No more pencils, no more books

School’s out for the summer. Now what?

One thing is for sure: sitting around doing nothing is not an option.

Carlton at the park
Summer is play time.

It seems that in the New South, everyone has somewhere to go … all the time. Our schedules don’t allow for plain ol’ downtime. You remember that, right? Get-up-at-11-stay-in-your-pajamas-watch-TV-barely-move-off-the-sofa-all-day-kind-of-lazy?

Those days are gone. The way we “relax” these days is to go and do.

Our schedule this summer includes weekend getaways, swimming lessons, camps, Vacation Bible School, business travel with the family and, of course, our annual beach vacation. The dreaded “I’m bored” should not cross the lips of my children all summer. They will be busier than I ever was during my elementary school years. But maybe that’s the problem.

There’s simply too much to do these days. We have too many options.

In the push for giving our children new experiences, keeping them occupied and expanding their horizons, we fill every possible minute of their lives leaving them no time for creative play, true discovery or even just relaxation.

During the school year we go from school to homework to scouts to music lessons to church to bed. When our first two children were preschoolers, we swore we would not be that family. Now, with three kids, two of them in school, we have come to expect this kind of schedule.

But what’s more insidious is the way our summers have become just as over-programmed and jam-packed. We don’t know how to slow down or let our kids have any time to recover. We forget that less is more.

Don’t get me started on television. Television is the enemy. I get that.  I don’t want my children spending their summer in front of Sponge Bob re-runs or Phineas and Ferb any more than the next parent.  I also don’t want to be filling their time so that they miss out on the experience of having to come up with something to do. Some of the best play my brothers and I had growing up occurred when we had an unscheduled afternoon or even day, and we had to decide how to fill it.

To that end, I was glad to hear Carla tell the children yesterday that there will be no screen time during the day this summer.  She even instituted a policy for herself. She got up early, finished her computer time before the kids came down, and didn’t look at a screen again all day. After a morning of playtime and five hours at the pool, she felt justified in letting the kids veg in front of Disney channel while she cooked dinner. At the end of the day, she called it a success.

Nothing on your to-do-list
This is an acceptable summer day agenda.

Forgive me for lecturing, but if you have children and have already mapped out an activity for every day this summer, go back and revise your plan just slightly to work in a few pajama days. And for those vacations to the beach, don’t fill every hour with extreme sports and touristy excursions.

Let your children experience something that may be one of the most important life skills you can offer them: give them some space and let them figure out how to fill the time.

And if that degenerates into Wrestlemania XXIX, time out in their rooms accomplishes the same thing.

Happy summer and y’all be safe.

How are you spending your summer? How did you spend your summer breaks from school as a child? Leave a comment below and share your plans or your strategies to balance engagement and relaxation.

Just a swingin’

Childhood obesity. Video games. Television. Air quality. Bugs. Weather.

There are lots of circumstances that conspire against children playing outdoors these days, so much so that getting kids outside is one of the biggest challenges of parenting in the New South.

Carlton on the rope swing
Even the little guy can hold his own on the new rope swing.

Long gone are the days when barefoot children hit the screen door after breakfast and wouldn’t return until supper time. Now, you have to pry them off the sofa with a giant spatula, forcibly remove them from in front of a digital screen and lock the doors after them if you want them to spend any time soaking in Vitamin D or getting fresh air.

This spring I unwittingly hit upon a new weapon that has kept my kids outside more than in any previous year: a disc swing.

For eight years we’ve had a small, red disc swing hanging in a dogwood tree. Yes, I know, that’s the not ideal dendrological solution for a rope swing, but the swing is unobtrusive and bears the weight of smaller children just fine.

Harris on the rope swing
Not every ride is death-defying, though Harris may have you believe this.

But now that our oldest is around 100 pounds and there are three of them fighting over one swing, Carla and I decided it was time to either cut the “red swing” down or put up another one.

In reviewing some “before and after” photos of our yard, Carla stumbled across a photo of the back when we first moved in. There, hanging from the big tree in the center of the backyard was a fraying nylon rope, knotted in several places. It brought back memories of Barron, then 2, falling from the rope while my dad pushed him just a week after we moved in. That was the end of that. The rope came down.

But now that our kids are older, the idea once again had merit. So on a recent Saturday afternoon trip to the local home improvement store, we found a rope disc swing kit, bought 50 feet of nylon rope and created the solution to all of our couch potato problems.

The new rope swing hangs about 20 feet beneath a sturdy branch in a large tree I can’t identify in our backyard. The extra length of rope and relatively obstacle free swinging zone – not including the tree itself – makes the new swing a much better ride than the old one.

