Things to do with the children, including think out the box (!)

Blended Families: One Step to Success

“It’s been a helluva year, and it’s only January 12 !’ What with looking for a house, organising a wedding and starting a new job, OMG I’m stressed. The wedding is just around the corner…three months is just ‘round the corner !
Stress? I’m just like that, having to organise dresses, colours, outfits, making sure that everybody is happy and then the family circus follows. It started out relaxed, but y’know, too many chefs in the kitchen…so that’s changed now.
He has a five year-old son. I met him when he was two, he’s a wonderful child, and he’s a wonderful Dad. Navigating the waters of a blended family has been a real journey, but I am also a child of divorced parents, and that’s maybe one of the reasons why we have a very special bond.. Y’know it’s the questions of the year-old, who will become my son, that helps put things into perspective. Yes, we’d like to have kids, and his son has put in a order for a little sister.”

This is Robyn as she featured in my #humans_of_cape_town Instagram post. Prospective partners and parents must think extra-carefully when combining families. I was a newbie at being a dad, but simultaneously being a step-dad, and it’s not easy.

Blended Family Checklist:

Have you lived together?

Is your new partner willing to really let you parent?

Are they willing to let you establish your own relationship with their child, or do they insist on governing it?

Do they shout in front of their own kids – it’s not easy, but important to know how he / she is when you’re not around.

Check how their childhood was, how their parents treated them. That – and how they dealth with issues they might have had with their folks – is a major indication as to what you can expect. It can also raise necessary flags.

Values – they have to be in synch. As you wil have your own idiosyncracies, so the most normal seeming people can turn out to have their own challenges in particular circumstances. You need ot understand and be able to deal with each other.

 

I have an idea that Robyn has done her homework.

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Single Parenting Holidays: Joburg for Christmas again ?

 

So Christmas has passed and December’s approaching yet again. A little quicker than last year, which was already a little quicker than the 12 months before and so-on and so-on.

That’s what I was thinking last year in about August. Such is the calendar of a single parent battling to see his children; I was thinking this would leave me four months in which to arrange what has become the annual Cape Town–Johannesburg flight to see ageing grandparents and maintain connections with cousin, aunt and friends.

Without being morbid, the thing with the sharp end of ageing is that you don’t know which trip to see the children’s gran or grandad will be their last, so going elsewhere, like a holiday destination, doesn’t happen. Just in case. Like my Dad. He hardly got to know his grandchildren before he moved on. My son has meanwhile learnt about ageing from these visits, and is far braver than I remember being about ‘old people’ at that age.

IMG_4473Drawing with Gran. My Dad and My SonMy Dad and My Son 

There hadn’t been timeous agreement regarding the previous three Christmas holiday suggestions with the my boy’s mother, and again I had no option but to book flights the week before the big day; which for me and my 6 year-old pretty much cost half the price of a ticket to London.

Which, heading off on a tangent, leads me to think how our holiday expectations evolve . If not my son’s friends’ going to the proverbial family holiday house at Kenton-on-Sea or ‘Plett’, favoured holiday spots here in South Africa, my now-global school friends are taking their kids to Europe and the US for skiing holidays.

Cousin T has joined uncle pat as a firm favourite for Fynn. Sassy joined in.  IMG_1057    IMG_1213_2

In comparison, spending my share of the annual big Christmas vacation with my boy and our family down the road from Westpark cemetary in Johannesburg was ok. That’s another  reality of the single-parenting world; if you’re close to your family and not necessarily flush, horizons often don’t extend much beyond remaining families.

We enjoy the relative peace. Well I do, my boy obviously lives for the moment, and if he’s surrounded by love and his holiday animals – with a swimming pool as a bonus – he’s happy.

He loves being with his aunt and cousin. So does his four year-old sister, but unfortunately she only gets to see them on one day a year (for reasons that won’t be addressed here).

