It's a Book Party!

Our neighbor recently brought by a huge collection of books for the Agents. Some she used in her preschool classroom, others belonged to her now teenage boys. I cannot even express how thrilled they were with this windfall. They stayed up late perusing them that first night, and then E spent a good part of the next day organizing them and stacking them and flipping through them and reading them to J and A. 

Look at all those books
It made for a great book party. Heck, with the over 80 (!) new books we now own, we can have dozens of book parties.

What's a book party? This is just our silly term for hanging out in the living room with a pile of books.

I'm not really sure how or why we started calling it that, but the Agents love it, and even Agent A will go over and grab his favorite little chair and plop down and start munching on a nice board book.

We go to the library every Friday and stock up on a new selection of books for the upcoming week. I help the process along by choosing several for her to browse rather than expecting her to narrow down the choices on her own.

Book party at Gatwick Airport, London
I love that Agent E enjoys reading so much because I believe it's one of the most important things she can learn, and I hope her siblings follow in her footsteps. A book party is our fun way to motivate them to read a variety of books without required "reading time" each day.

Traveling With Little Ones

We just returned from a vacation, one of many we've taken during our time living in Europe. (For Momma and the Senior Agents, this was our tenth country. It was Agent A's eighth.) After two years of traveling more than we did during the rest of our lives combined, I think we have finally figured out a few things. 

Take (at most) two large suitcases. The "rule" in our family is Hubby must be able to move all luggage by himself, and I corral the zoo children. We can get everything we need for one week for the five of us, including diapers, toiletries, and snacks, into two bags. The biggest space saver is limiting clothes. Even if you normally wash everything after one wear at home, on vacation you can wear pants and shirts twice. Really. Plan for one outfit every two days, perhaps an extra for babies/toddlers or those likely to get particularly messy (cough . . . Agent J . . . cough). Just pack enough socks and underwear for every day, and the rest will work out fine. I'd much rather use the extra space to pack some comforts from home (e.g., for the Agents, some story/coloring books, one or two DVDs, a few favorite stuffed animals, or a blanket).

Limit carry-ons. Do you see the folks who board the plane with ginormous bags and wonder how on earth they are going to fit them in the overhead compartment? Yeah, don't be one of those people. I carry a messenger bag and Hubby takes a backpack, which also holds our laptop. Agent E carries a small backpack, too, but no carry-ons for Agents J or A . . . they're too young to keep track of them and that means they become our carry-ons. Include entertainment and snacks for the little ones, but don't go overboard. Crayons and paper and a few pages of stickers work great. No need to transport an entire art studio.

Consider ditching the stroller. Especially if you are visiting a major city where your main mode of transportation will be metro stations (read: lots of steps, escalators, and small passageways) it may be easier just to play pass the baby. This is one of those times it would have been nice if babywearing had worked out for us. Of course we had moments when the stroller would have been useful (like the couple of times Hubby carried a sleeping Agent A around for over an hour), but for this particular destination it would have been more hassle than help.

Beware of the words kid-friendly. We've learned that when establishments declare themselves "kid-friendly" or proudly proclaim "kid's welcome" usually what they mean is a family of four with kids about ages 8 and 10. Most places do not have infants and toddlers in mind. Or large families. Proceed with caution.

Free can also be awesome. Some of the greatest fun on our most recent trip to London included visits to the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and several of the Royal Parks—all 100% free.

Underplan. On paper it will look like you aren't doing much. Trust me; you'll be lucky to get to most of it. Using our most recent adventure as an example, we spent one entire day simply going to the park, checking out the very cool Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, visiting one museum (where we also had lunch), and then (after a rest at the hotel) walking around Harrods for a short while and getting dinner. And that took all day, from 9:00-ish until 7:00-ish. With the five and under crowd, it really is about the journey.

Take a break. It doesn't need to be long, and you don't necessarily have to nap. But going back to the hotel at some point, even if just for an hour to space out watching cartoons or simply to be able to take off your shoes for a bit, makes a huge difference. The one day we didn't do this, Agent J fell asleep, for over an hour, in a booth in the middle of Planet Hollywood.

Lower food expectations. If you have visions of sampling local cuisine at trendy cafes and mom and pop restaurants or enjoying an elaborate meal, pop that fantasy bubble right now. Eating out with children on vacation is just like eating out with children at home: depending on location this can be upbeat and fun or stressful and hectic. Accept the fact that some many most meals may be fast food (gasp!) or quick visits to sandwich shops on route to a picnic in the park.

