Tag Archives: OregonTrail

Living Large by Living SMALL

I’m sometimes convinced my purse is cursed. It swallows the things I want to find (it has happened on more than one occasion that I’ve had to empty out the entire contents in order to lay hands on the cell phone that has eluded me through three thorough rummaging-searches) and mysteriously fills with things I don’t need to find.

purse kitchen sink

everything AND the kitchen sink–a bursting purse

Seriously. Why did I end up toting Pizza Hut packets of parmesan, plastic Communion cup,  cinnamon-scented pinecone, tire pressure gauge, metallic Sharpie markers, a pair of chopsticks, completed crosswords, a fishing fly in a prescription bottle… Okay, not all of these things at one time, but those are actual examples of things my purse regurgitates when I only want my phone!  The lesson here is that if I have space, I WILL fill it—whether that space be in a purse or in a home.

If I live in a house, the STUFF I own will inevitably expand to fit the space. (I’m certain this happens without any help from me— surely I’ve played no part in accumulating said stuff, ahem…) If I have an attic or shed or garage or storage space, that stuff-expansion will continue till all the corners are filled in. Picture a marshmallow swelling in the microwave–that’s the sort of bloat we’re talking about.

movingI’ve moved eight times in the last eight years, each time with enough boxes to build a fortress. Each time packing, hauling, and unpacking all that Stuff. I would intend to sort and dispose, but I’d cave to the “Keep-its,” afraid to get rid of things I might want or “need,” hesitant to let go of sentimental items or gifts… Every time I packed more stuff than the previous time, instead of less.

The stuff I owned was owning me right back.

I suppose I could take comfort in the fact that this is a thoroughly American dilemma; it shouldn’t shock anyone to hear that Americans invented the self storage facility, an industry that Slate magazine called “a surprisingly fertile cultural indicator.”

What’s the most ubiquitous business in America? I would have answered Starbucks, but the New York Times reported this country supports seven times as many storage facilities as Starbucks stores, with customers’ “third-most-popular use” admitted to be “storing items that they ‘no longer need or want.'”

from a LetGo.com ad

skydiving with sewing machine: a LetGo.com ad

The humorous ads for LetGo.com might be puzzling to people in other countries (the continent of Europe apparently has about 1 storage facility for every 25 in the U.S.) but we here in America understand the underlying truth that makes them funny: people here DON’T let go of their stuff…

I may not have been paying out extra monthly money to keep the stuff I didn’t want to keep, but I was still dutifully packing and moving all of it at least once a year.

fifth wheel RV camp

Home! 350 square feet…

This February I married Jon and we moved into a fifth wheel RV. It’s good-sized for an RV, 40 feet long with a toy-hauler “garage” section for the motorcycle and some storage. Still, we’re talking something like 250 square feet of living space and another 100 for the garage. Big for an RV, yes, but tiny-house-small compared to most American dwellings.

I was watching a marathon of “Tiny-House Hunters” the other day in the RV park-office where I work (or where I work in busier months, anyway—this time of year it may not qualify as “working”)… I’m amused by the whole “tiny house” fad, and even more amused by the fact that the people who enjoy this show are some of the same who seemed aghast that we would consider moving into an RV.  The home-buyers in these episodes riff on common themes: simplicity, sustainability, mobility & flexibility, financial freedom, minimalism…

packingSo I picked up a word that’s new to me: Minimalist. It’s fairly self-explanatory, but I hadn’t heard it (or hadn’t heard it capitalized) until an episode in which a buyer repeatedly used the word to reassure himself about tiny-house squeezes. When his pragmatic sister challenged him with almost any question (“Where will you put furniture?“) he would automatically respond, “That’s okay; I’m a Minimalist.”

Another episode’s couple reported that they had taken the “Minimalist Challenge” before deciding on tiny-house living. The 30-day Challenge calls for disposal of one possession on the first day, two on the second,  and so on until the player/experimenter/prospective-Minimalist has either jettisoned 465 items or decided that Minimalism doesn’t suit.

Apparently I qualify as a Minimalist. I spent most of January sorting and winnowing, taking daily carloads to Goodwill and watching with satisfaction as my furniture walked out the door, piece by piece, on the shoulders of Craigslist buyers. By the time my mother arrived in town for the wedding, my three-bedroom apartment was echoing and empty, save for a small stack of boxes and luggage in the living room. “You must have some serious storage,” she commented. I didn’t correct her assumption at the time, but in truth, everything I own is now in this fifth wheel.