I appreciate the quiet of Jo’burg, driving avenues lined with the trees of my childhood (the Joburg-Pretoria conurbation represents the world’s largest urban ‘forest’). It reminds me too, earlier comments or morbidity aside, that the children spending quality time with their fast-ageing and generally immobile granny is also pretty key, to nurture their sense of paternal family.

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And anyway, peak-season airports are hell.

 

 

Dating For Dads 2

She was my first internet date, and I was a bit nervous.

Firstly because I knew that this was my first journey down the dark side of online dating, that murky avenue where the discarded remnants of failed relationships lurk in search of company and maybe some form of social acceptance.

To set the scene, it was a popular, well-frequented suburban watering—hole-cum-restaurant roughly halfway between us. The sort of place where your husband-brother-or-father would watch rugby. But on entering the crowded and chatty building from the always full, pine-fringed car-park that night I felt as if all eyes were on me, that everyone knew why I was there.

At least that was my thinking then. Because who does this sort of dodgy online dating stuff anyway?

That was about two years ago, and not long before a boyhood school-friend and long-time New York city resident announced to the table over dinner at a Cape Town city restaurant that it’s the done thing in his part of the world. ‘Hey man, it’s the boss!’

Essentially, it was the validation that I needed, and translated the concept into a ‘good enough’ reality for me.

I had tried to call her number a few times before we met, but with no luck. So I went ahead and agreed to meet nevertheless.

Turned out that she didn’t she didn’t really live where she said she did on her ‘profile’. If you’re from these parts (Cape Town), you will appreciate that broadly speaking, while physically not too far down the road, Muizenberg is on another level, far removed from Strandfontein. In the way that socie-economics is the great separator, it just isn’t the same.

She also posted pictures of herself as a teenager. It could’ve been someone else altogether.

I could’ve walked out, accused her of ‘social fraud’, of wasting my time invested in the communications we’d had over the past couple weeks, of misleading me. But I felt bad; she had travelled far, and being all alone she would’ve been totally out of place in what for her was a clearly foreign environment.

That’s internet dating for you, and I suppose the reason why I finally relented and opted to try the Tinder app. What I imagined to be something trashy, without even having tried it, turned out to be an effective application, populated by people like me, and with no charge.

It pulls limited personal information from your Facebook page – like your profile pictures – and even highlights mutual connections you may have. So the odds are good that the person behind the profile is genuine. If the person is suddenly 30kg heavier, well therein lies the baggage gathered over a lifetime – at least youve had the time  to develop the skills of diplomacy and kindness to deal with it – and  a real person with real stuff.

And there’s a bonus that I suppose was every bit intended. Because it’s an app, you interact with it when it suits you, no shotgun-scatter emails and weirdos flooding your inbox. Welcome to the new dating generation. It beats sitting at the bar and bugging your buddies.

Camping with Small Children (And an Unexpected Link to The Elderly)

My memories of camping are of being forced to sleep in a tent on family holidays when my mates were staying at beach hotels in Mhlanga Rocks *, that year-round vacation destination extension of Durban. That wasn’t cool.

That me and my siblings didn’t enjoy going camping with an irritable parent should in itself say somethings to parents who dictate rather than guide their children’s paths through life. Taking into account their likes and dislikes, making holidays fun etcetera, which is exactly what my Dad didn’t do (my mom didn’t have much of a say).

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Judging by the fact that I wasn’t even allowed to mow the lawn before I was 15, by which stage I obviously really didn’t want to, I doubt he would’ve allowed me to get involved in erecting the tent as a pre-schooler. Many parents will realize pre-schoolers love getting involved; for those who have somehow (inexplicably) missed their little ones’ seemingly obsessive desire to help, I suggest that you change your ways now.

By denying them the opportunity for helping out, you won’t just kill off their enthusiasm to be involved, you will ensure that when they’re older and you really need their help, as in building a wall, taking out the rubbish or cleaning the pool, they won’t want to help. And that will set up its own battlefield, so you have been warned, the way that scenario plays out is in your hands. The writer’s unfortunate expression in the below picture has nothing to do with the topic – me and friend Mark were contemplating our unprepareedness, the lack of chairs and a table among them. Such are the dangers of imprompto rustic getaways. The boys obviously didnt mind.

