Here’s some sobering news from a recent article in The Globe and Mail: 46 percent of Canadians are within $200 from financial insolvency at each month-end. Blame it on higher interest rates, but also on less than desirable financial literacy.
In October of last year, a survey by debt consolidation firm BDO Canada revealed that approximately 3 in 10 Canadians do not have enough money to buy the things they need. They still buy them in the end but getting deeper into debt. Among those who carry debt, the average non-mortgage debt hovers around $20,000.
There was a time when back to school shopping meant purchasing a fair number of notebooks – one for each subject ideally, pencils, pens (a fountain pen too, but that was back then!) and, if the kids grew an inch or two over the summer, which they tend to do, new clothes and shoes. A backpack too, if last year’s was not holding up anymore.
A few years ago, when my sons were still in public school (now homeschooled), we would get a lunch program to peruse and choose from if we wanted to. We chose nothing, not because we’re fussy, but because the options were deplorable.
One of the options was called taco salad. ‘It’s a salad made of tortilla chips, Mom,’ my oldest announced a couple of weeks later, rather bemused, when he got to see the very dish. No matter how you turn it, that is not food.
Feeding children can be a wild adventure at times, given occasional pickiness and all, but that’s no excuse feeding them junk food or low-quality ingredients as part of the school lunches. Not when we live in the middle of a farm-rich country and there is an abundance of fresh, wholesome foods that could be worked into school lunches.
I am willing to say that more parents would sign up for the program if there were healthy options, and would welcome the break from figuring out next day’s lunch. There is a high chance that many kids would learn about healthy food and be better for it. Which could be amplified if students would have a garden to tend to right on school grounds. You see, gardening invites to more than planting and picking, with the occasional weeding in between.
Gardening means learning about soil and all its wondrous components, from chemical compounds to bugs of all sizes that keep it healthy; it opens the door to learning about how liquids travel through soil and how they get absorbed through the roots. It involves delving into the biochemistry of the cell and if you add a microscope to the mix, you can get hours of intense studying, which will be followed by more curiosity. From there, you get to how fruit and veggies grow, and from there on, it moves into the realm of eating good-for-you foods.
Which isn’t anything that I saw in the school district’s lunch program I happened to come across. Chicken bites, chicken burger, chicken nuggets, all served cold, followed by some fruit slices and either juice or chocolate milk or plain milk. Fruit juice is empty calories that do not benefit children or anyone else for that reason. Eating the whole fruit is where it’s at.
Again, this is happening right here where we see ripe fruit that falls on the ground all summer and fall too, from cherries to apricots to plums, apples, and pears. On top of it, we have a farmer’s market so plentiful this time a year, that it would only make sense to use some of that to provide good food for children. Just imagine connecting local farmers to the department that organizes school lunches in the district.
That being said, there will be a chorus telling me that many kids prefer junk food and they would scoff at healthy (deemed boring by some) food options. Be it so, it should be part of a school mandate to educate about healthy food options. In an age where child obesity and chronic health issues starting in childhood are on the rise, that would be a moral duty, to say the least. That’s one of the reasons why I never refer to junk or processed foods as ‘treats’, but call them by their name.
Living a long, healthy life involves no magic. Eat wholesome meals, mostly veggies, and never until full, get outside, get moving, and connect with people. In a nutshell. To keep with the scope of this piece, I will ask this: how many kids nowadays are doing all or some of the above?
There are too many processed food options (with attractive advertisements), there are devices that make them sit in one place for hours on end, there is the culture of fear where parents do not want/dare to let their kids play outside on their own, and there is, at society level, for the most part, a growing and deeply worrying trend of living life in an isolated, often self-centered way.
Many of our children are anxious, depressed, obese, or plagued by other eating disorders; some are bullied, others are bullying, at war with the world around them. They all start out eager to learn about the world around (healthy foods included,) and then somewhere down the road they become self-conscious, bored, tired, fearful, addicted to screens and drugs. Reclaiming them becomes the hardest task.
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Fixing a generation (or more) is no easy thing. As always, one step at a time is where we can start. No drugs can ever fix what healthy food, free play, and time spent together can.
Hippocrates once said, ‘Let food be thy medicine.’ Let’s start with that. Make every bite, treats included, count. As for the rest of the issues, perhaps we should go back to forming the village needed to raise a child. A connected community is where better things happen. When it comes to our children, no effort is too big to make that happen.
