Summer “Uncamping” During Pandemic Time


This has been an unusual summer, to put it mildly.

Prior to the pandemic, we very happily sent our kids off to fun and enriching summer camps each week, driving them all over town and a bit farther to allow them opportunities to play outside in unexplored spaces, wade in streams, make friends (both kids and counselors), learn about animals, tell new jokes, play games, construct glass art, sing songs, climb trees, and so much more.

This summer – other than one experimental day of outdoor art camp for my 7 year old (I was too nervous to continue) – we have been camp-free; or, as I’ve coined it, we’re “uncamping”.

So, my kids are at home – very occasionally hanging out with a few select quarantine-friends and family; biking and swimming; and spending a lot of time getting better at online gaming and virtual world construction.

I’m keeping our “schedule” (i.e., our “non-negotiables”) simple, flexible, yet semi-structured:

  • go to bed and wake up at a “reasonable” time (so far not a problem, given their ages; I anticipate more challenges with this as they enter their teen years);
  • eat three meals a day – including sitting down for a family dinner, which involves sharing “highs” and “lows” from the day;
  • get at least a little bit of exercise every day, in some fashion (ideally outdoors);
  • read for 20-30 minutes a day during DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time;
  • treat each other kindly and help each other out when appropriate.

    I’ve experimented over the summer with trying to add even more structure in:

    “Let’s do some art!”
    “Let’s do some math!”
    “Let’s do some music!”
    “Let’s do some science!”

    But, the minimalist schedule outlined above seems to be as much as I can manage without pushing on everyone’s nerves (including – and perhaps most importantly – my own).

    So, the art my kids do is on their own time and initiative, typically related to whatever online game they’re playing (i.e., designing new “skins” for their Minecraft avatars). The math they do relates to calculating how much online money they have left to spend on their games, how long it will take to save up for a certain coveted item.

    Etc.

    It’s hard to blame my kids for wanting to spend time in virtual worlds that allow them maximum flexibility, autonomy, and interaction (not to mention flying and magic!), when the real world has severely curtailed that to an unnatural degree.

    In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be back at work (thankfully, at home) while simultaneously overseeing my three kids’ online school schedules. Life will feel – and be – intensely exhausting and full once again.

    For now, I’m appreciating this chance to sit and stare out the window, reflect on life, and know that my kids are managing their pandemic time in a way that makes sense to them.

A Day’s Reading in Our Household

During these weird, semi-structured COVID-19 summer days, without summer camps to fill the time, my kids are expected to read for 20-30 minutes a day (depending on their age) during DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time.

Yes, I wish the amount of reading they did each day was more. And yes, it’s hard for me as a book-loving adult (and a voracious former kid-reader) to understand why this amount is even negotiated or questioned to begin with.

(Then again, when I was a kid during long summer days in the 1980s, I didn’t have a personal tablet or computer to distract me. I’m willing to bet a significant amount of money that I would be equally distracted by such amazing devices. )

So… What does this daily “required reading” look like for my 2E kiddos? I’ll share a bit below about the challenges and strengths for each of them, with the emergent theme that “gifted” does NOT necessarily translate into a kid quietly sitting and reading by herself for hours on end. (Well, that was me… but not my kids.)

  • C (my ~12 y.o. daughter) chooses to read weekly graphic novel serials on a site called Webtoons. She found this site herself, and loves it. The upside is she can get completely absorbed and read for hours (far beyond the minimum required daily reading time). The downside is that these stories aren’t vetted by anyone other than the website. The other day she stumbled on a new series that intrigued her while also scaring her. (Let’s just say… it involved death and killing in an unpleasant way.) She had a rough evening. BUT – we used it as an opportunity to talk about how there is a lot (a LOT) of deeply unpleasant stuff out there on the internet, and she will have to learn for herself when to turn away. This is an important life lesson, one I’m guessing most parents (including myself) would prefer to put off as long as possible, but… for us, it’s here.
  • D (my 10 y.o. son) is a neurodiverse kiddo and tends to prefer either factual books or series with a predictable format. For the past number of months, he has chosen the 39 Clues series as his go-to favorite. This is a perfectly fine choice, but I suddenly realized a few weeks ago that only being mid-way through the 6th book in the series, when he started the first one back in January meant… Wait, how much is this kid actually reading (or not) during his reading time? He loves timers, and I know he was actually setting one each day, but without me doing any kind of progress monitoring, there was – shall we say – a disconnect. A happy solution is that I recently talked with him about a schedule for getting through one book a week. We agreed he would split each book up into chapters, divided by 7, and he would commit to reading that many chapters each day. Lo and behold, he’s suddenly on track and reading what feels like a semi-reasonable amount! I still don’t know what kind of a shift this triggered in his head, but it worked and he’s happy, so – win/win.
  • My 7 y.o. daughter can read chapter books but has regressed (I know that’s a loaded term; I’m using it intentionally) to reading primarily pictures books and easy-to-read books during COVID. She adores Mo Willem’s awesome Elephant and Piggie series, and otherwise lately has been re-reading the same easy-to-read chapter book – Diary of a Pug: Pug Blasts Off (2019) – multiple times a day, many days in a row. As a kid, I myself obsessively read about a book a day, eagerly looking forward to how many new books I could check off my mental list. I considered an unread book an exciting mystery to be explored, with re-reading happening occasionally – but only for my most beloved books, and never as a default. But honestly – who am I to judge my daughter’s reading choices? I need to check that tendency. [UPDATE: I bought her the two sequels! She’s similarly obsessed.]

