Neighborhood Camps: Our Summer Sandlot

Around April I started to worry about summer.  Three big kids, two babies who aren't very portable and me.  Me facing the music of my parenting choices. 
Summer camps are affordable here FOR ONE KID. But tutition for three would put me in the poor house!  Did I want my three bigs rattling around the house bugging each other and begging me to schedule play dates? When did moms become the captains of kid's social calendars? Go find your own friends, kid. 
I needed a plan. I needed a Sandlot.
Thus Neighborhood Camps were born.
My years of Devil Mountain Summer Camp under the tutelage of Nancy and Colleen gave me all the training I need to organize and entertain big groups of children. Matter of fact, my life more closely resembles DMSC than any college experience.  Life and survival skills currently employed were gleaned from working summer camps and from my other fun job choreographing my mother's plays with Danville Children's Musical Theater.  I'm an expert at playing.
The plan is to have 5 or 6 weeks of organized play for 5-10 year olds during the summer.  Camps are TWTh so that they don't impede weekend travel.  We start at 10am when it's still cool and end at 1. As a mom I do not feel activities for kids are worth it unless I get three hours away from them.  You can actually get stuff done in that amount of time and by stuff I mean a legit nap.  With that schedule and plan I made a Google sign up form and sent it to my friends.
I've hired a nanny to take care of my babies during camps.  She's the adult at home while we are at the school playing.
Our weeks planned are Baseball and Nerf week, Soccer and Bike week, Craft and Lego/Barbie week, Sport Camp with my teacher sister Val whom I'm flying in from LA and street games, and Gymnastic and football week.  Lunch is also included, accomplished co-op style.  I request a $5 per kid per week donation, but I think next year I'm going to structure that by family instead.  Maybe $20 and $5 for each additional kid. That way it's not prohibitive for big families.
I asked local young teens who are good at that sport to come coach and give them the donations to sweeten the deal. 
When the kids get there at 10 they just wander into my back yard. We gather, talk about the rules (don't get hurt, use the downstairs bathroom, let me know where you are) make sure everybody has the gear they need and then head across the street to the school.
At the school the teens lead them in playing the sports.  It's a ton of fun.  It's like the Sandlot. 
At 11:45 I send two kids up to my house and our dear nanny helps them make the lunches with the food that's been provided by the parents in bulk.  Week one was corndog week, this week we're making PB&J with the two big loaves of bread and vats of peanut butter and jelly sent by a parent. Other parents provide fruit and treats.Noon is lunch in my backyard. No plates, no waste. Then we hydrate with water bottles and sprinklers.

After lunch last week I organized a Nerf gun shooting range from my porch.  Kids volunteered to be turkeys. It was pretty hilarious. We also played capture the flag.  
This week we went to the empty school parking lot on our bikes.  Using sidewalk chalk the kids chose a parking stall and designed their home.  Then they chose another stall and made their business. We had a police station, a bakery, a crystal shop (not crystal meth), a mechanic, fire station, etc.  They drew roads and played to their heart's content.
I planned for 10-15 kids, this week we have about 25. The more the merrier! 
I am so grateful to live in a supportive neighborhood with so many kids and great parents so I can do this with my kids.  I live in fear that somebody will get hurt and I will get sued, but we will solve that problem with waivers pretty soon.  We are having a rad time! 


Mom Brain Chatter

I would like to begin this post by thanking Jesus that I have not had any car accidents or walked into any stationary objects. I definitely should not be operating heavy machinery.  Do not be surprised when you happen upon me staring into space and drooling. 

At any given moment my Mom Brain is overloaded with life chatter.  This is not a to do list nor a complaint list (indeed I am grateful that these are my minutiae rather than show stopping problems), it's just a real time list of the thoughts and worries that go through my head in the last ten minutes, all day every day.
Right now, right this second, these are the thoughts bouncing around.  This is my Mom Brain Chatter.

