It was just a normal day. Then I thought about it for a few minutes and realized that this is a normal worth writing about.
We’ll start with a hot travel tip: When you’re in a new city, try to find a free walking tour. Not only are they a great way to see a new place, you will learn a lot and meet great people too. And, well, they’re free.
That was the plan the other morning in Sydney, Australia, and we were almost ready to herd the kids toward the front door when we heard an escalating conflict down the hall.
“Eli! Would you PLEASE let me in?” Owen was agitated.
(muffled words from behind a closed door)
“Yes, you can!” he retorted, “Just turn the handle thing!”
I waited a few seconds for the sound of the door, which didn’t come – then started walking down the hallway, “C’mon, Eli. Let Owen in – it’s his room too. We have to catch a bus,” I said through the closed door.
“I can’t!” he replied. “I can’t get it unlocked.”
Sure enough, Eli had locked himself in the bedroom using the deadbolt that had been installed with the grip set. On the outside – my side – was a tiny knob with a shallow slot that should have given way with the edge of a coin and a turn of the wrist. Only it wouldn’t budge. I left shavings of finger skin on the edge of various coins – Australian, Malaysian, Bulgarian – trying to liberate my youngest son while he twisted and wiggled from the other side. We looked for a screwdriver – nothing. We examined the windows – no dice.
Flashback: When I was five years old, my little sister, who was three, locked herself in the second floor master bathroom of our house in Waterloo, Ontario. She had opened a cabinet drawer that blocked the entry door. I don’t know if it was her age or level of panic that stopped her from understanding the instructions my parents were trying to give. After an hour or so, an extension ladder was carried over from a nearby construction site and my sister was rescued. But I still remember her hysterical crying through the door for what felt like hours.
Eli was locked in a room by himself in a house he doesn’t know in a country we just arrived at a week ago. When we ran out of strategies to get him out, I braced myself for his panic.
“Hey, Eli – we’ve tried everything we can. I’m going to try to call the Airbnb host, ok?”
“Don’t worry, buddy. We’re not going anywhere until we get you out.”
“Ok. I don’t have my tablet, so I’m just going to unpack some more.” His voice was . . . normal. He wasn’t scared – didn’t even need me to stay on the other side of the door. Eli just distracted himself with an activity and trusted that we would eventually get him out.
Of course, we did. Our lovely host rushed right over with a big screwdriver and I was able to get the sticky deadbolt turned back. Eli was smiling on the other side with a perfectly made bed, everything unpacked and put away. We missed our walking tour, but I gained some insight into this little boy . . . not so boyish anymore.
Our host had come so quickly that her hair was still wet from a shower and her four year old daughter was in her PJs. We had just arrived the day before so this was our first time meeting her in person. (Second hot travel tip: stay in Airbnb’s and, if possible, get to know your host a little. Almost invariably, they are warm and generous people with interesting backgrounds and are full of useful local information.)
So, as we were getting to know Amelia, her adorable high-energy daughter, Poppy, was bouncing around our legs. This distraction went on for a few minutes – then it stopped. I looked over and saw Poppy and Owen sitting together on the edge of the bed quietly playing a little game (not on a screen). Our twelve year old – who was exhausted from having to share a bed all night with blanket-stealing, sleep-talking Eli – had independently connected with a child one third his age and was keeping her entertained while we carried on our conversation.
Because of the way our school system is set up, it’s easy to assume that kids “should” associate primarily with kids of the same age. We don’t believe that any more. Different approaches and skills are needed to interact with different ages of children (and adults). It’s a life skill. Owen had just proven he has it.
But he was still tired and that fatigue lasted the whole day. Owen is the kind of person who let’s you know what’s on his mind; from physics concepts to a funny ad he just spotted to a concerning ache he has in his left baby toe – if it’s on Owen’s mind, we’re going to hear about it. So, when I saw how tired he was, I kept waiting for the fatigue-induced crisis. But it never came.
At the end of the day I was in Owen’s room, “tucking him in” (yes, we still do that every night). He was moving slowly, big bags under his eyes. I put my arms out for a hug and he came right over.
