Fairy tales

I’ve been reading Fairy Tales to the kids over the last week or so – these are Brothers Grimm from when I was a child so it lacks idiosyncratic sensitivities that are always present in Disneyified crap. Last night we read Brarskin, a vivid tale where a man sells his soul to the Devil for seven years in return for unending wealth; the catch, and it is mighty, is that he may not wash or comb his hair for seven years.

That’s a tremendous amount of time for grime and hair to build upon your face, your nails growing to grotesque lengths. He acquires himself a wife, one who is simply too innocent to say no when her father offers her to the beast man as a gesture of thanks – and of course, she is beautiful.

Fairy tales are wonderful cautionary tales – great public service announcements for soap, too – but they serve multiple duties. They are so outlandish and caricatures of real life that as a non-religious family it can put so many stories of extraordinary into perspective.

A man swallowed by a large fish; more Biblically correct than to describe it as a whale, is about as plausible as the Devil appearing to a man and buying his essence of self before he has a chance to starve.

There is this ridiculous notion that children of non-religious families can’t possibly have an understanding of morals because they don’t have The Bible, heaven forbid. Morals are taught around dinner tables, in the interactions between family members. “What do you think about that?” is a question I often ask the kids, because it’s all well and good to wag a finger and tell them what is right and wrong, but they need to be able to figure it out themselves.

A list of rules is obviously a good place to start, but kids – and adults – need reasoning skills to figure out the how and why of what makes an action or belief right or wrong. It is entirely far too easy to do harm – out of cowardice, prejudice or rebellion – because it is something we just shouldn’t do because we’ll get in trouble; however, if we can develop the understanding that harming another is wrong because we don’t want want to be treated that way and all beings, human and otherwise, deserve to live without harm from others then the impetus to not do wrong to others becomes that much more poignant.

Fairy tales have these grand punishments for evil-doing. The first thing N asked about Cinderella was how could her father allow the evil step-daughters to treat her so poorly. I don’t know the answer to that, it isn’t evident in the text but it also did not seem fair that Cinderella’s father was banished from the kingdom for his role on her abuse. This was N’s second question, how could he be banished, he is Cinderella’s father. In short, even though her father allowed awful things to happen to Cinderella, N saw space for some sort of resolution.

Fairy tales provide another space for discussing, dare I say, so many issues that it seems like anything and everything with kids.


In the shadows: Plato’s Cave

The first day I got lost. The University of Windsor was not a huge or complicated campus but negotiating buildings with official names while trying desperately to not actually look like a first year student, and no doubt failing miserably, meant that I scuttled into my classroom in Dillon Hall minutes after everyone else had settled in. Across the room I could see the only other Philosophy major for our graduating year, the rest of the seats filled with kids looking for a breezy elective.

In the first weeks of Classical Philosophy we tackled Plato’s Republic, the heavy existential tomes saved for later in the semester. Philosophy, like most classes in Arts and Social Sciences were shuffled off to the older buildings which lacked amenities like air conditioning, reliable lighting and windows that stayed open without pieces of wood wedged into the frame. September in southwestern Ontario is warm, hot even. The return to school is a cruel joke, considering most students continue to wear semi-beach wear to class.

Our classroom was The Cave. Students facing forward, a scattering of rich kids sat defiantly behind clunky laptops and we listened to Hans V. Hansen cast shadows to tell us the truth. Our desks could never be the ideal desk because they could only exist out there, in the ether and this was only a mild approximation. Not even a good one at that but shhh… It was the truth. The truth is on the wall until the Philosopher King sees the light that makes the shadows and knows, the chains, the desks that hold us there are of no consequence and he (or she – the Philosopher Queen) escapes and seeks a purer truth. The real truth that speaks not of lies.


At 19, the Cave Allegory, with it’s chained inhabitants facing while only the bravest of souls dragged themselves from the darkness, was intoxicating to me. I’ve told the story countless times to my kids, the cave is now a movie theatre and the escapee goes on to great adventures. It’s been a while since we’ve visited the cave but I think it might be time again.

