Six lessons I’m learning from my kids right now

All six kids from last summer

 

As I was sitting in church this Sunday morning I looked over at my wonderful ten month old baby daughter who was sleeping soundly in her car seat, completely oblivious to the music and singing all around her. It was at that moment that I was inspired to write this post about the lessons that my children are trying to teach me right now. My wife and I have six children together in six very different stages of life. As a long-time Stay At Home Dad (and former teacher) I’m usually the one teaching my kids about life while my wife is busy bringing home the bacon. But I realized that, if I’m paying attention, each of my six kids are trying to teach me life lessons if I’m paying attention.

1. Follow your heart and chase your dreams. My oldest daughter is 19 and moved out two days after graduating high school last June. She’s a beautiful and talented musician who is not attending college right now. Instead, she’s working three jobs, volunteering at her church and living life on her terms. She has a heart for missions and music and recently was accepted to a school in Australia for next year. She’s teaching me that it’s okay to do things out of the ordinary…because they just might lead to something extraordinary (like school in Australia!). I’m so proud of her.

Sister love when she was home for Christmas

2. Challenge yourself mentally and physically. My second daughter is 14 and a freshman in high school. She is a hard-working student and is doing her best to earn a 4.0 for the entire year. She is doing that on top of participating in two seasons of high school sports and honor society and the required service hours each semester. I really admire her dedication to academic excellence and her sports teams. She wasn’t particularly interested in team sports as a younger child (although she did excel on swim team) so it was a bit of a surprise when she decided to be on both the swim team in the fall semester and water polo team in the spring semester. While she’s not a superstar at either sport she has shown grit in doing whatever the coach has asked of her even when not being rewarded with much playing time in games. She’s determined and improving every day.

That’s her swimming with the ball.

In just one year she’s participated in more high school sports than I did in all four years of my high school experience. Well done!

3. Have a sense of humor and creativity in every day life. My third daughter is 12 and in sixth grade. While it can be a tad taxing at times to deal with her humor and creativity I have to admit that she’s pretty clever. Besides, I think it’s from me. She helps me to see that life is more enjoyable when you laugh a bit and think a bit outside of the box. Last year she designed and made a small chicken coop to house a couple of baby chicks. On her own. My only help was supervision of her use of the electric saw. Her love of pranks is evidenced every April first and many other times throughout the year.If I’m stuck with something or need a different way to look at a problem I can talk to her and she often thinks of solutions that blow my mind. Just the other day she saw a bag from my wife’s recent shopping trip and exclaimed how cool it was for stores to have a “time-you-bought-it bag”. She didn’t believe me that the name of the store was actually Tuesday Morning.  I love the way she thinks.

4. It’s okay to get messy and dirty. My favorite son is 9 and in fourth grade. Need I say more? Those of you with boys will understand in ways that those with only girls probably won’t. I didn’t believe it myself until he came along just how different boys and girls are. While my daughters had instances where they got messy or dirty he has taken it to a new level. He loves to be outside, rain or shine. And that’s a good thing because we live in Washington state, where today we had, at various times, sunshine, pouring rain and pellet-sized hail. He’s the one who “discovered” that his leg would sink almost to his knee in the wet and muddy corner of the yard. There have been multiple instances of him coming to the back door in various states of undress because he’s covered in mud and needs to go straight to the shower. It’s okay because it makes him happy and it washes off just fine. With him every day is “Earth Day” in my kitchen

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Digging a hole to plant a tree

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5. Jump into life with complete abandon. My fourth daughter is 3, going on 13. She is currently in the throes of the “princess” stage that each of my older girls went through at about the same age. Almost every day involves some sort of dress-up and sometimes even a tiara or wand. Or a baby named “Peanut Butter”. Whenever my son has a friend over this is the daughter who gushes about how handsome that friend is and how she’s going to marry him some day. I suppose that really does fit the mindset of a Disney princess not named Elsa from Frozen. But I digress. She’s a bundle of energy and enthusiasm for life and trying all sorts of new things. Right away. I guess I really noticed it this morning when I asked her to come give me a hug. She turned and ran toward me (I was sitting on the sofa). She launched herself at me from about two feet away, landing a perfect flying hug in the process. Thankfully, I was able to catch her and wrap her up in a hug.

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6. Life is simple. Sleep. Eat. Fill your pants. Play. Laugh. Snuggle. And repeat. My fifth daughter is 10 months and busy exploring her ever-increasing world. While it’s my job to meet her needs every day she is quickly becoming her own unique person with her own personality and voice. And, based on the many interactions during the service at church, she is becoming quite friendly. I especially treasure our nightly routine of snuggling on the bed so that we can read a few stories together before she goes to sleep. Sometimes life just needs to be more simple.

