Posts tagged ‘parenting’

May 22, 2015

Garden Time

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 20, 2015.

Every year the boys and I buy seeds and a few plants and plant them with good intentions. My boys also enjoy growing sprouting beans in jars and then transplanting them to the garden. We don’t have the best soil or much sunlight on this wooded lot, but I let the boys plant what they want. Digging in the dirt and caring for the vegetables must have more life lessons than I can count.

My eight-year-old wanted to plant pumpkins again. We put them in big pots in our driveway so they can get the most sunlight possible. My five-year-old is growing squash in our garden, and I planted some tomato and cucumber plants. We are all sharing the strawberries and green beans. We have some herbs left over from last year too.

A new garden is a pretty sight. There’s fresh topsoil and no weeds. The new plants have that fresh garden color – a world of promise in a single leaf. Perennials are blooming throughout my yard, keeping promises planted long ago. At this time of year, it’s easy to muster the energy to go out every evening and water the garden. By August, it’ll be another story, but that’s still far off, and I’m going to enjoy this beautiful spring for as long as it’s here.

My son’s carnivorous plants are looking healthy and growing like crazy, and we were thrilled to see his new sundew plant come to life after buying it in its dormant state late last fall. This sundew has long, spindly leaves with a sticky substance on them that insects will stick to, if they land on it. He also has a pitcher plant and Venus flytrap. I think my son’s carnivorous plants are doing a service for our whole neighborhood considering how many dead insects we find in them.

I wish my whole yard looked as fresh and well kept as our garden, spring flowers, and my son’s carnivorous plants, but that’s not the case. Weeds taunt me from under the azalea bushes, and there’s not enough time or money to fix up our backyard or the bare patches of lawn. I found one of my favorite flowering bushes – the name always eludes me – died this year after producing beautiful flowers for many years. It was the same bush where a cardinal family reared their chicks in one year, and we were able to watch the whole cycle right through our living room window. I’m very sad to see this bush stand bare of leaves.

My bay leaf tree, also, has suffered these past two years after growing so well for many years before this. Is it because I’m too busy to go out and pamper it, or did the winters just get too cold for it? I don’t know.

But I see good things happening too. Every year I manage to do one or two small tasks to add to the “perfect yard” that’s in my imagination but slowly taking form around the house. The lead plant I bought two years ago at the botanical garden is hanging in there, and for the first time this year, it’s blooming. Some irises I divided last year are doing quite well in their new spot, and this year I finally divided some monkey grass and planted it in front of the fence on the other side of the house.

We are in this house for the long haul, so I’m patient about getting the yard just right. We are in the season of our lives when we have other priorities, and trying to keep a perfect yard would be a waste of money and time. Keeping it fairly neat and planting slow-growing but lasting plants seems like the more prudent way to go. Besides, when the boys grow up, I doubt they’ll remember the weeds or the lack of lawn. Instead, they’ll remember the flowers, vegetables and freedom they had to run and dig in the dirt. Perhaps this is the perfect garden after all.

April 1, 2015

Not All Clutter Is Equal

Note: This column appeared in the Barrow Journal on March 25, 2015.

I hear a lot about clutter. It’s a buzzword for stay-at-home moms and probably any parent my age. Kids come with a lot of clutter, and shucks, if you’ve lived in the same place for long enough, you’ll accumulate plenty of clutter with or without kids.

Most of the time, clutter is spoken like a dirty word. “I hate this clutter.” “I can’t get rid of all this clutter.” “What I am going to do with this clutter?” “I’m drowning in clutter!”

I admit, I’ve said all that too. I whittle away at our clutter whenever I get the chance, which isn’t often, but now that the boys are older, it is not as insurmountable of a task as it used to be. I recently went through one of my son’s closets and my own closet. I have a bunch of boxes in the back of my van and ready to donate next time we go into town.

For the past two years before Christmas, I have convinced the boys to pick out whatever they are willing to part with to donate. I tell them that they have to make space for the new toys that are coming. The first year they put together one good-sized box. This year, we had several boxes, and I was proud of them. Despite this, however, we still have clutter everywhere.

But not all clutter is equal, and I have learned to live with a certain amount of clutter, mostly out of necessity. For example, there’s no way I’m going to convince my husband to clean up the clutter on his dresser or bathroom counter. (If I do it, I get fussed at for throwing out some important piece of information.) And since I keep my fare share of clutter, I don’t have a leg to stand on anyway. (But at least I clean mine up sometimes.)