How much is this car repair going to cost?
When was the baby last fed?
Dude, the gun law issue is out of control.
When was the baby baby last fed?
Has Silas had enough hugs and touch today?
Go pick up the Rx.
Return the library books.
Use the bananas tonight or they'll go bad!
Has Mimi been on Instagram?
How are her allergies?
When did Jude last take a shower?
Don't forget to clip that talon toenail on Silas, even if you have to wrestle him to the ground.
Jude needs a haircut.
Tend to Mimi's cut on her foot. Is the super glue still working?
Are the gates closed? Can LouLou escape?
Has Mimi had enough one on one time?
Where are Lou's pink shoes?
Did I change over the laundry before it goes bad?
The lawn needs watering.
Call the irrigation company.
Kitchen counter is sticky, make time to wipe it off.
Silas' speech. Remember to go over his word pronunciation.
The car needs the speaker fixed.
Have I taught my kids about sex trafficking?
Did Mimi pack socks for her trip to CA?
Is she being hard?
What time should Philo be going down to nap?
Remember to put away his laundry.
Plan D's birthday activity, text all the people.
Did you remember to take out the fruit to avoid fruit flies?
Check the student loan bills.
Has easy kid Jude gotten enough attention?
What's on his mind? How is he coping with this chaos?
Mimi needs new running shoes.
What am I making for dinner?
That Jesse Williams speech was amazing.
Do I still have frozen chicken in the freezer?
Oh my gosh Silas' hair.
Do we have enough bread for sandwiches?
Am I on top of Lou's diaper rash?
I think I owe Amelia money. Pay the sitter.
When did Jude last shower?
Schedule the babysitter.
Cancel the doctor's appointment.
Silas doesn't get enough story time. Work on that.
Actually, all the kids need to read more.
The fourth season of Orange is the new black is pushing it. 
Did they watch too much TV last weekend?
I need to sing to Lou more.
Take time to relax and have fun! 
When does school start again?
Holy crap it's going to be 100 today. Take kids swimming.
Need to teach Si to tie his shoes.
Got to get the laundry into the drawers somehow today.
Clean house for inlaws.
Does Philo have a blessing outfit that fits?
Do I need to organize any of that?
Go through the papers on my desk.
It's almost July. Visting teaching for church needs to be planned and done.
Kids haven't seen Dory yet. Plan for that.
How much are the tickets to baseball game and do I need to buy ahead.
Try to make it through all the food before we leave on Saturday.

Ok, is that everything? 

Strangers frequently say to me, "You have your hands full!" Yes, but you should see my brain.
Full brain, full hands, full heart.

But don't worry, I turn off my exhausted brain for ten minutes every day.  I've recently found and adopted mindfulness meditation in order to force my Mom Brain Chatter off for a few minutes a day. Highly recommend the Calm App.  
Gotta go. Finishing car errand.
(Green are days I've meditated. Very proud of my streak.)


Lessons I Never Taught

Once upon a time I had three kids in three years.  Mimi is 17 months older than Jude.  Jude is 16 months older than Silas.  Their birth years are 2007, 2008, 2009.  
It was hard.  It was harder than hard.  It was comically hard for at least 18 months.  
But I figured it out and I am grateful I blogged my way through it so I can refer back to the wisdom I once gained and then blacked out of my mind because it was such a rough time for me.
Now I am reaping the rewards.  I am soaking in the payout for the hours and hours logged.  The three minions and I survived together.  We made it to 6, 7, and 9.  
I didn't plan to have three kids so close in age, but they were meant to be born together as Irish Triplets.  I stress constantly that they aren't getting adequate one-on-one attention.  I worry they won't develop their own personalities being all lumped together.  But the worries are far out shown by the benefits.  

Now that they are in the elementary stage I am enjoying observing the Lessons I Never Taught Them.  While I was busy teaching these kids to do normal kid things like use the toilet and tie their shoes I am discovering that I was also inadvertently teaching them more valuable life skills.  I was scraping by hustling one kid out of the bath before he peed in it while at the same time corralling the other kid away from the dishwasher loaded with knives.  While I was busy keeping them alive, fed, and clothed they were learning amazing things without my intentionally teaching them.
Lesson Learned:  Responsibility
Because they were raised in a pod and my hands were always full my kids learned to work together.  If I couldn't get Silas' pacifier because I was helping Mimi in the bath Jude could handle that need for me.  I didn't have to ask him, he just became sufficiently irritated with the fussing that he figured out a way to make it go away.  The truest test of responsibility is seeing a job that needs to be done and doing it, without being asked.  If I have taught that (by default) then I am making children who will be contributors.  They can see a problem and try to figure out a way to fix it.
Lesson Learned:  Compassion
There are many times when kids do not get the same nor equal things/treats/opportunities.  I learned from one of my sisters to guard these moments because they would teach the kids that life isn't fair.  But that's not what happened.  Instead when Silas got a treat he had already experienced what it feels like to be the one without the treat and he developed empathy.  He wouldn't give away his treat but he would certainly share bits of it.  This applies to play dates, presents, video games, time alone with me, nearly everything.  They know what it feels like to be left out or deprived and they work to prevent that experience for the others.  