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Happy baby

What are your kids trying to tell you? If you’re like me, it’s easy to make yourself too busy to learn from them. There are loads of distractions, from cell phones, work, cleaning, cooking. etc. But, take time to celebrate your children and whatever stage they’re  at in life. Just be present and in the moment. It’s simple, really.

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Sharing is Caring

There are few phrases that annoy me as much as when one of my kids sings/says “sharing is caring” to a sibling in an attempt to get something from the other. It’s often related to candy or a toy. While I like the sentiment of the phrase, when my kids use it in such an improper context it grinds me a little bit. Makes me think that maybe I’m not really getting through to them about what it really means. So, I was really thankful that we’ve had the opportunity to host three different parties at our house over the last eight days. Not only was it a good excuse to get the house tidied and picked up, but, more importantly, it was an opportunity for our entire family to reach out and practice the concept of “sharing is caring” in a real and meaningful way.

The first party was a “team bonding” taco bar for my daughter’s JV Water Polo team. We had about 15-20 girls over for several hours. My wife had planned on taking our younger four kids out of the house but she got caught up at work for an extra hour so the party was in full swing by the time she arrived home. And our kids were already helping themselves to the plentiful taco fixings. Even though our house wasn’t immaculate it appeared to make no difference to our guests. They mingled and ate and bonded while watching Frozen together. There was one girl who had never seen the movie until that evening. Can you imagine? The rest of the girls belted out the songs…and I’m pretty sure my three year old was among the loudest and most excited! What struck me was how the girls were so dependent on their phones. Almost every single one of them was texting and/or snapchatting. The evening was concluded with a rousing game of Apples to Apples and the Mama Mia sing-along version. Even though it was a lot of work (especially on my part) to prepare our house for the party I was glad to be the host. Not that I’m controlling, but I like knowing that my daughter is safe and that there’s nothing bad going on.

That’s us. Complete with crazy faces from two kids.

The second gathering was for Easter dinner. I had invited three friends from church who I knew from volunteering with the middle school youth group. All three are in their early 20s and live too far from their families to make it back for Easter dinner. When I brought up the idea to invite them for dinner to my wife she was supportive but a little leery about my ability to get the house cleaned up and food prepared for our guests. I assured her that I could enlist the help of our kids, since they were on Spring Break that week. It certainly helped that the house was already on the neater side from the water polo party a few days prior. When Sam, Tasia and Terrell arrived at our house after church on Easter Sunday my kids excitedly ushered them in, showing off their freshly-dyed eggs and the chickens that we keep in our backyard. A short while later we all sat down for dinner and enjoyed a tasty dinner of honey-baked ham, cheesy hashbrowns, steamed carrots, strawberry pecan salad, apple pie and apple crisp. We shared a lot of laughter and some of our own memories of family traditions from Easter celebrations. Since we had been blessed with a spectacularly sunny and warm (for Pacific Northwest, about 65º) day we spent the rest of the afternoon doing a variety of activities inside and outside of the house. One of our family’s annual Easter traditions is a clue-finding hunt that ultimately leads the kids to their Easter baskets that are overflowing with goodies. Amazingly enough, the Easter Bunny brought baskets for our guests as well. We managed to play some basketball and bocce ball for a while before returning inside to serve up some tacos. (Yay for left-overs from the water polo party. I seriously over-estimated how much taco meat the girls would consume.) What was most meaningful for me was the genuine gratitude expressed by each of our guests for including them in our plans. My wife even suggested that we start hosting similar events on a more regular basis. It was so rewarding to watch all of the “kids” – ours and our guests – playing together. Sam played basketball with my 9 year old son for a while, teaching him some skills that he was able to put into practice right away. Terrell helped my 3 year old build her new (from the Easter Bunny) Lego house. Tasia seemed to effortlessly become the “big sister” to my older girls as they were hanging out and talking and braiding hair. It was a mellow and fun “family” afternoon and evening. A perfectly low-key and low-stress time of togetherness.

Checking out the goodies in the Easter Baskets

Sam’s tower won’t last long around my baby King Kong!

Playing hoops in the backyard.

The last “party” was Friday evening when one of my wife’s co-workers brought her two kids over for dinner. We had them over a few months ago but this time her husband wasn’t along as he was recently deployed through the military. It was an opportunity for her young kids to hang out while giving my wife and her friend a chance to hang out and catch up. Next time I’m going to tell them that they’re not allowed to talk about work-related stuff after the first 10 minutes. I’m pretty sure that we’re going to be seeing a lot of them over the next few months as our kids seemed to hit it off pretty well. Again, the chickens were a pretty big draw and the kids had fun feeding some of the chicks. And I have the utmost respect for all of the military families that keep on living while their loved ones are serving elsewhere. Sharing our home and food with this family is certainly one way that we can show them and our own kids how much we care.