Cut other parents some slack. Every once in a while an article will pop up in my newsfeed with the following theme: A proponent of gentle parenting witnesses another parent being less than nurturing with their child/children in a typically frustrating setting (e.g., waiting in a long line at airport security with a hungry, fidgety two-year-old). Judgment then ensues from random commenters. But you know what? We've all been that parent, and none of us would want that one moment to be interpreted as the parenting style we live each day. Plus, you know why Normally Attached and Sensitive Mom likely went a little berserk? Probably because Normally Attached and Sweet Little Toddler didn't respond to the, oh, 15 times the parent tried to distract, empathize, offer a snack, or any other myriad methods. Give her a pass, please.

Italian Travels (a Photo Post)

Today marks exactly two years since we arrived in Italy (with an abundance of luggage, our cat, and two Agents). So, in honor of that anniversary, I am linking up this collection of photos from ten trips we have taken inside of Italy. (And it's been so much fun, I'm motivated to do another photo post with our trips outside of Italy. Coming soon.)

1. Rome (May 2010): Vatican museums, St. Peter's Square, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain.
Momma and the Senior Agents in St. Peter's Square
E and J messing around in the Colosseum
Agent J chillin at the Roman Forum
(I'm not sure if that's a rock or a cracker in her hand)
With E at the Trevi fountain
(She refused to throw in all three coins)
2. Caserta (June 2010): Skipped the palace tour and went straight to the gardens.
We bypassed the tour of this . . .
 . . . and started walking toward this instead
(which is kind of a steep climb)
Agent J being silly on our walk
Finally at the top (a lot of exertion for the pregnant lady)
3. Pompeii (September 2010): Lots of old rocks and dirt, fun for the Agents.
Hanging out in the amphitheater
Very pregnant Momma and Agent E
A good view of the main street
Julia doing what she does best: getting dirty
4. Siena/Florence/Pisa (April 2011): Our beautiful spring break in Tuscany cut short due to puking.
All of us in Siena
At the Boboli Gardens in Florence
(Agent A looks ginormous in this picture)
Andrew's preferred vacation activity
Hey, looky there . . .
5. Bari/Fasano (May 2011): With the totally awesome drive-through safari where you can feed animals from your car window.
Outside the Basilica di San Nicola
How you doin?
Mmm . . . margherita pizza
Enjoying the view
6. Naples (June 2011): A rare day trip with just Hubby and our smallest Agent.
Ooh . . . pigeons
This statue just screams downtown Naples to me
Outside the Duomo with sleeping Agent A
Naples streets are very crowded/narrow
7. Palermo (July 2011): Our brief visit to Sicily (part of our Disney cruise).
Our view as the cruise ship pulled in
Agents E and J looking bored in front of a cool fountain
Pictures cannot do the inside of this church justice
More of Agent A's favorite pastime
8. Tarquinia (July 2011): Fun visit to a farmhouse and walk around a quaint little town.
Very cool view
Don't worry; they're not drinking the wine
Where there's a fountain, there's a Julia
Couldn't resist the local playground
9. Lerici (July 2011): Castle and dinosaurs followed by gelato . . . I think that about says it all.
The castle we hiked up to
No tour is complete without snacks
Striking a pose on the way back down
Can you see just how wet her outfit is?
10. Perugia/Venice/Florence (August 2011): Final trip to northern Italy, including a return visit to Florence. This was my personal favorite. Love love love Venice and Florence.

Our requisite fountain stop
Fooling around in the square
Little birdie you are not getting my pizza
Pigeon chase!
IRL friends, check out the bar in the background
One of my favorites of me and the Agents

Do You Want Obedient Children?

The term obedience makes me a little squeamish. I don't want to raise obedient children. Before you get into a lather, let me clarify: What I am talking about is the idea of first time, every time obedience as a parenting goal. I'm not saying I never pull the Momma Card . . . it happens. Of course I protect my children from danger and of course I want my children to listen to me . . . but within the context of a mutual respectful relationship.