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Camping is an easy way to involve the whole family (considering that mom wants to go). There’s nothing fussy about little kids, and likewise with setting up tents, crawling into a sleeping-bag with sandy feet, eating around a campfire and washing up. Beyond the excitement (for your child) and the positive practicalities, such as learning how to put up a tent and make and respect a fire, consider the positive effects of nature on the human psyche.

Of course, while fathers camping with the kids is almost a default scenario, the alternative reality is that not all parents enjoy it. Yes, a number of moms do, but my experience is that the older they get, the less chance they’re interested in communing with crawly things and carrying a toilet-roll in a backpack.

I went on to enjoy camping in my older years, as a 20-something by necessity, South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains and Swaziland, Malalotja Nature Reserve, coming to mind. And now it’s as if the word ‘camp’ is pitched in my subconscious, occasionally releasing scented aspects of the pleasant parts of the experience; the inside of the tent, the campfire, children’s giggles and even the early-morning scent of exotic pines.

After that it was over 20 years before I returned to the land of tent-pegs and fly-sheets at a beautiful campsite called Beaverlac (https://www.beaverlac.co.za/) in South Africa’s Cederberg mountains . Two dads with their three year-old sons, we forgot chairs and all sorts of stuff that would’ve made the experience more comfortable – for us. Nevertheless, I looked at it as a reminder, and anyway, the rock-pools were great.

John Walmsley and Fynn discussing the storm of last night.

John Walmsley and Fynn discussing the storm of last night.

And then the parenting split came, and it was three years before we got to camp again. The odious holiday parenting plan determined the we had just one night in which to camp. I’m hhis father, and I had made him a promise.

The one night ended up being on a lawn at a visiting school- friend’s father’s house, overlooking False Bay outside Simonstown, Cape Town. Jo is her name, and her Dad was John; a warm, slightly stiff English-born soul entering his 80s and battling cancer with the stiff-upper-lip countenance that becomes that generation of his countrymen. Yet when Jo suggested to him that we would like to camp on their patch of lawn, John (and his always welcoming wife Sue), despite the discomfort of almost daily ilness-related tests, probes and pain, insisted that we do.

And for the next two years of his life, even when Jo was back home in Colorado, the invitation for us to visit was there. John was in that typically English fashion a bit awkward with my son, but clealry fond of him, and I still wonder if the little man’s presence was a balm of sorts. I had noticed it with my Dad, who still remembered his grandson’s name while wondering around the garden in his wellington boots, irrespective of how far the Alzheimers had progressed. I think he had enjoyed their short time together.

My son set about mowing the lawn after we arrived for that anticipated night, after deciding exactly where we would pitch the tent. While we were sleeping, the relatively unthinkable and utterly unseasonal then happened. The ominous, dark sky rattled and rolled and eventually hurled thudding, bulleting drops of rain down on our tent. My son was asleep.

My Dad and My Son John Walmsley and Fynn discussing the storm of last night. Good view from the Jo's folk's garden, Murdoch Valley, outside Simonstown. IMG_5866 IMG_5868

Bullets of water thudded onto the thirsty grass patch on which we were pitched, and while the overflowing gutter downpipe churned like the Zambezi river’s rapid #22, I was pleased  we had put the fly-sheet on. From inside our acrylic dome not two metres from the visitors’ room downstairs, I devised half-awake escape plans that, in the event of the tent-roof giving in, involved slinging my sleeping 20kg treasure over my back only to find the door locked.

Then I woke up. We were dry. The sky above the wet, morning wet-scented grass was a clear blue, and our view over False Bay just down below was as impressive as it had been the day before, and all was good. It had been a night to remember, and I think I just may have rediscvered my appetite for tent-pegs and that tell-tale sound of the zip.

