For the 52 Project this week a portrait of the twins on their birthday morning, plus a few earlier cherished moments. Five years ago these two arrived much too early in the world. Today their strong bodies and their equally strong but oh-so-distinctive spirits give no indication of that turbulent beginning – or maybe it is a result of it. Happy birthday darling Scarlett and Jem.
Category Archives: Bush Parenting
The last hoorah of the week-long ‘Festival of Cassidy’ which we have been celebrating as our biggest boy turned nine, was a simple party with his mates around the campfire at home. In comparison to earlier (more more elaborate) birthday parties, this one required just a few basic elements, mostly revolving around the bunch of 9 year old boys and the bush.
A hike from the house through the bush to the spot we had picked kicked things off, where they got a fire going before romping off to climb boulders, talk nonsense and periodically return to poke sticks in the fire. When they discovered masses of green slime at the creek it was 9 year old boy heaven. It didn’t take long for handfuls of slime to start flying through the air. Predictably, someone also fell in the mud.
Slime, mud, fire, torches, hamburgers, marshmallows – what more does a bunch of big boys need? Music, it seems – when we returned to the house later that night an impromptu disco started up while I assembled the birthday cake (this boy of ours has recently discovered popular music, in a big way. Hello, Justice Crew). This disco was a blend of novel dance moves somewhere between gymnastics and parkour, involving vaulting over and diving off the furniture in the library, along with lots of spins, springs, leaps and non-stop laughter.
Imaginative parties for younger birthdays, with costumes, themed food, and daddies dressed as dragons (with tails constructed from stuffed stockings and kitchen sponges stuck on with the hot glue gun) have been great fun over the years. But for a group of nine year olds, it was more important to have plenty of outlets for all that physical energy, and to let them just be together.
The guys from Justice Crew appear to understand the essence of being a nine year old boy perfectly. Take it away, boy wonders:
So you gotta be strong, live by the words of the song,
Together is where we belong, never stop dreaming, keep holding on. …
At the end of the day, some you win, some you don’t
So I’m glad that I’m here with some friends that I know
Always there with a smile, saying ‘you’re not alone’
Saying ‘La la la la Que Sera’.
There are a multitude of positions along the ‘free range kids‘ vs helicopter parenting spectrum, and just like with other parenting issues, most likely the approach you take will be informed by a mix of intuitive, environmental, individual (your own and your children’s needs) and historical (the experiences you had in your own childhood) factors. This debate has ignited a great deal of argument about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parenting. Overscheduling? Being too protective? Letting your kids roam freely? Yet it seems to me that whilst all this judgement of other parenting styles doesn’t get us anywhere, what we as parents may need to do is to let go a little and let the children take the lead.
Whilst in our family we believe risk taking is a necessary part of childhood development, there is another frequently overlooked aspect to all of this which, it seems, is less about us as parents and more about the experience of the children themselves.
We have just returned from a week camping with another family on a headland above a beautiful sheltered bay on the South Coast. In addition to lots of all-in family rambles along the shore, the kids (aged between 4 and 8) spent many hours riding their bikes around the campground or down to the beach to play on the sand while we settled in around the campfire for another pot of coffee or an evening glass of wine.
Our children are comfortable doing this type of independent roaming (and we are comfortable with it) only because they are together. Together they provide each other with company, support, and confidence. They look out for one another and assist each other if something goes wrong. The older kids provide instruction, help and guidance to the younger children. They steer them in the right direction if they veer off the course. The group of children, sans adults, play and enjoy themselves on their own terms.
Looking after one another is an aspect of childhood which is much less common now than in previous generations. The insular modern western family unit leads a heavily programmed life mostly aimed at productivity. There are fewer opportunities for groups of children to congregate and engage with one another, especially without adult supervision. In the past, and certainly still in many Indigenous cultures, extended family groups share residential, economic and social interactions and co-dependence. Peer groups of closely related children (or closely residing, in the case of the western concept of ‘neighbourhood’) are a core part of childhood socialisation and development, with older siblings (or neighbours/friends) playing an important role in guiding, instructing, and looking after younger children.
If adults are always around, there is little scope for these relationships of mutual help, collaboration and peer socialisation to occur. Children don’t learn how to be responsible for themselves and for one another. It seems to me to be less of a case of ‘free-ranging’ or ‘helicoptering’, but more that we need to give our kids the chance to develop these important life skills.
