L is beginning a new school next week. I knew it would be a delicate change, as he loves his current preschool and decided the best way to introduce the new school to L was to go on a mission to cook the frog and slowly edge the temperature to boil. To this effect, I walked L a few times to explore his new school grounds and all it had to offer. L loved reading the inspiring and inclusive messaging that promoted openness, kindness, equality, diversity, respect and environmental protection, the beautiful and colourful murals of animals and environmental scenes and the flower and vegetable garden, which he is keen to help maintain and grow. We peered into the classrooms and discussed all the exciting things he would learn. As his new preschool may hopefully be his elementary school and as there is time to explain the change if not, I decided to craft the change as a stepping stone towards elementary school. Without associating his new school with losing his old and introducing it at first as his upcoming elementary school, L was able to be excited at the prospect of his future chapter without any attendant negative feelings associated with understanding his time at his current school was ending. When we finally had this discussion, L had by this time been introduced to his new school in only a positive manner. I believe this has helped him understand and digest his dramatic new change. Nevertheless, it is still difficult for L. “Mama, what if no one likes me and I don’t make friends?” I told him I understood his concern and that I feel the same when I began in new environments, but reminded him that when he began at his current preschool he didn’t know anybody and had to make friends – and he did. L then expressed sadness that he wouldn’t see his friends every day but I reminded him that many of his friends left his preschool and he still continued to see his friends and be friends with them, which cheered him up. “We will keep the old and just get new!” That has been our mantra for the change and is reflecting a positive outlook. L is on the whole excited about this new chapter.
L loves to show off. When one of our dear friends visited recently, L displayed his “show offs” as he termed them. As our friend sat on our couch and conversed with us, L brought various objects from his bedroom, explained what they were, then bowed and retreated to recover a new object. My favourite instruction was of the globe. L proceeded to spin it while he circled our coffee table and explained “the earth orbits the sun, because of the sun’s gravity, but the earth also rotates all the time, so we have day when we face the sun on our side of the earth and night when we don’t”. Then L bowed and ran to get his stuffed orcas to provide instructions on Jumpy and Bumpy’s anatomy and habits.
L, M and I have been concocting stories, drawing them and getting them ready for editing into a cartoon under L’s created name of “Mosquito Drink Media”. They’ve created stories about orcas and their sushi restaurant, carnivorous flowers and monsters with treasure maps.
L has long loved cartography. He loves to draw maps, he loves to have me draw a map of the house to a treasure that he has to find my following the map and he has recently become interested in navigating us when we are going somewhere by looking at the map. One of L’s major obstacles to navigation was having an issue with left and right but I introduced him to my tactic, which is to move my writing hand, which conveniently is a homonym for L, being a right-hander. This worked a trick and now we have L navigating us, using the map when we walk somewhere new and on memory otherwise.
This summer, P left for his first extended business trip. Part of the trip he was in a jungle with no ability to Face Time. We had not considered before P’s trip that the boys had not had a regular phone call before and that we only used Face Time or Skype with family. M was enraged. “Put your face on daddy!” he screamed into the phone. M had not understood that you could simply speak over a phone without seeing a face. There is certainly a generational gap we have to mind. We had to explain that daddy was not intentionally hiding his face. We had to explain that the internet does not go at the same speed everywhere in the world, nor is it present everywhere. M is fascinated with the internet and the concept that cables can carry communication. The other day he drew what I perceived as an abstract piece and when I inquired what it was, he looked at me with tempered scorn and explained that it was the internet. “See all the cables connecting?” he pointed to his drawing, “that’s what makes up the internet” my three year old instructed me.
When we left the boys with my parents a week later (admittedly inopportune timing) for the first time, we realized that when we face timed, the boys would get anxious when we had to leave. We then decided to make videos and send them to the boys. This worked brilliantly. They were not incensed when the video ended, albeit they did request that they view each video several times and they interacted with the video. “Mama, let me tell you something” M would interject into our recorded dialogue.
The grandparents did well, albeit they managed to lock the children in their bedroom, and not wanting to wake them up called a locksmith for an urgent and stealth mission, fearing, reasonably, that their attempt would be stentorian. The following morning L informed my parents that he had a disturbing dream that someone was trying to enter his room. I wonder how well they managed to keep their expressions composed.
The boys have started carrying their weight on our shopping trips, carrying some of their food in their backpacks. At first they were recalcitrant and complained that they were kids and shouldn’t carry the food, but I corrected that they were part of our family team and had to do their part. They responded well to this and were quite happy to participate and do their part – “team work makes the dream work!” they sang en route home on their first run. Meanwhile, I was on the receiving end of scowls and stern eyebrow raises from the more dignified members of the community that charged me with child abuse with their glacial glares.
