Thursday, March 1, 2012

A boy and his dogs

Our youngest son, Aiden,  has always had a deep connection to the animal kingdom. He's an empathetic soul and naturally inclined to being a  compassionate caretaker.
Aiden loves all animals, but he has a special affection for dogs. He was the little kid with the big DK Book of Dogs tucked under his arm everywhere he went and he’s the guy who knows the addresses of all the dogs that roam our neighborhood (and he is always willing to round them up & take them back home). Protector of the runt, the lost and the lame! That’s Aiden! At the moment, our small house is home to 3 cats and 3 dogs. Aiden is responsible for bringing 4 of said critters in and they are all as devoted to him as he is to them. Even my own dog chooses to sleep with him!

3 dogs & a boy in a bed!

When Aiden was barely 15, he really wanted to try to find a job. With the economy the way it is and the fact that there are a lot of restrictions placed on the work schedule of anyone under the age of 16, I didn't have high hopes. We started out looking at Craigslist, just to see what was out there. Interestingly enough, there was a lot of work at doggy day care facilities. “I would be good at that, Mom!, he said. And I knew he would be, if someone would give him a chance. We wrote up a letter of introduction that included his interest dogs in & his responsibilities for his critters at home. I talked him through the basics of business introductions and he set out on his bike with his letters in hand. He must have dropped off 10 letters that first week. He asked for the owner or manager & shook hands and each of them. He had some great stories to tell about meeting those people and, within a week, he had a job!
The man who hired him was impressed with Aiden’s initiative and his obvious interest in dogs. I like to think that taking a risk on a young kid with ambition paid off for Richard. Aiden has worked for him at Austin Canine Central for almost 2 years now. It's a great job for a kid his age, 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. He has his weekends free and plenty of time to pursue his other interests during the day, but 5 days a week is a big commitment too (at least in unschooling terms!). The job has it's upside: he gets to play with dogs! and it's downside: he has to clean a lot of dog crates! but he enjoys all of it. He works with a great group of people that he genuinely likes (all of whom are at least 40 years older than him) and he's learned a lot about caring for and training dogs. He’s proud of the work he does and people appreciate him for it. More than once, we’ve been out and about and someone has approached him to shake his hand and thank him for taking care of their dog. It makes him feel good, to be recognised and appreciated, but "the glory" is not the reason he sticks with his job.

I wish I could tell you that Aiden planned to go on to be a veterinarian, or even a dog trainer, but, at the moment, he has his sights set on professional BMXer (did I mention that he’s a 16 year old boy?!). Whatever he does, I couldn’t be more pleased about his first work experience. As unschoolers, our focus has always been, do what you love and the lessons will follow. Aiden’s love of dogs led him to a first job that he enjoys, where he continues to learn about a subject he's interested in, in an environment where he is valued and appreciated. Who could ask for a better life lesson than that?!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The process and the perfectionist

We are in the middle of a bedroom shift at our house. We needed to paint the bedrooms and that meant moving everything off the walls anyway so a shift didn't seem like too much more trouble. Our youngest, Aiden, (16), had been in the smallest bedroom in the house and, since he's most likely to be at home the longest, and honestly, really needs the most space (energetically & physically!), it made sense to move him into a bigger room and give his older brother the smaller one (which has it's own bathroom, which equates to more privacy so, it worked out for everyone).

Boxing up Aiden's room was no small feat! Aiden is what I refer to as a sentimental hoarder.  Where he gets it, I'll never know! (snigger! see my making room for the piano post for full disclosure). Packing up his room was like a walk down memory lane: stuffed animals, toy cars, jewelry, his extensive knife collection, the  broken skateboards (he can tell you exactly when, where & how each of them were destroyed) and the artwork: boxes & stacks of drawing pads & journals.  Aiden hasn't drawn anything in years but he's got the goods to prove that he used to be really into it!
I always thought he was a great artist. He had a really unique & edgy style. But Aiden has always been a very active and social kid and, at about 10 years old, that became all encompassing. There was no longer any time for artistic pursuits because the great outdoors called. Hiking, climbing & exploring near our creek with his friends gave way to skateboarding and then bmx biking, both obsessive hobbies. If he wasn't actively participating in them, he was watching videos or reading magazines about them (the bmx thing should not be in past tense here, it is still very much his passion).

And, art wasn't hard to let go of because he was often irritated by his process. Aiden is one of those people who thinks he should be able to do everything really well, right from the get go. I gather that there are a lot of people in the world like this (a form of perfectionism) but I am not one of them. I'm all about the process of learning. I like how the spark of an idea and the flow of creativity can lead you somewhere you never imagined going! As an artist, Aiden was always frustrated. The images in his head did not match up with the images on his pages. It drove him crazy! My assurance that it was the same for me was of no comfort to him. In his mind, he was no good and so, he abandoned it.  And then, all these years later, while boxing up his room, he starts going through his old drawings. "Hey, Mom, you know, I was a pretty good artist!". "Yes, Peanut, I always thought you were..."