We recently met a family who said that they couldn’t let their children (aged the same age as our eldest and older) do stuff by themselves as they were not confident that they would look after one another. This, they said, was the sticking point. Yet in order for kids to understand the imperative of taking responsibility for each other, they have to have the opportunity to learn how to do it in the first place. Our children appear to see looking after one another not only as a prerequisite to doing things by themselves, but also as a preference. Who wouldn’t want to ride down to the beach to play instead of waiting around for the adults to drink more coffee?
Do you have the space in your life/family for children to learn how to look after one another?
I vividly recall that it once took me almost an hour to prepare my four children (all aged four and under at the time) in appropriate layers, boots, mittens and beanies with the intention of setting out for a midwinter walk through the bush near our home. I bundled our baby twins into suits and blankets and zipped them into their weatherproof pram capsules. We got as far as an icy puddle on the way to the mailbox, into which toddler Dash promptly stomped, slipped, and was immediately immersed in freezing slush. Needless to say, our winter walk came to a premature end.
Almost six years later, winter is quite possibly our favourite season. Certainly it is the children’s favourite season, for we live in one of the few areas of Australia in which snow is a feature of our experience of winter. Skiing is the pay-off for having to endure some of the coldest weather Australia has to offer. But unlike in the Northern Hemisphere, Australians do not have a culture steeped in the celebration of winter. Australians define themselves much more by our attachment to the sun, surf, and sand of our long summers. So when faced with a real winter, after years of living in the hot climates of the north, developing some seasonal rituals and practical solutions were the key not just to surviving, but to celebrating our mountain winters.
These are some of the ways we keep our home and ourselves warm and happy through the winter:
Warm bodies: Whilst the children tend to resist wearing too many layers of clothing, even in the coldest time of year, I insist that as long as they begin with a merino wool base layer, I am a little more flexible about what else they wear. At the beginning of every winter I make sure everyone in the family has at least one long-sleeve and several merino wool singlets. Merino wool is machine-washable, non-scratchy (great for fussy kids), warm and breathable. Icebreaker have top of the range, long-lasting and great-looking merino garments, such as this kids long sleeve hoodie, which keeps necks and heads warm too. Many other outdoor brands also make merino gear these days, but the quality of Icebreaker is unparalleled (worth it if you have multiple children to pass things down the line).
For younger children, these waterproof Australian-made over pants, known as Slicks, are an essential part of the daily winter wardrobe. Reinforced at the knees and bottom, they can be worn over normal clothing to keep children warm and dry (and save washing). They are especially wonderful for crawling toddlers and kids who like to get wet and dirty.
Warm feet: Around the house in the mornings and evenings, the children wear slipper socks (with grippy soles) in preference to ugg boots as they claim they ‘can’t run’ in uggies. As long as their feet are clad in something warm on those cold floors, I don’t mind. For wintry outdoor exploring, after going through various different types of gum boots and snow boots, we have now discovered the one winter boot which covers all types of conditions and terrains from snow to ice to puddle-stomping: Bogs Winter Boots. These boots are waterproof, insulated to -40 degrees, and have fantastic traction. They are a bit of an outlay initially, but instead of buying multiple boots for different activities, this is the only boot your kids will ever need. I even like them for summer forays through the long grass, as snake protection for little legs!
Warm Home: At home, we have incorporated some cherished rituals into our winter days. As well as adding extra blankets to the beds, and unpacking the coats and beanies, we unroll the rugs from storage for our floors. Last year, we salted and tanned the hide from one of our own galloway steers, which turned out spectacularly. Curling up on one of our fluffy cowhide or sheepskin rugs by the fire is one of the great pleasures of the season.
The early nightfall of the season means that we are all indoors earlier, and so dinner and baths are all finished much earlier than at other times of the year. Sometimes I found the children were already a little hungry again by bedtime, and so, after a suggestion from a friend, we began having ‘winter suppers’ . Winter supper is now much-loved in our family, where we gather in pyjamas on the sheepskin rug (also known as The Jack Frost rug) in front of the fire for hot chocolate (made with milk, honey and raw cocao powder), and winter gingerbread (or other suitable night time snack). The children take it in turns to light one of these beautiful pure beeswax candles, and we read a winter-themed book together before bed.
