The Joy of Learning with Your Kids

Most of the time, as parents, we encourage our children to do things we already know how to do. We help them with homework we did ourselves many years ago. If we are baseball fans, we sign them up for a team and smile when they first put on their uniform. If we play the piano, we help them read the notes as they learn an instrument. If we are multilingual, they learn a second language at home. If we like to read, they read along with us.

Our kids also discover their own unique talents as they grow up.

Rarely, then, do we have the opportunity to learn something entirely new together. And it is a surprisingly amazing experience.

On a recent trip to the beach, my three boys and I all went snorkeling for the first time. So we got accustomed to breathing through the apparatus at the same time. We struggled a little with the flippers together. We simultaneously tried to empty our breathing tubes. We each wondered about what we might see and whether we would be brave enough to stay in the water with a shark or a stingray.

We got to test ourselves together.

We did not all learn at the same pace. We did not all last as long in the water. The five year old mastered it the fastest, but tired of the waves earlier than the rest of us. The ten year old proved to be a relentless underwater explorer. And mom did not get to see the octopus!

But we had a great time, which was cool to be both witness to and a part of.

So I thought I would put together a list of ways in which Denver parents and their children might learn something together this summer:

• Sign up for a novice knitting class at the Lamb Shoppe (http://www.thelambshoppe.com/)
• Learn to kayak together with avid4adventure, which runs half-day family programs (http://www.avid4.com/family-camps/denverfamilyadventures-html/)
• Discover your family’s artistic genes with some of the amazing family programs at the Denver Art Museum (http://www.denverartmuseum.org/see-do-dam/kids-families#studio)
• Build a website together
• Attend a free DIY workshop for families at your local Home Depot on the first Saturday of every month to learn building and craft skills
• Sign up for a family golf lesson
• Learn to fly fish together by participating in Angling University’s Kids & Parents courses (http://www.anglinguniversity.com)
• Conquer your fear of heights together by zip lining at the Colorado Adventure Center (http://www.zippingcolorado.com)
• Try a simulated skydive with the entire family at SkyVenture Colorado (http://www.skyventurecolorado.com)

There is an intense vulnerability that most people experience when they try something new. For parents, diving out of our comfort zone with our kids watching can be especially intimidating. “If they see that I am afraid to jump, will they be scared too?” “If they see how un-crafty I am, will think I am not as good a mom?” “How will I feel if they are better at it than me?”

From recent experience, it actually feels great. Not only was learning something new more fun because I absorbed their child-like enthusiasm, but I was also proud that they were venturing out of their comfort zones and pushing me to join them on an adventure.

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South Africa: The World is Small, and Yet…

On the third day, I slept. But not for long. There are too many “firsts” to experience. And this is a country so complex that I know I cannot ask enough questions to understand it. I will only be here for 11 days.

I am on the African continent for the first time. South Africa. I see the Southern Cross for the first time in the night sky, near Orion’s belt. A baboon crossing the street. Shining a flashlight into the darkness, face to face with a tired giraffe, who rolls her eyes like a teenager before rising out of the grass for a quieter spot. Ducking below the roll-bar on a Land Rover tipping dangerously only feet from a curious male lion. Sitting in a pool with a cold glass of chardonnay, watching a family of warthogs at a watering hole below in the brush. Then a family of moneys. A wildebeest. They seem to have a schedule by species.

We are on safari near Kruger National Park. Driving along the highway from Johannesburg to the Lodge, I feel tricked into thinking South Africa is just like home. The acres of cornfields could be Nebraska. Cows. A McDonalds near the highway. Lays Salt and Vinegar potato chips at the rest stop. Sprite.

And when we ask our driver about life in South Africa, his words could be those of someone in the U.S. He is patriotic. His country is a melting pot of colors and 17 languages. He feels conflicted about Affirmative Action. He talks about failing schools that are overcrowded with too many kids who are not learning to read. He complains about the unions. He worries about the growing gap between the rich and poor. He claims that South Africa’s reputation for crime is overblown. He is concerned about a constant flow of immigrants looking for jobs where the unemployment rate is already nearly 30 percent.

Yet he wouldn’t live anywhere else. He says the people are leaving the horrors of Apartheid behind. It is a beautiful country. There is forgiveness.

But he is too young to remember Apartheid. He is white.

You drive past the townships with closet-size shacks made of scrap metal clustered together in a field of dirt. You hear later about HIV rates of 70 percent, 50 percent of the school children. Many have to choose between food and uniforms, because while the government will waive school fees, it will not cover the cost of required school uniforms.

If I asked the barber braiding hair in the township to describe his life in this country, would he speak of patriotism and the beauty of the countryside? Or the grandmother who opens her home to “29 or 35” children in need of a safe haven? Or the couples who disappear, abandoning their children, when the signs of AIDS first appear because the stigma is still so great? Have they climbed to the top of Table Mountain and seen how the cliffs meet the ocean? Have they witnessed the ostriches at the Cape of Good Hope?

Nearly 20 years after Apartheid, I realize that I was only a few years younger than our driver when the U.S. was at a similar point in its history post-desegregation. And I will never comprehend fully what that time was like in my country. The extreme poverty and contrast in communities here remind me how close they are to their past.

Then as I try to understand something I cannot, because I am only a tourist, a rhino with no horn steps out from the brush.

I am a long way from home.

Santa’s Workshop: The Perfect Day

Since Daylight Savings turned the clocks back two weeks ago, my boys have struggled. They are whining more than usual. They are picking on each other like never before. They cry at the drop of a hat.

Yesterday, with the sun coming up, I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to turn them back into the kids they were before Daylight Savings. The remedy? We were going to spend the entire day outside.