It was not entirely my idea but a combined effort. In all fairness, the topic of homeschooling had been on the agenda, on and off, since those first day of Tony’s kindergarten when he asked if we could. I was hesitant, possibly because it was still a new and exotic concept with more questions than answers. To me anyway.
His very kind kindergarten teacher softened his first schooling experience and our determination to homeschool to the point where we said ‘we shall see’ and that’s how that year passed. It was a good year, especially because kindergarten back then was only four hours a day and that seemed manageable.
Then grade 1 started and that was six hours a day. Big boy was six, little boy was two. Every day we would walk to school, the three of us, rolling down the hill and counting houses and trees. Come lunch time, I was back at school with little boy in tow, ready to have lunch-in-three on the steps of the nearby church. It’s what Tony wanted and it made all the sense to me as I missed him around the house.
Every now and then we talked about homeschooling. Again. Some days more than others. Main reason was occasional boredom.
The grade 1 teacher was good and nice and when we admitted to the great sin of plotting against the system and wondering about homeschooling, she said she understands why I would think that and she mentioned the gifted kids programs. I was too shy back then to say it was not that, or that I am not a big believer in such programs.
Grade 1 came and went and starting with grade 2 our lunch rendez vous stopped. It was suggested that kids might make fun of him if that continues, plus he would miss an opportunity to socialize. With the same kids, of course. A conundrum of some sort.
Homeschooling was set aside for most of the time but it kept resurfacing every now and then. Could we, should we? When he was the one asking I flinched; when I thought we should he said ‘Not yet’ and so the wild homeschooling creature would fly away like some rogue bird every time, not before flapping its wings a few times.
At the end of grade 4 we said goodbye to Vancouver and grade 5 saw us in Kamloops. New school, new friends, new everything. It seemed smooth enough until six hours proved too long to bear and some supervision aids too enamored with the occasional power high some of us experience when fate puts one in charge. The homeschooling bird returned, bigger and stronger than ever. It clawed its way into our lives on a daily basis and promised to stick around for longer this time.
Tony was increasingly frustrated with topics he perceived as irrelevant. In the social arena, the above-mentioned power high issues made for some added bitterness.
At the same time, he was hailed as gifted, which at some point I came to resent as it was reflecting, I thought and still do, rather awkwardly on the rest of the kids. I think they all are. Not being politically correct, I simply believe in creativity and I believe it is ours to play with until we become self-conscious. The school system does not cater to all kinds of giftedness but rather the academic kind (think math, sciences.) Personally I have always been in awe of children, their creativity
The bird did not leave this time, but fluttered its wings over our heads enough times for me to say ‘ok, ok, let me take another look.’ A feeble attempt to go half-school, half-homeschool was just that; a feeble attempt. As my mom used to say ‘you try to sit in two boats at the same time, you’re bound to fall in the middle.’ I thought there was a high of the half school half homeschool project to become just that.
So I choose the one boat we could both fit in comfortably and enjoy the ride. We started homeschooling three weeks and so far it has been a great experience.
The first day was quite similar to that first day of having a newborn in my arms, and the same question sprouted almost instantly: ‘now what?’
Once I got past that, things rolled smoothly. There is something particularly enjoyable about having various assignments handed in. I believe in research-based homework, the kind that looks at a fact from many angles and involves critical thinking in analyzing the why and how. The joy comes from knowing that I will be a witness to my son’s learning to connect dots, I will be privy to the a-ha moments and I will get to guide and learn at the same time. A privilege and a grand responsibility.
I pick topics of interests for him, with occasional new subjects that I hope he will never get to call irrelevant. The day he does, we revisit and try again. To be interested in learning and curious and eager, that is paramount in education. To never be bored but to enjoy knowing more and making more sense of this or that. To savour every day and the learning that comes with sounds romantic indeed.
What about the hurdles, you may ask? They’ll be there, that much I know. But then again, smooth seas do not make good sailors. It will get hairy at times, frustrations will poke their heads through the harmony mesh, moods will be ruffled by this or that, and, if we care to make it a worthy journey, we will make it work.
We sail with trust and openness. I listen, he talks; he listens, I talk. It’s an adventure. We will learn, more than math, physics, geography and history. We will learn about ourselves and how to find purpose in everything we do. As for little brother, he will be in school this year. Next year he’ll hop aboard this boat and we’ll keep on sailing.
