.  It’s impossible, mum”.

Exactly.  Some things, can never be undone.  I made them look at the sad pathetic egg mess on the driveway and I reminded them that when words come out of our mouths, it’s very much like the egg.  Once something is said, it can never be retracted.  Offering an explanation or saying sorry might help, but it doesn’t ultimately change what was said.

Therefore, like the egg, it is important that we treat our words with care.  People, at the end of the day, are fragile.  The words we use and how we use them, carry a big responsibility.  We all crave love and acceptance.  Our feelings in a moment of anger, will pass.  The insults that we throw, will not.

There is one more thing.  We live in an imperfect world, and whilst we can try to be kind to each other, there is no guarantee that everyone will always be nice to us.  For this reason, I have decided that next week we will cover the second part of this lesson: resilience.  Because no matter what anyone says to us, we are still empowered with an important choice: to accept or reject anything that might be thrown at us.

To see video of our little Egg-xperiment in nail-biting live action, click HERE.

 

5 lessons from dogs

14034861_10153959771116676_2659613395055749824_nIt was a sunny Saturday a couple of years ago when we decided to drive around to the local dog pound ‘for a quick look’.  Yep.  We all know how this story ends.

We walked into the RSPCA and toured casually past all the kennels… until we saw him.  The last from a rescued litter of six, a little Rottweiler cross Kelpie, lying in the middle of the floor belly up, fast asleep.

The love was instant.  The kids barricaded the kennel, blocking anyone from stealing him, while I went to do paperwork and hand over my credit card.  And so begun an adventure that nobody could have prepared us for.

Charlie, as we named him, has not exactly been the best behaved dog on the planet…. and we’ve been pretty useless at helping him to change.  He was kicked out of puppy school for being too disruptive to the other puppies.  He has chewed through every single left shoe that we own, wrecked our furniture, broken fences and doors, eaten entire pizzas off the counter, killed all our childhood teddies and claimed every bed as his.  And somehow, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Here- in my opinion- are the top 5 reasons why all kids need a dog:

1) Someone to care for

Just as we care for our little people, it is great for them to have someone to take care of too.  In our home, we made the decision to divide up the tasks- someone does the food, someone else the water.  Two other kids pick up chocolate treasures in the backyard.  I vacuum the relentless piles of black hair from every crevice of the house.

Many kids grow up with a sense of entitlement.  Scooping up dog poo helps balance that out.

2) A friend

Many a night one of my sons has taken off to his room in a sulk, told off for some misdemeanor or small family crime.  More often than not, I will later find the offender, curled up in his bunk bed with Charlie who is only too happy to sulk in sympathy.  I’m certain that Charlie holds all the family secrets and has heard many a mutinous plot against my unjust dictatorship.

It’s amazing what a great listener a dog can be when he’s getting scratched.  I’m glad the boys have a friend like him.

3) Exercise

Having a dog forces you to get out.  Even if we’ve had a big day at work and school, and everyone is tired, those puppy eyes are hard to refuse.  The boys and I have gotten into the habit of taking a ‘family’ walk with Charlie.  They ride scooters and bikes, while I work my biceps against Charlie.

It’s a habit that started as something that ‘we did for Charlie’, and it has grown into a special time of connection that we do ‘for us’.

4) The habit of sharing

Ok, so I’m sure all the disciplined people of the world will cringe to read this, but when it comes to sharing food, there’s nothing more persuasive than those eyes.  You’re hoeing into your salami sandwich and you just know the world would be a little better if you shared.

I’ve seen my kids share ice-blocks and twiggy sticks with Charlie- and as long as it’s not at the table, not bad for him and not too often, I can’t help but see the sweetness in giving up a little bit of something you enjoy, for someone you love.

And it’s not just food.  It’s couch space, bed space, any area next to your feet ….your favorite teddy that is now a mangled mess.  A dog helps a kid understand that they may not be the center of the universe, and that there’s always enough to share.

5) An example of unconditional love

You walk in the door, and regardless of whether your dog has been lonely, hungry or barking fearlessly at a stick all day, he will greet you with joy.  It doesn’t matter what kind of day you’ve had, your puppy always makes it better.  The kind of frenzied backflips and affection a dog gives you when you return, is the closest you and I will ever get to feeling like rock stars.  A dog’s love is pure and unconditional.

This last week, when Jack was home recovering from his operation, I am certain that Charlie knew exactly what was going on.  He stayed beside Jack constantly, watching back to back Indiana Jones from the couch as my boy rested.  In the evening, Charlie slept on the floor next to him, watching over him without crowding him, but waking to sniff and check on him through the night.

It’s this stuff that makes all the chewed shoes in the world worthwhile.  A list of five reasons, suddenly feels too short.

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When you’re busy making other plans

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There’s a song John Lennon wrote for his son called ‘Beautiful Boy’.  I often play it for the boys during our morning ‘play-list’ (featuring an almost exclusive selection of 70s and 80s hits for their auditory pleasure).  The point is, Lennon throws a line in there that always makes me smile: “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”.  As I sit at the children’s hospital, on a day that happens to be my birthday, I have to chuckle.  The guy was right.

Exhibit A:  my week.

A series of unfortunate incidents (for which I’m entirely responsible), resulted in the loss of my license a few months ago.  Consequently, everything is a little harder than usual at the moment.  We depend on my parents for help, friends and the Uber community for lifts and buses as a last resort.

It was Monday night when the boys and I found ourselves on one such adventure.  Long story short, we needed to get home after sports but I had somehow managed to leave both my phone and credit card in my father’s car.

We had planned to catch an Uber home- but we could not order one without a phone.  So we thought about catching a bus, but realised we had no cash.  We went to the bank to draw money out, but remembered we had no card.  I thought about transferring money to a different card… then remembered I had no phone!

And so begun a two and a half hour creative journey home that included using the McDonald’s free wifi on my laptop, a bus trip, a pit stop for dinner and a 2km walk home in the dark.  Under normal circumstances, the whole thing would have been a boring 10 minute drive home, but because ‘life happened’, it became an adventure.

With the focus of a family of McGyvers, we problem-solved together, shared lots of laughs, mused about life before mobile phones and even had a philosophical discussion on our walk about the plot of ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’.  Who knew that was even possible.

As I tucked my tired boys into bed that night, one of them turned to me sleepily and said, “Mum, can we do that again?”.  It made me smile.  How easy it is to make memories. I wondered how many times I have missed similar opportunities because I’ve been too busy being frustrated or annoyed.

Had I focused on the two and a half hours of hassle, instead of the two and a half hours of connection, the evening would have been quite different.  My mood would have spread like a feral virus to the kids, and we would have arrived home exhausted and cranky.

Same experience, different experience.

As a parent, I often forget that I am the thermostat.  I set the temperature in my home.  My actions, my mood and the very energy with which I tackle each day has a direct effect on my family.   When I am reactive, I become a victim of the circumstances, giving away my position of influence and my duty of protection over my sons.

As it turns out, this was not to be our only adventure this week.  On Friday, on a day that I had planned to take off work to sip birthday drinks with friends by a hotel pool, my eldest son woke up with extreme abdominal pain.  A few hours later I found myself in a leopard print sarong at the children’s hospital, sipping nervously on instant coffee instead of champagne, as we waited for surgeons to take out his infected appendix.

It wasn’t the birthday I had planned.  But as I sit here with three boys watching over their big brother as he sleeps off the anesthetic, I also think of how perfect things are tonight.  My boy is well.  Our family is strong.   Our best plans might often come undone, but it’s always possible to find that there is so much ‘right’, even when things go wrong.

Thanks for the tip, John.

The ancient art of raising boys, as mastered by none.