The carefree childhood

I’m not sure whether I ever mentioned this, but one of my favorite authors is Gerald Durrell, the renowned zoologist. He traveled all around the world and wrote many books about all the places, people and animals he encountered, but what I love the most from his works are the books about his childhood on Corfu.

In the Corfu books, he describes a truly carefree childhood. He was sporadically educated at home by a number of private tutors, but overall had all the space and time he wanted to explore, invent, and give free reign to the primary and overwhelming interest of his entire life – animals. In his books, he reports more than once that he never really had much interest in anything else.

He was fortunate enough, however, to have what many children these days lack – a true zeal for something, a burning desire to learn, know, and do everything connected with his favorite pursuit. His thirst for knowledge prompted him to read all about animals; a fortunate idea to start a nature journal, planted by a wise friend, encouraged him to develop his writing skills; the practical care of his specimens involved measuring, counting, building cages etc, which taught him probably all the math he ever needed. In the context of the animal kingdom, he learned history and geography, and his roams around the island of Corfu usually involved meeting an entire host of interesting characters, which were later vividly portrayed in his autobiographic books.

Such an education would have been considered skewed and incomplete, not to mention shockingly undersupervised by many of today’s experts, but it was far better than most children can hope for today. A strong passion for something, if this something involves exploring the world and meeting people, and being introduced into life, is education in itself. It is far better than professionally planned, age-appropriate, well-balanced, well-rounded, but insipid and boring lessons received in a school setting and automatically disposed of by a caged brain. Gerald Durrell had the desire and freedom to learn, access to resources of learning, and the rest was done almost automatically. Life educated him.

And, something which is perhaps a little trivial but nevertheless important, he never forgot to return home for tea. His books are full of descriptions of family meals, of breakfast, lunch, and dinner eaten together, of family outings and family parties, of life lived together, even though each individual child was given the freedom to be, and do, and develop according to his unique personality. I’ve always loved the descriptions of Durrell’s mother in his books – she is portrayed as someone stern enough to keep a family together, but indulgent enough to give her (sometimes slightly eccentric) children room to grow, and easygoing enough to adjust to the flow of life with all its bends and twists.

This combination of flexible, non-compartmentalized education and good, stable home life produced an intelligent, talented, energetic, sparky individual with an enormous zeal for learning, good works, and life in general. Not all of us can be as talented. Not all of us can do things of such magnitude; but many children can likewise blossom, in a warm home setting, with freedom to be who G-d made them, and encouragement to do what they are good at.

I was a child when I read those books for the first time, and could relate to the author very well. I remember thinking with envy, I wish I could live like that. For various reasons, I did not, but I think the seed was planted then. I reached adulthood perceiving it as an axiom that schools, at best, contribute nothing to the education of those who already love to learn, read every book they can lay their hands on, and would like to try everything and know everything.

Answering their questions

I have a theory which perhaps may sound a little far-fetched: by simply taking the time and effort to try and provide insightful answers to the questions our children ask us, we are helping them complete a large part of their education.

By doing so, we are achieving several things:

1. The children find that they can ask questions about anything in the world, which is in itself a fuel for further learning.

2. They also learn that they are important, that their questions aren’t brushed aside, but discussed with interest – and a 4-year-old can ask very interesting questions.

 3. Everything becomes an educational opportunity, because little children will ask about many things we take for granted, from Who made the stars to how is it that vinegar can dissolve an egg’s shell.

Of course, as this kind of free learning emerges spontaneously, it needs a good deal of unscheduled leisurely time to just hang around, watch and observe, and ask questions. Naturally, sometimes we are busy, and none of us can be available always, all the time… but when we are never available, when we are so overwhelmingly busy that we do things on autopilot even when we are there, it leaves a void in many things – our children’s educational opportunities among them.

Around here, the school bus leaves around 7:30 and comes back around 16:00. I have spoken to many stay-at-home mothers who, as of themselves, would love to have their children at home for more hours in a day, and genuinely wonder why a 6-year-old needs an 8-hour school day. Preschoolers in government-funded institutions now have an obligatory extension of their time at preschool until 14:00; such reforms are accepted with relief by the majority of working parents, but the minority of mothers who would like to take their children home early aren’t allowed to do so, unless under special circumstances (of course, things may be different in private kindergartens, but not everyone can afford them).

