The favorite part of my day

With so much noise in our lives in the New South, I often fail to listen to my children.

Now that school has started again, I have a daily opportunity to engage with my boys on a meaningful level each night at the dinner table.

It’s the favorite part of my day.

Boys with their dog on the first day of school
Our customary first day of school photo, minus Carlton who was at his grandparents. Oh, and Tobey is making his debut in the annual photo.

This week we sent our two older boys back to school. Our youngest must wait until the more reasonable start of the day after Labor Day. Back to school brings many challenges – social anxiety, homework, time management – but it also ushers in the return of the “How was your day?” conversation.

I ask this question at the dinner table every night, but during the summer I am more likely to get shrugs, “I don’t knows” or a recounting of a convoluted plot line from “Adventure Time.”

What I discovered this week as the boys headed back to their respective schools with loaded backpacks in tow, is that I actually look forward to this part of the day most of all. Yes, in the beginning, there is a lot of excitement and talking over each other and general rambunctiousness. But we are already settling into a routine.

By simply asking “What happened at school today?” I get a window into their world. I hear names of friends and classmates I don’t know. I learn about their reactions to teachers’ instructions or correction. I am asked for input on how to handle difficult situations with peers. The picture of who they are becoming comes into a little bit clearer focus.

Take Harris, my middle son, for example. He’s been eager to tell me how he’s setting up his first writing assignment. He likes to write in his journal, and the fact that he is excited about expressing his thoughts makes me happy. He spent the last two weeks of summer vacation talking about starting a blog.

Barron seems to be hung up on the quality of food served in the middle school cafeteria. Each night we’ve been getting a food critic’s view of the menu, presentation and service of that day’s lunchroom experience. He seems to think it was better in elementary school. He’s already becoming a grumpy old man! “Back when I was in elementary school, they gave us a full plate, and the fruit was fresh and ripe and you had enough time to eat!”

At Carlton’s pre-school, they put the children in a circle at the end of each day and sing a song: “Carlton, Carlton, what would you say? What was your favorite part of the day?” He brought that tradition home, and often we’ll go around the table and sing that question to each family member in turn. The dog can’t bear the singing, but it’s music to my ears.

I know it’s just the first week and harder days are coming. There will be procrastinated projects, math tests, over-commitments from extra-curricular activities, band auditions and hours of reading and journaling, but that’s OK. To me, these are opportunities to enter my children’s world and be a resource to them and help them learn.

My mother and I formed strong bonds over math homework the ill-fated year I took honors Algebra II and honors Geometry at the same time. She was my nightly tutor, and she hung in there with me despite my frustrations and protestations. And in those rare “aha” moments, we were able to share a sense of accomplishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I love summer. It’s great to see your kids invent ways to fill their time and get much-needed rest. I enjoy taking time off from my work to be with them and go places and do things the school schedule won’t allow. But it is in the daily experience of life that I derive the most meaning. These ordinary times are when my relationships with my children are deepened.

So welcome back to school. If you or your kids haven’t started back they soon will. I hope you are able to greet that day with open arms and enjoy the dinner table conversation that night with an open heart.

What kinds of stories or information do you get from your kids after a day of school? Do you welcome “back to school” or dread it? When do you feel that you bond most with your children? Take a moment to reflect and share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below.

My semi-annual appraisal

There are two times a year I evaluate the direction of my life: New Year’s and my birthday.

New Year’s resolutions are somewhat cliché, but the start of a new calendar year is a natural time to take stock of your life, look at your goals and determine course corrections. My birthday falls nearly eight months later on July 30. That’s plenty of time to see how things are working.

This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I'm another year older and it's time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe at third thing: They think I'm great.
This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I’m another year older and it’s time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe a third thing: They think I’m great.

This week, as I turn 43 and look at my life, there are four words that stand out: writing, running, family and rest. Let’s take them in order:

Writing

Friends and regular readers of New South Essays know this has been a year of transition for me. Taking a new job and moving things around in my schedule to accommodate a new commute has caused me to tinker with things a little. It cost me a few weeks of inconsistent posting back in the spring before I finally determined that I needed to dedicate two mornings a week to New South Essays.

It was impossible to do anything of quality by getting up on Saturday morning, opening up a vein and bleeding into WordPress. I now take Wednesday mornings to work up the first draft of the week’s post, allowing time for my editor, Carla, to take a whack at it. I have three days to get my photo or art arranged and Saturday morning to edit, rewrite, post and share.

This seems to be working well. I am maintaining my creative outlet and fulfilling my compulsion to write while traffic to New South Essays has never been higher. Thanks for your response and your continued reading.

What I’d like to figure out now is how to get back to the re-write on my novel, which has been lying dormant for more than a year now. That goal may just have to wait.

Running

I had the delusional goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon when I turned 40 three years ago. Somehow I thought I could get 10 years older AND 13 minutes faster. It didn’t happen. I finished the Running for the Bay Marathon in Apalachicola, Fla., in October 2010 in 4:04, well off the qualifying pace.

