Action

There are 10 principles of learning at B’s school, attributes said to be sought after and valued in the International Baccalaureate program.  When the kids demonstrate one of these attributes during their school day, B’s teacher gives out armbands.  B had gotten armbands for being a risk-taker (for trying something at lunch that he’d never had before), for being caring (for looking after a classmate who was having a rough day), for being a thinker (for making connections between a lesson in class and his life at home) and many other things.  It’s a great bit of positive reinforcement, and I’m impressed at how well these paper bands motivate the kids.  B is so proud when he brings one home, and I’ve seen the kids clamoring to get credit for one when I go into B’s class.  To B, at least, the most coveted of all the bands is the “action” band, awarded for demonstrating learning at home, specifically learning related to the unit of study.  The kids can get an “action” band for bringing in a book related to a subject of study, for doing an art project related to what they’re learning at school, or bringing in a related item that they found at home.  (It’s basically an “extra credit” assignment, and it’s very open ended.)

002Back in October, B had been very envious of the “action” bands the other kids had gotten and so he decided, entirely on his own, to make a glitter-glue drawing of the circulatory and respiratory systems, because that’s what they’d been studying in class.  The first few days after he’d decided, he forgot to actually do it, but he eventually sat down with his glitter glue and paper and made a lovely picture of the heart, lungs, veins and arteries.  He was so proud, and I knew his teacher was going to like it.  I was so proud of him.  He had conceived of and executed the entire thing on his own.  It was a perfect choice of an activity to get an “action” band.

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He had his heart set on taking it to school the next morning.  After he’d gone to bed, I checked on it, and it was still quite wet, so, wanting to help him out, I moved his artwork to another spot, close to the fan, hoping to help it dry by morning.  And, in so doing, I smeared the whole thing.  I was horrified.  I tried to fix it with a toothpick, attempting to push the globs of pink, gold, red and blue glitter back to their original spots, but it was no use.  It was ruined.  I cried.

When B got up the next morning, I explained it to him, and he was disappointed, but surprisingly understanding.  I felt terrible.  I suggested that he could take it in anyway, 037and explain to his teacher what had happened, or that I could go in with him and explain it, but he didn’t want to.  He wanted it to be right.  So, instead, he came home that day and started over.  He took just as much time and care making it for the second time.  And I left it completely alone while it dried.

He took it to school the day after, and got an action band for his work.  He was absolutely proud of it, and I was profoundly impressed by his work and determination … and by his ability to forgive my well-intentioned mistake.

Glasses

I don’t remember the process of being told I needed glasses, so I have no idea how I reacted to it.  I know that since then, I’ve been frustrated by it — often.  I’m not lucky enough to only need them when I read, or just when I’m tired.  In theory, I ought to have worn them every waking moment since I was 4.  (I haven’t though — I never wore them while riding or dancing, and I took a nearly complete hiatus from them in middle school, high school and college.)  I don’t like wearing my glasses, but I do like being able to see.  Since becoming a mom, I’ve succumbed to the practicality and worn them daily, pretty much all the time.  I’m used to them now, but I’ve never enjoyed them.

Needless to say, I’d been holding out hope that my kids might escape that particular curse.  So far, I hadn’t seen anything to indicate any vision trouble in either of the boys — ever since they could talk, I’ve been asking them if they can see things at long distances away, with no trouble.  But a routine vision screening this fall turned up something I never expected — Benjamin is a little bit farsighted.  (I never thought to check for that, and it was unlikely to show up before he started reading, which also happened this fall.)

The process of having his eye exam done was absolutely horrible.  The first part was ok, when he just had to look through lenses to get a sense of what helped, but having his eyes dilated, followed by having a light shone into them, has to have been one of his least favorite experiences — EVER.  But, we got it done, got his prescription, and went to investigate purchasing glasses.

That was a bit of a challenge.  When I was a kid, and tried to pick out glasses, I vaguely remember having a tough time making a choice.  I couldn’t ever find something I really liked.  B was the opposite.  He knew EXACTLY what he wanted (maybe a positive by-product of having so many glasses-wearing family members), but most of the options they had in the style he wanted were too big for him, and the sales guy was really pushing for a different style altogether.  Finally, the sales guy walked off to help someone else, and B and I were left with some time to experiment on our own (again, I’m a little grateful for my decades of relevant experience).  Finally, he reached a decision, and I think it was a great choice.

