The more I think about it the bigger it gets

sebastian-moody-the-moreI have driven past the sign under the bridge dozens of times without giving it much thought- when out of the blue, it suddenly made sense.

The more I think about it the bigger it gets.

Styled like concrete graffiti under the Story Bridge, the mural was commissioned by the Brisbane City Council in 2009 as part of the Living Cities program.  Local artist Sebastian Moody explains that the purpose of the script was intentionally ambiguous.  Whether the ‘it’ represents your struggle with finances, or relationship, with weight, self esteem or with an annoying neighbour… thinking about it, only makes the problem grow.

I started instinctively looking for other applications of the simple philosophical approach; and it wasn’t long before I was able to make it relevant in my family. The boys were at their father’s house this week and I had called to say goodnight.  One of them jumped on the phone and I could sense immediately that he was upset about something.

When questioned, he launched into an impassioned explanation of some minor injustice that one of his brothers had committed against him.  He hadn’t been given a turn at something, or shoved sideways, or called a name… probably all of the above.  The emotion was raw… and yet, as I soon found out, the incident had been over an hour ago.

The more he talked about it, the worse he felt.  The sign under the bridge popped into my head.  I asked him firmly to stop talking, which took him by surprise.  And then I launched into a series of random questions about the new futsal boots he wants to buy, which kids are in his team and whether Ronaldo is a better player than Messi.

His mood quickly changed, at which point I congratulated him.  He asked, “What for?”  I told him, “For changing your mood”.  He responded with a casual- you’re welcome.  Like he had just put his shoes away.  And yet such a simple act is powerful enough to save a marriage, a job and our sanity.  Such a simple shift, that over his life, could have so much impact.

It occurred to me after I jumped off the phone, that we spend so much time teaching our children practical skills like tying their shoe laces, but often neglect opportunities to teach them emotional tools that in the end, are probably far more important.  It’s one thing to say, ‘get over it’, but the part we really all need help with is learning ‘how’.

Of course, the message under the bridge has equally positive applications.  Like an athlete who focuses on the podium.  Or a partner who focuses on your strengths.  A businessman who focuses on success.  Law of attraction, quantum energy, ‘The Secret’, affirmations… these are all possibly versions of the same principle.

Focus births emotion.  Emotion feeds action.  Action creates results. 

Outspoken historian and politician Allen Weinstein, proposed that ‘Nothing is real, everything is perception’.  Perhaps there are big lessons even in small squabbles. I don’t have much influence over how my children’s lives are going to turn out.  As a writer, I wish it was the one story I could actually write.  But perhaps there is comfort in knowing that whilst I can’t impact their experiences, I may be able to influence how they perceive them.

It’s not about the book

A photo by Alejandro Escamilla. unsplash.com/photos/cZhUxIQjILg

I knew something wasn’t quite right.    Despite being completely dedicated, my third son was having serious struggle learning to read.  It didn’t seem to matter how hard he tried, or how much we helped him- words on a page remained a puzzle.

I don’t like labels.  But in some cases, labels are a blessing.  In the absence of a clear diagnosis, my sweet boy was starting to wonder what was wrong with him.  Was he stupid?  Why was he always in the ‘slow group’?  Was he going to be left behind?

Finally, after much testing and review, the word ‘dyslexia’ was put on the table.  It had been confirmed.  And we were going to have to adjust.

To be clear, dyslexia is not a disease.  The word itself has its origins in Greek and means ‘difficulty with words’.  To my little boy, it meant trouble turning letters into sounds, and sounds into words.  It meant that the traditional system for learning to read and write, was failing him.

Fortunately, we live in a country where support is readily available and it wasn’t long before my son was receiving the special help he needed.  As parents, we were also instructed on new ways to support his learning and ideas to make the process a little less painful.

Then of course, there was the issue of self esteem.  I remember the first night after his profiling had been confirmed; he seemed so confused and worried that I invited him to sleep in my bed.  As we snuggled, I reassured him that ‘being different’ didn’t mean ‘being strange’.  I also explained to him that dyslexia was not a measure of his intelligence, it just means that he processes information differently.

