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Two of my kids are participating in Somerville’s Open Air Circus this summer, a local circus produced by and for kids. My teenage stepson is taking a leadership intensive and teaching classes in everything from unicycling to juggling, while the five-year-old in my life has become an instant expert at balance beams, tumbling and running around like a maniac in “circus pants”.

This is all practically free for me (we paid a $20 membership fee at the beginning of the summer, for six weeks of classes). It’s gloriously disorganized and fun, and the kids are learning a lot. Not only about how to perform in a circus, but how to be in a class or teach one. We love it.

The Open Air Circus is the progeny of a grown-up circus called the ExtraTerrestrial Circus Experiment. They would love it if everyone came to their benefit show this weekend. Here’s their information about it:

ExtraTerrestrial Circus Experiment is putting on a benefit performance on July 10th at The Armory in Somerville. Advanced tickets are on sale now at http://www.openaircircus.org/benefit.asp at $8/child (5-18 years old), $15/adult, and $40/family (admits 2 adults and 2 children). Tickets at the door will be $12/child and $20/adult. Please let all your friends know about this opportunity to enjoy a spectacular performance while helping support the OPENAIR Circus.

Please consider coming in a green fashion (public transportation, walking, biking, skating, etc.). We have some directions on the above page of how to get there but are glad to help you figure out a your particular path if you email us with your starting location. If you do come by car, please remember to park in the lot behind the Armory to try to avoid street parking congestion.

“Bedtime”, that lovely two hour span after dinner before anyone actually gets into bed, is not more fun than I expected it to be. But between camping and sleepovers, we’ve only done it here twice, and for one of those times I had an assistant. Yes, that’s cheating. No, I don’t care.

But after bedtime, there’s the quiet space where they really fall asleep, and that happens with or without the hours-long ritual, whether or not I stay to see it unfold. Tonight I did.

Watching Rio’s face sometimes I see glimpses of her adult face peeking through, the clear set of her eyes around long cheeks. It’s a face very different from what I imagined on her. More of her father than I see in her now, as a kid. Quiet, serious, focused, but also joyful and deeply grounded. I’m wary, of course, of projecting my visions of her future onto the soft clay of her childhood, but it’s nice to imagine her strong, free and different from who I thought she’d become. Especially as I watch her drift helplessly into sleep, clutching her baby doll under her chin, losing her way mid-sentence as she tries to demand another bedtime story in sign language.

Serena is growing up too. Tonight she finished nursing (finally! Who knew there was an end?), and then rolled and flopped and wiggled and turned. Eventually she sat straight up in bed, looked around for a moment assessing the situation, and began very earnestly pushing me off the mattress. She’d pick up my knee and give it a shove, then start pushing my belly…I got the message and moved to the rocker. From there, I watched her writhe and wiggle and sigh and tuck herself under the covers and then kick them off and then pull them back up until finally she so very slowly dropped her eyes shut and was gone to dreaming, hands folded behind her head as if napping on a sunny beach.

Good night girls. I’m glad we had this moment together. You’re beautiful. I do love watching you grow, even if I’m grouchy about how long it takes some days.

I have this friend. Let’s call her M. M has a daughter a little younger than Rio, who we’ll call N.

M and I like to do a lot of things together, and one of our favorite games is Bad Plan Theater. That’s when we come up with a plan so crazy it just might work – like flying to California on a whim or walking down the abandoned railroad tracks just to see where they go.

On this week’s episode of Bad Plan Theater, we decided to indulge our daughters in the slumber party they’ve been asking for since last summer. What could go wrong?

So many things. The mamas could be tired and a little cranky. The pizza could be cold. The clean laundry basket could get ‘discovered’ by the kids and turned into a vehicle that spews laundry around the house. Storytime could mysteriously take 90 minutes. Little N could find it impossible to sleep with a guest in her room.

But what actually had us packing our bags at 9:30 at night to head home was Rio, my big, strong, independent child, breaking down into tears for just one little moment in the dark and saying, “Mommy, I want to sleep in my bed! I want my Daddy!”