While my house is never going to be Martha Stewart quality and what I serve likely won’t be featured in any magazines, I do enjoy sharing our home with others. I hope that we can, as parents and as a family, start a tradition of hospitality with our friends and neighbors by having them over on a more consistent basis. Maybe I’ll even resurrect the tradition that we had in my family growing up…inviting teachers over for dinner! Yikes!

Book Review: Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments

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Author Mike Adamick has done it again, following up his successful Dad’s Book of Awesome Projects with the newly released Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an advance copy of his book a few weeks ago. Upon opening the package from Amazon the book was literally yanked from my hands by my children so they could check it out. It was music to my ears to hear them excitedly discussing which experiments they were going to do that afternoon. You see, before I became a Stay At Home Dad I had a short (5 year) career as a 7th grade Science teacher. So, naturally, I try to encourage the natural curiosity in my children through formal and informal experiments. One of the things that I really like about this book is that Mr. Adamick encourages us to “have fun, try, fail, learn and try again” in our experimentation. The 30 experiments are divided into five categories: Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Planet Earth and The Human Body. There are colorful pictures and excellent explanations for each experiment. As a bonus, there are several suggestions for extensions or additional challenges. Some of the labs are designed for immediate payoff and others take days or weeks to complete. As a Science teacher it was always fun to gauge an experiment’s success based on the “AAAAH” factor. Several of the experiments my kids tried delivered it in a big way.

The first experiment they decided to try was Volcano Time!, which is pictured above. We happened to have a flask in the basement so I used that to make it look more scientific. For fun I also let the kids use a tall shot glass  “graduated cylinder”. The results were similarly fantastic. While I could have done a more professional job I found it pretty nice that my kids, ages 12, 9 and 3, were able to set this up with minimal help from me. While it still worked out, I observed that using two-ply TP like we did made the experiment take a little longer. (Video of Volcano Time!) If I did it again I would simply separate the TP into one-ply thickness. And adding food coloring made it just a little bit more fun for the kids.

The second experiment we tried was the Floating Grape. Using three glasses of water we were able to successfully float a red grape at three different levels by adding varying amounts of sugar to the water, changing the density and causing the grape to float. This didn’t have the “aahh” factor but it was fun to see my 3 year old’s reaction when the grape finally floated. It took a surprising amount of sugar and she was getting a little discouraged that it wouldn’t work. But she kept going with it and, fueled by a spoonful or two of sugar in her own mouth, she achieved success! Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures of the floating grapes so you’ll have to trust me that it worked.

The final experiment my kids tried for this review is another classic: Mentos and (Diet) Coke Rocket. While we had the materials at home to make the rocket, my kids lacked the motivation to actually create one. So it ended up being a Diet Coke geyser in the back yard, which was still pretty cool. (Video: Mentos and Diet Coke) The only drawback was that the person putting the Mentos into the bottle had to move away pretty quickly or get a Diet Coke shower.

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In summation, I would highly recommend getting a copy of Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments for your child(ren). You can order it on Amazon starting on April 18, 2014. But be warned: If you get this book and your kids see it they’re probably not going to leave you alone until you make a lot of fun (and possibly messy!) memories while you experiment together.

 

 

****Author’s Note****

I, Carl Wilke, am not being paid to endorse this book in any way, although I wish I were! The thoughts expressed are my own and were in no way coerced. The only “compensation” I received was a complimentary advance copy to review.

Actions Speak Louder

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Once in a while something happens to me that rocks me to my core and I become a blubbering mess of emotions as I process what I’m feeling. That happened to me just a few days ago thanks to my 19 year old daughter, Nora. She graduated high school last June and two days later moved almost 2,000 miles away. Over the last 10 months I’ve seen her in person three times but almost daily thanks to FaceTime on our iPhones. So, while my “active parenting” with her is over, I’m still able to be close to her and maintain a pretty nice relationship with her. It was during one of our chats last week that she told me she was writing a song about something that I did over four years ago, when we were still living in Madison, Wisconsin. Here’s what I did back in September of 2009. I bought a bunch of sandwiches and curly fries from Arby’s and brought it down to State Street in downtown Madison to share it with the many panhandlers who worked the area. I told my kids what I had done (they were all in school at the time) and they thought it was pretty cool. I suppose we had a few minor discussions about why they’re asking for money and why they don’t work and stuff like that as well as why it’s nice to be able to share something real like food with people who need it. And that was about the extent of it.

And then Nora told me that she wrote a song about what I did and how “actions speak louder than words”. She sent me an audio file of her new song and I began to cry as soon as I heard it. (I was driving at the time and had to pull over to the curb for a few minutes.) The beauty of her voice and the guitar and the meaning of the lyrics pierced my soul and reminded me that my years of hard work and dedication as a SAHD and parent for her were not in vain. What really got to me was hearing her telling others through her song the exact message that I was trying to convey when I helped out the street beggars that time. More lyrics: It’s not what you say…because you show your love when you give it away. It was a touching reminder to me that my kids are watching me all the time to see if my actions match my words. If nothing else, I hope that my children will know the importance of living a life of integrity and compassion and love…and that I can inspire that in them if my actions are in tune with my words. I know I’m not perfect, but I’m trying!