At first I thought I would never get used to the freezing winters here, and yet I must admit that these practises and rituals have won me over. And so, in spite of myself, like the children I too have come to love the rhythms and forms of the cold season, and am now able to truly celebrate winter.
Learning outside school: visits to desert country//spotting lizard tracks in the sand dunes //learning to light a fire with a flint //digging for tjala (honey ants) with cherished desert friends, and learning how to weave tjanpi (spinifex grass) //sunrise camp
In spite of the fact that our tiny rural school provides an intimate, warm and supportive environment for our children, as part of the public education system learning is structured according to rigid curriculum requirements and benchmarks. The constraints of the system mean that there is not nearly enough experiential learning going on – using authentic experiences and learning by doing – and in particular hardly any learning outdoors.
As we live in a remote area, we do not have access to a range of educational options, other than to homeschool or to use distance education for our children. For a variety of reasons, neither of those two options suit the needs of our family. Moreover, our children enjoy their school and it has many strengths. There are, however, many things we wish our children to experience and learn beyond a set curriculum or within the confines of a classroom.
So ever since our eldest started school, we have incorporated ‘days off’ into the school year. Far from allowing our children to skip school whenever they don’t feel like going, these days are deliberate and planned: either part of a longer family trip away, or to undertake a specific activity – one that the current public school curriculum does not encompass.
Skipping school is a controversial topic. Certainly at the public policy level, educators maintain the unwavering line that school attendance is compulsory (and it is illegal not to attend- although Australia is comparatively relaxed about enforcement) except in a few select circumstances (illness, religious events, or exceptional family commitments). Whilst individual schools or teachers may be able to interpret the ‘acceptable absences’ with a little more flexibility, if your child is absent for more than just a couple of unexplained days, the school and/or the Education Department may conduct an enquiry into why your child is not at school. Attendance rates are a critical performance indicator for schools, so they cannot condone the practise of skipping school – ever.
Amongst the public debate there are some who cautiously endorse the practise of skipping school, such as This New York Times article, which suggests that family time must also be a priority for children. The article cites advice from a child psychologist who suggests some simple considerations to take into account when deciding whether, how often, and for how long it is advisable to take your child out of school without negative consequences. Altogether without caution, ‘immersion’ learning (a kind of unschooling) advocate Ben Hewitt has written this great book describing the life-long benefits he sees emerging in his own sons, whose place and nature-based learning is not limited by institutional frameworks.
John and I have both lived and worked in numerous interesting remote, cross-cultural settings in northern Australia and across South East Asia and the Pacific. In order to honour connections to places and people with whom we have a long and important relationship with, we have taken our children out of school for weeks at a time to travel, or work, or just spend time in these places. During these longer absences, we have applied for and been granted a special exemption on the grounds that the experience will enhance the ‘educational interests’ of the children.
We also occasionally give our children one-off days away from school which do not revolve around travel. Typically, these days are designed to promote a different type of learning experience than that which is available at school, and most often they revolve around developing our children’s connection to and understanding of their natural world. It is usually John (when he is not travelling) who leads the boys on these all-day walks, where they learn to light and cook on a fire, forage for bush foods, recognise tracks and signs and sounds of animals and birds, and have access to a realm of other hands-on learning opportunities in the bush around them.
Our children are in early primary school, and we feel at this age it is an appropriate time for them to miss bits and pieces of school for these types of experiences, experiences which are not found within the classroom environment, and which we believe will enrich their lives in ways that institutional learning will not.
I am interested in how other parents feel about this issue. There is a line of thought which says that any absences from school are disruptive, potentially academically harmful, or can set up the child to think that ‘not turning up’ is ok.
Do you let your children occasionally skip school?
What kinds of experiences do you feel are lacking in mainstream education?
And do you feel it is ok to try and provide for these limitations by giving your children time off school?
We had plans for the best kind of Mother’s day: a bit of exploring and picnicking in the bush not too far from home. Instead, the gale force winds kept us indoors much of the day and put an end to any thought of any adventuring. In our heavily forested part of the world it is just too dangerous to be out in the bush on a day like today.