In Israel, it’s really pretty much black and white. Either you send your child to preschool/school, or you don’t  – and homeschooling is a very controversial choice here. Once the child is enrolled in school, most of their waking hours belong to it – extending to hours spent at home, because there’s also homework to be done. And the lengthening of the school day is painted as an “educational reform” which is in the children’s very best interests – disregarding things such as attention span and effectiveness of learning, which by necessity are reduced with the longer school hours. Thus, instead of a concentrated and effective school time, we get a longer time in which learning is diluted, causing boredom and frustration.

No more summer?

I opened the local newspaper this week and blinked. “Summer school is about to open”, it said. Well, I must have been out of the loop for a good long while, because I have only just learned that our Ministry of Education is running a pilot program, in the course of which schools are required to provide something like “school lite” for the first three weeks of the summer. Participation is voluntary and the payment depends on the family’s income – low-income families are supposed to get this lovely program for free.

I turned to my husband and asked, “don’t the kids get enough school as it is?”; my sentiment was echoed in many comments on the web made by students, who all basically say, “give us our summer vacation and let us rest after the hard work we pull in school all year.”

I realize that in families where both parents work (or, at least, both parents work outside the home), the question of What To Do With The Kids is a major one. No matter how much parents and women’s rights organizations clamor to have an ever longer government-funded school day, kindergarten or daycare program, to this day a family cannot rely on government-funded programs alone. So people sign up for private afternoon programs, hire babysitters, beg grandparents for some help, and register their children in a multitude of summer camps. Having a government-organized, government-funded program for a large part of the summer vacation can seem like manna sent from heaven.

I understand and sympathize, but I still don’t think it’s good for the children.

When the children are young and parents send them to a daycare or preschool, they basically turn the daycare provider or the preschool teacher into the most influential person in this child’s life. In the current reality, the child spends more time with the daycare provider or preschool teacher than he does with his parents. And you know what really gets to me? Often, the parents don’t even have much conscious choice regarding the identity of the person who cares for their child. Their choice of daycare or preschool is simply determined by where they live or work.

I’m not saying the actual time spent together is the only thing that matters; after all, in most traditional families where the children stay home, they usually see their father far less than their mother. It doesn’t mean that the father is less important, or less loved. But it does mean that the mother is responsible for the practical realities of bringing up the child. If the daycare worker is the one who spends the most time with the child, then this responsibility is shifted on to her.

I will never forget how a little girl of about three years told me, “my preschool teacher’s name is Ruthie.” “That’s nice,” I said, “and what is your Mom’s name?”… she shrugged. “My preschool teacher’s name is Ruthie,” she repeated. She continued to talk about Ruthie for a while, but didn’t say a word about her mother. Somehow, this made me incredibly sad.

Most preschool teachers and daycare workers are decent people who care about the general well-being of their charges, but they don’t individually care about each child the way his or her parents do. The essence of what preschool teachers do all day is group management. Their job is to get the kids during the day reasonably content so that they don’t get bored and start fighting. This requires constant entertainment. Also, naturally, many preschool teachers are nicer than the child’s parents. They don’t need to address the core issues of bad behavior, which turns us into the Bad Guys in the little child’s eyes. They don’t give out punishments. They just need to keep everybody happy until everybody goes home – and it would be unreasonable to expect anything else.

In school, things are a little different because there isn’t one teacher that spends the entire school day with the class, but rather, each subject is taught by a different teacher. This gives more influence to the peer group – an even less desirable situation, because though all the kids in a class may be good, they are spoiled by the effect of a large group of children that is cooped up together for long hours.

If that is not enough, there is incessant demand to make school hours even longer, to fund afternoon programs (which will probably soon turn into evening programs), to shorten vacations, to thin out the summer holidays, and so on and so forth. There are also extra-curricular activities, youth movements, and more. The overall trend means the children spend less and less time with their parents – or even on their own. This isn’t much better than the despised children’s houses of the old kibbutz movement.

This over-organizing, over-scheduling works to create passive adults that require close management and constant entertainment in order not to become restless, dissatisfied and bored. This also makes teenagers who have dropped out of school into such a disaster. If these teenagers had been given the right tools at the right age, they could find a place for themselves even if they don’t fit (and not everybody can fit) in an increasingly academic-oriented world. As it is, many of them are lost because it’s either strict school regime or total anarchy; self-management is a foreign concept.

Children need time. Time to grow, to mature, to learn, to dream… on their own. There is time for the positive, educational, organized experiences… but there must also be time for the “doing nothing”. For gentle, spontaneous learning, which can never happen if all our waking hours are strictly regulated.