What I take issue with is the culturally constructed concept of obedience. Even for—make that especially for—young children. The idea of first-time, unquestioning submission. (Because I'm the parent. Because I said so. Do this or else.) The thought that we must "demand" respect from our children and anything less means they are running the show. (Guess what? If you must demand it, you ain't got it.) The crazy notion that our job as parents is to prepare our children for future disappointments (life isn't fair!) by making sure we tell them no and not waiver (because otherwise surely they will end up as entitled, spoiled brats.) The belief that obeying your parents wishes equates to obeying the will of God.

Not that some days it wouldn't be nice (in the short term, anyway) if I had more compliant offspring. But I know that's not my long-term objective. I don't want blindly obedient children. I would never expect or desire my Agents to sheepishly do what I say simply because I (or someone else) told them to. I do not want them to listen to me only because they fear me. (And face it, most "obedience" in young children is really fear of consequences.) I want them to be able to question things they don't understand or disagree with.

(I also cannot help but wonder: What happens as an obedient child grows? Do they continue to do as others tell them out of "obedience and respect for authority"? Because I'm sure that whole blind obedience thing works out swimmingly when children confront peer pressure. Or become the target of a bully. Or cross paths with, oh, a pedophile.)

So what do I wish for my darlings if not to comply, obey, and contort their wills to my mine? 

As a parent, I want to have a positive, secure, loving relationship with my children. I want to be an example for them to emulate. I want them to grow into compassionate, open-minded, loving, confident, kind individuals. I want my children to be grace-full. Nope, that's not a typo. I don't mean graceful in the elegant ballet dancer sense, I mean full of grace . . . to know that they (and others) deserve grace. I want them to know about second chances. I want my children to listen to me not out of fear, but because they have genuine respect for my guidance. 

When I hear my children speak to my grandchildren, and think oh that sounds just like me, I want to be smiling, not cringing.

5 Unexpected Advantages of Homeschooling

When I started homeschooling Agent E, I quickly discovered the benefits of educating at home spill over into every area of life.

Following are just five (of many) "surprise" perks of our decision to homeschool:

1. Mornings (and afternoons) become more relaxed. Seriously, the very thought of 8:40 a.m. used to give me a panic attack. Without the rush of getting everyone out the door, we worry less about what time we wake, when we eat breakfast, and how quickly we get out of our pajamas (if at all). If the girls want to spend an hour coloring, or reading, or wrestling before we "start" our day, no problem. With no afternoon pick-up, it doesn't matter if the baby starts his nap a little earlier or a little later than usual. The ridiculously long rainy season here doesn't faze me, because I know I won't be needing to take my children all out in monsoon-ish conditions to retrieve one or more from school.

2. Illness no longer consumes us. I'm not saying we don't get sick. (We all have colds right now). Granted, because that the Senior Agents do not spend time each day in the petri dish of a preschool classroom they have fewer colds and minor illnesses (and that's nice). However, I'm referring to logistics. It's basically impossible to get three small children anywhere when one of them is sick (even if I wanted to take them out when they were feeling absolutely miserable). We live on the second floor of an apartment building; there's no way I could carry, say, a sick, sleepy Agent A or J to the parking lot and leave the other two alone. There have been times when I chose to keep a healthy kid out of school because someone else was ill. Now, when one child is not feeling well, I never have to choose between dragging them out and a sibling missing school.

This grass looks interesting . . . and yummy
3. Sibling relationships flourish. My kids genuinely like each other. I know many siblings are very close, but the extra time the girls have spent together by not going to separate schools really intensified their bond. (My original plan for the 2011-2012 school year would have had E at the school on base from 8:00-2:20 MTWRF and J at a private preschool off base MWF from 9:00-2:30.) Last year when Agent E came home from school, she would tell me how much she missed J and A. Now she tells me how much she loves being with them during the day.

4. Kids can be kids. I cannot count the number of articles others have shared with me recently regarding the demise of childhood. What should a five-year-old be doing? It saddens me to think how many folks immediately jump to a long list of scholarly "must knows." Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of things I will encourage my children to learn. But I prefer while they're young to focus more on the process, the journey, the fun of new experiences. I don't want them to be stressed over kindergarten homework. If age five is not the time to see learning as pure joy, when is?

5. Our schedule is, well, ours. As a military family we are subject to frequent moves, upheavals in routine, and long stretches with only one parent home. Often the ideal time to take a break or a family vacation falls in the middle of the traditional school calendar. Honestly, if my children attended public or private school, I would not want them to miss that time. I would conform to it instead, I'm sure. And probably bypass some great opportunities.