I also promised him that he wouldn’t be left behind-  with a little effort and a little time, he would learn to read.  I could see in his eyes that he was struggling to believe me.

And so begun a new learning journey.  Despite having some clarity, it has not been easy.  We’ve wrestled with frustration, we’ve asked many questions.  We sat down as a family and talked about dozens of incredible people from Richard Branson to Erin Brockovich who also shared his trait.

We found studies that have assessed dyslexia as an advantage rather than a deficit, identifying cognitive strengths in processing, problem solving, creative thinking and many more.  I spoke to him about career options in exciting fields like 3-D construction and App design, where he might one day thrive.  I made sure he knew his brothers were on his side.

It’s been nearly a year since we begun this journey and it’s incredible how far he’s come.  I was interstate for work a few days ago, when I called home to say goodnight.  My little man jumped on the phone, breathless and excited, to let me know that he had finally finally… finished his first book.  ‘Proud’ is not enough of a word, to sum up how I felt.

It wasn’t about the book, of course.  FullSizeRender-2
It was about his victory.  His sense of personal accomplishment and pure unrestrained pride.  He summed it up beautifully a few days later when he casually mentioned that he didn’t mind having dyslexia anymore, because “it makes me feel even more special now that I can read”.

The smile every time he holds a book confirms it.

 

Unplugged

 

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This week came with the gift of a public holiday.  I chose to celebrate by shouting myself a sleep in and allowed the boys some extended time on the Xbox.

Now, before I bag video games in general, I’d like to offer an alternative point of view for anyone who is wondering if their children’s brains are rapidly atrophying each time they reach for the controller.  A recent study at RMIT tested over 12,000 Australian 15 year olds and found that students who play video games daily scored consistently higher in maths and science.  Something to do with problem solving and social constructs.

To the good people at Sony, Apple and Microsoft-  I accept cheques, bank transfers and wine.  Also, please stop reading now.

Because despite finding these kind of studies on video games somewhat comforting… I still hate the things.

And so, on what was turning out to be a beautifully sunny public holiday, I gave my sons the usual 10 minute warning, walked up to the gaming console and turned it off.  “How do you get your kids to stop playing video games?”, I hear parents ask.  It’s easy.  Like that.  You walk up to the machine, extend your index finger and turn it off.   I spun around to my children with the beaming smile of a flight attendant and heralded their landing with:

Welcome back to the real world.  We hope you enjoy your stay.

I’m such a pain.  I know.  But even if there are problem solving and social opportunities to be found in the virtual world, can it honestly offer any competition to the thrill and terror of the real world?

There are thirteen boys on our street.  For the rest of the afternoon, I sat at my desk writing as they came and went in waves, and one game turned into the next.   I saw them problem solve their way down from trees and negotiate over soccer teams.  There were many times when I wanted to jump up and intervene- give the little kid a go… that bike isn’t supposed to have three people on it…  spit that stick out…

But in the end, I held back and resisted.  It’s not up to me to teach them every lesson.  Sometimes, the hardest/funnest part, is standing back and allowing to learn things for themselves.

It occurred to me that while we’ve all grown protective of our children playing too many video games, perhaps we’ve also gotten too protective of them playing in the real world.  Could it be that the kids in those RMIT studies are benefiting from playing on video games, because they are otherwise not playing at all?

Overloaded with homework and extra-curricular activities, consumed by devices and tv, growing up isolated in a world where we worry about even trusting our neighbours- children spend so much time inside.  It’s no wonder that Halo and FIFA tempt them with a much desired escape.

The sun was almost down before I finally called my grubby children inside and shooed a few of the others back to their homes.  As I set the table, I wondered if there was anything of value that I might want to share with the boys that night.  But as we sat down for dinner and I listened to the stories from the afternoon- filled with victories and biffs, lost balls and sticks- I mused to myself, that I could take the night off.

In those few hours of being outside and unplugged, they had already learnt so much.