Lesson Learned: Patience
This might be my favorite benefit of pod children.  They do not get all of their needs met immediately.  This mitigates entitlement and curbs spoiled children.  If they have to wait a minute to get out of the car it's ok.  If I have to pick up one kid somewhere at the same as another kid that child learns to wait and not panic.  They learn that a bonked head is more important than your ice cream being scooped.  They know their place in the world.

Lesson Learned:  Service
There are so many kids around here.  There is no way I could do everything by myself.  So we serve each other.  The funny thing about service is that you learn to love the people you serve.  Sure they're resentful when they have to clean up the legos that they didn't mess up but it makes them aware of their own impact on their environment.  They give help and they get help.  

Lesson Learned:  Forgiveness
When your entire existence includes two sidekicks you learn how to manage them.  They negotiate with one another, take turns beating the crap out of each other, gang up and restructure their gang to leave the other person out.  They hurt each other's feelings and have to work it out.  This is universal among all siblings but when you're all just about the same age and in the same space you learn to get over offenses almost immediately.  Nobody harbors anger for very long.
Incidentally, I think this is the best lesson I learned from being in a big family myself.  My siblings and I fought all the time and then it would be over ten minutes later.  Now, as an adult, I have extremely high tolerance for conflict and I can interact with people even when they are being difficult.  I am unable to harbor anger.
Lesson Learned:  Friendship
For the first four years of their lives the three big kids slept in the same room.  I would try to move them out but during the night they would migrate back together.  We had enough rooms, they didn't care.  They wanted to be together.  Now they are each other's answer to boredom.  You can't play catch alone and jumping on the trampoline is no fun by yourself.  Thank goodness for siblings.
Photo credits: Jessica Peterson the magnificent

Having kids close together was difficult but the payout has been magnificent.  For every time I had to find and put on three pairs of shoes there is an hour of outside play time together.  I was so sleep deprived that I hardly remember those years.  But here I am with an opportunity to have children close in age all over again and I have chosen to do so, without a second thought.  Lou and Philo are 16 months apart.  I feed them with the same spoon, they steal each other's bottles and wear the same size diapers.  There is frequently a line for the changing table.  And it is non-stop tag team constant needs hard.
But I know the payout is worth it.  They are learning lessons I could never teach.


The Little Things About My Little People

I have a number of children.  Not a significant nor exorbitant number of children, but still, more than a few.  Recently it's been on my mind, why?  Why have a bunch of children?  What is it about having children that makes me so content?  Why do I want to have a million more children?  Is it in my DNA?  My cultural orientation? 
Maybe it's the conversation I had ten years ago with two mothers who each had eight kids.  They said, "You never regret the kids you have, you only regret the ones you don't."

Having children is the most difficult thing in the world.  It's so hard.  There's so much work.  The babies come and they're just like little kittens -- balls of cuddle to love and care for who rely entirely on you.  That's satisfying.  

But babies ruin your body and your sleep and your errands.  
And then they grow up.  They're noisy and needy and naughty.  And I'm right in the thick of it, looking into the chasm of summer alone all day with four kids. I'm ready.  This is my thing. Kids are my passion.  
I wake up every day exhausted and during the day I am alternately amazed and hell of annoyed, bored and keeping 25 balls in the air, humbled to tears and exalted with pride, worn out and invigorated, grateful, oh so very grateful and feeling grandly cursed.  And that's just before noon.

I feel like having a handful of kids is living a hardcore lifestyle.  Three of the most impressive women I know have 7, 7, and 5 kids.  They're big time.  They're in deep and I admire that.  Their every day lives remind me of Marjorie Hinkley's quote:

But I just can't help myself.  I love all four of them and I worry I will never be done having children!  
I got this note for Mother's Day from Mimi.  The best line is not that I'm (obviously) the best mom ever and that she loves me.  This is a thank you note.  She writes, 
"Thank you for having Lou Lou for me."

From the mouths of babes, no? 

Look at that little blessing.  Mimi's sister!  Who wants to grow up without a sister?  
It was the least I could do for her.

 And look at this little blessing.  The world needed Silas' kookie smile and fun loving personality.
 Look at these little naughties.  So what if I wanted to make dessert for a bunch of people and turned to get the strawberries and found the basket empty?  They exist to thwart my progress and their messy faces give them away.

Who else is going to gnaw on our record collection?
Who else will walk the baby on the leash?

Who else will idolize Hush so much so that he has to sit just like him while playing the guitar?
Who else can keep me awake at night and live to see the next day?

Who will invite me on rainy field trips to local cultures day and then talk me in to ditching it and buying them all hot chocolate?

Who will steal my 12 hour lipstick and look like a clown for two days?
How will Hush and I spend our Saturday evenings if not for these little piano performers?
Why would I bother to cook?  Who would I eat with? Who would I train as my sous chef?