475Even though he acknowledges that they’re cool (and I agree), he’s a lot like me — he doesn’t like his glasses, and it’s been tough getting him to wear them with any consistency.  He only needs them for “up close work”, but that’s a lot of what they do in elementary school — reading, writing, computer work, art.  He avoids using them, though — and because he doesn’t have to wear them all the time, he gets away with “forgetting” to put them on.  Given my history, I’m entirely sympathetic, and therefore I don’t push it as much as I probably should. He also says that they don’t really help him. It’s possible that’s really true — his farsightedness is minor, and it has to be tough to get a kid’s prescription right — but it’s also possible that he just doesn’t want to wear them, just like me.IMG_2741.JPG

Celebrating at school

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029Though it can be a bit hard to tell now (most days he hovers between being vaguely lukewarm and basically unenthusiastic about going to school), there were a lot of things Liam really looked forward to about starting school and getting to be just like Benjamin — field trips, Lanternenfest, playing in the garden.  But none was so eagerly anticipated as celebrating his birthday at school (and yes, I’m still writing about stuff that happened back in September — I’ll catch up eventually).

Last year, which was his first year at school, he had a great time at his school birthday party, but having a September birthday, and being one of the first to celebrate, I think it was a bit overwhelming for him.  I think he was a little uncomfortable with having the attention of his entire class focused on him.  This year, though, he was ready.  He knew it was coming, and he was really looking forward to it.

031The way things work at the school (with parent involvement being limited to a few particular events each year), I don’t get to be there.  (Since not every parent would be able to come to celebrate their child’s birthday, no parents are allowed to come.  “It wouldn’t be fair.”  Which is a bummer for me — getting to help out at the boys’ schools was one of the parts of being a stay at home mom that I most looked forward to).  But, based on his stories, and on the pictures, he really enjoyed himself.  He got to blow out the candles, have cake, be sung to by his whole class, and open up a few gifts.  One, a stuffed dolphin, was a gift from his teachers, while a few others, containing puzzles, were from us and destined to remain at school, rather than come home with him.  (So he didn’t get to KEEP those, just OPEN them, which he wasn’t 100% on board with.)

643Generally, though he was so happy.  He was so excited that morning that it was his big day to celebrate at school, and he was so pleased when I picked him up.  As with the key chain his teacher made for him last year, he absolutely treasures his new dolphin.  He spent days afterwards cuddling with it and singing to it.  He was a very happy birthday boy, and he loved getting to celebrate at school.  Nothing really says, “I’m so big” like celebrating a birthday at school.  My little guy is getting to be so grown up.

Teaching My Monster to Read

We’ve read to the boys since they were tiny, since before they had any idea what we were doing, back when we felt silly to be doing it — we did it anyway.  Story time has been a part of our evening routine since before the boys could walk.  They love it, they look forward to it.  “Brush your teeth or we won’t have story time” has been an incredibly effective evening motivator.  But though they love to be read TO, and both boys have memorized, and love to recite, parts or all of some favorite books, we’d made almost no progress in getting them to actually read themselves.  B could read his name, Liam’s name, “red”, and “toy” before school started this year.  That was it.

I was a little worried.  I know he’s only 6, and he’s been spending a lot of his mental energy over the past few years learning a new language (and probably teaching himself differential equations in his sleep), but still, I felt like maybe he ought to really be reading.  After all, reading IS fundamental.  All of the kids of my friends at home have learned to read in kindergarten (or earlier), and they don’t really do that here (the focus was on correct speech, rather than reading, which helped immensely with his conversational German, but not so much with reading English) so I was a bit concerned.  Plus, I had no idea how to get it to happen.

When B started school this year, among many other things, I was worried he’d be the only kid in his class not reading.  I shouldn’t have been.  Very nearly half the class had a similar reading level to B, so he was certainly not the only non-reader.  (Of course, there are also kids in his class who could read and write in more than one language — in more than one ALPHABET — so there was quite a spread of skill levels.)

Early on in the school year, we weren’t making much progress, and I was strongly resisting my urge to push, knowing that me adding pressure to the situation wasn’t going to help.  I attended a morning training seminar at B’s school, geared at helping parents help their kids with reading . . . which did help a lot, and which strongly reinforced the fact that I shouldn’t be pressuring him.  Around the same time, B came home with a website recommendation from his teacher.  They’d been using “Teach Your Monster to Read” at school, and apparently, B loved it.