The other sustained reading in our household occurs at night, when my husband and I each read either to our son or our two girls (youngest, then oldest) every other night. Being read to before bedtime is a cherished memory from my own childhood, and is also a beloved ritual from my elementary school teaching days, when I would rarely let anything get in the way of reading a chapter or two to my students as they sat (mostly) rapt at the rug, listening and quiet (ah, quiet).

Read-aloud time at night with my own kids is a chance not only to engage in literary worlds with them, but to expose them to slightly more demanding or complex books they otherwise wouldn’t necessarily choose for themselves. My husband and I can talk them through challenging sections, and use the stories as a bridge for other topics that come up throughout the days and weeks and months.

Here’s what I’ve been up to during read-aloud time with my kids recently:

  • I just finished reading Beverly Cleary’s beloved Ramona Quimby series to my 7 y.o., who was instantly engaged and could relate to so much of what Ramona goes through, both struggles and triumphs, as she ages naturally throughout the books.
  • My 10 y.o. son and I just finished (finally! they’re long!) the fourth book in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time quartet, called Many Waters (1986). It goes in some unexpectedly adult directions, and I had to read carefully and cautiously between the lines at times – but he insisted on sticking with it, and it allowed us to continue our ongoing discussions of space, time, and existence, all as creatively conceived by L’Engle.
  • With my 12 y.o. daughter, we recently read The War That Saved My Life (2016) and The War I Finally Won (2019) (its sequel) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. These were significant not only for allowing her to discuss the brutal realities of World War II (war and violence have been a major trigger for her anxiety in years past), but to be able to compare a life of restriction for kids in WWII-era England with life now in COVID. We are obviously so much better off now, but she doesn’t know that from her own lived experience – and I sense it helped her to hear about other kids dealing with less-than-ideal (to put it mildly) life circumstances. These books also gave me an opportunity to talk with her about Hitler, genocide, and Resistance movements, including the fact that her own grandfather was a small boy on a farm in Nazi-occupied Norway when his dad was hiding Resistance fighters in the forest behind their house. She took in this information carefully and seems to be considering how it all relates to the fictional stories we just completed.

So, that’s a snapshot of reading in our house. All told, with DEAR and read-aloud time combined, each kid gets about an hour of “book reading” in each day.

It may not be as much as I’d prefer, but we’re making it work for our unique household – and as I put it into writing, I realize it’s more than it seems.

Rainforest Minds: My Introduction

A couple of years ago I stumbled onto Paula Prober’s blog “Your Rainforest Mind: Support for the Excessively Curious, Creative, Smart & Sensitive”, and was invited to consider the following questions:

• Like the rain forest, are you intense, multilayered, colorful, creative, overwhelming, highly sensitive, complex, idealistic and influential?
• Do people tell you to lighten up when you’re just trying to enlighten them?
• Do you wonder how you can feel like not enough and too much at the same time?

As so many other readers of Prober’s blog have responded: yes, yes, and yes!

They and I can very much relate, and feel a sense of relief about finally having our complex “way of being” in the world validated.