Whose smooth skin will I bury my face in?  Who will I sneak Oreos with?

Yes, they are hard and burdensome and expensive but the payoff is so worth it: imagine the army my sisters and I are creating.  I've always felt great security being a member of a big family (8 kids 2 parents) and I want my kids to have somewhat of the same experience. My husband had an enviable cousin gang and a similar experience of growing up with a bunch of siblings.  Having a brother or two to beat up on you is good. Having a sister or a few presents challenges and gave me a resource of experience.  

So my errands are slow.  And my grocery receipts are staggering. Those of you with just a couple kids (by choice, not because of circumstances or difficulty) are welcome to your neat lives.  But I feel powerful and validated in my little army of minions.  And I know exactly how lucky I am to be blessed with 80 fingernails and toes to clip.  So me and my family?  We're gonna ride the rails.  We're going to swan dive into the maelstrom.  And we're going to happily drown in flailing limbs and drooly kisses.

Feeding Kids

Right now I am an expert in feeding children.  I have no formal training but I'm pretty sure I've logged nearly the 10,000 hours necessary to qualify me as an expert. Or thereabout.

Food and kids became a focus for me when Mimi was a baby and I went out to eat with a friend of mine and her four year old.  She ordered two full size meals, one for her and one for her boy who demanded a fancy adult size hamburger with sides.  The kid ate one bite. I was aghast!  Why would you pay money for food your kid won't eat? Also, I was buying and it made me mad -- she packed up the other meal and took it home.  You're welcome for the two meals.  Another time I had some kids and their parent over for dinner and the parent brought out an entire meal she'd prepared at home for the kids.  When I asked, "Oh, do they have allergies?" She responded, "No, they just won't eat anything but XYZ."  The parent had been preparing separate meals for those little turd kids just because they were picky.  I vowed I wasn't going to let my kids be the boss of food.  Mama doesn't play that.

I don't know much about nutrition and we aren't a granola household, but I do know how to get kids to eat vegetables, foreign food, new food, and food other kids simply refuse. I feel really proud of this accomplishment and, while I grant that children are unique and have specific demanding tastes, I believe it is my doing and my hard work that has resulted such good eaters.  It is from this admittedly boastful position that I'm going to share my strategies.  This post is punctuated by pictures of my kids eating because I have a lot of pictures of my kids eating. They say you photograph what's important to you.  But by the end I ran out so its just adorable pictures of my people.
Anyway, onward. Here are my methods:

1. Start early. Like in utero early.  
I eat a very diverse diet that only expands when I'm pregnant. My favorite foods are Japanese, Thai, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican and hamburgers.  When I'm expecting a baby I change only my mercury intake and other raw foods by avoiding big fish (tuna, yellow tail), oysters and carpaccio. Of course these are the exact foods I crave which is annoying.  I believe that whatever I eat familiarizes my fetus with what it will encounter as a child.  It turns out science agrees: What We Learn Before We're Born

2. Familiarize children with food.
Whatever you want them to eat keep it in your routine.  If they've smelled Mexican food their whole lives it won't be such a jump to eat it.

3. Feed them young
As soon as my kids can eat table food they are given food that has a lot of flavor.  Anything I eat I share with them in small bits. Mimi loved miso soup as a tiny baby, Silas snacks on seaweed, Jude inhaled udon noodles in Tokyo. Baby Lou eats teriyaki salmon and edamame.  

4. Take advantage of their greediness.
If kids see you eating they want some.  The more you keep it away the more they want it.  This week Lou was grabbing at my Wheaties so I spooned her some.  Jude watched me make and eat sugarless unappealing for kids oatmeal from trader joe's and begged for a bite.  Now he likes oatmeal.

5. Be trustworthy about food.
My kids trust me that I will not give them food that is disgusting for them.  I don't let them take big bites of wasabi and I don't give them food I wouldn't eat myself.  Only once have I served a dinner that was legitly horrible -- a frozen butternut squash lasagne -- and it was so bad that we had to throw it away. The kids remember that night from three years ago because it only happened once.  When I want them to try something new I ask them "Have I ever given you something that you didn't like?" Other than that lasagne the answer is no.

6. Starve them.
Don't let them eat an hour before meals. Snacking can happen after dinner but not at all before. Kids who aren't very hungry don't care about eating. 

7. It's what's for dinner.
There are no options for dinner beyond exactly what I put on their plates.  There will be no separated noodles and sauce, no special meal for the kid who doesn't like what we're having, which, by the way, has never happened. It wouldn't occur to my kids to ask for something else. Never introduce that option.  They are welcome to pick through things, but if they draw attention to that behavior I will disallow it.