As I said before, kids come with a lot of clutter, and I don’t mind the toys on the living room floor. We clear it out and sweep and mop when we have time, but I don’t try to do that everyday. What is the point when everything will be put right back on the floor the next day? Instead of making them clean everything everyday, I have the kids clean up their dishes and sweep the floor after meals. They also have to make sure the walkways are clear so that no one will trip during the night. In the event that they make an unreasonable mess, they are ordered to clean it right away.

Perhaps the biggest clutter control that I have to deal with is my kid’s projects. My sons are always making something. My five-year-old likes to draw, and stacks of artwork emerge out of nowhere. My eight-year-old likes to make things out of cardboard or paper or any of a number of craft supplies that are spilling out of an old dresser I use to keep this stuff.

Currently our activity room (the former dining room) has a box of paper dinosaurs (origami style) in one corner, and a desk filled with clay artwork, a cardboard ship, mechanical hands made from old cereal boxes and string, and my son’s unfinished Jabba the Hut puppet. There are homemade (and store bought) posters squished between the wall and bookshelf, and my son’s robotics kit sits up on that old dresser along with a globe. On the floor are newspapers spread out with Styrofoam balls and paint because my son is making models of the planets. (His idea.) Add to this all our books and other homeschooling supplies, and you have one cluttered room.

I’m sure this clutter would make most mothers feel insane, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me a bit loopy sometimes, but mostly, I don’t mind. When I look at it, I don’t see a mess. I see time well spent. I have chosen, in this era of my life, to make fostering my kid’s imaginations a priority over clutter. I spend a little less time cleaning the house so that I can do more projects with them. I let them decide what to keep and throw away (usually) because I want to show them I care about their work. I have always told them not to do any damage to anyone else’s work, and I abide by that rule too. When I do that, they feel respected, and they do more good work.

The thing is, these boys are going to outgrow these toys and projects quickly. There will come a day when I can clear most of it out, and later a day will come when the boys move out of the house and take more with them. At that time, I can declutter to my heart’s content. And I know I will sorely miss the days that projects were strewn all over the shelves and floors.

December 21, 2014

Gift Ideas for Young Kids

Printmaking with good acrylic paints was fun!

Printmaking with good acrylic paints was fun!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on December 17, 2014.

I was at the hobby store with my boys last week to buy a birthday present for my son’s friend when a woman stopped us to ask advice on getting a gift for a seven-year-old boy. Her son was twenty-six, so she felt out of touch with the younger generation and thought my eight-year-old and five-year-old could help her. Indeed they could, and my eight-year-old was happy to tell her what he liked.

She was specifically asking about art supplies, so first we told her about air dry modeling clay. My boys love playing with this stuff, and I like it so much better than play-doh. My eight-year-old used to watch YouTube videos to learn how to sculpt small things, and later this led to him taking pottery classes, which he still enjoys. After drying this clay will get brittle, and small parts may break, but that hasn’t been a big deal to my kids. One big box of clay is about $8 and lasts a long time.

I also keep craft supplies on hand such as beads, feathers, popsicle sticks and whatnot because my boys love to build things with them, and for my younger son, he likes to take a hunk of clay and stick those things in it. Makes for an interesting decoration.

My eight-year-old’s favorite toy has been Legos, and over the past two years he has gotten all kinds of kits that he will spend hours putting together. Eventually these get taken apart and the pieces get mixed in with other Legos, but I think that’s okay because then my boys begin to use their imaginations and make creations of their own. I think Legos are awesome and educational, and I wish I owned stock in the company.

My five-year-old still plays with our dinosaurs and other animals almost everyday. I think it depends on the kid, if these plastic animals can hold their attention. We have hundreds of them (at least it feels that way), and my son will line them up on the floor as if they will fight each other, or either he’ll make a zoo by setting up our various blocks as pathways and cages for the animals. My favorite brand is Schleich because of the quality.

Another favorite toy are my boy’s remote control monster trucks. I’m not talking about a cheap one though. You need to spend at least $30 to get a good one, and be sure to buy extra batteries as part of your gift because these things suck battery life quickly. (You may need different kinds of batteries for the controller and the car.) However, these toys get my boys outside, and they build obstacle courses for them. Anything that gets them outside and using their brains and creativity is beneficial in my book.