Perhaps more entertaining than the actual swing itself was watching me try to hang it. At first I attempted the lasso technique. I’m a lousy cowboy, so I reverted to tying the rope to the tailfin of a modified Nerf mini-football. The rope was too heavy and my technique was so poor I finally resorted to tying a string to the tailfin and connecting that to the rope. It worked like a charm, but it took the better part of an hour for me to figure it out.

Naturally, the boys now fight over the new swing, but it does give them an incentive to get outside. They race to see who can be first, and any time the swing is unoccupied, one of our boys is likely to dart outside – with our without shoes – and get some undisturbed swing time in.

We’ve had several backyard occasions this spring in which the disc swing was a huge hit. Harris’ Lego-themed seventh birthday featured an inflatable, a piñata, a sandbox and a Lego table, but it was the rope swing that was the main attraction. Likewise at our recent end-of-the scouting year den meeting.

Barron on the rope swing
This is “Batman Barron’s” preferred way to fly.

What makes this throw-back recreational device such a popular addition to our backyard?

First, it’s simple. It doesn’t require skill or strength or coordination. Kids don’t have to figure out how to use it. They get on, they push off (or they call for Daddy to come push them, more likely) and they go. It requires no batteries, no electricity.

Second, it provides a safe thrill. Sure, if they let go they can get hurt. Barron learned that lesson at age two. But not a lot else in the backyard can give you that giggle-inducing tickle in your stomach.

Third, it helps you attain new heights, literally. Kids love pushing boundaries and competing. Who can jump the farthest, run the fastest, hold their breath the longest? The rope swing gives them one more limit they can push: gravity. Who can swing the highest?

It’s been a great spring weather-wise in Atlanta. Carla and I have enjoyed the view of our backyard from our Adirondack chairs as the kids have laughed and swung and run and played for hours. When the kids are in the yard, it just feels like the way childhood is supposed to be.

What’s your secret to getting your kids to play outside? Perhaps you had a beloved rope swing as a child? Leave us your thoughts in a comment below.

What I love about Mom

In the South – old or new – we love our mothers. It’s the right thing to do, and even in those rare circumstances when it may be difficult, a child’s bond with his or her mother lasts a lifetime.

Mom, Dad and their bundle of joy
Mom and Dad, circa 1970 with their bundle of joy. Because of my mother’s attentiveness, legend has it I was the cleanest baby every born. Bathed and washed three or four times a day.

As I age my relationship is changing with my mom. It is growing and deepening as I face the challenge of parenting three boys, just as she did… does.

So this Mother’s Day I offer a review of what I love about my mom. Maybe you’ll recognize some of these traits in your mother. Maybe they are unique to my mom. In either case, these are worth stating. I don’t tell her often enough.

She is smart. A retired math teacher, Mom was always available to help me figure out the mental puzzle that is higher math. I’m sure she had moments of frustration at my inability to grasp proofs, polynomials, derivatives and the proper application of the Quadratic Formula. But beyond mathematics, she has life intelligence. Wisdom. She is pragmatic and makes good decisions. When I discuss a quandary with her, she always sees angles I haven’t thought of. She is a good problem solver.

She is loving. We’ve never really been a very demonstrative family when it comes to showing affection. Maybe it’s all the boys, but Mom still gives her hugs and makes sure we know she loves us. She shows her support in lots of ways, not the least of which is “liking” every photo, post and blog entry I offer up through social media. It’s her way of posting my artwork on the refrigerator. I know not every New South Essay appeals to her, but she’s always showing her support and letting me know she’s paying attention. I’m sure it’s not easy to find ways to say “I love you” when you’ve got boys who make a joke of everything. She finds ways to make her true feelings known, and that gives me strength and confidence, even at age 41.

She is unselfish. Mom doesn’t have to get her way. In fact, she’s probably more comfortable not getting her way if it means someone else is happy. Now that I’m a parent, I have realized that she probably didn’t want to eat at McDonald’s all those times, and birthday parties at skating rinks and Chuck E. Cheese probably weren’t her favorite destinations. A person of deep faith, Mom lives out her convictions in a way that clearly demonstrates her priorities. She possesses genuine humility and seeks the benefit of others. Before she retired, I have known her to arrive early and stay late after school for weeks on end to help struggling students – even the students who drove her crazy with classroom antics and disrespect for authority. She has gone without so her three boys wouldn’t have to.

Mom with her grandkids
Mom is proud of her grandkids, but it’s raising her three boys that requires the most work.

She is patient. Being a preacher’s wife is about the most difficult role a person can take on in life. Expectations are as demanding as the president of the United States. Hours are long and thankless. Effort is unrewarded. Commitment is unnoticed. Talent is taken for granted. Add being a school teacher and a mother to the list and you have the trifecta of patience. Only in adulthood has she ever expressed frustration to me or given me any indication that she is ever upset. Her smile has been her defense, her outlet for what I’m sure are complex emotions.