 

Article referenced:  Alberto Posso (2016), Internet Usage and Educational Outcomes Among 15-Year-Old Australian Students. International Journal of Communication 10(2016), pp3851–387

http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/5586/1742

Not too tough for tears

FullSizeRender 3Tears.  They feature in every childhood.  Some kids are tantrum throwers.  Others are snifflers.  There are wailers and gagers, as well as specialist breath-holders.

I must admit that having four kids has turned me into a rather uncompassionate parent.  You don’t have time to negotiate with a tantrum thrower.  You do a quick scan to check their general vitals – he has to be breathing to make that sound – and then you move on.

It’s not that I’m heartless.  In fact, I’m a GREAT crier myself.  I’m moved to tears over Qantas commercials and certain renditions of “Hopelessly Devoted to You”.  I have even been known to cry at work during particularly touching client presentations.

Clearly, I believe it’s ok to show emotion.  There are too many adults walking around with emotional constipation.  You’ve seen them.  They go around like zombies, unmoved by puppy videos and Ed Sheeran songs.  They sit in traffic with deadpan eyes; one bug splat on the windscreen away from exploding into a suburban rampage.

I’ve always encouraged a healthy level of self expression at home, without tolerating sulkiness.  I won’t tell a child to stop crying.  I’ll ask him WHY he’s crying instead.  If the reason is free from self pity, bad attitude or selfishness… then I’ll just hand him a tissue and let him wail away.

We were talking about this over dinner last night.  The topic came up during a review of the movie Red Dog that we watched recently.  Everyone cried.  Everyone except my second child- a hard core little kid with serious potential for mafia leadership.

I get that not everybody needs to cry.  But the child was bragging that he hadn’t even felt sad.  Like feeling nothing were a strength.  Not in my house, boy.  I rose up from the table and called everyone over to the sink.  I opened the tap and said, “It doesn’t matter how tough you are.  Life’s going to throw things at you.  Sometimes it will only be a trickle, and sometimes you will feel like you might drown.”  I adjusted the water flow accordingly.

I reached into the cupboard and scratched around for the colander.  I put it under the flowing water and explained how some people go through life with very little emotional capacity.  They allow everything to affect them.  Even the small things go right through them and come out the other side as anger or pain.  It’s messy.

Next, I reached for a jug and placed it under the tap.  As it filled up slowly, we discussed another kind of person.  The type who internalises everything, considering it a strength to withhold emotion.  Except sooner or later, when they are able to take no more, it will all spill out.  We watched the water spill over in a gush.

I asked one of them to hand me a school water bottle.  After a watery demonstration, we established that the flow control on the lid allowed us to decide how much water goes in, and how much water comes out.  The water still flows; but only because we choose.

The food was going cold on the table, so I wrapped up with something I’ve said to them before and will say to them again:

Don’t be scared of ‘feelings’.  Just make sure you are in control of your emotions, and that your emotions are not in control of you.

One in a Million

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The sky this week has been an endless dome of blue during the day, and a breathtaking spray of stars at night.  I was out one evening walking, when I happened to look up.  The humbling and indefinite expanse of universe, as seen from my little street, stopped me in my tracks.

I stood in the middle of the road and gasped.  How beautiful.  How ridiculously beautiful.

I wanted to share it with the boys.  I got home and dragged them away from the television and onto the driveway, where we lay back and looked up at the night sky.  A reverent silence set in.  Even the brattiest child seems to be instantly pulled into a primitive state of awe at seeing nature showing off like that.

Something has been on my mind that I wanted to share with the boys. As a single woman, I don’t often know how to talk to my sons about relationships.  It can be hard without an example around.  But that moment on the driveway, suddenly provided the perfect stage.

As the five of us lay there, growing cold, I took a deep breath and commented what was already on their minds:  Looking out to the stars, it’s so easy to feel somewhat inadequate and small.  Nods all around.  I threw everyone a question- and yet isn’t there something inspiring about being so small… and yet still being so important?

I’m not talking about fame, or money.  Or intelligence, beauty or talent.  Whilst commendable, these are not the things that make us special.  In fact, these tags are common.  Found in their millions.  Sirus may be the brightest star in the night sky, but it is no more beautiful than any other.