Both my boys enjoy drawing and painting, but my five-year-old especially loves it. I bought him a sketchbook, and I’ve found that to be a great way to contain the hundreds of pages of drawings he can accumulate.

I’m also a fan of quality art supplies for kids because it makes a difference in the experience, and they are more likely to enjoy painting with good stuff. My eight-year-old even commented to me that he noticed a big difference between our acrylic paints and the Crayola washable ones. I think a great gift would be some good watercolor paper and watercolor pencils or quality paints. Good paintbrushes can offset the frustrations that cheap ones can give you when the bristles fall out while painting. You can also have more control over where you want the paint to go when you are using a nice brush instead of the cheap, bushy ones in kid’s sets.

Of course, some kids aren’t going to do anything with these kinds of gifts if they don’t know how to use them. The best way to get a child to be creative and try new things is to do it yourself – without the expectation that the child join you. That’s right. Children rarely want to do what you tell them to do, but they tend to follow you around and want to do what you are doing. So give yourself a gift of some new art supplies or a building set or even an obstacle course with a monster truck and don’t be surprised if a little person wants to join you.

I could have added many more things to this list that foster creativity. What would you add?!

August 16, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: Angry Birds – You Never Know

I don’t know much about the Angry Birds game except that it used to be my son’s favorite game when he played on his dad’s Nexus, and when I sat down to watch him play, it seemed absolutely silly. But hey, it’s not for me. It’s for him, and I’m glad he’s having fun. I don’t have a problem with screen time, and while we do enforce some limits (it’s just part of our daily routine), our day’s overall screen time is definitely higher than what most conscientious parents prefer.

It’s really cool, however, when I see his interest in a game turning into a little project. All on his own one day, he made these angry birds and their raft. (Note: He already had access to all the materials he needed, and he knew how to use them, so he didn’t need anything from me.) How cool is that? Now the game doesn’t seem so silly, huh?

Never dismiss, restrict or belittle your child’s interest. Ask questions, nurture it, and it may blossom into something productive and cool! You never know!

July 19, 2014

Summertime

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on July 16, 2014.

Last summer flew by, and I hardly had time to stop and think about it. That was probably because it started out with a long emergency trip to Chicago to help my mother-in-law who had been in a car accident. (She’s okay now.) In addition to that, my son was in several summer camps, and while I enjoyed hanging out in town with my younger son, it just felt like the summer went by in a blink.

I’m happy this summer has been a little different. Though it’s been quite busy, and I’ve had work to do, and I’m driving my son to and from camps frequently, I’ve been a little more intentional about taking breaks too.

I’ve scheduled less play dates, I’m reading a good book, and I sit on the front porch sipping iced tea for a few minutes each day. I’ve even started sketching as I’ll explain in a moment. So we’re half way through summer now, and I feel like I’ve had a few chances to pause, look around, and enjoy it.

My seven-year-old attended three summer camps this year. It’s the first time he has been old enough to attend the full-day camps that go from about 9a.m. to 3:30 or 4. Last year he was in half-day camps. All of them have been great experiences for him.

It’s felt strange to be at home without him all day. As homeschoolers, we’re used to having our kids around all the time. It makes the day quieter to have just one boy at home, and it’s nice to give the four-year-old my full attention when he wants it, though he likes to play by himself too.

My seven-year-old’s favorite camps were the pottery camp at Good Dirt Studio in Athens, and the camp at the botanical garden.

Though he liked the camp at the nature center, he doesn’t care to go swimming, and he came home each day quiet and exhausted from not eating enough. I was happy that the folks at the botanical garden seemed to take a little better care of him by making sure he was eating and drinking. (Or maybe my reminders before camp finally got through to him.)

Each day after the botanical garden camp, he was full of energy and gave us a full account of his day, which, as he told me, was full of everything he liked to do, such as wading through streams to catch fish with a net, taking hikes, watching puppet shows, and touring the green houses. He even got to bring home a little plant.

We’ve had a few chances to go on family hikes, and we’ve hiked with just the four-year-old while his older brother was in camp. Because my four-year-old loves drawing so much, I got him a sketchbook and one for myself too. Even though I can’t draw worth a hoot, sitting down by some flowers to sketch them has been quite relaxing. It’s helped me slow down and enjoy the summer.