* pr. ‘umshlanga’ by most white South Africans of European descent. The combined ‘hl’ can be challenging for the less linguistcally-inclined.

‘Gadagadagada’

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My son’s love affair started with helicopters. He would hear them in his cot, grab the side-rails, tilt back his blonde-locked headand start shouting gadagadagada, imitating the sound of the chopper as it flew overhead.

And that was often. We live in that part of Cape Town known as the city bowl, which comprises the foot-slopes of Table Mountain, with Devil’s Peak and Signal Hill to either side. The city skies are rarely empty of helicopters in summer, either filming Hollywood car-chases over-head, tourists on an aerial fly-by or emergency choppers rescuing unsuspecting hikers and climbers. And sometimes the Italian and French naval vessels have popped past – caryring helicopters.

IMG_1609 IMG_1616  IMG_3492

Again and again he would watch an old VHS National geographic video of a curious, young American pilot flying over Africa, landing in exotic destinations. While I would wonder why I’d never done that (I suppose a pilot’s license would be a start) his mother swore she could recite the commentary in her sleep. In Cape Town’s sothern suburb of Tokai – the other side of the mountain – an old air force training plane, the Italian aermacchi, or ‘impala’, as we knew it, stands nearby where a fresh produce market. We visited with Fynn even before he could walk.

So, being two years into fatherhood I did what I reckon all good parents would do, and took him to an airshow at the local military airbase. He was two and sitting on my shoulders when the Saab Gripen flew low over the crowd.

He burst out crying. I walked briskly away from the oohs and aahs of the crowd towards one of the hangars housing a more sedate exhibition. I felt horribly guilty for bringing him to such a loud place that made even my ribs vibrate.

As we reached the entrance he tugged on my shoulder and said ‘more, more!’ And so we turned around and headed back to the spectators lining the runway. By the age of three he was fully into flying, his first real passion, as you see

What’s really blown me away as a parent has been how boys and girls are wired. That even without being pushed or directed as many parents will do, my son from the earliest age would gravitate to the ‘boy stuff’, like cars and planes, and likewise his sister to the dolls.

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So I try to encourage his natural likes. His uncle has always been nuts about flying and sent him a Red Arrows flying suit from Scotland a few years ago. His cousin, some 15 years older, gave him his precious collection of toy model aircraft a few years back (in retrospect, I’d rather suggest holding on to precious / valuable things until they are around 7 years).

Today everything for my boy is about star wars lego. I think it helps to encourage different interests, and doubt we would need a psychologist to confirm that. I find that exposure to a variety of interests helps, with the result that his current fall-back favourite is anything to do with octopi or squids – preferably using their beaks. Enjoyment, curiosity and stimulation are all positive, and contribute to the makings for a happy family.

PS – since first writing this, his interests are now evenly spread between guant squids and octopii, the Red Baron, soccer and star wars.

 

 

 

 

 

Frogging For Kids

There can be few greater joys for a young child than being exposed to the natural world at a young age. Those early days of catching frogs, chasing butterflies and feeling the bark of a tree is a gift. It’s also natural, especially for boys; I give Fynn a net, he says ‘let’s go catch frogs !’

Fynn followed a little bloke named Noah - not this child on the right - from the picnic spot to the stream rushing down the mountain 'cos he had a fishing net. Luckily we had one in the car. Noah was catching frogs and tadpoles in a scary fashion - but we soon had three in the bag. Fynn was worried about the other kids having a bucket. Where was ours? I explained the virtues of catch 'n release.

They don’t know it yet, but introducing children to the natural world on their own terms allows for a subconscious appreciation of the world in which they are connected to, are part of. It also stimulates their curiosity.

As much as they enhance skills probably essential to our children’s social and professional development, iPads and phones are not part of their natural world. This randomly selected link speaks to that subject  http://www.pbs.org/parents/childrenandmedia/article-when-introduce-child-smartphone-tablet.html.