RV living room fifth wheel

still roomier than a sailboat…

Also truthfully, to a person who has long dreamed of living aboard a sailboat, this roomy rec-vehicle didn’t seem squeezed or unfeasible at all. Like a sailboat, it makes the most use of every space, tucking storage areas under the bed and in lofts by the ceiling… Like a sailboat, cabinets are built to keep objects from achieving flight when the home is in motion. Like a sailboat, the shower sports a hatch skylight and the toilet sports a flush-pedal and the tanks have to be monitored and maintained… It’s all familiar enough to be comforting, even exciting.

And for a Gypsyish soul like myself, the wheels beneath have as much appeal as the compact home itself. I have sat in the park office and watched my house roll by, knowing that HOME will be somewhere other than where I left it. And guess what? I didn’t have to pack a single box! (I will admit, though, that it felt odd to affix a license plate to my house!)

Gypsy-mobility is its own topic, about which I could write volumes (and probably will), but for now let me just say that my life is open for Experiences. When my counselor asked me recently what I want out of Life, “Experience” was the word that flew out of my mouth.

sailing skipper

greatest riches are in my mind… Skippering a sailboat, 2008

“Living Large” is not my aspiration; my greatest riches are in my mind. The things that fill pages in the box of journals stored in the RV’s extra bunk, or the pages of this blog. These are riches no one can strip from me—they won’t go into foreclosure or get repossessed or have a tax lien put on them. I may be an “anti-packrat,” but I do collect one thing: Memories. And fortunately, memories don’t require storage space—not even in the form of mementos or souvenirs.

The idea of minimalist living seems to appeal to many people on the surface—just look at the popularity of magazines like “Real Simple,” which hawks facsimiles of Streamlining & Simplicity with exorbitant price tags! …but minimalism does require some Letting Go. Actually, a lot of it.

vase of flowers

“small space” DOESN’T have to mean “cluttered”…

I had a conversation in the park office the other day with another full-time RV-er whose possessions are piled up in storage units, and who expressed curiosity about how I had managed to minimize my own Stuff enough to eliminate the need for storage. Like most Momentous Things, it’s deceptively simple.

Um, I got rid of the Stuff.

I suppose a person (if she does want to minimize) has to consider the various reasons why she has been keeping the Stuff she has. Does she use it or wear it regularly? Is it Important to her for some reason or another? Does she feel “guilted” into hanging on to it? Does she love it?

Things in the “use-it-regularly” category I kept. You might be surprised what a small pile that is, compared to the sum total of the Stuff you own!

storage boxes

TWO sentimental-storage boxes… (AND some unused space)

“Important” things—well, that can be subjective. I kept the little fire-proof safe with birth certificates, passports, and the like. I kept a large-ish box containing four decades’ worth of journals. I kept a smallish box of mementos: a handful of my kids’ baby-things, my own baby-blanket, some other items I feel strongly about… But honestly, the majority of things I’d been saving for “sentimental” reasons could fulfill their purpose in a photograph as well as in person. I took pictures, and I let things go.

fifth wheel autumn

the view out my window: my Best Friend’s home…

Things I would have felt guilty about getting rid of, I offered to the other people who might feel strongly about them. I gave things to my children, who live elsewhere; I took family-furniture to my parents; I handed family genealogy records to my sister-the-historian. And some things I really didn’t need. The current FaceBook comments from high school classmates mean more to me than what they wrote in my yearbooks a quarter-century ago. I dismantled bulky photo albums and simply kept the pictures.

Living a mere mile from the Oregon Trail, I feel a strong affinity for its travelers of long ago: people who embarked on a new life with everything they owned stowed in a very small, mobile space. The trail is ahead of me—we’ll see where it leads.

imagehome is where we park itI’m packed, and I have more than I need. At the end of the day, as the country song goes, “Ain’t never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch!”

(If you haven’t heard the song, I recommend spending the three minutes—just click below.)  :)



Hill-Climbing, Hummingbirds, and Handguns

This evening, a particular piece of kid-art caught my eye. We have their notes and drawings tacked up all over the place—on the walls, on the fridge—but when something is always there you sometimes stop seeing it.