Yesterday, I tweeted to Mary Lu (@HalHum101 – she does amazing work) that the Cave Allegory was a story often told to my kids, to which she replied, “Who do they think is chained in the cave?”. And I stopped. I don’t know. I’ve never dwelt on them and even when I think of the cave, I don’t tend to consider the people who are trapped in the cave of shadows because I love the trek of the Philosopher King, the power in escaping. Because to me, the Cave Allegory is about beating the odds and seeking knowledge – because you know it must be there, waiting to be found.

But, there is that pesky question of The Prisoners, those who are forced to believe that the shadowy life they lead is truth. We know these people. We are them. Even those of us who think we shun it, that forced doctrine of wayward “truth”, in what way are we prisoners of our own ignorance? In what ways do we keep our children faced forward, never peaking for the light?

The obvious answer, for my family and me, is that we are non-religious (my husband and I are atheist and we are raising our  children without dogma). However, there is a huge, glaring BUT with this situation – as part of the western tradition, just about every single cultural tradition, piece of literature, music, philosophy, everything is heavily impacted by The Bible. Thus far, Mr and I have largely stayed away from Bible stories in a bid to simply not deal with dogma but, we have inadvertently chained our children in our own  cave. To understand Western cultural traditions, they will need to know the stories from which they derive – seriously, try and listen to Bob Dylan or read Mordecai Richler and understand them (beyond the surface).

The power believes infuse into The Bible comes from the rhetoric that surrounds the text and that part of it? As parents, it’s up to us to determine the rhetoric and in order to ever call bullshit, the kids will need to know the stories the shadows are telling. It’s like watching a movie with the sound off.

book review: ScreamFree Parenting (Hal Runkel)

I recently read Scream-Free Parenting by Hal Runkel, a marriage and family therapist in Atlanta Georgia. I think mparenting books are valuable in that they can prod you into insightful dialogues, to question yourself and the path you are currently on. I don’t think any one book is The Answer and it would be insincere to think there is only one way to parent.

As for the methodology. Runkel advocates what I would call self-care. Taking time for yourself and your adult relationships (with your partner, family and friends) are so important – if you cannot take care of yourself and show your child(ren) it is important to do so, you will fail them and yourself. There is also the problem of what Runkel calls “reactivity”; this is the emotional reaction to an event, say your kid going batshit crazy because she can’t find pants that match her shirt. Instead of yelling at her that it’s because she won’t open her drawers and look and will instead ALWAYS rely on you to get them, stop that thought process and consider what is happening. She is not doing this to annoy you (really? Because it seems to happen every morning), rather she is a kid and reasoning is not her forte. You, as her frenzied parent, are there to help her develop the tools that will aid in her growth towards adulthood. Like the ability to find pants.

I found some of Runkel’s proposed phrasing, for example, “if you don’t put away your bike, tomorrow morning I will take it to Goodwill”, to be passive aggressive if put to use for every little thing. As parents, we are to guide our children into decision making as much as it is to establish rules for the house and the expectation that the children will follow said rules. It is not specifically that Runkel is saying to hell with household rules, it’s more that his methodology and phrasing would be daunting and irritating to use all the time. I think the calming moment to consider what is happening and choosing your words wisely (to not make the “always” accusation), to not dissolve into reaction (read: freaking out) is most valuable during crisis mode. If this is not terribly clear it is because I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt some unease at Runkel’s suggestion that his layout is for all the time. Remember how I wrote that parenting books generally have some good tips you can add to your repertoire? This is one.