I have helped my older son create and build numerous things, but I was feeling like I was leaving his younger brother out. I love that our sketchbook habit encourages his interest and gives us something to do together. Though lately he has wanted me to sketch something for him so that he can color it – oh well. That’s good too. It’s his sketchbook, so he gets to choose what goes into it.

Now that camps are over, I’m glad to have half the summer before us to sketch and make things and take day trips. I will continue doing reading lessons with my oldest boy, and I plan to review this past year with him one day over a slideshow and give him a “certificate of completion” for the first grade. We also have birthdays in the August – I have no idea what we’ll do for that, but I know we’ll have fun.

I hope your summer is not too hot, just long enough, and full of relaxing moments.

June 5, 2014

The Joy of Salamanders and Other Natural Things

I’m trying to remember when I first discovered that I’m a nature girl at heart. I’m lucky because my parents loved to travel and spend time in nature. We weren’t exactly roughing it because they owned a big RV, but we traveled through many national parks, and my dad loved boating, so I’ve spent time on different lakes and waterways.

I can remember taking long walks with my best friends during my late teens and early twenties. I loved being outside even if it meant walking along city streets. I always noticed the trees, flowers and birds. Whenever I traveled anywhere, I would seek out parks and other beautiful places. I’ve always loved hiking, and I have gravitated to friends who enjoy hiking too.

I met a friend in my late twenties who was a biologist, and she sparked a deep respect in me for the little critters of this earth. She loved frogs and snakes, and for a while she studied salamanders in the Smoky Mountains. I visited her once while she was doing some fieldwork. I thought she had an awesome job.

But I’m not sure I truly understood how much nature – and spending time in nature – meant to me until I became a mother of little boys. Seeing the world through their eyes makes me know on a deeper level how much all of this means to me.

Being in nature is something I crave, and I love learning more about it. Whether it’s learning how alligator moms carry their babies in their mouths or how to grow carnivorous plants, I find more joy in this – in making discoveries and feeling part of this mysterious and wondrous world – than anything else I’m part of. I am in awe of this planet and its place in the universe, and I believe that I’m very lucky to find joy in something so accessible to us all. I believe that finding joy in the simple process of observing and learning is what leads to lasting happiness.

On Mother’s Day, my family took me hiking in the North Georgia Mountains because they know that’s what I love most. First, we climbed the short trail up to Anna Ruby Falls. It’s a beautiful, paved path along Smith Creek, and on Mother’s Day, it was quite crowded, but we didn’t care. We were not there only to view the falls – we went to find the salamanders.

There’s a rocky, muddy wall along the path, and a natural spring drips down it constantly. Even in the coldest part of winter, the water there stays about fifty degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celcius). This is a perfect habitat for salamanders. They like to hide away in the rock crevices. We must have found a dozen of them.

While other tourists passed us by or lingered only for a few moments, we crowded around this wall for a long time (on the way up and on the way down). My seven-year-old said, “I could stay here forever!”

I was reminded of my old friend who studied salamanders, and I was reminded of all the times I’ve been hiking with family and friends, and the peaceful feeling that I get whenever I’m in the mountains, sitting by a gurgling stream. There’s no better place on earth, in my humble opinion.

I’m glad my son thought he could sit there by those salamanders forever. I hope that someday when he’s grown up and dealing with grown-up problems, he’ll remember the good times he had looking for salamanders by a mountain stream, and he’ll be able to go back there, seeking solace. A home for his heart.

June 2, 2014

Robot Mom

The only photo of me taken on our vacation – taken on our first night in the condo by daddy with his tablet. (Because I’m usually taking all the photos.)

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 21, 2014.

In the late 90s, I worked for US Airways at the Athens Ben Epps Airport. Truly, it was the best job I ever had for two reasons – the varied work suited me, and most importantly, I worked with some awesome people. It’s the only time I witnessed true teamwork despite working in offices where employers touted the term “teamwork” frequently.

Now that I look back, I realize that the work suited me because I’m not cut out for sitting in an office in front of a computer for eight hours. At the airport I got to work with people, work inside and outside, do physical work, and work on the computer. There were slow times between flights, and there were intense times while checking people in for the flight, loading their bags on the plane, running the security check point, and marshaling the plane in and out of its parking spot. Many times there were only two of us working, and since it was a small airport most of the passengers thought they could arrive five minutes before takeoff. (That wasn’t helpful.)