Elena Grace’s drawing of the family at the lake, one year ago

That’s the case with this piece , carefully dated 8-2-11 (almost exactly a year ago) with sticker-letters spelling out the message: “Mom, I wish I could see you more often. Love, Elena Grace.” It’s accompanied by her drawing of all of us at the lake, and her note reminded me with a jolt that just a year ago (due to our 2010 alcoholic relapse) we were only seeing the kids for a day here and there, not even overnights.

my scariest subscriber!

What a long way we’ve come (thank you, God!) that we have them for a week at a time this summer, and on the Fridays when their dad picks them up, we know we’ll have them back the next Friday. Christian’s parting words on his way out the door to his dad’s truck this afternoon were: “I’ll call you. Post something!” Scary as it may sound, my eleven-year-old now subscribes to my blog, and has even read through all the archives. Well, you can bet he’ll keep me pretty honest. (By the age of three, the signature phrase of Mr. Fact-and-Detail was: “Actually, Mom…”)

An aside to my child: Remember, Buddy, that Mom wears a t-shirt that says “I make shit up,” and that first and foremost I’m a storyteller. Cut me a storyteller’s slack, yeah? Love you!

Silver City, Idaho: the “ghost town” that’s still kickin’

This week we used our time with the kiddos not only for chicken-house-building, but also for a camping foray into the Owyhee mountains to the old mining town of Silver City. I wrote about Silver City last summer for an Idaho travel magazine (“reprint” of the article here), and on that visit Keoni & I stayed in the Idaho Hotel, which has been in operation for one hundred fifty years… I know that sounds like a new building to my friends in Europe, but here in the American West that’s about as old as it gets.

As we pulled into town this week, the hotel owner, Roger, was out front of the hotel putting steaks on the grill. Keoni pulled the van up beside him and rolled down the window. “I don’t know if you remember us–we stayed here last summer…” Whether truthfully or politely, Roger said he did, and Keoni went on to add, “My wife wrote the article for Western Byways.” Whether or not he remembered us, he remembered the article—and evidently with pleasure. (I wonder, in retrospect, if it’s a bit unnerving to be told there’s an article being published about your place, and not to have an idea which of your recent guests might have been the snoop writer…)

one of the drug store counters… Roger bought it, contents-and-all, and is working to restore it

We reiterated how much we’d enjoyed our stay last year (as if he hadn’t gathered as much from the article), told him we’d brought the kids up to camp (he peered into the back of the van and waved his barbecue tongs at them in cheerful greeting), and asked if there might be a possibility that he would unlock the drug store (which he also owns) at some point so the kids could have a look. He agreeably set a time for the next morning, and we headed on up the road.

Keoni had some “help” (and a duel?) with the tent…

We had intended to bypass the established campground just out of town and stake out a spot upstream, but the campground turned out to be entirely deserted, so we decided after all to claim a creekside spot there. Elena Grace gave Keoni a hand with the tent, and both kids disappeared up the banks of the creek.

disappearing across the creek…

I have to pause here and note that I’ve never in my adult life gone camping without being the person who packed for the trip. This was actually the first time Keoni and I have had the chance to camp together (thanks to the loan, from my parents, of two tents—including the awesome orange one that predates ME), and while I was frantically trying to finish up my writing Tuesday, he packed up the van for our adventure. It was a strange sensation for me to get into the vehicle without a single idea of what had been packed. He’s organized, OCD, and super-thorough (far more so than I would have been, in all truth), so I had no reason to worry. It was just an odd sensation. Yet another reminder that I’m with a man now who takes care of things.

Our Fire Guy at work with the flint & steel

And take care of things he did—the camp popped up around me in no time, and by the time the kids returned from their foray up the opposite mountainside, he had sausages on the grill and a fire ready for Christian’s flint-and-steel.

It’s one of the inescapable facts of camping—at least around here—that ninety-degree days flip in a flash into near-freezing nights. Not long after the sun disappeared behind the mountains, I was hurriedly trading my sweat-soaked t-shirt and shorts for jeans and layers of sweatshirts. (And yes, the kids both piped up that they were glad their dad let them take their warm sleeping bags.)

marshmallows & a fire—indispensable to camping

The marshmallows came out, of course, quickly followed by a perfectly full moon, rising from behind the mountainside the kids had so recently conquered. After several s’mores, Elena Grace climbed stickily into my lap and leaned back against me, gazing at the moon. “It’s just been shopping, you know,” she told me, matter-of factly.