Nets are good for frogs, almost essential. A bucket of sorts is useful for holding the creatures caught. My son likes to catch them with his hands when a net isn’t available, as in the picture below with his mate and her two children in one of the ponds at Kistenbosch Botanical gardens*. ‘Hey dad, check this out” or ‘I’ve got one!’ he shouts, pure happiness ringing out across the weekday afternoon ripples. When it’s hot, this is literally a cool environment for the children (and you).

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Some adults, probably most, don’t like slimy and squirmy things in their hands. Probably because they never held them as little children. Much like I’ve always hated slugs, and snails.

I got over that manic wriggling of worms when I got my own worm farm, and the snails, oh the snails…I eventually ate one in my 30-somethings in yes, France, which incidentally tasted like a mushroom vol-au-vent.

Frogs are easy to handle, and their little hearts tire quickly. So tempering my boy’s sometimes relentless pursuit is sometimes necessary, with the little amphibian’s legs simply unable to kick anymore. Putting them in a container or lunchbowl allows the kids to return and check their haul when it’s time to call it a day.

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So allowing them to play and hold such things now is really doing them a favour. Especially the guys. Apart from that, for children there large lawns in beautifully manicured gardens (no ball sports) paved paths, dirt-trails and the funky, designer  tree canopy-bridge called ‘boomslang’. Perfect for picnics.

Check out http://www.sanbi.org/gardens/kirstenbosch

Six & The Shoelace

I never quite attached the importance to shoelaces that I did last year, the sixth time the earth has circled the earth since my son was born. We had sat on his floor a bunch of times, him fumbling with those laces, me silently willing him to get it right while offering mild encouragement.

Being aware that he has limited patience for fiddly things, akin to my own, I understood the frustration that I was witnessing.

I remember when collecting him from school on ‘my day’, that a classmate was sitting on the brick floor outside the classroom, tying his laces. Around him, children grappling with bags half their size stumbled towards their waiting mothers*, but the boy remained resolute, focused, and finally stood with a look of triumph.

My first thought was a vaguely competitive ‘hey, we have to practise’. That was something of a knee-jerk, primitive response, but looking back, I hadn’t been here before. With each new developmental day comes a new experience, but I knew this was a landmark event, along with learning to ride a bike and catching his first frog.

Allied to this sense of understanding and appreciation, was a realisation that at his mom’s house he didn’t have lace-ups, only those shoes with velcro straps. Which meant no opportunity to practice.

Yes, they’re much easier to put on and take off, but learning this skill is obviously a non-negotiable that will equip him in his battle with the drawstring in his shorts, and I suppose later on with knotting the rope in the tree he wants to swing from, like the one outside our home.

Luckily this was happening a few months ago, as winter got going and footwear – as opposed to slip-slops – were a necessity. It would’ve been harder now, with summer at last here, as I support he and his little sister going barefoot as often as possible and when appropriate.

But that’s all history now, he’s pretty much got it mastered. Check this out from a few months back:

Yes, he did start with the laces the wrong way around, but here’s a tip (if it’s needed): it’s important to let our children make mistakes, to give them the chance to work them out themselves. The sense of achievement visible on his face when he got it right was a highlight of my year, almost up there with learning to ride his bike.

I will soon be sharing that experience, plus the process of learning to read with this excellent reader I came across. In the meantime when I get my boy this weekend after ten days apart, we’ll fit in a shoelace refresher, working on that coordination needed to tighten those laces. Further down the line, when he turns seven in February, we’ll have a separate bunch of challenges on our hands.

If you have your own tales of success, failures and lessons learnt, please share with me, and in so doing help us all learn from each other.

Parentally, Happily and Paternally Yours 🙂

* not too many dads seem to do the pick-ups at our school. Luckily I work for myself, and with minimal time to see him I treasure the opportunity to learn about what’s going on in his world, even if it’s just a lift, so he knows his dad is present.

PS – you might also enjoy this link.