He writes of the importance of a child’s space. A few years ago, at about the time N started school, I started knocking before entering her room or the bathroom. The danger of her eating something like laundry detergent was lessened at this point (chill, it was always put away), but I thought it important she learn boundaries around her body. That and she was finally getting that she should answer when I knock on the door lest Mommy freak out. Runkel points out the importance of allowing a child their space – if you respect their’s, they are much more likely to reciprocate. He is also under the impression a kid will want to clean their room because they’ll take ownership over the space and like it more if it is neat but I don’t entirely agree – N is not an organized kid but D is and that has more to do with their individual personalities. N needs more prodding to clean up after herself and organize her things. Thinking your kids will clean their room rather than pull a Jillian Jiggs is some serious wishful thinking.

As for Runkel’s writing style – it’s somewhat cutesy self-help which I can deal with because he doesn’t really lay it on too thick and he provides some real-life examples from his family therapy practice. He keeps referencing make-believe ScreamFree books that are in the future and I don’t know if he’s being serious or ridiculous because the joke doesn’t carry very well. The title is definitely loaded – I was definitely not toting this around, flashing the title because it is so sensationalistic (Canadian moment here – how American is the title, eh?). Runkel does address the title – “screaming” is more about the loss of control parents face than the actual volume and his aim in writing the book is to help parents be the calming force in their family.

library day: Fancy Nancy! Evolution! {kids’ book recommendations}

Wednesday morning is our official Library Day. It’s also the day we pick up our CSA and while that is a fun task for about five minutes as we pick through the box to see our favourites or make a note of what we’re googling later, we break up Wednesday with a trip to the library. Sometimes there is an activity, like the incredibly noisy Songs ‘n’ Stuff, which you’d think the musically inclined Boy would like but it’s really just 50 under 5s with jingle bells jumping around but other times it’s just Boy and I and a few other kids to play and poke through books.

Libraries are an invaluable resource. Boy (and Miss N) always want to take home all the books so we have a standard two book limit because otherwise it is impossible to find them all to return. I always feel guilty plucking a book off our shelf at home only to find the “Property of Halifax Public Libraries” stamp on the inside cover and knowing we borrowed it an embarrassing amount of time ago. I practically grew up in libraries. My Saturday afternoons with my dad were spent at the U of W’s Leddy, the downtown Windsor Public Library and during the week I wandered into the small library in the equally small town where I went to school. The hush and smell of books, thumbing through each page. It’s another world for quiet kids like me who have always read the book but never saw the movie based on the book, who have picked through all the books on the shelf and need to order books from the another library (remember the card catalogue?). I helped my dad set up the library in his church though I’ve now forgotten most of the codes. With his help I’d memorized most of the standard codes for the Dewey Decimal System. I was a different kind of cool as a kid.

And now, I share that love with my kids.

This week, we borrowed:

Born with a Bang: It’s told from the viewpoint of a very eager and earnest Universe and explains the birth of the Universe, from nothingness to now. It’s a bit advanced for Boy (who is 4). Miss N has flipped through it but I would recommend it for kids a bit older than these two. It’s interesting and the science seems sound but it’s very long and the mystical quality of the Universe “speaking to you” isn’t terribly interesting because I don’t really think the Universe is a puppy desirous of that much attention.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story: Gorgeous pictures and perfect for a child Miss N’s maturity. She was engaged immediately and the pictures that take the reader from single-celled organisms to now. There are constant parallels to what the organism had then that matches what we have now. An excellent beginning to talking about evolution with kids.

My Brother Charlie: So heartfelt and honest, it’s told from the perspective of Charlie’s twin sister who loves him and wants to protect him always, even if he is difficult because of his autism. Our immediate lives have not been touched by autism but that does not mean we have to ignore its presence in the great wide world.

Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique: Now Miss N wants her own Fabulous Fashion Boutique so she can earn some more money for her iPod. Such a cute story and Fancy Nancy is such a kind hearted little girl, she really does remind me of Miss N (who loves her too).

Curious George Plants a Tree: Precocious. Who can resist Curious George? Not Boy who wanted to borrow every single Curious George book they had. I’m sure it’s touted as an Earth Day book, but really? You can plant a tree anytime and value the environment any time of year.