A few half-hearted attempts were made by the kids to start up some games close to the house but the wild wind made it hard for them to settle into anything for very long. Everyone seemed just that little bit irritable and unable to find their usual groove. Finally the wind dropped just enough in the afternoon for them to head just beyond the garden to play in a favourite cluster of boulders. I had just enough time to call my own mum for Mother’s Day when the two younger boys burst back inside. Even before they had time for an explanation I could tell there had been an incident where someone had been badly hurt.
Blood flowing down your own child’s head always looks worse than it usually is. Cassidy was walking towards me and crying by the time I got out to him so thankfully I knew he was ok. He had tripped while leaping over the top of boulders and crashed against the sharp edge of rock without time to get his hands out first.
The impressive amount of blood and the fact that their oldest brother had to go to hospital made a big impact on the younger children. While John and Cassidy spent the next four hours getting stitched up in emergency, the other three went straight to work making cards for their brother. They upended their treasure boxes to search for presents for him, and insisted on saving him the biggest share of corn chips, for when he returned.
A mild concussion and six stitches on my boy’s head were not part of how I imagined today. But just like so many other aspects of mothering, within the unexpected challenges lie the little gems: seeing the love and concern expressed by three little people for their older brother, and knowing his injury was nothing serious, was the best Mother’s Day gift I could hope for.
The Buffalo Stampede is a new trail running event in Australia; a ‘Sky Run’ – which basically involves running to the top of the highest mountain in the shortest possible time. Skyrunning is huge in Europe, with its many mountains, but this is only the second year a Sky Run has been held in Australia. After completing The North Face 50 last year, I decided this year to try a different event, and entered the Skymarathon, with 2934m elevation gain and 1941m descent over the 41.4kms. A seriously difficult event by any standards – ascending three major mountains and one minor ‘ridge’, and including some ridiculously steep and slippery descents. It even included a bit of bouldering/scrambling through narrow boulder galleries at the top of the Buffalo. The word used most often to describe the course is ‘brutal’, and brutal is certainly was.
With four young kids and a travelling husband, it is often extremely difficult to find the time to fit in enough training for an event such as this. The challenge of entering a major event is motivating and exciting, however, and connects me to the broader community of trail runners. At certain points during the gruelling Skymarathon, I questioned why I deliberately subjected myself to this type of serious challenge, but now as I ride the post-race ‘high’ I have been reflecting on the integral place running inhabits in my life.
I have been running medium-long distances since my early twenties, rising early and following tracks as the sun rises through the bush. Whilst the feeling of being out there and moving my body has always motivated me, my purpose then was more at maintaining fitness in the extremely remote areas in which I worked, where no other options were available. Now, whilst fitness is still important, running is also a critical means of maintaining and securing my own wellbeing. Adding the challenge of a major event maintains a focus to my training, but given our family demands I am not able to enter more than 1 or 2 major events each year.
I have run thousands of kilometers in the bush over the years: through sandy red deserts and remote ranges in Central Australia, on tropical volcanic islands and dense jungle in New Guinea, and over expansive mud flats cut by crocodile-infested rivers in the Gulf of Carpentaria. These days I run through the schlerophyll forests and granite boulders of our Snowy Mountains country, crossing from our own property straight into state forest and national park. I encounter lyrebirds and roos, snakes and wombats, yellow-tailed cockatoos and echidnas. I can run for hours and still not come across a single person or vehicle: it is just me, our black dog, and the bush.
Being a stay-at-home parent is a continual exercise in the practise of giving. It is not always possible to find a balance between all the giving, and carving out some time for yourself. For the first year of the twins life, when we had four children under four, I barely had the spare hands to clean my teeth. Now, though, things have opened up a little and when I am able, (when the twins are at preschool mostly) I prioritise what I know I need to give myself in order to be the mother I strive to be. I consciously avoid looking at the tangle of toys, pyjamas and other debris awaiting my attention on the floor, throw on my running shoes and bolt out the door before some other task beckons. Most of the training for the Skymarathon was done twice weekly on preschool days.
Over the years, running has become my solace and my strength. The rhythm of each footfall provides space for thinking things through without interruption. The bush around me and the pounding breath in my chest is exhilarating and restorative.
For many, what nourishes the self may be a quiet cup of tea and an opportunity to read the paper, have a bath, do some yoga, a phonecall with a friend. The imperative to explore has always informed my choice of activity, so trail running is a natural fit. For me, it is being in motion, somewhere in the bush, that energises and sustains.
Last two images by Aurora Images