Oh? Does the Moon have shopping bags?

“Mm-hmm.” She gazed some more. “It likes taking baths. And it always washes its hands after it goes to the bathroom.  It likes people… and fish. Golden fish!”

I think I may have a Writer here. I’ll have to ask her what the Moon shops for…

morning in the Camp… Including Mom (with coffee!) when she finally emerged

Keoni and the kids were up early, and I emerged from the tent for a few cold minutes before I conceded that my writing-until-five-the-previous-morning had caught up with me. Gravity definitely felt like my enemy—smell of bacon and coffee notwithstanding—I needed some more sleep. On my second attempt at emerging, the air had warmed, the coffee was still waiting, and Keoni was cleaning up what turned out to be the worst “disaster” of our trip—the aerosol whipped cream (for pancakes & cocoa) had deployed inside the cooler. When that’s the worst mishap of a camping trip, you know that someone has packed well!

We headed back into town, where we met up with Roger and his strongly-wagging tail, which is incidentally attached to his dog Kodiak… He and a friend were doing some work on the drug store this week (I believe he intends to open it for regular public viewing once the restoration-work is farther along) and he ushered us in to have our look around. When he bought the drug store, some of its contents had been untouched for decades. There’s a cabinet of unopened medicines, the newest of which is from 1903… A full dentist’s office with all the tools where they were left… Typewriter and shipping boxes, embossed order-forms (dated 1914) for opium, lamps and bottles and all manner of things. It’s purely fascinating, truly.

the fascinating Silver City drug store… And Kodiak, our tail-wagging “tour guide”

I think what’s so fascinating to me about Silver City is that there’s so much history still there—and the few folks who still live there (though only a couple of them year-round, as it’s snowed in through most of the winter) are maintaining and restoring and keeping the history alive.

trying our hand at gold-panning…

As Roger said to us, you can tell a Local in Silver City because they’ll go around with their noses to the ground after a rain, to see what artifacts might have washed to the surface. And indeed, when Keoni was digging around in the creek-bank by our campsite, seeking worms for Christian’s fishing, he uncovered rusted square-headed nails and even a rusted padlock embedded in the banks. The campground itself is situated where China-town stood, Roger told us, and it’s apparently quite common to find Chinese coins and opium bottles after a rain.

I confess to being a little bummed by the realization that I had a less-than-avid audience for the history-stuff in my kiddos. My own frame of reference is a childhood spent with a sister who was a History-Major-in-the-making by the age of six, and the two of us would easily have spent a full afternoon just in the cemetery, not to mention the rest of the town… But on the other hand, these two will happily entertain themselves for a couple hours with just a stream for entertainment, so I really can’t complain.

Christian reading in the tent. (Lessons learned: he needs more than 3 books for a 2-day camp-out, and she now knows that eBooks can’t get recharged…)

I almost did—complain, that is—when Elena Grace was throwing a temper-tantrum about her flip-flops being “wet and sandy” (of all things!) when she was trying to play in the stream… “I hate this place! I am NOT joking!” she shrieked, throwing one of her sandals on the ground. Can this seriously be MY kid, I was wondering… Until she finished her fit with this lament: “If I could just be barefoot!”  Oh Lordy, she is REALLY my kid!

Sorry, sweetie—I misunderstood the nature of the problem. By all means, be barefoot. (She was, for most of the rest of the trip. And I’m remembering a week-long canoe trip around Lake Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho in my teens—a week in which I didn’t once don any form of footwear…) Okay—so we need to work on the tantrum-part, but yeah. She’s mine.

Our Camp Cook!