I talked into the top of his head. “Just so you know, I could see how tired you were today. I know how hard that can be. You did a great job getting through the day without complaining or anything. I really appreciate that.”
He pulled back from the hug and looked at me with a little wetness in his eyes. “Thanks. I really appreciate you saying that. It was hard.”
But let’s go back a little. Since we missed the walking tour, we walked to the mall instead. (A particularly abrasive waterslide in Malaysia wore the seats out of all the boys’ bathing suits. Linds tried to stitch them, but that didn’t last long and their butts have been hanging out on a few occasions.) After the mall, we ate lunch and set off on a familiar quest – to find a playground.
On the way there, Jake confided two things in me. First, he’d been thinking for quite a while about starting a blog of his own and wondered if I would help him set one up.
“Definitely. You’d be great at blogging, Jake.” And I meant it. Jake is thoughtful, observant and a very conscientious writer.
Then came what was really bothering him. I won’t go into details, but the bottom line is that Jake has been feeling a little hard done by. He feels that, when it comes to conflicts with his brothers, Linds and I haven’t been treating him fairly. Of course, all the parents in all the countries of the world will recognize this scenario: kids everywhere grapple with the harsh reality that they have to adapt to the world – not the other way around.
What struck me about this conversation with Jake was his approach. There was no whining or complaining. He was searching for a solution and in the process he knew he had to take ownership for his role. The effort was palpable, but his voice was calm, statements thoughtful, and requests reasonable.
At eleven years old, Jake has the ability to identify issues and engage the other side in a way that makes them want to listen and work together. I was in my twenties when I learned these skills (they can still use improvement). He can’t see it now, but these struggles are also victories.
If there was one child I was worried about going into this full-time travel thing, it was Ben. Of course, we always loved Ben the way he was – he just didn’t connect with other people the way that many kids do. Out of the four, Ben is the most introverted, reserved, most likely to spend hours by himself in his room. But for eight months, Ben has not had his own room . . . and precious little alone time. How would he adapt to this new reality?
After we found the playground, I left Linds and the kids there to play while I went for a run around Centennial Park. Forty-five minutes later I returned and Linds was just packing up. She had a smile on her face, but it wasn’t for me.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Look at Ben – he’s over there on the swing.”
About forty yards away Ben was gently swinging, leaning to the left with a big smile on his face. Beside him was a three year old little girl in a Snow White costume and her mother. They were sitting on the ground, looking up at Ben, deep in conversation.
“They’ve been talking for about twenty minutes!” Linds informed me. “Ben isn’t so shy anymore.”
We sent Jake over to retrieve his little brother. As he hopped off the swing, we could hear “Bye!” and “Bye!”. Then the mom looked over at us and waved enthusiastically. We waved back. Ben ran over with a big smile on his face but before he got to us, the little girl in the Snow White costume started running toward him, yelling, “Ben! Ben! Hugs??” He stopped.
Ben hugged Snow White, said “Bye!” again and jogged back to us, an even bigger smile on his face. Prince charming. Who would’ve thought??
“Enjoy every moment” is bad advice
Anyone who has had kids has had to suffer the painfully bad advice to “Enjoy every moment with your precious children – They grow up so fast!” Raising kids is not about enjoying yourself. It’s mostly about survival and trying not to screw them up beyond repair. Perhaps taking your kids on a trip around the world is just an elaborate way to compensate for parental insecurities – “I’m sorry you’re a little messed up and it’s probably our fault, but at least we did that big world travel thing!”
No, parenthood is not about enjoyment, but we do take the responsibility seriously. And we know that the day will come when the kids are off on their own and we will look back on these years with different eyes. What seems never-ending now will be revealed as a brief window of opportunity to witness (and perhaps influence), the development of four human beings.
And that’s why I’m writing this down. It was just another day. Problems to solve, errands to run, and some time to talk and play. But our kids are growing up during these “normal” days, right in front of us. Are they growing up faster because we’re traveling? I don’t know. Did we have to travel so that I could slow down enough to notice these things? Maybe. What I do know is that, as different as they are from each other, I really like the kind of people they are turning into and I’m lucky to be a part of that process.