Given how justifiably controversial the term gifted is – Marc Smolowitz’s new documentary “The G Word” says it all in the title – it makes sense for Prober to use the metaphorical conceptualization of a rain forest, which “achieves by simply being itself” (Prober, 2016, p. xi). In explaining this choice, Prober writes:

If you think of people as ecosystems, you can see some as meadows, others as deserts, some as mountains – and some as rain forests. While all ecosystems are beautiful and make valuable contributions to the whole, rain forests are particularly complex: multi-layered, highly sensitive, colorful, intense, creative, fragile, overwhelming, and misunderstood, while thick with possibility and pulsing with life, death, and transformation. You could say that a rain forest has far more activity than, say, a meadow or a wheat field. The rain forest is not a better ecosystem, just more complicated. It also makes an essential contribution to the planet when allowed to be itself, rather than when cut down and turned into something that is it not. (p. xi, bold mine)

So, complexity is a key term in Prober’s conceptualization of rain forest minds. I can accept and embrace that as a working distinction.

This blog will be about my own “journey into my rainforest mind” (Prober, 2019) as a “gifted adult” (Streznewski, 1999) (a term I’ll also use if or as appropriate).

Along the way I’ll include plenty of posts on what it’s like to to create a rich life alongside my rainforest partner, with a particular emphasis on parenting my rainforest kiddos – but this is not “just” a parenting blog since I’ve never been able to divide my life that way. For instance:

  • A few weeks after giving birth to my oldest child in the summer of 2008 (as our nation’s economy started to semi-collapse around us – though we’re seeing much worse now), I began a tenure-line position as an assistant professor.
  • I continued my professorship and a modest bit of publishing while having my second child 20 months later.
  • I intended to take a break from work while having my third kid in 2012 but the lure of teaching drew me in and eventually I was just as busy as ever. (A heads up: this led to pretty serious health challenges, something I intend to address in a later post. It’s NOT possible to ‘do it all’ without staying highly attuned to your body and your limits; believe me, I’ve learned the hard way.)
  • In between homeschooling and co-parenting my three 2E kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been teaching and studying on my own, including learning Norwegian, writing reviews for my film blog, co-founding a small non-profit designed to bring post-secondary educational opportunities to a local prison (website in development), learning more about systemic racism, practicing Zentangling, and obsessively following the progress of an insidious global pandemic.

(Are you tired yet? Prober wouldn’t blame you, but wants you to know that this type of existence is generally rejuvenating rather than exhausting for rainforest minds.)

In other words, during my hardest times in life, I’ve turned to learning and exploration as a way to stay sane and engaged.

I’m grateful to Prober for giving me “permission” to be “excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive”, and to embrace what that looks like each day.

Now, please excuse me while I go and learn some basics of how to play the harmonica (a brand new instrument that just arrived in the mail yesterday). The kids are fed, my husband’s busy working, and I’m tempted by the new challenge facing me…

References:
  • Prober, P. (2016). Your rainforest mind: A guide to the well-being of gifted adults and youth. Luminare Press.
  • Prober, P. (2019). Journey into your rainforest mind: A field guide for gifted adults and teens, book lovers, overthinkers, geeks, sensitives, brainiacs, intuitives, procrastinators, and perfectionists. Luminare Press.
  • Streznewski, M.K. (1999). Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Meddling with Middle School: COVID 2020

    In my last blog post, I shared a bit about what my (almost)12 y.o. daughter C is up to these days: basically, watching YouTube, playing Minecraft, and staying cozy in her room (with breaks built in for reading, eating, exercise, and socializing with her family). I’m glad she’s learning to self-regulate, especially knowing she most definitely struggles (like presumably all kids are these days) with feeling sad, lonely, and frustrated.

    Middle school was going great for C last year as a sixth grader. I can confidently say she was thriving, in her own fashion. While it was a challenge to stay on top of work expectations for so many classes (one of her 2E designations is ADHD-Inattentive, meaning she struggles with executive functioning), she enjoyed biking to school each day, making new friends, getting to know her teachers, and feeling independent.

    COVID-19 changed everything. (I wonder, if one were to Google that phrase, how many times would it come up in blog posts and articles from the last six months?) Suddenly, she was learning exclusively from home, in an uncertain format, with expectations severely curtailed. She had “problems with Zoom” (another common searchable phrase!) and quickly grew to hate it. She was uninspired by her science classes, which had shifted away from fun, hands-on experiments to reading about cells; frustrated about not being able to watch her math instructor give an algebra lesson in person; and sad about missing out on all the fun activities her beloved Social Studies teacher used to routinely engage her class in. (Yay, Ms. W! You are awesome!)