This lasted only a moment. I said yes, of course she could go home. Slumber parties are never required. I finished the story I was telling to N, while Rio bounced up, said a tender good-night to her friend and fled downstairs. I ran into her at the door, where she was slipping her sparkly-silver-Wizard-of-Oz slippers on over her PJ feet and cheerfully saying goodnight to our host.

“Good-bye, M!” she said. “I’m going to go home and sleep in my own bed. Thank you for the offer, though.”

Thank you for the offer? That child has better manners than I do.

I’m proud of her for being polite and collected and clear about her needs. I am also secretly relieved that sleeping over at a friend’s house for the first time turned out to be a scary prospect for her. She’s so tough, it’s easy to forget she’s also a small girl still. I’m glad she can still be vulnerable with me when she needs to, and that she’s not really 5 going on 30.

Rio's allowance jars

Rio's allowance jars

This post at the Simple Dollar got me thinking about kid’s allowance money. It got me thinking too much for a blog comment over there, so you get to read all about it.

Kid’s allowances are one of my most regular cash expenses, along with groceries and gas for my car. All the frugal living tactics I know of would tell me to cut them out, just like I’ve canceled all my magazine subscriptions and club memberships. They’re a recurring weekly expense that is not strictly necessary, and they’re not helping me pay down my debts. That’s not a line item I want to see in my budget.

But I keep giving the kids an allowance. Why?

I want my children to share in the wealth of the household. Everyone who lives here gets a bed, clothes to wear, food to eat, time and space to do work they love and to pursue a social life, and the loving support of their family members. Everyone also gets a little pocket money, that comes from the income brought in by the adults in the house. I don’t consider this stuff everyone has a right to, it’s just the contract we’ve made within our family about how we run our household.

There aren’t any restrictions on getting the allowance. It is theirs whether or not they do chores, behave themselves, or spend it wisely. Just like the expectation that they will help clean up after meals and treat everyone in the house with kindness is there whether they’ve had a bad day or the other sibling really started it or they just don’t want to. It’s part of being in this family.

I understand that many people also use allowance money to teach kids about how money works, and if mine learn something from getting theirs, so much the better.

Here is how we do it: everyone over the age of 4 gets a weekly allowance equal to one dollar per year of their age. If you are a child, that allowance is divided into four categories: Savings, Spending, When I’m A Grown Up (this is known as Investing to adults) and Giving. Trent from Simple Dollar calls this approach The Money Savvy Pig Philosophy. I first read about it in a magazine where I think it was simply called “a good idea”.

We started giving an allowance to my older daughter when she started asking me to buy things for her that I did not want to buy – in particular a replacement for a pair of sparkly sequined shoes that had been given to her as a gift, and which she wore till the sequins rubbed off and the soles gave out.

When Rio began getting her allowance, she saved carefully for those sequined shoes, and after about two months was able to buy them. She was thrilled to buy them with her own money, but hasn’t saved up for a big purchase since. She has nearly worn out the new pair by now, and has plenty of money saved up to replace them if she wants to.

I got four glass milk jars from a local dairy and labeled them Spending, Saving, When I’m a Grown Up and Giving. Rio helped by decorating the labels with watercolors. Then I began giving her four dollars a week with the caveat that she needed to put one dollar in each jar. Now that she gets $5 a week she can choose where to put the extra dollar. Mostly she uses it to buy bubblegum.

Like Trent plans to do with his son, I started out giving Rio her allowance in Sacajawea dollars, but stopped when she got upset by that and said she wanted to get paid in “real dollars”. I may start again because someone gave her a Sacajawea dollar for her birthday and now she’s fascinated by them.

My teenage stepson also gets $15 a week, one dollar per year of age. This feels like a lot to me, but is also about what he spends on bus fare and a few trips to the cafe around the corner to get some quiet time away from his sisters. Unlike with the little ones, I don’t restrict how he spends or saves his allowance. I do model what I hope is good behavior with money, and talk openly with him about frugality. The other day we built a bicycle together out of spare parts so he’d have a summer ride, rather than buying him a new bike. I think he learns a lot that way.

Is he too old to just be handed money? I don’t think so. Right now he has perfect grades, a weekly volunteer gig and a heavy load of summer reading for his fall classes. I don’t want him to sacrifice any of those things to a summer job because he feels a want of pocket money, so I give it to him. I worked a lot in high school, and I don’t think it taught me anything useful about managing my own money or helped me build any career skills for my future. My time would have been better spent doing more volunteer work and creative skill-building, so that’s what I want my kids to focus on.