Over that weekend, we got B set up with it on the computer, and the results were amazing.  Not only was he able to run the game almost entirely on his own, but he was READING.  It started off with associating letters and sounds in a variety of short games where B could collect items to decorate his “monster” with whom he was playing the game.  Over the course of the next few weeks, he moved through the levels and had a whole set of letter/sound combinations that he knew well.  The game then began connecting the sounds into short words, and before I knew it, he was really reading and sounding out short sentences.  Seriously, watching him actually read something on his own has to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.  (The website is free.  I totally recommend it.)

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We’re 3+ months into the school year, and B’s progress has been AMAZING.  He’s moved on to reading longer stories, to conquering more complex words, adding new punctuation and concepts (contractions have been a challenge).  He finished the monster game a good while ago, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it was a useful tool for him (and remarkable for me because it was the first time I really witnessed him reading), but I also know that the real magic came from the work that he and his teacher put in together.  It’s been an amazing transformation, and I can’t believe it was only 3 months ago that I was fretting about whether or not he could read.  He’s reading real books now. It is just the most amazing thing to see.  He’s still working very hard, and learning more all the time, but he is definitely reading!

Circus

497We’d been planning to go for years.  Each fall, when the signs and posters went up, we’d say, “We should go!” but we never did.  Last year, we decided we would go, and Dan was going to get tickets, but by the time he got around to it, they were sold out.  This year, I was determined.  The circus was coming to town, and we were going to go!

I didn’t really know what to expect from a European circus.  Would it be more “Barnum & Bailey”, or more “Cirque du Soleil”?  The tickets were pricey (which favored art, rather than tigers) but with a location only 5 minutes from our front door, we figured it was worth a try at least once.

502On the big night, we walked over and had dinner from the vendors set up in front of the circus tents at the Rathaus.  We didn’t realize that the seating (in our section, at least) was general admission, so we were late to line up and late to try to get to our seats.  I was worried, but it turned out that this worked to our advantage in two ways.  First, Benjamin got his sweatshirt hood filled up with candy by a passing clown on his way into the tent.  Second, we were so much the last arrivals that the ushers (who, as it turned out later, were also performers in the show) couldn’t find 4 seats together, and after a few stressful moments when I feared we might not get to sit together, we instead were shown to a box!  Good luck!

508As the show got underway, it became clear that this was more towards the “Cirque du Soleil” end of the spectrum, with a live band, many acrobats, very skillful and impressive clowns and not a tiger in sight (probably for the best, considering the otherwise slim but real possibility of lions or elephants escaping and roaming around downtown Vienna).  There were acrobats (whose mohawk hairdos were “splendid” according to B), roller skaters, horses, trapeze artists, a hula hoop girl and (my favorite) a guy who balanced a dozen or so long sticks together into a moving, yet perfectly balanced sculpture which he then disassembled by removing a single feather (it was cooler than it sounds).  And the evening was finished perfectly by the cast inviting members of the audience up for a goodnight waltz.

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A good time was had by all.  It was a great first circus experience for the kids — though it did get a bit long and late for them, I was impressed at how they hung in there through the “artsier” bits.  (If we go again next year, we’d probably opt for a matinée to make it easier on the boys.)  It seemed perfect for a circus evening in Vienna, and I’m so glad we finally made it happen.

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Celebrating Liam’s 4th birthday

223I love birthdays.  I love celebrating the fact that someone I love exists on this planet and that I get to know them.  My kids’ birthdays are my favorites — I get to reflect on how my little guys are growing, ponder the speed with which time passes, and spend a whole day celebrating their existence.  We’ve developed a great set of birthday traditions in our family — Dan stays home from work, both boys stay home from school (for as long as Liam prefers to be home instead of at school for his birthdays — B, with a summer birthday, doesn’t really have to choose), the birthday boy gets to choose any birthday activity that he likes and he gets to select the meals for the day (and, of course, the cake and ice cream).  I just love seeing how each of my guys chooses to celebrate their big day.

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This year, Liam wanted to go to the pool.  He was absolutely sure that he wanted to go to the pool and that he didn’t want a party — just family, and a day at the pool.  Great!  (The day before, he changed his mind and said that he DID want a party, but then he changed it back.)  But, when he woke up on the morning of his birthday, after opening all his gifts, he suddenly changed his mind and decided he wanted to go to the zoo, instead.  The zoo is one of my favorite outings in Vienna, and it’s absolutely fantastic in the early fall, and even better (and less crowded) on the weekdays.  So, that was also great!