After some down-time back at camp (despite the sleep-in, Mom needed another nap on a blanket in the shade), we poked our heads into the hotel again and asked Roger if he might have some horseshoes we could borrow—he did—and we walked down to the horseshoe pits in the town’s Memorial Park. Christian’s unique (but effective) style of horseshoes looks something like bowling, but his bouncing-and-rolling tosses land well. Keoni overthrew a couple into the creek beyond, and we ended the evening with new horseshoe-terms. In addition to “leaner” and “ringer” (Christian ended with TWO ringers on his last toss!), we now have “slider” and “creeker” (meaning one that lands in the creek)…

Back at “our” creekside, we had tied a couple of Elena Grace’s bright-pink socks to one of the tent-lines so we wouldn’t run into it—and we had the pleasure of a visit, during dinner, of a pair of hummingbirds determined to find food in them. Heaven help them if they manage to get sock-juice from those, was the general consensus around the campfire…

It has been a week of “firsts”… Our first opportunity to camp together, the kids’ first foray to Silver City… And the last “first” for the week: my first go with a loaded weapon. On our way down the mountain, we stopped at a spot Roger had recommended for target-shooting, and set up targets against a steep hillside.  I confess I wasn’t prepared for the KICK of a 40-caliber handgun, but by my fourth clip I was taking out my targets consistently. And having fun. Look out, World!

Flash… and KICK! Aim… and ENJOY!

The Controversy of Kid-Calendars

The other day a blogging-friend (Judy, over at Connecting Dots…to God) posed a question which is plaguing a whole generation of parents. The dilemma? Kid-calendars!

Many kids today have such busy schedules that a person might be forgiven for mistaking a glimpse of their calendars for schedules of heads of state. Even parents who remember their own happy and well-adjusted childhoods full of play have begun to worry that they’re doing their kids a disservice if they don’t keep up with the frantic pace of the “high-mileage mom” next door.

kids playing with friends

I remember all the spontaneous games-of-imagination we played with our friends and the neighborhood kids… No scheduling required, and no admission cost!

Terms like “hyper-parenting” and “helicopter parenting” are flying around, and emotions and arguments are running hot on both sides of the issue. Some of the statistics on the issue are pretty cut-and-dried, but the interpretation and application of those statistics are anything but. It seems that wherever they stand in their own parenting choices, parents feel “under attack” and defensive–so we get attacks flying both directions.

kids reading

Everyone in our household has a library card… and when we do have a little spending-money, the folks in the second-hand bookstores know us by name!

Some parents don’t have the luxury of choice, because kid-activities are expensive!  Our son’s high school charges $180 up-front for participation in each school sport, and then there’s the required “Spirit Pack” (another $40 for team-logo sweatshirts, socks, shorts, and jerseys), and then there are the mandatory equipment purchases (not only the pricey athletic shoes, but pads, helmets, and uniform pieces), and on top of that there’s required fund-raising to pay for buses and coaches and other team expenses… I’d assumed initially that there might be a waiver or scholarship or some sort of assistance for families who don’t have that kind of money, but nope–if you can’t pay, you don’t play.

family picnics

We keep our favorite picnic blanket (made by my mom) in the trunk of the car, and so what if our “picnic basket” is a paper grocery bag? We’ve enjoyed picnics at the park, the zoo, the train depot, the state capitol, the lake, the roadside on car trips, even our own yard. Why not?

I’m pleased at least that his Varsity coach expects the boys to do their own fund-raising; the J.V. coach last year blithely suggested that the easiest approach is for parents just to write a check for the required per-player fund-raising amount of several hundred dollars. That rubbed me the wrong way on several levels. For one thing, I was grounded in the “ethic” early on that a Girl Scout sold her own cookies–it wasn’t acceptable to send the sign-up sheet to work with your parents. (To this day, I’ll buy a box if a girl approaches me–even if my freezer is already stuffed with Girl Scout cookies–but when I get tackled by a mom outside the grocery store? No way.)  So I objected to the coach’s approach from that standpoint–and also from the viewpoint that we were looking at welching on our power bill just to scrape together the other required funds… (The power company can’t turn off the heat during winter months in a household with children, so we knew we’d have until March to deal with that.)

family board games

We’ve picked up board games at thrift stores and garage sales, and when grandparents ask for family gift-ideas, this is our suggestion–something we can all do together

But I digress–the point I intended to make is that even school-related activities are expensive these days, and the extra soccer, hockey, Little League, music lessons, ballet lessons, karate lessons, club teams, and other structured activities are even more costly.  Especially in a household with multiple children, a family needs to have some solid finances in place even for school sports, let alone cramming a kid’s schedule with “extras.”

public parks

Our local parks offer hiking & biking trails, playgrounds, tennis courts, skateboard ramps, swimming beaches, fishing holes and wide-open spaces for PLAY