Last night, I walked into the family room to discover him, BMX video on the TV and sketch pad in hand, drawing! "I think it looks like a toucan" he says to me. I ask him what he was going for "nothing in particular" he says, "I just felt like drawing." "It's a cool drawing!" I encourage. "Yeah, I kinda like it." he replies. And for me this is a huge milestone! No drama or frustration. No expectation of outcome. Just the pleasure of drawing.
Will it lead to something more? A desire to study art? Who knows! For me, it's not about that. Like I said, I'm all about the process of learning and, in this case, the spark of a new idea (I was a pretty good artist but I couldn't see it at the time) opens the door for all kinds of self reflection, and perhaps, a new attitude in his future explorations. When you don't have an expectation of how something should be, it's easier to enjoy the process and appreciate the outcome, whatever that might be.
And that's a great life lesson!

Friday, January 27, 2012

The legacy of LOVE

I thought a lot about how I was going to raise a family long before I had one. Most of the ideas I had were reactionary; I was going to raise my kids differently than my parents raised me! As a young woman, I was resentful towards my parents and blamed them for all of my insecurities & issues. I thought they were critical and uncompromising. Even mean spirited at times. From a young age, they seemed to disapprove of  everything about me!

Of course, I was born a rebel. My mother likes to say that my first word was "why?". And the standard reply, "because I said so", was a bitter pill that I could not choke down without struggle!  It couldn't have been easy for my middle class, conventional parents to handle a first born child who hated shoes from day one & preferred a yellow chenille bedspread, wrapped sari style, to ANY real clothing. That is, until I became a teenager & I discovered vintage clothing and thrift stores! Oh the embarrassments that ensued (it was the 80’s...enough said)! "Why can't you dress like a normal person?!" was often followed by, "You look ridiculous". Those statements really hurt. "Why does it matter so much, what I wear? Why can't you just accept me for me?"


As a young woman, what I failed to recall about my childhood was that I was rarely made to change my outfit or denied the abstract painting or yoga class I so desperately wanted to take. I flitted thorough hobbies and often lost interest before the course I was taking was finished. That had to be frustrating for them! Yes, my parents were often negative and voiced their opinions freely, but in truth, they rarely stopped me from doing what I wanted to do and they financed most of it. Their words were often hurtful, but their actions...their actions were accepting. Confusing? Yes! And it was so easy to be blinded by the negative! And yet, even in those teen years when I hated them because I felt so rejected,  I knew that I was safe in this world because they would always be there for me. How could I know that and still feel so wounded? At the time, I doubt I would have been able to acknowledge it consciously. It wasn't a head knowing, it was a heart knowing. If you understand what I mean by that, then you have surely felt it. If you don't, my wish is that you will be blessed to know it in your own life very soon.
It's an amazing thing to know that someone will always have your back. To know that you are loved so completely that you know in the depths of your soul that you will never be alone in this world. I've met an awful lot of people who can't say they have that, who can't even begin to understand what that feels like. I know I am blessed.

In many ways I've raised my kids in reaction to how my parents raised me, unconventional rebel that I am. We're a family of free thinking unschoolers. Artists & hippies. My husband is offended if someone calls him a liberal, (because he's a radical). None of us ever wear shoes if we don't have to. My youngest son, Aiden, dyed his hair for the first time when he was 6 and he grew it long when he was 9. He has a unique sense of fashion, not unlike his mom (and, not unlike my mom, his choices sometimes make me cringe!). He's a risk taker and tortures my worried mother heart with his skateboarding & bmx biking!  My oldest son, Ari, has a more quiet nature, my introspective, artistic photographer. I often wish he would be a little more daring in life (and wear better fitting jeans). Both my boys curse more than I'm comfortable with and they can't seem to put a toilet seat down to save their souls!  Just like my parents, I don't always like my kids' choices and sometimes I ache with worry over assumed outcomes. But they are good kids; kind-hearted and compassionate young men who I am honored to parent.  


I don't like to argue and I try to choose my battles wisely (at least I think I do, my kids might tell you otherwise!) But, when I feel I need to give my opinion, I try to do it as gently as possible, with the understanding that it's simply that, my opinion.  And when I have to "lay down the law", I try to be compassionate, even when they badger me with “why” over & over again: "I know you really like this outfit but it isn't appropriate to wear cut offs and cowboy boots to your aunts wedding. You only have to wear the long pants for 3 hours and then I promise you can put the cut offs back on." Or "I know you really want to travel across the country with that awesome bunch of skateboarders but you're only 14 and I feel that's too young for you to be traipsing around the country without me. I'm not going to discuss it any more at this time. If you're still interested in a few years, we can discuss it again when you're 17".  I never liked being criticized by my parents and I try not to criticize my kids (or anyone else for that matter).  That isn't to say that I'm not opinionated! I just acknowledge that, in most things, my opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s.

Do I wish my parents had been less critical? Yes. Would it have made a difference? Who knows! Fact of the matter is, I like who I turned out to be and I have my parents to thank for that.  I reacted to their criticism by working hard in my own life towards a nonjudgmental attitude. I try to  focus on the commonalities I have with others, instead of focusing on the differences between us. I think I am a better person because of that.

My parents weren't perfect (goodness knows, none of us are) but they did their best. Often harsh and sometimes hurtful, but just below that murky cloud of disapproval, was an ocean of true, unconditional love.  That is the legacy I choose to acknowledge and pass on. And even before I got around to figuring it all out, that is the  foundation that I built my life on.

Me and my Dad

                                                                                           Mom and me