245And so, to celebrate Liam, we went to the zoo.  We saw pandas and polar bears and penguins.  We saw the big cats eating their dinners (yikes!). We stopped for hot chocolate and chocolate pretzels and ice cream.  The boys climbed and slid and spun all around the playground and we all rode on the zoo train.  We had a great day.  Most importantly, Liam had a great day.

And then, at the end, my very grown up 4 year old boy informed us all that it was time to go home, and we did, and when we arrived there, he very shortly passed out on the floor for an impromptu birthday nap.  We finished the day with strawberry dinosaur cupcakes (by request).  (I made, for the first time ever, strawberry frosting from scratch for the cupcakes.  It was GREAT.  The kids hated it.  But the cake and the toy dinosaurs were a hit.)

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My little guy turned 4 years old.  We celebrated his birthday the whole day long, exactly the way that he wanted to.  A good time was had by all.  It was a very good birthday celebration.  Yay for Liam and for turning 4!

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Suddenly a soccer mom

I always swore that we wouldn’t get sucked into it.  I really thought that we wouldn’t end up revolving our lives around a massive list of sports and after school activities for the kids.  I’ve always believed that kids (well, at least my kids, at least) really need, and benefit from, unplanned, unstructured, downtime for them to unwind, rest, or play creatively, so we’ve always tried to make that a priority.  Benjamin had a daily nap until he was almost 6, too, and it was great for him.  I expected Liam to most likely do the same.

743But now, suddenly, I’m a “soccer mom”.  B is enrolled in three different after school activities, plus swimming lessons on Saturdays.  Each day’s plans for the whole family are worked around these activities, including meals, naps (or lack thereof) for Liam, and even Dan’s work schedule.  Regular followers of this blog might have noticed an unusually long hiatus over the past 4 weeks — we haven’t been sick, I’ve just been too busy to write at all.  (My post from late September for Liam’s birthday was written back before his birthday … but it took me a week to get it posted, and this is the first one I’ve written since then.)

Our days are a whirlwind.  Every moment from the time my alarm goes off until the boys are in bed is specifically planned.  Each minute has a purpose, and our schedule has very little flexibility.  If not for my bus and train trips, and the luxury of (sometimes) joining the family for meals, most days I would not sit down from 6:30 a.m. until at least 8:30 at night.

This whole thing kind of took me by surprise.  It happened kind of by accident.  I didn’t mean to sign us up for so much.  I didn’t expect B to get into so many of the activities he was interested in, and I wasn’t sure he’d enjoy them all as much as he is.  But, as it turns out, he’s having a great time, learning new stuff, and making new friends.  Liam, who can sometimes be inflexible and intractable in his own right, seems, surprisingly, to enjoy our daily trips to pick up B, and he is handling the loss of some of his naps much better than I expected.  For Dan & I, this new schedule means keeping a tighter rein on our own activities — meals have gotten less complex, we’re getting to bed earlier, and our regular TV times have entirely disappeared.  We’ve kind of gone from 0-60 on this whole school thing.

But, though it was unintentional and it is a bit overwhelming, in a way I’m kind of enjoying it.  It’s exhausting, both physically and mentally, to balance this many items on our schedule, but there’s a great deal of satisfaction in seeing B learn and enjoy so many things.  (Though I do have a tendency to look for the upside to any situation, so maybe I’m just finding the positives because I’m looking for them.)  Also, this is temporary — it’s for a semester, not forever.  B has already expressed a desire to drop swim lessons after he can swim across the pool unassisted (my own standard for him being “done” learning to swim), and we’ll see how many of the activities he may choose to continue with (and which he’ll be able to get into) next semester.  I’m still not sure that this packed-full schedule is really “us”, but it’s certainly another kind of adventure.

For now, we’re getting through it, enjoying it, and gaining a whole new appreciation for our precious few moments of free time.  I also have a newfound respect, and a bit of awe, for the families who keep up this kind of schedule for years and years.  Also, I have a huge backlog of planned and partially written blog posts, and I’ll get around to those eventually … but for now, this soccer mom will probably be commuting more and composing less.

Liam

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Oh, my wonderful baby.  You’re 4!  That is amazing and incredible and awesome to me.  How big you are now!  I am shocked at the speed with which time passes, but so overjoyed at seeing you grow.  You are an amazing kid.  I feel so lucky to get to watch you grow up, and to see you every day becoming more and more YOU.