Serena, the toddler, got in on the allowance action when she saw me giving money to the other kids. She wanted to be part of that ritual so badly she actually learned to say the word “Money”, or something like it with fewer consonants and more insistent hand gestures.

For Serena, I created a single allowance jar, also using an old milk bottle. I give her a few coins from my wallet each week. We put the coins in her jar together, and a few times a week when she wants to play with it, we take her jar out and she gets to dump all the coins on the floor and carefully pick them up again and put them back in the jar. She gets real value out of the money I give her – as a toy! And she doesn’t feel left out of the allowance system.

I’m sure our system isn’t perfect, but we haven’t run headlong into any big problems with it so far. Except the recurring expense issue, and I can happily afford $20 a week for my kids’ allowances. Because I’ve learned to live frugally myself in so many other areas.

What do you do with kids and money? Do your kids get an allowance? How much? Under what conditions? Let me know in the comments.

My mother gave Rio a bicycle for her birthday. A purple bicycle covered with Disney Princess decals. Safe to say, this was her dream bike, long awaited. She spent many winter afternoons sitting on Nana’s lap fantasizing about the bike that would magically appear to her when she turned five. So of course my mom made it happen. It’s in her grandmother contract, I’m sure.

Since I sent “Santa” a letter last Christmas asking “him” to go easy on the beeping, blinking Stuff, we have received nothing battery operated for the kids. Instead, the bike came with a bright pink, princess-logo-sporting, made-in-china air horn. It might be the loudest thing either kid has ever owned. Conveniently, it was not attached to the bike, so the kids were able to bring it in the house and blare it at the breakfast table for a few days.

A word about my mother. When Rio entered the world, I laid down the law: give nothing to this child that you would not give to a child of the opposite sex/gender. Ah, that was the sweet, naive week when I imagined that child was mine, not a free agent in the world. My mom’s response was to show up at my house the day we brought Rio home with about ten pounds of pink lace and an innocent look. “What?” she said, before I could mention the dresses. “I would have bought these for a boy!”

Of course you would, Mom. And you were surely powerless against the waiter who gave eight-month-old Rio her first Oreo cookie while I was in the bathroom. I love you. Never, ever start listening to me about my kids. You totally know better than I do.

I actually do love that my mom gives the girls Disney schwag, and jelly beans and access to cable TV. That’s a huge part of the world they’re growing in, and they get none of it at home. Somebody has to do it, and Nana is the perfect choice. (She also taught Rio how to slide down staircase bannisters, but that’s another story…)

Most recently, she gave Rio this bike. The bike has a row of princess faces emblazoned on the handlebars. As she climbed onto the bike, Rio looked thoughtfully at the princesses, and pointed to Belle.

“Belle looks very princessy there, Mama,” she said. “This must be after. You know, after those photos we saw yesterday.”

Not sure what to make of that, except to say that I’m grateful to Ms. Dina Goldstein for inviting my daughter to think about the prettiness of her princesses.

Snow White, as seen by Dina Goldstein

Snow White, as seen by Dina Goldstein

What parent has not worried about the impact of Disney’s princess marketing juggernaut on their young kids? It’s ubiquitous, poisonous and almost impossible to avoid.

Today, a good friend sent me this link to Fallen Princesses, a photo exhibit by Dina Goldstein. She is, apparently, a mom and a photographer, and these photos are her answer to the dark questions the Disney princesses stirred up when her three-year-old became besotted with them.

Because it was sent to me with no warning about what it was, I happened to look at it with my five-year-old daughter on my lap.

Let me tell you, we had some fascinating conversation about what those princesses in those pictures were doing. I was only a little dismayed when Rio cooed at Snow White, “Look, Mama, this is when she has babies! And a husband! And a dog!”

uh…yes. To her credit, a little later Rio looked more closely and said, “They do seem to have a lot of babies.”

After we’d looked at the whole series, Rio wanted to know what was going on with these princesses. Especially with Belle, who is depicted having plastic surgery.

“She’s having surgery on her face,” I said.