After evaluating what went wrong, I decided I needed to train harder. I registered for the Nashville Marathon in April of 2011 and began a more rigorous training regimen. The result? A bad case of plantar fasciitis which caused me to miss the race. I now have a $100 T-shirt to show for it.

I’m back to running three days a week, working out with weights two and resting two. I’m no closer to Boston, but I’m also not injured. Sometimes, you just have to set your goals a little lower. I may make another attempt at a marathon in the future, but I’m letting go of that dream for now.

Family

Perhaps the most important life lesson I’ve learned in recent years is that being in my family’s presence doesn’t necessarily mean I’m with them. I was naïve to think my children didn’t notice when my mind was elsewhere. I used to believe that as long as I was physically involved in our family activity my frame of mind didn’t matter.

I was wrong. In order for me to be the husband and father my family needs me to be, I have to lay aside the unfinished work of the day, build time into my schedule for just hanging out and engage in each outing with gusto. Only then can I strengthen the bonds with my wife and children and create lasting memories.

And that’s just the people who live in my house. I still have a need to stay connected with my parents in Florida and my brothers in Alabama and Texas. These are challenges I never dreamed would be so difficult when we all lived under the same roof.

My goal is depth. I don’t want to just go through the motions. I want to connect with members of my family in deep and meaningful ways. Life is too short for pleasantries or issue avoidance.

Rest

Simply put, I need more sleep. This is the steady refrain I hear from Carla on a weekly basis. I aim for 7 hours a night, but generally get somewhere around six or less, even on the weekends. I used to brag about this schedule, laughing it off when people said I was crazy.

I’m beginning to think people are right.

If I nod off in an afternoon meeting at work, it undermines my effectiveness. If I get behind the wheel of my car on my afternoon commute feeling drowsy, I could end up on the sky copter traffic report. Caffeine can only take me so far. I need to find a way to get more sleep.

But the early morning is when I do the things I enjoy: running, writing, praying. I am fed by these activities. This is one of my constant and biggest challenges. Plus, guess when I do all the work for my volunteer commitments? That’s right, before sunrise.

Going forward I’m altering my schedule. We’ll see how I do putting a priority on sleep.

Despite these challenges, I conclude this summer evaluation with a sense of optimism. My life isn’t quite up to par in all areas, but it is good. The love and affection showered on me on my birthday was heart-warming. It reminded me that I am richly blessed with all the good gifts of life that matter.

I can’t help but try to make things just a little better. We’ll see how I’m doing come New Year’s.

When do you evaluate your life? Do you follow a structure or do you think about life when prompted by your circumstances? Maybe you take stock once a week or once a month. What are the words that come to mind when you evaluate your current state? Share how, when and what your measure yourself by in a comment below. In fact, make it a goal to make more comments on New South Essays!

A case for camp

Children need summer camp. Whether it is secular or religious, one week or several, day camp or residential, children need to participate in camp.

I have no credentials to make this assertion. I am not a noted child psychologist or a Ph.D. in childhood development. I’m just a parent who has been to camp with kids. I’ve seen the advantages with my own eyes.

Kids play a parachute game
Where else but camp can kids have fun with parachutes (and not jump out of an airplane)? Photo by Rebecca Orton (http://rebeccaortonphotography.com/)

My particular preference is an overnight camp away from home, and my experience is mostly with church camp, although I have volunteered at Cub Scout day camp. For the past four years I have chaperoned the third through sixth graders from my church at PassportKIDS camp at the Clyde M. York 4-H Center in Crossville, Tenn.

Fresh off this year’s experience, here are five reasons why kids should attend summer camp, especially kids in the New South:

1. Unplugging. In this case, I mean literally. Parents have a sense that their children spend too much time in front of screens: television, computer, tablet, personal device, game system, etc. Unless it’s computer camp, kids have the opportunity to look up and see the world around them. They interact with each other, for good or bad, and learn how to relate to each other, solve problems and deal with the challenges of human relationships. They pay attention to their surroundings and notice details of the natural world that may have escaped them. They are more teachable and alert to possibilities and their potential for growth.

2. Moving. There is no better cure for summer coach potato syndrome than a good dose of camp. Kids are constantly in motion at camp, running, playing, competing, and even getting from place to place across the facility. Most of the recreational activities at PassportKIDS are creative games that don’t require athleticism. All kids need to do is commit to the activity and get in the game. Fun, not proficiency, is the goal. Sweating may produce a stinky suitcase and a cabin that could use generous quantities of Febreze, but that’s a small price to pay in exchange for burning calories and getting some exercise.

3. Cheering. Kids have nine months to use their indoor voices. At camp, they can let it all out, usually at the encouragement of hyped-up, over-zealous college students who seem to be fueled by Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor. It usually takes kids a little while to join in, but by the end of camp, the yelling and chanting and cheering have drawn out even the most extreme introverts. By selling out and rooting for each other and themselves, the kids tap into a source of self-confidence and selflessness that can cure narcissism, cynicism and several other “isms” that you don’t want your kids to have.