    In the periphery of C’s 11-year-old life were two other siblings also dealing with the shift to online learning, a stressed-out mom, and daily bad news about a global pandemic. Needless to say, she was far from happy. I caught her staring out her window, sitting by herself, scrolling guiltily through her phone (she knows I get triggered by seeing too much of this), and sometimes struggling to fall asleep.

    The photo I’ve included in this blog post is from the day we went biking to her school back in May. I figured it might cheer her up to take her old familiar route through the woods, see her school building, and say hello to the trees there. My plan was a nice try, but didn’t work; it just made her feel more sad for what she’s lost “thanks” to the pandemic.

    We still take bike rides out in that general direction, but don’t go quite all the way – we stop before we can see the school. It seems that if school’s not in session, she’d rather not be reminded it still exists, in its skeletal (i.e., uninhabited) form.

    So – cycling back to my previous post on what C’s currently up to, at the moment she’s in her room, a lot. (We’ve convinced her to mix things up by moving around the house into different rooms, and thankfully, she willingly does this.) I’ve reconnected with her former therapist and am so excited she’ll be having sessions again for a while! (Remotely, yes, but still…) C has concerns she doesn’t want to share with me – and, rightfully so. I just want to ensure she has support, somehow.

    She occasionally draws (her latest creation is a Puppy Girl, a human-animal hybrid), but mostly seems to appreciate escaping into creative online fantasy worlds, sometimes with her siblings, sometimes alone, sometimes with new online friends she’s carefully vetted according to our discussions and guidelines. (More on that in another post.)  

    Parenting is challenging under the best of circumstances. I got my Ph.D. from a top-tier university in 2006 and can honestly say that learning to become a parent in 2008 was much harder than the four years it took to get that degree.

    Parenting during a pandemic has (for all of us) simply honed our skills that much more, whether we were looking for that challenge or not. I take solace in knowing, as Sebastian Junger (2016) writes regarding PTSD in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

    “Shared public meaning gives [individuals] a context for their losses and their sacrifice that is acknowledged by most of the society. That helps keep at bay the sense of futility and rage than can develop…” (p. 97)

    Although Junger is writing specifically about soldiers returning from combat, the comparison to the collective trauma we’re all experiencing (albeit differentially, yes) during this pandemic remains apt.

    My hope is that we can collectively help acknowledge for kids that what they’re going through right now isn’t “normal”, reasonable, or something they need to suck up and accept – rather, it just “is”.

    If my 12 y.o. daughter emerges from COVID-19 having retained  her sense of self and sanity, I’ll be a happy mom.

    References:

  • Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: On homecoming and belonging. HarperCollins.
  • COVID-19 Memories? (“No, thanks, Mom.”)

    Today at lunch time I told my kids I wanted to help them fill out COVID-19 time capsules. (Like this one.) I’d been wanting to do this for months, and now seemed as good a time as any. We’re still here; COVID-19 is still here.

    I explained to them that time capsules are packets of information telling what their lives were like during these unique times, and that they would probably appreciate looking back at them years from now.

    Both my 7 y.o. daughter (I) and 10 y.o. son (D) essentially said, “No, thanks.”

    (Me): “Are you sure? You might want to be able to remember back on this weird time and what it was like. It will be over one day.”

    (Them): “No… I don’t really want to think about what life is like right now.”

    This was completely reasonable, and I had to respect their choice.

    My 12 y.o. daughter (C) wasn’t interested, either, but was willing to be the experimental “guinea pig” and report back to her siblings. I promised to actually do the work of writing down her answers, and just let her respond orally.

    As soon as we sat down in her room to get started, C gave a big yawn – no offense meant to me, but this just wasn’t her cup of tea.

    She immediately asked if we could do just one page a day.

    I countered by saying no, but we could definitely break it up into several days. We settled on this compromise, and got to work.

    My favorite response from her so far (from “Words to Describe How I Feel”) was her made-up word of kerplunctious (no idea how to spell this!). She immediately clarified for me: “That means meh or blobby.” Other words she offered up in this category included weird, angry, excited, nervous, and happy.

    In terms of what she’s learned the most from this experience (so far):

    “Some things that you take for granted may look even better when times are bad.”

    So true. She appreciates our family, our house, our neighborhood, and the lake we’re lucky enough to live by.

    Now that I’m done interrogating her, C is back to simply getting through the day, which for her means watching YouTube videos of people playing Roblox, playing with new friends on Minecraft, and staying cozy in her room.

    While these aren’t ideal ways to spend the summer, I’m glad she’s safe, healthy, and knows how to take care of herself during challenging times.

    This is a marathon. She needs to pace herself.