“Why?”

“To make her look like a princess,” I said. I did not want to be having this conversation. I don’t want my five-year-old to know about plastic surgery, or the desire to be someone else, or the beauty industry.

“Why would she do that?” This is one of those moments, I realized. One of the moments when my daughter asks me hard questions and I owe her real answers.

“She doesn’t know how beautiful she is,” I said. “She’s confused.”

And then I told her that real women sometimes have surgery on their faces to try to be prettier. That real women sometimes do all the things these princesses are doing – get sick, have babies that no one helps them care for, get sad, grow old and lonely.

Rio expressed the opinion that princesses are great, and she understands why any woman would want to look like one. On cross-examination, she agreed that I am beautiful, and don’t look like a princess. That’s because I’m not one, she explained.

“I wish I was a princess,” Rio said. “But I can’t do anything about that.”

“You are better than any princess to me,” I said.

“No, I’m not,” Rio said very matter-of-factly. “Princesses are better than me. Because they are prettier.”

um…

Deep breath. What to say? This is the textbook Disney-is-evil stuff I’ve read about but never expected to encounter in my own home. Lost, I repeated myself.

“You are better than any princess to me.”

“Even the world is not better than princesses,” Rio explained patiently, the way one talks to someone very slow. “Princesses are the best.”

After that she wanted to know if princesses are real. I showed her a picture of Princess Di, and talked about how hard her life was. Rio wanted to know if Real Princesses are real, and I assured her that all of Disney’s princesses are entirely fake.

I’ve always been a bit of an apologist for Disney. I don’t buy that stuff, obviously, and we don’t watch TV at home. But I haven’t worked to keep it away from my kids either.

Very early in my parenting, a mom I admired made a case for princess-worship as a little girl version of goddess worship, in which young kids deify images of beautiful, magically gifted, powerful young women. I liked that reading, and clung to it when my two-year-old became obsessed with the Little Mermaid.

Beyond the female divinity argument, I’m an avid fan of Bruno Bettelheim. I’m sure he wouldn’t defend Disney; they whitewash fairy tales in exactly the way he advises against. But I think one of his most basic points is that children experience stories differently than adults do. They are drawn into a story for reasons opaque to their parents, and are satisfied by elements that elude us. This should be obvious to anyone who has ever let their preschooler pick the story at bedtime and then been stuck reading a Clifford book aloud for the 37th time. So while the princess schwag looks appaling to me, I’ve rested happy in the knowledge that I am not the target audience, and can’t know what my kid is getting out of it.

Finally, like most of my peers I survived a childhood riddled with Barbie, GI Joe and Strawberry Shortcake, and still grew up to be a self-lovin’ hippy feminist. Rio will do just fine no matter what crappy gender stereotypes she plays with as a kid. By the time she’s old enough to read this, I’m sure the fact that she ever wanted to be a Disney princess will be an embarassing footnote on a glorious life as a self-possessed, beautiful, brilliant young person.

That said, hearing my own daughter (who, let’s face it, has had a pretty sheltered life when it comes to media) say that she thinks princesses are better than her because they are prettier cost Disney all their credit with me and then some. Rio will be fine, but they are not helping. They are hurting.

Why am I posting about this? It’s not because I’m all riled up about how Disney is undermining my daughter’s self-esteem. I do plan to write them a letter, which I expect them to ignore. Whatever.

I am posting about this because Rio asked me to. “Mama, can we put these on your website?” she said. She wanted everyone we know to see these princesses. Because, you may recall, princesses are The Best. I agree with her. I want everyone we know to see this – both the photos and the discussion they provoked – in the hopes that a few more of us will wake up and stop turning a blind eye to what Disney is doing to our girls.

The girls are playing house. Rio is the mommy. They are apparently getting ready to go for a picnic, and are packing their lunches.

Rio-as-mom, “You have to show me what you packed so I can see if it is healthy for you.”

Her friend/baby shows her.

Rio, “No, no, no. Just gum is not a healthy snack.”

Her friend, “What about gum and something else.”

Rio, “OK. Gum and something else. Here, have a donut. Gum plus a donut is healthy.”