The work that is never done

I believe the thing about housework that makes many wives so stressed out over it, is the fact that it never ends. The same things must be done over and over again, such as:

* Dishes to be washed

* Laundry to be washed, hung up, sorted, folded and put away

* Ironing for items that need it

* Floors to be swept and mopped

* Dusting shelves and other surfaces

* Meal planning and shopping (better in this order than the other way around)

* Food to be cooked and meals to be served

* Garden upkeep, if you have a garden

* Taking care of your animals, if you have any

* Making up the beds and changing the bedding

And of course, in addition to these and other tasks which must be done daily or weekly, there are countless other missions, seasonal or annual, such as re-arranging the closets and pantry shelves, getting rid of clutter, major planting or harvesting done in the garden, etc.

If you’ve ever woken up to the thoughts of everything that must be done and felt overwhelmed, I’m with you. That’s the main difference between office work and housework: in your home, you can never be really “done”. You can’t even walk away from the things that aren’t undone, because your home is also your working space (and your living room table, perhaps, serves for dinnertime, school, sewing, ironing and your husband’s computer business).

So what can we do? We can fret over everything that hasn’t been accomplished yet and turn our life into a pressure cooker, or we can ease up a little, slow down, and do what must be done with a smile, not forgetting to seize the moment for small joys of life – a particularly fine morning on which we choose to head out to a picnic at the park, delicious meals served at a table which perhaps still has computer parts piled at its end, and evenings of relaxing in the garden while sharing ice-cold watermelon for a summer dessert.

And accept the fact that neither today, nor tomorrow, nor next year there will be a moment when we are “done” with housework.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’m not saying all this as an elaborate excuse to do nothing. Orderliness and cleanliness are the cornerstones of a peaceful home, and I’m all for scheduling and planning, cooking and baking, cleaning and scrubbing and getting to all those nooks and crannies once in a while – only it isn’t really possible to have it all together in one day, and even if it is, some things might be more important. Better split a large project in several days than become impatient and brush your whole family aside.

There are of course also those things where your work can be simplified and/or reduced, especially during the busier periods of your life. For example, since Tehilla was born, I haven’t done much ironing. I also deliberately choose to buy clothes which do not require ironing. In your garden, you can choose plants which are easier to care for; meals can be a simple affair. Around here, during the week I usually serve simple one-course meals such as soup, crustless quiche or pasta, or bread and an array of cold salads on those days which are so hot that you can hardly bear to cook.

Tips for busy homemakers

I received an email from a reader asking me about my homemaking schedule, and what advice I can give someone whose organizational skills aren’t her strongest point (ahem… like myself *smile*).

In homemaking, there are no rigid rules, and I’m certainly far from being able to call myself a pro! Besides, things change all the time and, as good as schedules are, sometimes we need to modify them, or even let go of them for a season, to do what is best for our families.

Having said that… I do have a system of sorts, and while it isn’t perfect, it works. I’m a morning person, which means that my energy level does a sharp dip in the afternoon, so I try to concentrate all the major chores (laundry, dishes, beds, animal care, garbage disposal) as well as any cleaning in the morning, so that the afternoon can be dedicated to more relaxing pursuits; often I schedule my cooking for the afternoon as well, and sometimes I make dinner preparations in the morning (defrost meat, chop up vegetables, etc) and just toss everything into the pot or pop it into the oven in the afternoon.

But some people aren’t morning people; if you feel you have more energy or free time in the afternoon, you might want to make the morning a gentler time, and gradually pick up speed as the day comes along.

I cook for my freezer, provided there’s freezer space. That is to say, I make large batches and freeze them in separate containers, so that convenient-sized portions can be defrosted at need. I also freeze bread a lot; I put it in the freezer when it’s still warm, and it tastes just like fresh when defrosted.

I have an erase board which I simply love. It’s placed in a convenient location in the kitchen, and contains several columns, such as shopping list, weekly cooking plan (which I try to come up with at the end of every week), project list, and list of things to research/write/check. Whenever I get something accomplished I erase it from the board, and it’s so rewarding!

There are also many websites with organizational tips for homemakers, and some of them offer samples of printable schedules. I’m sure that, even if it takes a little time, you can work out something that is right for you and your family.