Until our next trip. What’s your favourite kids’ book? What would you recommend we borrow next time we visit? What would your littles recommend to Miss N and Boy?

on moral reasoning

Recently, I had a post featured on BlogHer (this is the link for the BlogHer article), a very interesting experience that garnered many responses, some good and some bad, at least from whatever your vantage point may be. The post had the misfortune of being renamed in (what I think) is a most inflammatory manner in order to drum up controversy and snag more readers – hoo boy, there were certain people who missed the point of respecting other’s views and that I don’t believe fierce religious dogma is for children because they could only focus on the fact that the children were not going to other’s churches. There was a small contingent who wasn’t quite sure how we, as non-religious parents, could hope to teach our children tolerance and morals (my favourite from the Facebook feed was the “I’m so tolerant I’m calling you closed minded and will name-call”).

Miss N has reached an age where we have started talking about the “why” of what we do, we are making connections between the rules and why they exist. Every morning we walk together to the bus and it is a time just for us, mother and daughter to talk without little brother distractions or the call of kittens. One morning this week she was admiring the newly formed buds on the trees, gently poking at their edges and pointing out the flowers she recognized (there are many – her green thumb would make my grandfather proud).

Miss N: It’s a lovely morning, Mommy. I like that tree the best. (And she pointed at this gorgeous tree that I think is a Hot Pink Crabapple tree.)

Me: It is, honey. I think that’s my favourite, too. Why do you suppose they grow, the trees?

Miss N: Well, I know the builders make the roads and houses and stuff. The trees and plants grow because we need them for oxygen.

Me: But what if we weren’t here? Why should they grow? A super long time ago there weren’t people living here in Canada but there were trees and all kinds of plants and animals.

Miss N: Hm. I know that one day this baby tree, (she pointed at a young Maple Tree), will grow up to be really big and that’s what it’s supposed to do if we let it.

Me: So, it’s part of what it is? To grow and live?

Miss N: I think so, but I don’t know.

Me: Think about it, honey. Have an awesome day and have fun at school.

With that, we left it. Her schoolbus had arrived and she hurried away, oversized book bag bumping against the back of her legs and ponytail swinging. The idea of  intrinsic value is a pretty weighty subject for a six year old but at its heart is discovering that the world does not necessarily exist just for our use and benefit. The world can exist with our without us but because we are, in so many ways, straddling the border between being part of nature but also outside of it, I believe it is important that we do not take nature for granted or our position so close to it.

Later that night I was telling Mr about the conversation I had with Miss N and he smiled. That afternoon he was outside with Miss N and Boy when Boy found a slug he was intent on squishing, for no other reason than it may be fun to squish something smaller than him. It was Miss N who stopped him with a simple, “Why?”.

“Because I want to,” he said.

“But why? It’s part of nature. Everything is part of nature. Just like us, would you want to be squished?”

Through Twitter I’ve been having some very interesting conversations with other non-religious parents about how we teach our children when we do not have a religious framework to establish a moral structure. The common refrain has been “the golden rule”, that the most basic way for everyone to get along in the world is to think about how we want to be treated and extend that to others. The golden rule transcends many world cultures and beliefs because the notion of positive reciprocity is one that we can all identify with because it puts each one of us in the position of another. This is the basic essence of not just morality but also respect, that we can learn respect from something as inconsequential as a slug in the garden.

kids activities: easy crayon stained glass windows

I know that last week I featured a crayon activity but that’s because reusing crayons is very cool and we have a million nubs of crayons. I’ve been meaning to make stained glass windows (or, in our case, mobiles) for a while. The main drawback to this craft is that it can be adult-intervention heavy. To keep the kids interested and save your sanity, use a pencil sharpener to transform the crayons into flakes instead of a paring knife like I did.

Stained Glass Heart

You will need

wax paper

crayon shavings


two older dish towels you don’t mind redecorating with splashes of colour



I shaved an entire box of crayons, this was probably not necessary as you really don’t need that much. It’s very important to keep the layer of shavings thin, the melted wax spreads and if it too thick, you can’t cut the wax paper into shapes and sunlight cannot get through. This effectively ruins the whole point of making stained glass anything.