I’m trying to stifle my laughter while they set off on their journey to the music room with their healthy donuts. Clearly my work here is not quite done. I love how she’s figured out that:

  • what the kids put in the picnic basket probably does not count as a healthy meal on it’s own, and
  • a healthy meal requires more than one type of food,

while totally failing to register in any way that:

  • certain foods are healthier than others, and
  • donuts are not food

On the plus side, they have learned that gum is not food. There’s hope for them yet.

Sitting at the table one day, about ten days ago, Rio and I were doing a math project. She seemed to have come to the end of her interest in it. It was a simple game with paper, pen and a box of smooth round stones.

(In spite of everything I am about to say, I remain steadfast in my belief that these three items can keep a person busy from age five to fifty. There was nothing wrong with the math stuff, nor with the method we were using.)

“Rio, you’re getting so grown-up,” I said. “Soon we will need to get a book of kindergarten math games, because you have learned this game so well.”

“Don’t worry about that, Mama,” she said in an off-hand way. “I’ll be going to kindergarten in a few months, and I can learn math there.”

Uh…no, we’ll be doing kindergarten here, I explained gently. That’s what homeschooling means.

No, Mama, I am Going To School, she informed me. We sat down to talk this over.

Turns out, Rio wants to go to school instead of homeschooling. She wants this because:

  • she wants more time away from me.
  • she wants to get away from her annoying toddler sister.
  • she wants to make a lot of new friends.
  • she wants to learn Math.

And finally, her bottom line reason, “Mama, remember last year, when I wanted to try homeschooling, and then I did try it, and I liked it? Well, now I want to try kindergarten. I like to try new things.”

Of course you do, kid.

My goal in life for the past five years has been to raise that child, and her siblings, to be creative, self-possessed and powerful. I want her to know what she wants and be able to get it for herself. If she’s using those tools now to tell me she wants to go to kindergarten, I don’t feel right thwarting her.

I know just about every homeschooling family goes through a little kindergarten envy, especially with the oldest child. There are a lot of strategies for working around this. But I don’t want to. I don’t feel like Rio is asking to go to school because some of her friends do or because she wants to ride a bus. She seems to deeply grok what school is about and want to do it.

There remained, however, the small matter of logistics.I explained to Rio that the time for kindergarten registration had passed and we had not signed up. “Can you call them and ask if they have a place for me?” she said, very matter-of-fact. How could I refuse? I called. They were full. Our public school district offers kindergarten, but they are not legally bound to provide it to every child the way they are with first grade. So the kindergartens get full and they just turn people away. We’ll put you on a waiting list, they said. People move. You could get lucky.

I talked to my beloved husband. He shares my feelings about public schools, which can be politely summed up as: “No, Thank You”. Like me, however, he wants to honor the Adult Inside our children when that voice speaks, and it’s pretty clear that the Adult Inside was speaking to us about Rio going to kindergarten.

“I’ll make some phone calls,” he says. “There was that school on campus…”

My husband, gentle readers may recall, works at Tufts University. They do in fact host a school for children. A school that is the oldest nursery school in North America. It is a competitive private school. The kind you have to apply to nine months before you hope your child will start school there. The kind that preps kids for prep schools. The kind that charges more in annual tuition than I have earned from my freelance work in the past three years.

I thought we had pretty much closed the door on that as an option for our kids after the whole Fayerweather Thing last year. But the Universe can’t give you anything if you don’t ask, so I told him to go ahead and call.

He called. They said, “Oh. Kindergarten? We’ll send you an application.”

We filled it out that night, and he dropped it off the next morning. They called an hour later. “When can you bring your daughter in for an interview?”

We brought her in a few days later. Right away, it was clear that this was the Right Place. The director came up, introduced herself to all three of us and then focused entirely on Rio – speaking directly to her, pointing out features of the school that might interest her (like the wooden chimes built into the staircase bannister). They broke their own stated rule about not allowing kids to do classroom observation because they saw how mature she is and correctly thought she could handle it and would enjoy it. When she asked a question – how do kids learn math here? – she got a clear, honest answer. An answer that involved divvying up buckets of dinosaurs and learning to read clocks and calendars.