Once a passenger asked me, “Do you fly the airplane too?”

“Only in emergencies.” I joked.

My co-workers and I worked well together because everyone did exactly what was needed of them in any given moment. None of us favored one task over another, so we jumped in wherever we were needed. The only exception to this was our manager, and though that may sound like a criticism, I actually liked her. She was a nice woman, but when she was there she disrupted the flow of our work for various reasons. Later I learned the only reason she took the job as manager was because there was no else to do it, and she gladly gave it up when someone else wanted it.

The reason I’m telling this story is because I have a vivid memory of one day when a flight was cancelled, and twenty passengers stood before us in a panic because they were going to miss their connection in Charlotte, NC. One of my co-workers and I worked so smoothly and quickly helping each passenger in line that we deflated any quick-tempered passengers.

What I remember about that moment is my manager standing near us and exclaiming, “Look at them! They’re like robots!” It was always hard for her to understand how we could remain so unflustered during those stressful moments.

Now all these years later that memory keeps resurfacing because once again, I find myself in a situation that requires varied tasks. I get to work with awesome people, get outside, do physical work, and part of the day, I’m on my computer. But it’s even better because I get to do creative work and continually learn new things too.

The bad part is that I never get a day off, and I’m so busy going from task to another that I rarely get a chance to rest. I never get to cross everything off my to do list either. Indeed, this is the life of a mother, especially a homeschooling mom, and a freelance writer, and it’s not lost on me that sometimes I must look like a robot. That is, focused, hurried and unsmiling.

I’m trying to remember to smile more. I want my outward appearance to match how I’m feeling inside. I want my kids to know that I love my job, and I love them. Even when I’m tired, there’s nowhere I’d rather be but right here.

I have so many good memories from my time working at the small airport. I could write a book about all the characters I met there, and all the laughter and smiles. Did I appreciate it while I worked there? I think so, but I know there were days that it was just a job.

My current job is anything but “just a job,” so I hope I can remember that each moment is a memory in the making.

April 11, 2014

The Georgia Museum of Art

750 pixels Terry Allen main_8247

Photos courtesy of the Georgia Museum of Art

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on April 9, 2014. Believe it or not, I wasn’t planning this field trip when I started writing my art series. It’s serendipity at its best!

My boys love to produce lots of original artwork. I keep their supplies out where they can reach them, so art happens almost daily. This year I also have done a few formal lessons in art. For example, we’ve looked at some of the artists from the Renaissance, and we’ve talked about color and line. I had them make a color wheel, and we did some fun activities to explore how everything is made up of lines!

I didn’t think my boys were old enough to visit an art museum, though. I imagined my seven-year-old hanging onto my arm and asking, “When are we going home?” and I imagined my four-year-old running up and down quiet hallways and knocking over some precious sculpture.

Then my sister came to visit us for a very short visit on her spring break, and the weather was not ideal for hiking, which is what I was hoping to do while she was here. It also seemed silly to drive into Atlanta when she was here for such a short time, and we were going to have to take her to the airport the next day anyway. And there are not many indoor places around here that’s fun for both kids and adults. But my sister loves art – she even teaches at a special school that emphasizes art, so we decided to take a chance on our boys and visit the Georgia Museum of Art.

The Museum is located on the University of Georgia’s East Campus. It is free for the public, though you will need to park in the Performing Arts Center parking deck and pay for parking when you leave. We were there for about two hours and paid $2 for parking.

The museum is kid-friendly. Upon entering, we were greeted at the visitor’s desk where our children were offered a bag with some activities they could do while they were visiting. They also could have taken a sketchpad and drawn pictures in it while viewing the artwork, though all these items needed to stay at the museum. My seven-year-old was happy to receive a little button he could wear on his shirt that said, “Art for Everyone.”

It had been years since I had visited the museum, and it all looked new to me. This is because in 2011, a 16,000-square-foot expansion was added to the museum. It is beautiful. There is a huge permanent collection with artwork from the Renaissance to Modern times. Some of my favorite discoveries were a portrait painted by Mary Cassatt and a small painting by Renoir.

I was happy that my boys behaved themselves, and for at least the first half the museum, they were engaged and enjoyed looking at the art. I squatted down by my four-year-old and asked him what he saw in the abstract art, so that helped him focus, but eventually, he did try to run around the big, airy rooms and hallways. (It’s tempting even for me to want to run in such lovely hallways!) But we kept him in check, and he was good boy.