Teaching the boys the value of work and money is proving a tad difficult. I’m endeavouring to have them do little tasks around the house, which admittedly results in more mess, but has the intended benefit of harnessing the value of work. It is not as fast of a learning curve as I would like. The other day M broke a plate. He noticed I was upset and excused his action immediately “I’m sorry mama, I did it by accident”. He then proceeded to reassure me. “Don’t worry, you can just buy another one” . I crouched down until we were eye to eye. “Unfortunately, M, we don’t have money to buy another plate just now.” Before I could continue on my instruction, M waved his hands dismissively in front of him. “Don’t worry mama, here is some money” and he placed a whole load of nothing into my open palm. I decided to work with what M gave me. “Thank you M. With your imaginary money, I am going to buy you an imaginary plate.” I then handed him an imaginary plate while he proceeded to scowl. “I’m disappointed” M stated sternly. “You can only buy imaginary things with imaginary money” I informed him. “I will be careful” M concluded.
Children learn from us and they take up our concerns and habits. My children love ramen and sushi and so do I. The other day at a restaurant, when L was ordering, he stopped and looked intensely at the waiter, inquiring about his burger. “Is it all local and organic?” he asked the perplexed waiter who informed L that he would check with the kitchen.
At the beach, we notice plastic and pick it up to protect it from getting into the ocean and hurting marine life. L likes to reproach people vocally that he sees littering. While I encourage the former, I am trying to discourage the latter, albeit I am not very effective thus far. To my increasing distress, M spots glass and likes to pick it up and bring it to me so that it doesn’t hurt anybody else and I can recycle it. “Don’t worry mama, I am being careful” he assures me, refusing to listen to protestations. While I admire their desire to clean up their environment, I am concerned that they will touch something that could hurt them and have to negotiate this delicately so that I don’t discourage their willingness to clean up – and after others too – but in a safe way. The mantra we are following is “cleaning up together makes it all the better” so that their cleaning up is supervised. Yet, M spots glass with his sharp sight before I even see a glint and I must propel a pounce in a pinch of time.
M recently turned 3 and demanded a rocket cake. My mother made the cake and I made a rocket (in the car en route to the party) which P devised to stand above the cake so that we could launch M into three. M appreciated the countdown and decided the chocolate stained cardboard rocket, which had his name and an astronaut drawn inside it, was his favourite birthday present.
M has slowly been easing out of an admittedly imaginative expletive habit. When he realized he would be in “calm down time” every time he swore, he started to defend himself by stating that it was not him, but rather his toys that were the foul-mouthed culprits. I decided to put his toys into time-out. M became distressed at this as it worked just as effectively as putting him in time-out, as he was prevented from playing with his toys. It only took one lesson however for M to change his tactic and place me in a pickle. The next time he swore, he explained, with an exploding smile and to his brother’s chagrin, that it was his brother’s toys that needed time-out for their foul mouths. I stunted M’s ebullient grin in anticipation of his double victory, by informing him that his brother’s toys must have heard M swear too much so that he was not to share his brother’s toys. This seemed to do the trick as M’s swearing has dissipated (and thank God it’s still in Serbian so no one in preschool can understand).
We like to boogie in our household. Every so often, we have a pajama party and put on tunes after bath time. The other week I decided that L was ready for his first choreography which consisted of a single eight count. I inserted a clap between moves and had him move the opposite leg to the opposite arm. In about twenty minutes, L had got the choreography, which I thought was not only a good physical exercise but a fantastic mental exercise. Moving appendages concomitantly in different directions to a beat and remembering the routine over and over flexes a different part of your brain. Unfortunately, M became embittered because he could not follow. I have to be more careful in how I teach L to do things that M is not yet ready to do in front of M because M suffers, not understanding the developmental difference between him and his brother. M peers over at tasks that his brother can do far quicker and better, loses patience with what he perceives is his frailty and then aggressively attempts to trump his brother’s success with a titanic tantrum that takes our attention away from L. He’s also been furiously correcting people that term him L’s “little brother”, exclaiming that he is not “little”. We have learnt that we have to separate L and M when L is attending to tasks that they cannot do together so that M’s confidence does not falter.