You are so big and strong, clever and funny, sweet and thoughtful, and so, so loving.  You are also stubborn, and willful, and opinionated . . . and I love it all.  I love all of you.  I love every bit of my wonderful Liam.

I love your stories and your jokes.  I love the way you count on your fingers.  I love your animated expressions and your silly faces.  I am so proud of the way that you have completely taken over caring for your lip injury from earlier this year — you want to do it all yourself, so you do, and you do a careful and thorough job.  I love the way you stick up your index finger and say, “Remind me …” when you want us to particularly take note of something.  I love how you know EXACTLY what you want, and how you don’t change your opinion to suit anyone else.  I love it when you’re quiet and cuddly, and I love it when you’re wild, too.

I love to see you build things!  You have amazing vision and creativity, and you do a great job seeing your projects through.  I love to see you with your stuffed animals.  You make families and friends from them, and you love to care for them and nurture them.  You’ve recently started singing to them, as well.  You are so sweet.

This past summer, we went “summer sledding” for the first time.  You loved it, so did I.  But my favorite part was that you chose, each time, to ride with me, even though your dad was undoubtedly the more exciting option.  We rode together, each time down the mountain.  We had a blast, and I enjoyed your company so much.  You are such a great little guy.  I love you with my whole heart, my littlest one.

You often ask me to hold you like a baby, and recently, you’ve started asking me to wrap you up in a baby blanket sometimes, too.  I think that you are starting to feel that the days of truly being a baby are behind you.  I will miss that, too, but you will always be MY baby, I will always be your mommy, and I will always love you more than I could ever say.

Even when I’m feeling frustrated — when you hit your brother, when you aren’t listening, or when you’re getting Bailey to chase you (again!) —  I am still grateful for the more challenging parts of who you are.  I think those characteristics will serve you well in life.  I love that you stay true to what you want and to who you are, and I love that your desire to take care of yourself is stronger than your desire to please anyone else.  I love that you won’t let anyone push you around.  You are a tough cookie … but you are also sweet, kind and loving.  You care about everyone, and you want to help comfort and care for all of us.  Benjamin, in particular, is very important to you.  You love him so much, and always want to catch up to what he’s doing or learning.

I love you, my exuberant, enthusiastic, creative, sweet 4 year old guy.  You are a whirlwind and a force of nature.  You are so wonderful.  You are not always easy to parent, but you are so easy to love.  I love you so very much, my sweet baby.  Happy birthday.

Golf

Benjamin’s school, being generally wonderful, has a full complement of after-school sports and activities for the kids to participate in.  They have about 50 different things that the kids can do after school — everything from Cub Scouts to soccer to rugby to crafts to the math club.  Lots of choices.  And the activities are, apparently, wildly popular — there is an online registration setup which is one of those things where you lurk on the website until the moment the page opens, sign up the instant that you can and hope you get a spot.  Since it wasn’t the kind of thing that allows for indecision, I set aside the time at noon the day of the sign up to be at my computer to pounce on the sign-ups, and sat down with B the night before to talk through the options and discuss his preferences.

As we were going through, at first he wasn’t sure he wanted to do anything.  He said that school is busy enough, and maybe he didn’t want to stay after school even once a week.  And I was totally cool with that.  But, I wanted to be sure, and as we went through the list, he latched on to both gymnastics and soccer as the things he most wanted to do, which didn’t surprise me — those were the two I most expected him to pick.  But then, we got to golf.  And he said, “No, that’s it. I want to do golf.  I want to learn how to be even better than Uncle Peter and Uncle Adam.”

He’s never golfed before, so it was a total surprise that he was so intensely interested in it.  I have no idea if he’ll enjoy it (and neither does he), but I love the enthusiasm and confidence in his choice.  And I just keep smiling over the idea of my little guy bonding with his uncles, an ocean away, over this game that they love and which hopefully he will be able to share with them when we are all together.

Because of the way the sign ups were done, I went ahead and signed him up for all 3 of his favorites — golf, gymnastics AND soccer — because I wasn’t sure whether we’d get a spot in any of them.  As it turns out, we got a spot in each, and now B is into the idea of all 3, so we’ve gone from maybe not wanting to do any to committing to 3 days per week for the semester.  In truth, I think he’s going to love them all, and I’m excited to see which (if any) kindle a true passion in him.  But, in particular, the idea of him out golfing with my brothers one day is pretty special.  I might be hoping, just a little, that he loves golf most of all.