8. "The world doesn't care what you don't like."
I find children who vocalize their dislikes offensive so my children have learned to self regulate with that phrase, "the world doesn't care what you don't like." Feeding children is also about teaching them about service: I or somebody else made this food and impoliteness will not be tolerated.  If you don't like it, keep it to yourself and figure out a way to get full anyway because there aren't any other options and you may not be rude.

9. Make vegetables delicious.
If your kids won't eat vegetables, make better vegetables. Anything is good if you douse it with olive oil and sea salt and roast it in the oven at like 425 for 15 minutes. Add butter and cheese. Give them ranch dip. All children like dipping.  

10. Lie (within reason).
I grew up not liking Brussels sprouts because my siblings didn't like them.  When my kids were really little we took Brussels sprouts and fed them to the ponies down the street.  From thence forth they weren't called Brussels sprouts, they were called "pony food" and the kids thought it was hilarious that they  got to eat the same thing they gave to  the horses.  I introduced them with those bags of frozen Brussels sprouts swimming in butter, now they'll eat them roasted in olive oil and sea salt.  When they hear bad things about Brussels sprouts they don't associate it with pony food.  Same with onions.  "Are there onions in this?" "Nope."  I only trick them when it's to their benefit to not know.

11. Names are important.
Salmon is called Nemo at our house.  Any meat is called chicken because Jude is sure he loves chicken.  He will eat anything.

12. Use reverse psychology.
Whatever I'm eating I often abandon it for a few minutes with the express instructions, "Do NOT eat this."  No child can resist that. Then they want to share when I come back because they've tasted it and discovered it's good.

13. I'm not above bribery.
No eat, no treat.

14. Employ them.
The more my kids help in the kitchen the more they enjoy the food we make.  The mess is worth it.  It's super scary letting them chop things with sharp knives but it's so exciting for them to be allowed to use knives that they become very invested.  Working next to the stove is a risk but they love the responsibility and it's a good lesson in cause and effect.  Some day I'll let them take things out of the oven but not yet.

15. Put them in charge.
Once in a while I'll have the kids plan and make the whole dinner while I sit and watch. When Mimi was five she could make teriyaki salmon, edamame, and rice. Silas makes corndogs, Jude makes quesadillas.

16. Beans and Rice!
Teach them the magic of beans and rice. Nearly every foreign food has beans and rice in some form of another.  Wherever we go out to dinner they know they can at least eat that and be happy about it.  Once they're in the restaurant they become comfortable with the different spices used on the beans and rice which serves as an introduction to the rest of the food. Also, ordering beans and rice means that I don't have to waste money ordering them an enchilada they won't eat.  They can have bites of my enchilada/tika masala/sushi/pad thai and fill up on rice and beans. 

Trust that your children do not have stronger wills than you do: if you stick to your guns and aren't afraid to let them be hungry they will eventually eat some of whatever you offer.  If you have a picky eater I believe you've created a picky eater.  I've seen the biggest wimp eater crunch up a street scorpion in China because he was forceably exposed to weird food that he would be rude to not eat.

Figuring out what to feed kids and keeping all these tummies full three or four times a day is a lot of work, that's why I take no crap.  Thankfully, I learned a lot from my mother about firm meal times and from my dad about the wonderful world of foreign food.  I instituted the eating program at my house very early but even if you haven't there is little but will power and enforcement keeping your kids from being decent eaters and meal times being less of a pain.  I hope that when my kids are fed at other homes their fear of rudeness overrides the new things phobia that most kids have when eating away from home.  I also have to give a lot of credit to school lunches because they are exposed to things there that I don't eat so I don't make (peanut butter and jelly makes me barf but peanut butter and Nutella is magical).  

Lastly, I recommend Blue Apron.  Google it.  My husband bought Blue Apron for my birthday and it's the best gift I've ever received.  Blue Apron sends fresh ingredients for two dinners to my house every other week.  This eliminates figuring out what to make, meal planning, buying ingredients, going to the store, and wasting food because I promise I'm not a thrifty housewife who can use all the sour cream before it goes bad.  The recipes are things I wouldn't think to make, restaurant quality, and easy to follow.  My kids are my sous chefs and we love making these meals together.  I was bored with cooking and stuck in a rut, Blue Apron has made me feel like a culinary wizard and now I love cooking again.  If you want a free meal sent to your house let me know -- they give me free meals to share with friends so they can test drive the service.
Ok, now I'm hungry. To the kitchen!