She listens. As I struggle to practice this discipline with my own children (“Umm-hmmm… then what did Sponge Bob do?”) I have grown in appreciation of my mother’s keen listening ability. She lets me vent without offering comment, share my important moments and small victories and offer analysis on situations that are none of my business. Her listening validates me. When I have needed correction, she hasn’t failed to do so with compassion and gentleness. Her listening helps me verbalize and sort out the circumstances that trouble me. She has unspoken thoughts, and I could stand to learn from her restraint. She is an example of how listening strengthens relationships.

My list could go on and on, but as I forced myself to focus on five, it became clear to me that my mom is a remarkable, multidimensional person. I appreciate her more with every passing year. Next year, the list could be completely different and still just as valid.

Thanks Mom, for being who you are. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day!

What do you love about your mom? See how your list matches up with mine by sharing your thoughts in a comment below.

Fifteen years and counting

Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the day Carla Lynn Barron became my wife. Emily Post would tell me to celebrate the occasion with a gift of crystal and an arrangement of roses. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem to fit.

Carla and Lance run through the rose petals after their wedding 15 years ago.
It hasn’t always rained rose petals, but it’s been a great 15-year run.

Rather than blindly opting for tradition – a very “Old South” thing to do – I am customizing things a bit, planning a celebration that matches our mood and needs of the moment.

Early on in our marriage, we established the tradition of switching off the responsibility for planning our anniversary. We thought it was silly for one spouse to have to come up with a way to recognize our anniversary every year when both of us entered into the relationship and both of us exert energy to keep it going.

So we alternate: I plan odd years, Carla handles the evens. That means I got the first year, and then I get all the fives, which will someday include our 25th. Carla got 10 and will have all the 10-year increments after that. It’s a good system that works for us.

Another anniversary tradition we started early on was an anniversary journal. Carla gave it to me as a gift on our third anniversary, and it became the way we express our feelings about the previous year. You can tell when times were tough at a glance: the dates of our entries fall weeks even months after our actual anniversary date. But those have been few and far between. The journal has been a much anticipated part of our annual commemoration and saves on buying those cheesy, over-sexed anniversary cards that never really say what you are feeling.

As I made the anniversary plan this year, I surmised that Carla needed the all-important words of affirmation found in the journal entry and some time without the kids. I have been traveling for work a lot this spring, leaving her to handle the boys all by herself too many nights. So while we acknowledged the actual day yesterday with roses and a journal entry, we’ll really celebrate tomorrow.

SPOILER ALERT! (This is top secret, and Carla doesn’t know! Don’t tell her!) Carla’s day begins with a 90-minute massage appointment. I’ll take the boys to free comic book day at Odin’s, and she’ll have the early afternoon to relax, get dressed and enjoy some quiet time in her own house.

At 2:30 p.m., Rachel arrives to watch the boys, while Carla and I head to the Decatur Garden Tour for several hours of child-less strolling around immaculately landscaped homes, conversation and maybe even some hand holding. We’ll follow that up with an early dinner at Parker’s on Ponce in downtown Decatur, not rushing to get home. With the kids in bed, our nightcap will be a movie streamed from Netflix. Her choice, of course. Probably a romantic comedy.

No great shakes, right? Just a simple plan of spending time together that won’t break the budget.

I don’t feel pressure to jet off to some exotic locale for a weekend getaway just because our anniversary ends in a five. I’m aiming for meaningful interaction, shared experience and a relaxed pace. Enjoyable over splashy.

I think that’s really more descriptive of our relationship. We share our lives in ways that enrich each other rather than thrill each other. That’s not to say I still don’t have a rush of excitement to see her after a business trip, or the occasional date night doesn’t help me remember why we fell in love in the first place. Overall, though, our relationship is more stable than sparky.

Still, I don’t view being married 15 years as an accomplishment. Yes, it’s not always easy being married. It takes effort and, to invoke the cliché, you do have to make the daily choice to love your spouse. But my life is so much better with Carla that I don’t even want to imagine what the last 15 years would have been like had I not had the good sense to marry her on that stormy May afternoon.

We’ve had some tough times, but really, with the benefit of time and perspective, I can honestly say that our marriage is great. We’ve grown closer and stronger through every challenge. I’m sure there will be days in the future that test us, but at the 15-year point, our marriage is hitting its stride.

Thank you, Carla, for sharing life with me. I don’t mind folks knowing that I need you. So until next year’s entry in the journal, happy anniversary. I love you.

If you survived the total mushiness of this entry and would like to share your anniversary traditions, leave a comment below. Or if you have a tip that has enhanced your marriage, share it so we can all benefit.