Nothing Special

I was always one of the top students in my class; I grew up hearing how talented I am, how I’m capable of doing anything I put my mind to. While I was studying for my degree, it was the same – I kept hearing how intelligent I am and how much is expected of me. Yet even then, I already felt the pull of my heart to be a wife and mother, and shortly after getting out of university I was blessed to meet a man who appreciated a wife who works in her home and cares for the children.

The few years that followed were some of the most intense of my life. I’ve had two children spaced close together, and many months were a blur of sleep-deprivation and constantly changing diapers. I’ve mostly gotten into stride now, so much that the addition of a third baby to our family went relatively smoothly, and I’m able to enjoy my life with my children, however…

… I had to step down and confess that I’m nothing special after all.

It was a humbling realization.

Am I doing important work? Yes. I’m raising my children and providing a safe haven for my family. Am I spending my days in a worthwhile, productive way? Yes (well, at least I try). Am I irreplaceable for my children? Yes. Flawed and imperfect as I am, I am the only mother they have. Would I trade what I do for anything else? No.

But still, I do just what women all over the world do. I take care of my children and the house, I clean, I cook, I do the laundry… I’m doing the same work countless generations of women always did. I can no longer pride myself on some very expertly written paper that got top grades, or on a lecture I gave in front of a professional, interested audience. There’s no applause, no impressed audience, and no financial benefits. Today’s achievements consist of cleaning the stove, mopping the floor and reading a chapter of Pippi Longstocking to my children.

This led me to re-evaluating my worth, based not on what I managed to do (which someone somewhere can do better, no matter how hard I try), but on my being what I am… a wife and a mother. Like any woman, in the sense of what I do, but uniquely important from the perspective of my family and precious as a child of G-d.

Mostly this has been a process of shedding layers of pride. This is no longer about my talents, my expectations, my ambitions, my capabilities… it is about taking care of others, humility, and lots and lots of prayer. This may sound like sacrifice, but it isn’t really, because my journey is shaping me into a different person, one I like a lot better, and also one who is a lot happier and has a much truer sense of self-worth and dignity.

Just being home

I think the best, most effective, and most enjoyable way to save money at home actually isn’t about pinching pennies, or utilizing the contents of our freezer and pantry to the utmost efficiency, or saving electricity and water (although all these practices are good and valid, of course). It is simply staying home, as opposed to running/driving about.

Of course, we all like to go out sometimes. Day/field trips, visits with family/friends, even shopping trips are fun – but it’s all about the proportion of time spent in vs. out (by “in”, I also mean on your lot – in your garden, on your deck, on your sun roof, etc, not necessarily in your living room).

It is really quite straightforward: when you are pleasantly occupied in your home, instead of browsing shop-windows, for example, you have less temptation to buy stuff you don’t really need. Also, you don’t waste money on gas.

Of course, this means you have to put in the effort to make your home a place of fun, enjoyment, wholesome activity, family togetherness, usefulness, comfort and recreation. And there is really no limit to all those things, even in the smallest, most humble home.

This doesn’t mean you need to have expensive decorations or furniture, or spacious rooms. A welcoming home is cozy and well-organized, without being oppressive to children or visitors (as in, making people wary of touching anything for fear of ruining a perfect arrangement).

A day or two ago, my daughters complained about “having nothing to play with”. Now, if you had seen their room, you would have known the claim was simply ridiculous – because though we’re not at all consumerism-driven when it comes to toys, still, gifts from grandparents and friends, and giveaways, etc, make for quite enough to be getting on with. As a matter of fact, they had a couple of new board games and puzzles they had hardly touched. All these, however, were lost in a jumble of toys all piled atop one another.

So, you need to make books, games, toys, and art and craft supplies easily accessible.

Another point is to create inviting areas for all sorts of activities: reading, drawing, sewing, etc. We have one all-purpose table in the kitchen that serves us for eating, studying, ironing, board games, and all sorts of projects. Being so much used, it’s easy for our table to overflow with stuff. I must be careful to keep it clean and clutter-free, so that when my children want to draw, they won’t need to restrict themselves to the last tiny corner of free table space.

Do interesting things at home and thereabouts. Every year, we make a family project of harvesting, sorting, processing and putting up pickled olives. We currently also have seeds going on indoors, several experiments on the go, our chickens, and always plenty of reading to do. Naturally, in the winter when it’s too cold and rainy, and in the summer on the hottest days, we are more restricted to indoor activities. The spring and autumn are the pleasantest seasons where we live.