I’m sure for some families this is a source of anxiety; watching all the neighbors’ minivans go tearing around town to catch the round-robin of games, matches, recitals, concerts, displays, and competitions, a parent might begin to fret about whether their kids are missing out on necessary experiences due to income level.  There are plenty of other families, though, who could afford all the activities but choose not to. And some of these parents, too, find themselves fretting that they’re being “bad parents” (or even “lazy” parents) because they aren’t devoting their days to driving their kids hither and yon. There’s certainly plenty of pressure on this score, even when it’s only in the form of overheard mom-talk at the kids’ school or daycare…

helping at home, kids' chores

we match the kids’ helping-jobs to their interests… Elena enjoys her role as “kitchen apprentice” and loves washing windows, Christian likes chopping and digging and raking; Kapena likes jobs that involve machinery… And EVERYBODY likes washing the car!

I was a stay-home mom for five years, so the kids didn’t need daycare during those preschool years. I did, however, enroll Christian in the YMCA preschool for a few hours a week to make sure he got some social-time, since no one else in our social circle had kids yet. I was shocked to overhear the mom-conversations going on around the pick-up area when it came time for kindergarten registrations. Boise schools have “open enrollment,” meaning that each child is assigned by default to the school nearest them, but parents can request to have their kids moved to a different school.

All of us there at the Y would be assigned toTaft Elementary by default, but every other mother there had requested a move. Taft happens to be situated near a pocket of refugee-housing, so (although Boise is, overall, a thoroughly “white-bread” community) Taft has a much more diverse student population. Many of the kids are from Africa. Many of them are Black. Many of them are Muslim.  “Have you SEEN the kids who go to that school?” one mother asked another, with a shudder of distaste.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Oh yes–I can just imagine what damage would be done to our kids if they should experience other languages, cultures, or colors!  We’d better protect them from boys named Muhammed and girls in head scarves… (On the contrary–Christian now acts as a designated “buddy” for new arrivals who don’t speak English…)

free events & activities

We keep an eye out for events & experiences that don’t come with an admission cost… Farmer’s Market, Art in the Park, free days at local museums, historical re-enactments, festivals, rodeos, science exhibits, fireworks–and when family members visit, we ask if we can swim at their motel pool. Photos here are from the Basque museum, whaling museum, monster truck rally, Renaissance Fair, art in the park, zoo, & a motel pool.

As it happens, Taft Elementary (despite severe poverty and linguistic challenges experienced by its student population) wins awards every year for its creative and successful approach to educating kids. I had absolutely no reason to fight for a spot on another Kindergarten waiting-list, but that experience brought home to me how seriously parents take their kids’ enrollments and activities–even at the age of five!

That’s the same sort of pressured thinking that goes into activity-scheduling for a lot of families. A lot of parents seem focused on building their kids’ “resumés” even before the kids can spell their own names. Dr. William Doherty, who has written a book on the subject of “over-scheduled” kids, attributes this drive to several factors in American life.


Imaginations are always active around here! Just ask Christian’s invisible dragon… And even our tone-deaf son ENJOYS music, though he can’t PRODUCE it well (but hey, no one is critiquing during a sing-along)…

He cites the increase in working parents (and the corresponding increase in guilty feelings about not  spending enough time or “doing enough” for their kids), a pervasive fear of a child being left out or left behind by other kids accelerating and excelling in their accomplishments, peer pressure from other parents, and an overactive sense of alarm in reaction to the cultural message that being busy is a superior state compared to “idleness.” He had this to say about what he sees as the culture of over-scheduling kids:

“The adult world of hyper-competition and marketplace values has invaded the family.  Parents still love their children and try to do what is best for them, but we’re missing our children in a culture that defines a good parent as an opportunity-provider in a competitive world.  Parenting becomes like product development, with insecure parents never knowing when they’ve done enough and when their children are falling behind.  Keeping our children busy at least means they are in the game.”

goofing around

Goofing Around–an important human activity! ;)

At the same time, there are plenty of “experts” who come down on the other side of the argument as well. With all the conflicting reporting and pressure (real or perceived) from parenting-peers, many parents are anxious about whether they’re providing sufficient opportunities for their kids–and (paradoxically) worried at the same time that they’re over-working their kids.