One day at a time, that is, because, in the end, that is all we can count on.
I wanted to go out for a morning ride, I had the itinerary in mind and was all dressed, but I could not get myself to leave the house before the boys woke up. I’d miss the first hug, the nestling of little boy on my lap, the hug from big boy, their hair every which way and eyes drowsily braving the morning light.
Early mornings work for sneaking out and coming back before the wild boys wake up, but late night reading often bites into earliness and leaves me hanging like this.
The day is cool, a relief after days of breathing hot air like we’re inhabiting an oven. It’s too hot, the boys often say; I cannot allow for summer hating though. Summer is the peach tree branches hanging low, heavy with fruit, and tomatoes that turn red and the bumblebees that are all confused about the disappearing of their favorite snack: tomato flower pollen. Everything becomes something before our eyes…
My ride today is short, I follow the river; its surface mirrors a sky that is unglamorous, but why would that matter. Thoughts bounce off the surface of my own rivers flowing relentlessly towards seas of life I have yet to discover. Rivers of thoughts, they need to be taken out each day, they synchronize their incessant dance with that of the real ones…
Summer is apricot jam made yesterday and laid inside hot crepes today, memories of my childhood when my great aunt would make platefuls of them in the outdoor oven, the smell of wood adding hotness to air already hot… I never complained because I knew what came next: tummies full of warmth, sweetness stuck to cheeks and the lazy afternoon to follow. The countryside I miss.
The boys eat with their mouths full, they ask for more and I remember my own eagerness to skip talking just so I could eat more. Funny how snippets of life past ask to be revived. The sharing I do with my boys, life in big yummy bites, life I can make them smile about. But there’s more sides to life. Life is never just smiles.
We talk about school, the topic just tumbled in the midst of another conversation about living in the wilderness… The boys tell how going to school makes many children unhappy for the time they’re there. Not unhappy with learning, but unhappy with other things. Rushed, impatient figures, playing power games with children. The boys see through much of it. My fault, for peeling eyes open and inviting to thinking.
We talk and daydream about schools to grow in. Stunted growth is what I often see instead. Why not schools where wide-eyed innocence breeds joy and curiosity is the very ground children step on? Wings unclipped. Could it be? Why not nowadays? We know so much about what makes the mind soar, why let children fall through the cracks?
The boys have insights that humble, they share as I share. This is not complaining but facing perspective as it presents itself to us and adjusting ourselves to have the courage to take unforeseen, unscheduled leaps, should the said perspective become too narrow for how we envision life.
Growing up is a together adventure, I never pictured my boys being in someone else’s care more than my own. Not when they’re shaken at times and becoming distrustful. Finding the way, the right way, the fair way, as a parent, that is the biggest challenge of all. It makes me both fearful and brave at the same time. What’s the next step? The together adventure is no joke.
Wild boys run into the back yard to play. There’s loud voices, whispers, hiding, laughter, sneaking around and some scraped knees.
Little boy runs up the stairs and hands over a tiny dandelion. ‘From us, the smallest one’ … Mop of sun-bleached hair dances as he runs back in the yard for more playing. Will I ever be able to define gratefulness the right way? It’ll never be enough. Some words will only live on the inside, padding the corners only I know about.
I sit down, check the day’s news and get reminded of a sad story. The ice cream store owner downtown told us about yesterday. ‘Oh, you don’t know? Robin Williams died today.’ I don’t get to ask why. He says it out loud: suicide. The boys’ eyes grow big. Too much information? Little boy frowns. How do people commit suicide? Why?
He was funny, they argued. He made people laugh. How did he with all the struggles he faced at times? The dance we can never enough of, the dance we’re sick of so often…Life. Unkind and monstrous at times, we are its pawns and ride good waves, but a few bad ones can make most people lose their way. People sometimes do that when they’re sad and discouraged and depressed, I tell the boys. Not just sad, but awfully sad. That makes loneliness darker than dark. No one knows, no one should be judged…
It’s a grip you let go of. In that moment of darkness, all is distorted. The boys listen, ponder… Do they understand? Do we?…
I take their lead; they live in the moment. More playing, getting hungry, eating peaches off the tree, asking for treats to be baked later in the day, arguing, finding common ground, trading sticks and Lego pieces. Life. They don’t think too much of it but live it fully. I do though. Too much is a side effect, enough is what I hope for just so I can have them live theirs with joy.