GMOA

Eventually my seven-year-old did grow tired, but that probably had more to do with the leisurely pace at which the adults were moving through the museum. He enjoyed a lot of art, especially the Belleek Porcelain collection. He loves working with clay, so the delicate porcelain sculptures with such fine details were impressive. He also was taken with a special, temporary exhibit that the museum staff called “the floating pen,” but according to the museum’s website, it’s called “Machine Drawing.”

Tristan Perich, a contemporary artist and composer based in New York City, is the artist responsible for the “Machine Drawing.” He created the code that operates a machine that controls a pen, held by hooks and wires, and over a six-month installation, this “floating pen” will make a work of art on a 60-foot wall in the museum. It is fun to watch!

There was a good chunk of wall already covered in pen markings, so we thought the “floating pen” had been working for a long time. We were surprised to hear that when we visited the museum, it had only begun three days earlier. My seven-year-old wants to go back and see the wall in a few months to see what it looks like, so we’re planning to do that. (We also asked them how often they have to change the pen – the answer was everyday!)

If you would like to visit the museum, it is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10-5p.m., Thursday from 10-9p.m., and Sunday 1-5p.m. It is closed on Mondays. For parents, you may be interested in looking at their calendar and going on a Family Day, which is once a month on a Saturday and free. We have not tried that yet, but it looks like a great activity for kids.

The museum’s website is georgiamuseum.org. Click here to go directly to their page about upcoming Family Art Days.

April 1, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling Preschool: My four-year-old’s projects

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 26, 2014.

Sometimes I worry that I don’t give my four-year-old enough attention, but then again, sometimes I worry that I don’t give my seven-year-old enough attention. In truth, it’s probably about even.

For three years, my oldest son had all my attention, but his younger brother has had to compete ever since he was born. I have to remind myself that my four-year-old got a lot of things his older brother didn’t get. Since he was a baby, he’s been carried along to play dates whereas I didn’t know many mothers with infants and toddlers when I first had children. He’s also been taken to his older brother’s classes and been around big groups of children of all ages from day one.

He was also born into a home with lots of toys and art supplies, and when he was a baby, we converted our dining room into a school room, so he is very comfortable going in there and pulling down books or puzzles or blocks and other building toys. Now, he sits at the table and listens while his older brother works on his lessons. Sometimes he wants to draw or do something else, but I’m surprised how much he’ll just watch. (Not exactly quietly, but not too distracting either.)

Even though he’s not getting the direct one-on-one attention my oldest son got from age one to three, he is absorbing so much information from his brother and me. (I can’t forget to mention daddy either. He’s always been around for both of them.)

Right now I’m very focused on my “first grader.” Reading lessons, math lessons, book time, computer time, conversations about history and cultural events, and most of all, his projects. We are project-based homeschoolers, which means that I set aside time for my son’s interests and use some “tricks of the trade” to get him to study deeper than the surface of those subjects.

My four-year-old has interests too, and lately I’ve been considering how I can make more time for his projects and lessons. I don’t think that at four-years-old, academics should be a priority, but by letting him explore his interests, he is learning everything a four-year-old would typically learn in preschool anyway.

Right now he loves letters and numbers. He hasn’t mastered the ability to identify all the letters like my oldest son did at an early age, but he’s taking a different approach. He loves to sing the ABC song, and by singing it with him every night, he has mastered it.

He loves to count everything, and we often overhear him counting when he’s playing by himself. He loves to play our math games even though they are too hard for him, and sometimes he’ll play by himself when no one else is available. He uses some tiny little, rubber vehicles (manipulatives) to help him add and subtract.

His favorite subject is dinosaurs, and whenever we go to the library, he asks for dinosaur books. (I’m really tired of reading about dinosaurs!) He watches dinosaur shows on T.V. with his brother, and we’ve taken him to museums to see dinosaur bones. He has asked me to draw him dinosaurs, make a dinosaur out of clay, and his father tells him a story about “Dig Dig the T-Rex” every night before bed. I have never thought about it before, but I guess you could say that he has an ongoing “dinosaur project.”