So perhaps, don’t strive to be ‘one in a million’.  Look up at the stars.  You already are.  The galaxy that wraps itself around us tells us many things about perspective.  What makes you special is not that you are unique.  Unique is the one thing we all share.  We may not be significant in the place we occupy as part of this expanse around us, but we are significant by the place we occupy inside a chosen few.

So don’t seek to be one in a million.  Be a million things to one.

The day will come boys, when you’ll want to find someone to settle down with.  Groans.  I ignored them and continued.  In a universe this big and breathtaking, loyalty to one, takes on a whole new dimension.  Choose one person- and find your peace by being a million things to her (or him).

Keep your eyes open.  There is an exciting sacredness about seeing a woman like no other man ever will.   When you find her, give her the gift of seeing you as no one else will either.   In a world with so much pain and suffering, dare to open up your heart fearlessly- just to her.

To find your one in a million…                                                                                              be brave enough to share all your million pieces with one.

 

Photo (c) Chris Cohen Photography, used with permission.

www.chriscohen.photography

Two Homes

photo-1467514719471-f767c628d857It was the worst day of my life.  The day I packed up my children, a few boxes of belongings and drove away from our family home for good.  I never imagined that ‘divorce’ would be part of our story, but despite our best efforts, it was happening to us.

I knew that eventually the two of us would be alright.  But my heart broke for our children.  Would they grow up dysfunctional?  Had we stolen from their future?  In those first few nights, when their little eyes would look to me for reassurance, I tried to explain their crumbling world by saying:

Our family is not broken.  We live across two homes, but our family is still complete. 

People often throw around the phrase that ‘they would do anything for their children’.  But there are very few times in our lives where we genuinely have the chance to prove it.  I’ve watched divorces drag on for years- the bitterness becoming worse than the marriage ever was.

I made a commitment early on, that no matter what the personal cost, I would do everything in my power to bring our hurting family some peace.  Forget about fair.  It’s a divorce.  If everything had been ‘fair’, you’d probably still be together.  Finding peace is a far greater cause than ‘finding fair’.

Some things that helped me:

  • I had to stop looking at my ex, as my ex. It only brings all the focus to the past.  He is the father of my children.  The focus is on the future.
  • I had to stop making lists of the things he was doing wrong and start building lists of all the things he was doing right.
  • Realising that: You don’t need to be treated well, to treat someone well. Compassion and kindness, over time- will eventually triumph.

It wasn’t pretty for many years.  We both behaved like idiots for a while… until we eventually came through with our promise to love our children more, than we disliked each other.

The other night I was putting the boys to bed, when their father rang.  I decided to put him on speaker so we could say goodnight to the kids together.  I went from bed to bed, until we got to our eldest son- now nearly 12.

When he was a baby, his father and I used to sing him to sleep with a silly version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  Same melody, but muddled words.  For some reason, with his father on speaker, we decided to sing the song again.  So there we were, laughing through the terrible lyrics, singing our eldest son to sleep… nearly 7 years since we tucked him in together.

Families come in many shapes.  I guess this is ours now.  I didn’t show it, but I was so moved by the simple moment.  Greater than all the hurt and pain, has been our love for our children.  We would have done anything for our boys; and we did.

I think they’ll be alright.

The Brother’s Code

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It can’t just be my boys.  Please don’t just be my boys.

Hitting, shoving, kicking each other… for fun?   As a woman I try to think back to my friendships and I don’t recall a single moment where I lunged at a little friend in the middle of tea cups and wrestled her to the ground laughing.

But if you’ve ever watched little boys play, it’s very much like watching puppies.  They jump on each other, roll around, punch each other in the ribs- it’s rough.  Sometimes it’s hard to know if they’re laughing or crying… and then after you’ve had four, you don’t even care.

I have literally established with my boys that unless they are actually on fire, bleeding profusely or frothing at the mouth, they should not scream for help.  I won’t come.  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve ran into a room with medical swabbing and car keys in my hand, only to find them laughing.

The main issue, as I see it, is that growing boys rely heavily on contact as a means of communication.

A shove = “Hey.  How are you?”

A push = “This is mine.  Wrestle me for it or go away.”

A wedgie = “This is the best day ever.  Chase me.”