Studies conducted in the last decade (including reports by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the Council of Economic Advisers to the President, and the YMCA) do show marked changes in practices and habits on the American “family front.” Pundits on both sides of the issue debate the meaning of these statistics, but they don’t dispute the stats themselves:

  • A pronounced decrease in free time for both preschool and school-aged children, and a sharp decline in “unstructured” outdoor activities.
  • A marked decrease in family meal-time, and the number of family dinners per week.
  • A noticeable decrease in the nutritional value of kids’ meals, which may be tied to the corresponding drop in family dinners and the common practice of resorting to fast food and meals-on-the-go.
  • A decided decrease in family vacation time.
  • A clear decrease in religious participation among families with school-aged children.
  • A striking decrease in children’s time with their parents–particularly if you don’t count “parent spectatorship” as time-spent-together.
  • A considerable increase (more than doubled in a decade!) of children’s participation in organized sports.
  • A clear increase in passive spectating, which includes watching siblings’  sports and activities.

The statistics aren’t in dispute, but their interpretations–as well as their cause-and-effect relationships–are still being debated. For example, the decrease in family vacation time may be due to economic factors rather than kids’ schedules. And other factors which I didn’t even list here (like the increase in anti-depressant medications being prescribed to kids) haven’t been definitively linked to over-scheduling, although many people suggest a connection. So when we really come down to it, there’s no cut-and-dried answer to this issue.

backyard play

We made up a “team T-shirt” for our ongoing backyard badminton tournament… sometimes with a celebratory marshmallow roast after the games. And of course we have sprinkler-running, sidewalk art with colored chalk, backyard picnics, ballgames with invented rules…

However…  I remember a solid piece of parenting-advice my mother gave me when I first embarked on the Mommy-gig, fortified with every parenting-book I could get my hands on. When it came right down to it, though, she told me for pete’s sake to “put down the book and pick up the baby!” None of the “experts” can give us a definitive answer about how we should schedule our kids’ time–but if we look to our individual kids, we can start to form some answers.

And the answer won’t be the same for every kid! Some kids thrive on scheduled and structured activity, while other kids (maybe even in the same family) prefer free, unstructured time to play or read or invent their own entertainments.

Our two youngest are in a position to compare and decide precisely what they prefer, due to the very different lifestyles between their dad’s house and ours. At their dad’s house they have scheduled sports and activities every single day of the week, and if they’re not engaged in their own activities, they’re sitting on the sidelines or benches watching each other’s. On weeknights they eat on the go, they don’t get home to start homework until late, and even the eight-year-old doesn’t go to bed until after ten. (She has always liked her sleep, so even she isn’t happy with that arrangement.)

In contrast (as you’ve probably already guessed from my photo line-up of things-for-families-to-do), ours is not a structured-schedule household of crammed-in structured activities. Part of the issue is financial–our income for this year will probably be about fifteen thousand, while their dad’s household income is into six figures.  But even aside from the sign-up fees, we prefer to spend our time with our kids rather than constantly driving-and-spectating for them. And the kids themselves are quite clear about the fact that they prefer it too.  Especially Elena Grace–she would happily drop all of her activities if she were allowed, and the first thing she said to me last Saturday morning (with a blissful grin) was, “I could read ALL DAY if I wanted to!”  Christian does enjoy his soccer (which only runs for eight weeks of the year) and is generally in favor of his karate class, but other activities (like cello lessons–he’s the tone-deaf one) only add stress. (And a heavy item to carry back and forth to school!)

family LOVE

the MAIN family-ingredient!

I was offered my previous summer position at the State Park by our house, but when I put it to a family vote, the decision was unanimous: they’d rather have ME for the summer than have more MONEY in the household.

When we made the family T-shirts for our backyard badminton tournaments, the fronts all said “Vega-Tyler Team,” because the two youngest kids have their dad’s last name. But last week when we were playing pirate and singing the “Pirate’s Life for Me,” Christian unexpectedly (and off-key, of course) substituted:”Yo ho, yo ho, a Tyler Life for Me!” We can’t buy them toys, we can’t take them to Disneyland, and we don’t even have television channels–but they prefer the Tyler way of life.

And for the record, so do WE.  The mom sitting next to Keoni at Christian’s soccer game last week was going on about all the different soccer games she had to get to that day, all at different locations. She wore her complaint like a badge of honor–and if her kids all want to be playing, then it is a sacrifice on her part to put that much mileage on herself… But we’re extremely grateful that’s not our life. We’re happy operating on “Island Time” and seeking our own adventures.