I had heard that Santa’s Workshop in Colorado Springs was fun. It’s a small amusement park with rides for little kids. (http://santas-colo.com). Open for 50 years on the slopes of Pike’s Peak, it was constructed with a child’s image of the North Pole as its inspiration. Denver-ites can get there in an hour.

Now, this adventure was a big risk.

I don’t usually enjoy amusement parks – the crowds stress me out and the rides terrify me. At most parks, wither my five year old is crying because he isn’t allowed to ride anything his brothers can, or the older boys are mad because I’m making them spend time in the kiddie section.

So Santa’s Workshop was a wonderful surprise. It wasn’t crowded even though it was 60 degrees in November. The people were all families with young kids. I think my ten year old was close to the oldest child there.

The rides were set up so that a five year old could ride what he wanted, while his older brothers rode something slightly faster, and I could see them all the entire time.

We stayed for almost four hours.

I did yell at my five year old once for making me ride in the first car of the Space Shuttle, and while he had his hands up and screamed “this is awesome”, I wouldn’t let go of his leg. Not sure who I was protecting from flying out of the car – me or him.

Other than that, no one whined. No one ran ahead. No one bickered or bothered each other. No one even threw a fit when I told them they could not buy a toy in Santa’s Shop for Boys. (There is a separate Shop for Girls.)

We rode everything, sometimes twice. And the only thing the five year old couldn’t do was the haunted house (not recommended for children under six). He didn’t mind. There were flying jets with guns right next to it.

“That was the best day ever!”

“Can we come back again and bring friends?”

“I loved today, mom!”

Best $20 a kid I’ve ever spent.

Now, let’s hope the Daylight Savings curse has passed.

Since Him

As of October 30, my husband and I have been married for 13 years. We were together for more than a handful of years before that. There was life before him, and life since him. I still think of life before him as this very long, adventure-filled journey in which I grew up, learned everything I know, and became the person he first met and who I am today. I also keep thinking that it was much, much longer than my life since him. Post-him life has sped by. There is no way, in my mind until I count it out, that we have been together that long.

This anniversary, doing the math, I realized that while pre-him life remains slightly longer, it’s not by much. And I also realized that I have grown up, learned a lot, gone on quite a few adventures, and keep becoming who I am today with him in the years since him.

We have lived together in four cities, built lives there and moved on. We have hiked the Grand Canyon and the trails of Crested Butte. We have skied more mountains than I ever imagined getting down and surviving. We have explored Napa Valley and the streets of New Orleans. We have compared pizza in New York and Chicago. We have debated politics in many restaurants over many bottles of wine – some good and some bad. We have danced badly and sung Sweet Caroline together many times. We have fought while trying to read a map and drive at the same time. We have been to the horse races and nearly ten major league baseball parks. We have watched hundreds of Cape Cod sunsets together, though my first was when I was eight. We have gone to two weddings in Ireland and walked the West Highland Way of Scotland. We have laughed at ourselves and each other a lot. We have had three children, one of whom is already ten. We have changed diapers, cleaned up their puke, watched them walk, learn to talk, survive a broken an arm, learn to read, ride a bike, make a basket, try for a touchdown in the street. We have taken them to Niagara Falls, the Air and Space Museum, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands and Bahamas.

I remember being ten like it was yesterday. Like it was during the since him era.

But when I think of all the things we have done together, I realize how long ago since him began. And how much fun we’ve had since then.

Bike Riding with the Boys

Yesterday, we took the boys to Waterton Canyon southwest of Denver for a bike ride. The sky was blue. The temperature was perfect for a ride – not too hot. The dirt path is wide enough that a child with limited control over steering cannot cause trouble. Critical for a four year old speed demon on a very small two wheeler with no pedals. And a concerned mom inexperienced with mixing riding and kids.

My husband and the two older boys took off. They are training for a 7-mile loop of the well-known 100-mile Elephant Rock ride, which my husband rode last year alone. With the middle child finally bribed into learning to ride (with a Wii Skylander game as his prize) and quickly growing confident, their Dad was initially planning to push them for the 30-mile loop. But wiser friends with older children advised him to go small for a first outing.

Our ride yesterday proved they are able. Minimal whining. Big smiles. Lots of boasting afterward. Typical boys.

While they darted up ahead, I coasted with our four year old on his Balance bike. It is an amazing concept that I wish our other two had benefited from. No pedals forces little ones to learn the balance of a two-wheeler when they are small enough to learn it only about a foot off the ground. The four year old rode for some time, talking all the while, before deciding to walk his bike for a stretch.

As we wandered the trail through the dramatic canyon along a gurgling stream, we talked about all the different bird sounds. We defined “rapids” and rated “waterfalls.” We imagined riding our bikes along the top ridge of the canyon and what it would feel like to fall. We guessed many times how far we had ridden. He claimed he saw George Washington’s face carved into the rocks, and made special note of George’s curly white hair. We saw three different colors of butterflies. He rode his wheel purposefully over a beetle crossing our path.

Tiny sips of lemonade were enough to rejuvenate the sweaty boy when he tired, and we kept a slow but steady pace while we talked. More experienced riders stared at the happy little guy on his red pedal-less bike. Some laughed. Others called him “tough” and his bike “cool”. He seemed to add to their day as he did to mine.

And then when his Dad and brothers had turned back and caught up with us, he boasted as much as they did about all we had seen and done while they were up ahead. He was not disappointed when they again rode ahead to the parking lot. Instead, he initiated a game of follow-the-leader in which he cut me off, laughing, any time I tried to pass. Several scratches on the back of my leg are evidence of my repeated attempts not to crash into him and cause injury.

Just less than 5 miles later, we were safe off the trail and driving home. A small adventure on our bikes. A victory for Dad who likes hanging with his guys. A success for the boys. And an afternoon with a four year old to be remembered always.