1. On a decent-sized sheet of wax paper (waxy side up), spread a thin layer of crayon shavings. To keep relatively mess free, do this      on top of one of the dish towels.

2. Play with colour. You’ll be surprised at how the colours will mix together.

3. Sandwich the crayon shavings with a second piece of wax paper, this time waxy side down. Cover with the second dish towel.

4. Iron on a low setting. A friendly reminder that you should be doing this, not your child. Pretend it’s a shirt – move the iron around slowly, this will spread the colours.

5. The reveal: Pull back that dish towel and have a look. Cover and go over any areas that still have lumpy crayon messes.

6. Allow to cool and cut into shapes. Miss N spelled her name, Boy did aquatic life.

7. String on the piece of yarn and hang in a window.

*I tried fishing line for Boy’s mobile and it didn’t work, the pieces of the mobile are too light to weigh down the line and it ended up twirling and making a mess so I had to restring it on the yarn.

respecting other’s beliefs – life as an atheist family

There seems to be this idea that atheists are just wayward people without any beliefs or morals who just don’t know any better. A couple of summers ago Mr and I were walking with the kids down Spring Garden Road and a very earnest young man came up to us and started shoving pamphlets in our hands. In response to Mr’s “No thanks, I’m an atheist” he said, “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t believe in anything before”. There are a lot of things I believe in. Love. Family. Honesty. Gravity. Kindness. Nature. Science.

Recently, a few of Miss N’s friends have been sincerely inviting her to church. The one that made me angry? Not at the child, mind you. She is doing what her Sunday School teacher and parents have told her to do, but they added the clincher of a treat bag if you are new to the church. Yup. They’ll bribe your children all the way. It may be called a gift by the person who thought of it, but it’s similar to the toys given out by McDonald’s – it’s not enough to sell french fries, there is the extra bait of a toy that will break in three days. I understand why these children feel it is imperative to invite Miss N to church, it is a fun place where they sing songs, eat a snack and talk about the underlying fear of what happens after you die. These children love Miss N and even though they can’t quite articulate it in this way, they think we’re failing Miss N and her brother by not taking them to church.

This part will be touchy for people who do not believe the same as we do and I respect that, I’ll raise my kids and you can raise yours. I do not think religion is for children. I think that they should be exposed to the beliefs of all people and while I will tell my children “this is what Mommy and Daddy believe” I do not expect her to believe the same thing. I’ll ask Miss N what she thinks and she has some really amazing thoughts on the matter, but I will not tell her she is wrong if she disagrees with me about the big beliefs. I do not tell her she is going to hell if she does not believe as I do, that she ought to live in fear for the people in her life who do not because it is unfair to expect a child to live like that. It is not right to speak in absolutes with children because they will believe anything and everything you tell them and they are still developing the cognitive ability to sift through the logic of some claims. Case in point: Boy honestly thinks Batman is a viable career choice (after Miss N encouraged him to come up with a back up plan, he’s settled on police officer/Batman).

Many people don’t understand that atheists have a belief system and that we are just somehow lacking and need to be led to “the right way”. There are a lot of right ways in the world, it’s what makes our world so awesome and awful at the same time because so many of us are walking through the world with blinders on. I am very proud of Miss N that she tells her friends that she has her own beliefs and their church is not the place for her – it’s like school for people who believe in their god, it’s not really our place. Our church is in the museums, in our garden and at the art gallery. Our church is when we come together as a family at the dinner table (every night) and we talk about the world we live in and how we can treat one another with respect and kindness in our daily lives. Miss N asks a lot of big questions, about where humans come from and what others believe. As part of our “lesson in respect” I don’t say that people of other faiths are liars or wrong, I preface it with “Hindus believe… Christians believe… Some people believe…” because it is not my place to judge you for your beliefs. I only ask that you don’t do the same to me or my children.