It’s all well and good… until someone gets hurt.  In a culture where violence is sadly a surging epidemic, it is even more important to teach our sons balance and restraint.  Knowledge of their own boundaries.  Sympathy and understanding.

How do I raise a compassionate man?

Truthfully, I don’t know the answer.  But just as navigators use a compass, I felt instinctively that I should offer my sons a ‘code’.  A simple promise that brothers could make each other, to serve them as a guide for when the seas get rough.

We decided on the words together and the initial oath was sworn in the forest, over the trunk of an old tree.

To Love, to Teach and to Protect.

We called it: The Brother’s Code.  It’s handy to have.  I whip it out during name calling, X-Box arguments and headlocks.  “Explain to me, child…  Does aiming a nerf crossbow at your brother’s eyeball fall within your promise to love, teach and protect him?”

It’s a good little mission statement.  We are given such guidelines through school, work and government.  It makes sense that a family should have a mission statement too.

The reason we made our promise to each other over a fallen trunk?  It was a little way to symbolize that developing better habits, often means letting some bad ones go.  We vowed to leave many things in the forest- anger, impatience, selfishness- these things, they can rot away with the dead tree.

This is not to say we won’t behave badly again.  Let’s be realistic.  We will stuff up again eventually.  Um, or on our way back to the car.

But we have new seeds to plant.  And those are the ones we want to water.

Sleep. I remember you.

bedroom

Last night something a little strange happened.  At approximately 3:34am, I was woken up by a little person standing beside my bed ‘rowing’.  Yes, rowing.  Little hands flapping madly, face intense.  At that speed, he would have overtaken the Awesome Foursome.

Me:  What on earth are you doing?

Child:  Rowing.

Me:  Why?

Child:  ‘Cause I like it.

I thought sleepless nights would be limited to the baby stage.  Apparently not.  I don’t know about other people, but I still get woken frequently for a variety of reasons, ranging from:

  • There’s someone in the garage.
  • I had a dream that you were eaten alive by a zombie/dinosaur/giant moth.
  • There’s a kid at school called Jonah/Ben/Oliver who… (insert badly constructed story with absolutely no point)
  • I think there’s someone in the garage again.

After I instructed my child to row back to bed, I found myself recalling their baby years.  I have friends going through it now, and I feel that nothing- not all your biggest nights out of your 20s combined-  can prepare you for the exhaustion that a sleepless baby can cause.

The difference is that this kind of exhaustion is deeply emotional.  You know that you love this little screaming demon.  You tell yourself over and over that you’re an excellent parent, as you pace the hallway trying to chase away thoughts about the ridiculous things you could do to stop this baby crying.

I know this isn’t popular material, but I’m putting it out there anyway.  Because like me, there are women who see people pushing prams at the shops with blissful smiles on their well rested faces, and wonder if they are somehow broken.  At the height of my sleepless delirium,  I legitimately considered anonymously dropping my bundle of babies back to the hospital for a night.  They’d be safe, and I would go to a hotel room nearby, have a bath and SLEEP.

My hands would twitch nervously every time I went past the hospital exit.  The delirious little daydream would play out in my mind, and I would exhale like an athlete from the exhaustion of not succumbing to temptation.  I never would have done it of course (partly because I was always appeared in handcuffs on Chanel 7 at the end of my daydream).  But this, and many other scenarios where I’ve been a less than perfect parent have created something very important in my life: opportunities to forgive myself and grow.

Now that my children are older and I am functioning with slightly less sleep deprivation, my weaknesses as a parent are sadly more visible to my sons.  There are times that I shout, that I’m tired, inconsistent, preoccupied, dramatic and rough.  I feel terrible shame; but I do believe that there is so much power in a parent’s genuine apology to a child.

It tells them two things:

It’s ok to be wrong sometimes.

And you are important enough for me to admit it.

(sorry boys about wanting to return you to the hospital)

Faces in the Trees

forest finalLast weekend, on what was possibly the coldest weekend of the year, I decided to take the boys up to a cabin in the mountains.  We did all the expected things like build a fire, argue over Monopoly and consumed twice our body weight in dangerously charred marshmallows.