4. Listening. It’s nearly universal: kids at camp pay attention. When I am at home and have to get my kids to the dinner table, I have to repeat my instructions at least three times. When kids are at camp, they are more focused on what is being communicated. They hear you when you talk to them. They learn. They internalize truths so much more readily than when they are distracted by the noise and toys of home. If you don’t believe me, try being a chaperone one time. It will suddenly make you feel like the best parent ever. Kids listen at camp.

5. Being independent. This is the one point that my chaperoning may have impeded my children’s growth. When kids are at camp by themselves, they learn to get around, follow a schedule, keep up with their stuff, and generally take responsibility for themselves and each other in ways they can never do while a parent is hovering. I noticed this year at camp, rather than pick a bunk above mine or even near it, Barron picked the one at the opposite end of the room. He’s also had two summers of being at Boy Scout Camp on his own, and he’s found that he likes it. Children need to learn to make decisions for themselves, and as a parent, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing or knowing your child has made a good choice on his or her own. At camp when you’re not around, they have to make their own choices. Sure, they may come home with a fewer socks or towels, but that’s part of the learning experience, too. The next year, they’ll be more likely to keep up with their stuff.

Camp may be over for this year, but I’ve already marked my calendar for next summer. I can’t wait to go with the kids from Parkway again and see the next generation experience the wonders of camp.

What did you learn from camp? What are your fondest memories of camp? Did you have a positive or a negative experience? What do you think your kids get from their camp experiences?  Leave a comment below or you can’t ride in my little red wagon…. Oompa, ooompa, oooompapa.

A Father’s Wish

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to spend four uninterrupted hours in the car with my oldest son. There were certain topics I had decided ahead of time that I wanted to discuss with him to take advantage of this gift of time alone.

We had no trouble talking about how he spent his week with my parents or the attractions he enjoyed at Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure with my brother and my niece. It was easy to discuss his opportunities to eat out, the menus and the humorous moments with his Paw Paw and Granny. I got a detailed run down on the movies they watched and new television shows he wanted to add to his repertoire.

But when there was a lull in the conversation, before I had a chance to introduce a more serious subject, the iPad would come out, the headphones would go on and Barron would immerse himself in his music.

I get to celebrate Father's Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn't staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot.
I get to celebrate Father’s Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn’t staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot. Photo by Maureen Atwood Photography.

I don’t believe for a second that he was being defensive. I don’t think he was avoiding anything. He had no idea I had an agenda. He was doing what he always does, what comes naturally.

I’m a talkative guy. I typically don’t have a problem striking up a conversation, meaningful or trivial, with anyone. Over the years, I’ve even grown in my ability to talk about painful subjects with my own father and mother, a feat many adults never achieve.

Somehow, though, on this day, I couldn’t bring myself to do what I always do, what comes naturally for me.

Our conversation for the remaining three hours of the trip was intermittent. When Barron thought of something to tell me, he would pause his Hans Zimmer or Alan Silvestri or John Williams long enough to express it. When the conversation lagged and before I could bring up my list of talking points, he went back under the headphones.

With about 45 minutes left in our trip, I calculated we had enough time to cover at least one or two topics. Discussions with pre-teens don’t typically last as long as you plan.

I became nervous. I consciously tried not to convey anxiety as I casually transitioned the conversation during one of his headphone breaks. The car can be a safe place to have these kinds of talks because you don’t have to make eye contact, but the risk is that your child feels cornered with no escape.

Naturally he reached for the headphones. I told him he didn’t have to go back to his music just yet. So for about 20 minutes we had a good conversation on a meaningful topic before returning to lighter fare.

That’s it. Twenty minutes out of four hours. Somehow, I couldn’t carry on an in-depth conversation with my 12-year-old son for more than 20 minutes.

The trip ended with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Happy at our progress, I had to fight back the feeling that I failed to achieve my objective.

Why couldn’t I talk to my own son?

I suddenly had a small window into the world of my own father. How many times had Dad tried to discuss important subjects with me, only to have me unwittingly or even wittingly undermine it with trivial conversations about sports or entertainment?

This Father’s Day, I may get all manner of practical, thoughtful and lovingly-presented gifts from my wife and three sons, but all I really want is to have meaningful conversations with each of them. It doesn’t have to be on Father’s Day. In fact, it would be nice to spread them throughout the year.

I will continue to look for ways to have these conversations. They are truly gifts that I treasure, and someday my boys will think back on them and realize the truth that I now grasp: being a father means taking risks and sometimes feeling like a failure. But there is no more rewarding way I could spend my life.

So there, Amazon, put that on your “Ideas for Father’s Day Gifts” direct e-mail marketing campaign.

Can you remember having important conversations with your children or your parents? How did it happen? Were they good memories or do they dredge up repressed emotions? What advice would you give on how to have meaningful dialogue with your kids? Take a minute to leave your thoughts in a comment below, and we’ll all benefit from your wisdom.

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.

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.