Playing Hooky

Yesterday I played hooky from my job as a Stay At Home Dad and my kids loved it. After saying good-bye to my wife and three school age kids I had the rest of the day planned out in my head for my younger two kids. We were going to have breakfast, go to gymnastics class at the YMCA and then return home for naps so I could catch up on folding a few loads of laundry. But all of that changed with a text. My buddy Mike, who, like me, is a SAHD, texted me just as the gymnastics class was finishing up. He wanted to know what we were doing on such a beautiful day…and did we want to meet him and his two children at the park? It took me about a second to realize that our plans were going to change. The laundry would just have to wait.

So, I buzzed home, grabbed some food and then drove to the park with my kids, arriving just moments before Mike and his kids. We spent the next couple of hours together, chatting about life and the challenges and rewards of being a SAHD while our kids happily played together. The sunshine and mid-60s temps combined with the freshness of the woods and water to make it just about a perfect afternoon. We capped off the spontaneous play date with a short walk through the woods. It was fun to point out to the kids the various signs of spring such as flowers popping up, moss growing all over trees and mud puddles. LOTS of mud puddles. I look forward to many more opportunities to play hooky with my kids and make memories like we did yesterday.

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Left to their own devices?

I was selected to be part of a moms vs dads “blog-off” where five mom-bloggers and five dad-bloggers were paired off and given their own topics to write about for the “competition”. This is my entry. Topic: A child’s use of technology – your thoughts on children using gadgets like mobile phones and tablets, watching television etc. Does it stump their creativity, or inspire it? Brain-cell killers, or vital educational tools? Can there be too much or too little use of such things?

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When I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s we had video games (Atari anyone?), MTV, VCRs, personal computers with, gasp, games! We had hand held games of baseball and football and soccer in the latest LED lights and sounds. Yet, somehow, it didn’t stifle my generation’s creativity one bit. Perhaps our childhood fascination with technology inspired some to get involved in creating today’s laptops and iPads and iPhones and androids and apps and digital cameras. The art, film, music and theater industries all seem to be doing as well as ever – if not better than ever – under the direction of my generation and those that have followed. But with so much technology available to my generation it appears our brains weren’t ruined after all. This leads me to consider the question in regards to the children of today. Is technology ruining them, their brain cells and their creativity?

No. I don’t think that kids’ use of technology is killing off their brain cells one bit. I would argue that it’s having the opposite effect. There is a plethora of information and inspiration literally at their fingertips. My oldest daughter, who turns 19 this month, watched plenty of TV and videos as a child and got her own cell phone and laptop while in high school. Yet, she is one of the most creative people I know. She’s a singer/songwriter and artist. She’s composed dozens of songs and created many pieces on canvas and out of clay. One of my other kids created a trebuchet type of device using the contents of the bin of recycling and some tape. We all have iPods and/or iPhones and use them daily. While there are negative aspects to the use of technology (lack of interpersonal skills, obesity, wasted time spent watching YouTube “cat” videos, etc.) I’ve seen it enhance the lives of my children for the better. I don’t think they’re any less creative than my generation. Sure, the creativity of young people today is different than it was in generations past, but that doesn’t make it worse. Some of the things that young people create using technology are astonishing. It’s splattered all over the internet. For example, just this last week I found this video of a trombone player who used his laptop to record a cover of the pop song “Happy”. This guy’s marvelous technology-enabled performance is incredible for an old fart like me who grew up using computers the size of a small dorm fridge and floppy disks that were 5 1/4″ just to “create” a code to make a “turtle” draw rudimentary lines to try to form pictures.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to parenting with some limits and boundaries. When our kids were very young we tried to limit their screen time (including all iPods, laptops, TVs or DVD players) and gradually allowed it to increase as they got older and matured. I’m amazed at how much they enjoy using the technology. In fact, when my wife got her iPhone two years ago it was our then 20 month-old who taught her how to use the buttons on the side to adjust the volume. It would be easy to let the iPod or computer or TV be a babysitter. But that’s not healthy. It’s all about moderation. Technology can be used to enhance their learning and spark their interest in the world around them provided we show them reasonable limits.

My kids, while not always thrilled about it, understand those boundaries and enjoy being active more than being left to their own “devices”. Now that the weather is getting nicer I find them spending more and more time outside, playing and exploring the real world “hands free”. Using their eyes and ears and other senses instead of an iPod or computer. So, go. Get out of here and do some real living and exploring with your kids. But don’t forget to bring your iPhone so that you can document what they’re doing!