We also did a couple of great walks.  Four kilometres can be a long way on little legs; and after the initial excitement of observations like “look- that branch looks like a bum” died down, we settled into a rather quiet and contemplative pace.

The rainforest is both beautifully silent and yet alive with the sounds of life.  As we walked deeper, it swallowed up our imaginations and we started to notice patterns in the vegetation.  Large ferns hung lazily off Bunya Pines and Red Cedars.  Fig vines coiled around native Tamarinds in various stages of suffocation.  Large fungi grew colourfully along the twisted roots of the forest floor.

Insert: dreary grade eleven biology flashback.  Suddenly in my head, all the plants had faces.  I pointed this out to the boys.  Most people that they will come across in life, are actually just like these plants.

There are Fern People, happy to take a free ride into the canopy where they can bask in sunlight that they did nothing to earn.  It doesn’t necessarily harm the larger tree; but it’s just dead weight to carry.  Everyone has some friends who are ferns.

Then of course, there are the Vine People.  They germinate in stumps or tree forks, sending their tentacles down to the ground in an engulfing embrace that slowly kills the host tree.  I warned the boys, that whilst most women are good, there are those who will trawl bars at 2am, looking for a host.  Best not allow them to attach.

The Fungi People will come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are bright and beautiful, some might even look a little gross.  Although often un-appreciated, fungi help the host extract nutrients from the soil and fend off harmful parasites.  In our lives, these people can be teachers, partners, work friends, siblings… anyone with whom you share the generosity of spirit that helps both of you grow, each day into someone a little better.

As we stepped onto a look out, and admired the breath-taking expanse of forest below, one of my little fellas piped up and asked, “well how do you know the difference?”.  I told him with honesty that I did not know; it’s one of those endless pursuits in life to know which relationships to build and which to let go.

Marriage to a Vine will suffocate you.  A business partnership will only work with a Fungus. Watch you don’t carry too many Ferns.

I then turned to him with my own question; it’s after all, the only one we can really answer: which plant are you going to be, little man?

Grow brick, grow.

FullSizeRender-5There are many things that little boys are good at. They’re good at making friends and making noise. They’re great at picking noses, scabs and fights.   Boys can make sounds with their bodies that seem disproportionate to their size and innocence.

Really, when you think about it.  Boys are great at many things.

But the thing they tend to do best, is GROW.  You spend stupid money on career-making football boots one season, only to discover they can’t get their toes into them the next.

This kind of growth requires no effort.  The growth happening on the inside, however, is a different matter.  I often remind my sons that I’m not raising boys, my job is to raise men.  The lessons I fail to teach them today, life will most certainly teach them later.  Usually without mercy.

Kids don’t get this of course; and they often resist learning.  If only all the adults would shut up and stop trying to make us better.  We’ll grow up eventually.

Or will they?

The other day I decided to do something rather strange to illustrate to my sons the very crucial difference between ‘growing old’ and ‘growing up’.  We pulled over outside a construction site and borrowed one brick (for an indefinite period of time!).  We then drove the brick to an empty lot near our house and I asked one of my boys to place it on the grass.

We sat in the car watching the brick for a few minutes.  After some time in silence, I asked the boys if they could see anything happening.  No, nothing happening.  “What about if we come back in a week, do you guys think the brick might become a wall?  Or in a year, what are the chances of it growing into a house?  In ten years, could it become a cathedral?”

They all looked at me like I was stupid.  Cue for me to make my point:  even in a million years, that one brick won’t become anything more than it is today.  Because time alone, changes nothing.

I explained to my silent audience that to grow into something better, is a deliberate choice.  It is a choice to learn, read, explore, challenge, accept correction, take risks… and the sad result of ignoring opportunities to grow is seen in the many so called ‘grown ups’ walking around with the emotional and intellectual capacity of a child.

Every morning as we drive past Lord Bernie Brick (as they have named him), we check if he’s grown into anything amazing overnight.  And each time that he hasn’t, it serves as a reminder to the boys, that they won’t grow into good men by accident either.

It’s going to be a daily choice.

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