M's tantrums can be quite spectacular. “I’m mad at you! I don’t love you anymore! I will throw you in the garbage truck!” he would ululate and then crescendo into a final cry before his departure “I don’t like this! I am walking away!” The only way to calm M down when he is in such a brood is to wait out until he is eased into a milder mood – which thankfully does not take longer than a few minutes (I have also found that counting calmly to 10 for M to follow my direction works quite well at times, albeit it abjectly failed with L, who would get more incensed). When calm, we can proceed to lay out the kimochis and he picks up “mad” and “disappointed” and explains that he was frustrated I told him, for instance, that he had to stop playing with his trains because we had to go somewhere. “Why did you tell me you would put me in the garbage?” I asked. M shrugged. “I was mad at you.” I asked him what we put in garbage trucks. “Garbage” he answered, his gaze averted as he digested his previous behavior and realized he over-stepped. “Am I garbage?” I continued to ask calmly. M shook his head. “I’m sorry mama. I was mad and only pretending.” I explained to M that words hurt. Slowly, he is learning to only state his feelings and not say hurtful things, albeit he continues to be irascible and have a Plinian eruption every so often and he continues to want to calm himself down, whether from anger, fear or sadness. He looks up at me and declares “I don’t want to cry anymore!” And just like that, with one determined exhale, he pushes out his negative feelings, centres himself and regains his composure.
Unfortunately, M’s friends have introduced him to a new found love of super heroes. “I love Bat Man!” he exclaims. “He fights and saves the world!” This is discouraging. Super heroes are problematic. They teach kids to solve problems with violence and promote conflict rather than consensus. The super hero does not have a super mind but uses his or her super physical powers to solve problems. The super hero fights a Manichean battle against a malicious villain whom the kids are taught is inherently “evil”, not that the super hero is facing an opposing party who is making villainous choices. Thus, the super hero genre teaches children that fighting is the answer to solve their problems and that there are “good” people and “bad” people- and of course children internalize that they are “good” and must “fight” and therefore not even try and comprehend the “other” “bad” side. This mindset engenders a xenophobic aspect, for it’s the ability not to comprehend the inherent complexity and contingency of people’s actions that leads to the breakdown in our societal relations. I wonder if the new focus on super heroes and increasing partisan strife are somewhat related in our zeitgeist. I do not want my boys to be imprisoned in this ossification of thought. When the boys misbehave, rather than saying they are “naughty” for instance or “bad” we try to emphasise they have the choice to reform their behavior: “I love you but I do not love your choices right now!”
L's negotiation skills continue to sharpen. A couple of months ago, I noticed some crimson stains on one of the white curtains in the lounge (which in the end turned out to have been there prior to our residence, only that I had noticed them before) and as I had noticed this after L was given, as an exception to the rule, strawberries on the couch next to the curtain, I deduced (it turns out incorrectly) that the curtain’s incarnadine incursion was due to L’s exercise. I sat him down and asked him if he touched the curtain with his strawberry stained hands. L shook his head resolutely. Concluding that I remained incredulous, L proceeded to persuade me. “Why do you think I did it? You didn’t see me do it, right?” he questioned. No, I didn’t. “Why do you think it’s strawberry?” he questioned further. “It looks like watermelon” L said and then went straight to his closing. “Didn’t B and Y have watermelon last night and didn’t they sit right here? So maybe they made the stain?” argued L, accusing my friends who had joined us for dinner the evening before and expertly clouding my conclusion in doubt. P was laughing in the kitchen but later we concluded that when these boys become teenagers we would be in dire trouble…
A few weeks ago, L asked me “what is God?” and I was quite nonplussed and unprepared to answer this question. I paused to reflect and then decided to tell him what I believed. “God is everything and everyone – we are all a part of God, allowing God to observe God through each every one of us”. I wasn’t certain of what pronoun to use so I decided to avoid one as I did not understand God to have a gender. We were sitting on the beach before L’s swim lesson and watching the waves oscillate against the shore. L seemed satisfied with my explanation and began to build a sandcastle with his brother. When they finished and I complimented them on their castle, L corrected me that it was a “church” which they had built to display their love for God.
A few days earlier, L had burst out crying, seemingly for no reason and when I prodded, he explained through lugubrious blithering that he was afraid I would die and he didn’t know if he could handle that, because he loved me too much. I told him that as long as he loved me, I would never die and would always be within him and his memories. This seemed to ease him somewhat but it was a long time before L could get calm enough to go sleep and I had to cuddle him to bed that night. I wondered what caused his sudden and visceral fear, scraped my thoughts and came up short of a suspect. It was a Thursday night. That Sunday night, I was notified that a mother from our preschool had died unexpectedly that Friday. I had not known her much, but she was always so kind and her children are so sweet with such a sparkle of a smile. I remember that during the fires in Sonoma in 2017, she had donated to people and devoted her time and energy to obtain supplies for people affected by the fires and had driven several times back and forth from the city to bring them to Sonoma. There are no words to describe this disaster, this star falling apart. We weave words together to understand our emotions, but when they are so visceral, so raw, words are too confined, too frail and they fail us.