Monday, March 18, 2013

Good-bye to hair and the morning cuddle


It's a small thing, but I finally agreed to let my oldest two girls have short hair. They are now the proud owners of bobs. 'What's the big deal?' I hear you ask. 'Isn't long hair in kids a nightmare?'

Well, yes. But in term time, like any family, we're busy. In the morning, we run around checking lunch boxes and finding bike locks and brushing teeth and hopping around as we look for that other shoe, and before I know it everyone has run out the door without a hug. After school, the kids go into the garden to play; or curl up in a quiet corner with a story; or build a cubby, while I bring in the washing and cook dinner. After dinner, it's a run around the house then off to bed; but sometimes they're so grumpy that we shout and leave their room; and oftentimes we have people over so we tuck them in quickly then return to our conversation. All too easily, physical affection is overlooked.

Of course, there are afternoons when I grab a cuddle when I pick them up from school; and evenings when I tuck someone into bed then snuggle down next to them before tackling the dishes; but often I don't.

Yet I don't want to be a family where everyone inhabits their own little bubble, protected from contact with others. It's how I grew up and what I know, but I want more. I want a good hug from my busy daughters every day, even if I have to trick them into it.

One ruse I had was to insist that my daughters have long hair. Every morning, like it or not, they had to stand still while I brushed and put up their hair, then gave them a quick cuddle. It was my little secret, a way of making sure I spent a couple of minutes in physical contact with them, squeezing in a hug and even a quick kiss for the top of each head before they ran off to other things.

But those independent girls – all of six and nine, I might add – didn't like me doing their hair. They wanted to do their own hair, thanks very much. And after months of their campaigning, I finally capitulated.

Each of them was booked into a salon. Each of them had a foot or two of hair removed. And each of them emerged beaming, and weeks later are still clearly savouring their new hair-do.

I am delighted at how proudly they hold their heads, and how quick they are to get ready in the morning now they don't have to wait for their daily plaits. But there's a little piece of me that aches for the morning cuddle, those few minutes each day which they no longer seem to need or want to give. Each morning, I find myself wondering, are these growing pains I am experiencing? How did they become so independent so young? And how will I trick these clever kids now?!

Friday, March 8, 2013

A letter to everyone who has asked about the new school


I am often asked about our new school. We've been there about a month and I'm enjoying the honeymoon period, even as I feel sad about the many parents and relationships I have left behind. I can't keep up with a schoolful of parents, and I miss saying hello, comparing shoes, sharing a joke or talking about the weather with people that I know.

But the new school! What a relief! It's like coming home.

What shall I describe? The welcome? The principal who warmly greets the students every morning at a short assembly, and revs them up for the day? The teachers who have invited me to visit their classroom any time; who have identified my daughters' strengths and weaknesses and gently pushed them already? The kids who have asked my girls to birthday parties, and who have quickly become friends? The parents who have come up to me in the playground and introduced themselves? The good conversations I've had, coffee in hand, with new acquaintances on the deck of the school canteen?

Should I describe the transformation in my children? Last year, school refusal; this year, eager anticipation? Last year, chicken scratch; this year, beautifully formed letters? Last year, constant daily squabbling; this year, quiet cheerfulness?

Should I write about the shift in me, from anxiety to confidence, from being overwhelmed by anger to being flooded by gratitude? By the end of last year I had nothing but scathing contempt for school, and felt sick with guilt when I had to leave my kids there; we took many days off. This year, I feel confident that they are in good hands. One friend, who moved with us from our old school to our new, looked appraisingly at me in the playground last week. 'There's something different,' she said, 'I haven't seen you smile in a school playground for a year, now you smile all the time.'

But I don't think I'll tell you about these things; I will write about the grounds, instead. The red brick school is built on a hilltop; the land slopes sharply down to chickens, veggies, and rambling gardens dotted with climbing frames, fruit trees, eucalypts and cubbies. At the bottom of the hill, the ground flattens into a wide oval. The breeze roars up from the south and dances in the treetops. Five miles from the city centre, a large freeway to the west: yet it feels like the middle of the country.

In the grounds stands an old windmill, mounted on a steel frame. My six-year-old climbed the frame the other day, to just below the blades. I was still in the grounds and saw her, so I went over and called her down, suggesting that getting her hair caught in a windmill blade was probably not a good idea. I was also a bit worried about the host of other kids who, inspired by her, were now trying to clamber up.

I've come from a school where control became the order of the day. Parents were allowed in the school in very limited capacities; the grounds were locked at nights and weekends; my daughter was constantly shouted at for climbing; almost everything was presented as an unacceptable risk. I mentioned my daughter's exploit to our new vice principal, to gauge her response. 'Hmm,' she said, 'perhaps suggest to her that she can climb it on the weekend, just not in school hours.'

'Sure,' I said. Inside I was turning cartwheels. Where once she would have been yelled at, here she has been given an appropriate time and an invitation. Here, she can be a kid and take good risks. Here, the gates are never locked. We are all welcome at any time, on any day.

I was expecting the transition to be long, slow and difficult, but it has been a dream. My nine-year-old is radiant; she frequently describes a school day as 'the best I've ever had'. My six-year-old has said the same thing. A cheeky active kid, she also said, 'I love this school. I don't get yelled at all day.' She is experiencing steady, calm discipline, and in its quiet predictability she has relaxed – and finds it easy to behave.

I am so grateful that, where last year I withdrew from everything, this year I am signing up for things: the canteen; reading in the classroom; and the chook roster. Next week, we will go in on Saturday and Sunday, let the chooks out, give them clean water, and have a long play. I can't wait to see my daughter up the windmill again then. And from that vantage point, maybe she can blow the old school a raspberry.

Though not at the people. We do miss you.

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