The campus and program almost exactly match her old preschool, which I always thought was perfect for her in every way. It’s a very open program that allows children to direct nearly all their learning, but has a high ratio of adults to kids and a small amount of structured time each day. They’re on a beautiful corner of the Tufts campus, surrounded by green space and nature-themed playgrounds. Like the Family Coop, they go outdoors every day, something I have been less successful at than I’d hoped with my home program.

So it’s great, but almost certainly unavailable to us. Except…as we were wrapping up the tour, the director quietly let us know that the day Martin called, a family had notified them that they might have to pull out of the school because they were buying a house. The director mentioned to the front desk that there was a possible kindergarten opening, and they should encourage anyone who called to apply. Martin called an hour later.

The other family confirmed that they were definitely leaving two hours before Rio showed up to take her tour, and the opening was hers. There was no active waiting list because they had closed kindergarten registration nearly four months ago and stopped taking applications.

How are we going to pay for this? Funny you should ask. In seeking the answer to that question, we stumbled across an error on my husband’s pay stubs. They’ve been underpaying his for his research work for the past year. Tufts owes him back pay equal to approximately half the tuition, and will be increasing his weekly salary going forward by an amount that will about cover the other half.

I’ve had goosebumps all week thinking about how the Universe fell all over itself to create this unlikely opportunity for my little girl. I’m still ambivalent about school as a long-term prospect and certain I will miss her come fall.

Kindergarten, here we come.

Rio, drawing a whale on her arm

Rio, drawing a whale on her arm

After rolling around on the floor whining, ‘I’m bored, Mommy. MOMMY I AM BORED,” for about an hour, Rio decided to draw. I promised to join her in this drawing project in ten minutes when I had finished reading Livejournal, uh, the important business I was doing online.

We carried on an animated conversation for the next ten minutes about how many minutes it would be until I joined her and what animals I was going to draw pictures of when I got there.

I arrived at the table to discover that she had put away the coloring books I’d laid out for her and set up our face paints. OK, sure, we can paint each other’s faces.

“You just have to wait a minute, Mom. I am busy.”

Busy, o bored one? What exactly are you busy doing?

“I am drawing this shark on my arm.”

Scribbles furiously in blue.

“Actually, I think it might a whale.”

More scribbling.

She asks me if I have ever seen a whale, and if her arm is bigger than a whale in real life. The scribbling continues. And then…

She is finished.

“Now THAT is a whale.”

Rio hugging her birthday gift

Rio hugging her birthday gift

For Rio’s fifth birthday I made her a gift: a fabric pencil case that rolls up. It has little pockets for scissors and a ruler and a glue stick and sharpener, and holds about two dozen colored pencils (and a few regular #2s).

I worked very hard on this, getting sewing lessons from a friend (who also did the quilting). It was fun to make, but also took a long time.

I gave it to her fully expecting that it would be opened and thrown into the bottom of the gift bucket in favor of some shinier, noisier toy. I also figured she would bring it out again a week later when the shiny noisy toys were forgotten under the bed, and that she’d use it every day for a long time.

I was cool with that imagined trade-off. I’m an adult, I’m over the whole instant gratification thing.

Or so I told myself until she opened it and it turned out to be The Gift. This photo to the right, the one where she’s holding the pencil case in a tight embrace, is not the moment she opened it. It’s the moment a few minutes later when she realized she’d set it down and someone had moved it, and started to cry a little because she just Could Not Bear to be parted from her beloved pencil case, and then I found it and put it back into her arms.

She took it upstairs and held court with it for the rest of the party while six other little girls swarmed around her, oohing and aahing. Pencil cases, man. Little chicks dig ’em. Who knew?

I’m incredibly grateful to my friend who helped with this. Not only did she stay up late one tired night and teach me how to use the sewing machine she’s leant me, she also spent her own time and skill quilting little kites onto the surface. I had a blanket like that as a kid, where the images on the fabric were quilted, and I still recall viscerally the magic of running my fingers over the little rainbows and feeling their shapes standing out against the quilt.

I may have been wrong about her opening it up and forgetting it for a week, but I wasn’t wrong about her using it every day. It’s become a staple of craft time, and she clearly feels very big now having her Own Art Supplies to work with.

The pencil case in action

The pencil case in action

Flickr Photos

Holding hands

Emerson graduation smiles

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A little bird told me…

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