Whenever he tells me to draw or make him something, I encourage him to try to do it himself first. He never wants to. I guess he knows his own limits. I started to get frustrated about this, but then I remembered all the “art” he makes on his own. You might call it “abstract” art, but it takes some time and thought. He is very calculating about applying different colors of paint all over one piece of paper, drawing line art, or cutting and taping paper together to make interesting shapes. I’m glad he’s felt free to “create” whenever he wants to, and I have a nice collection of his work to save in a memory box.

When you have more than one child, it’s easy to worry about whether or not you’re giving them their fair share of your time, but in many ways, both boys have benefitted from not having my full attention. They occupy themselves. And when I stop to chronicle everything they do, I’m pleasantly surprised that quite a bit gets accomplished without me even trying.

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By having all our materials accessible to both of my children, I’m very happy to see how my youngest son has picked up on the “creating” “building” “art” vibe of his house. I will often find him in the activity room, scribbling away on a piece of paper. Sometimes, he pretends he’s writing. Other times, he wants to paint, and I love how he carefully applies different colors to his work. What I love most is when he’ll gather a bunch of supplies, such as paper, pen, markers, scissors, glue, string, beads, goggly eyes or what not, and then he says, “I’m gonna make somethin!” Here’s a slideshow of some of my four-year-old’s art and “writing.”

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March 20, 2014

Is Happiness a Skill?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 19, 2014.

I just watched a fascinating documentary titled “happy” and directed by Roko Belic. I would recommend that everyone watch it because who isn’t trying to be happy? The documentary showcases the latest research on what makes humans happy, and it’s full of interviews with researchers in this fairly new field of inquiry.

Twenty years ago psychology was about helping people with their problems, but in the 1990s it finally became more acceptable to study what makes people flourish. This “positive psychology” has produced a slew of books and other media on the subject.

Ed Diener, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, and he started his research in 1981. He said, “The first thing to realize is that happiness can actually help you get your other goals, have better relationships, make more money, do better at the job. People on the job are going to like you better if you are happy.”

So what does it take to be happy? Although I expected the researchers to say that success and money don’t buy happiness, I was still surprised to hear what they have found out.

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, 50% of what determines whether we will be happy or not is genetic. She says that we all have a kind of “set point” or a range of feeling happy that we continue to fall back into after the effects of our good and bad experiences wear off.

This surprised me. Are we doomed to unhappiness because of genetics? As pointed out in the documentary there is still the other half. Lyubomirsky goes on to say that 10% of what makes us happy is our circumstances: our income, social status, where we live, and our age.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that all those things we typically “strive” for do little to make us happy, but Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D. and author of Stumbling on Happiness, says that money can buy happiness when we’re talking about lifting someone out of poverty. Once our needs are met, however, there isn’t much difference in the happiness levels of someone who makes 50K a year and someone that makes 500K a year.

Lyubomirsky says that 40% of what determines how happy we feel is our actions and intentions.  There are things we can do to help ourselves become happier.

One action we can take is to get more aerobic exercise. This is because physical exercise helps to release dopamine in our brains, a chemical necessary for happiness. From our teenage years onward, we start to lose dopamine, but exercise is one of the best ways of producing it.

They also said that getting exercise in fun and novel ways is an even better way of releasing dopamine, and in our everyday lives, we need variety and change.  For some that may be taking a different route to work, but for others, they may need more changes. Having new experiences and keeping up that “spice of life” is another action we can take to help increase our happiness.

Not surprisingly, people who are happier tend to have a strong network of family and friends. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has to get along all the time though.)

“Social bonding, social interactions is programmed to be intrinsically rewarding to humans,” says P. Read Montague, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine.

Doing something that we feel is meaningful is an important step in trying to feel happier. When we concentrate on relationships and our community’s overall feeling of well being, we stop thinking so much about ourselves.

The final “building block” in happiness, as the documentary’s narrator calls it, is appreciating what we have. Since I’ve spent a good portion of my life concentrating on what I want instead of appreciating what I have now, I can attest that shifting my focus to others and appreciating every moment has done quite a bit to elevate feelings of satisfaction and contentment in my life.

I appreciate that the film also noted that there is no one formula for happiness that fits every person, but it does a good job of finding people who live in dire circumstances around the world and showing that happiness can be found even in these places. The film doesn’t go into problems such as chronic depression that can affect a person’s brain, but that didn’t seem to be the point of this particular film. The “building blocks” may seem simple and common sense, yet the average person could benefit from learning about them. It’s something many people in our culture could use.

What makes you happy?

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