Finding Family Peace and Togetherness Through Spontaneous Fun
“You have to wiggle your butt to go faster.” My son demonstrates as we stand in front of our house on the uneven sidewalk. Sunday morning drivers—minivans, scooters, the occasional alley junk truck–slow down to see why a forty-something year old and a seven year old are making figure eights with their hips.
“Do you want to try again?” Nick asks when we finish his mini-lesson.
Not really, I think as I rub my bruised hip. Nevertheless, I take the ripstick from him. It’s a two-wheeled skateboard clearly designed by 14-year-olds with no parental input whatsoever.
“Just relax and kinda have fun. That’s how I do it,” he says, then stands back so I can steady myself on our white picket fence.
He is a far different person from who he was six months ago.
Then again, so am I.
My partner, Lori, and I stared at the pink slip with a sinking feeling. We’d squeezed ourselves into elementary-sized chairs around the group activity table as we waited for Nick’s teacher to finish reviewing his schoolwork. Just two weeks into the 1st grade, our six-year-old son received his second detention slip. Nothing major, just silly things: smashing another kid’s banana, putting his shoe in the urinal. But this is Catholic school: a third detention means suspension, a fourth, expulsion.
“He’s a smart kid,” Ms. Winston reassured us. “But he has a lot of energy and struggles to stay on task.” She paused for a moment, gauging our reaction. “He can’t keep disrupting class.”
A behavior problem was the last thing we needed. We were already struggling to get our business off the ground, while parenting three kids. Nick’s “spirited” nature had been tolerated by his teachers, but now we needed to find some way to channel his exuberance and introduce some discipline.
Later, Lori and I sat in bed, side-by-side with our respective iPads. Our late-night conversation covered the same question as always: were we doing enough for our kids? As the children of first-generation immigrants—hers from China, mine from Trinidad—we were obsessed with our offspring’s educational progress, just as our parents had obsessed over ours.
“Do you think he would like taekwondo?” I asked, scrolling through search results for “boys’ attention recommended sports.” “It’s supposed to promote focus, quick reflexes, respect for authority.”
“Worth a shot.” She cocked her head, listening to Olivia’s cries down the hall. Her wails caused a chain reaction, Gabe joining in. Nick stayed sound asleep.
“Can you pick the other kids up from daycare if I take him after school?” I raised my voice above the din.
“Can’t,” she whisper-shouted as we waited to see if Olivia would self-soothe to sleep. “I’m downtown for a meeting.” This was the pattern of our lives, the constant struggle between home and work.
Olivia quieted, though Gabe did not. Lori padded down the corridor and returned with Gabe in her arms.
“He got a lot heavier,” she grunted, heaving him into our bed.
“I think your arms got weaker.”
“When was the last time you worked out?”
She made an exaggerated show of tapping her temple. “Now let me think…”
She was playing it for laughs, but I knew the answer. We hadn’t had an exercise regimen in over six years, unless we included carrying groceries and sleeping children from the car, high-stepping through the minefield of toys, and fist-pumping whenever one of the kids hit a milestone. In college we’d ridden our bikes everywhere, even carried them up three flights of stairs to our shared apartment every day.
Now we had a family, and a kid who clearly needed something to do.
We enrolled Nick the next day and enjoyed a honeymoon week filled with enthusiastic “kyahs!” as he tried to break sticks in our backyard.
“Mrs. Warner,” Master Kwok informed me during Nick’s second class, “your participation in group class is expected.”
I stared at him blankly, thinking with his heavy accent I’d misunderstood him. The other parents in the waiting room nodded in agreement.
“Uh, well I have bad knees, but I’ll give it a try.”
“Do or not do. There is no try,” he replied without a trace of pop-culture irony.
The next week I tried to make my arthritic joints comply with the jumps, pivots and kicks of the sequence for Nick’s yellow belt test. Whether Nick was embarrassed for me or by me, I couldn’t determine. But he tugged on my sleeve and asked me to “please sit down.”
I watched from the sidelines as I typed “taekwondo” into the iPhone App Store.
“Nick, guess what I found,” I said as we walked to the car. I waved my phone in front of him, punching through the fight stances. “See, it shows you all of the moves. You can do it when we get home.”
“Will you practice with me?”
I hesitated, reluctant to commit to a promise I knew I would break. My throbbing knees needed ice, ibuprofen and rest. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Nick practiced alone that evening. As I set the table for dinner, I heard his monotone voice run through his moves. “One sir…two sir…three sir…”
By the fourth week of class, he practiced every other day.
“Hey bud, aren’t you going to do your forms today?”
“Will you…never mind.” He looked down at the floor, then perked up as an idea sprang to mind.
“Maybe when Mommy gets home she can do it with me?”
“I think she’s going to be pretty late, kiddo.”
By the fifth week, he had stopped practicing.
“Your test is coming up. You want to run through some moves?”
“I know them already,” he protested.
“Do you want me to do them with you?”
He stared at his pasta, one of the few things I could make successfully when Lori was working.
“I do tae do,” Gabe piped up, as he crammed another meatball in his mouth. Beside him Olivia banged her spoon on the table, bits of rotini flying with each impact.
“I already know them,” he repeated defiantly.
On test day, Master Kwok called out the sequence to all seven boys. Nick kept up at first, his movement confident and stance firm. But he faltered on the fourth form, his left arm thrusting forward instead of his right. The other boys moved in concert, eyes locked straight ahead. Nick stumbled to keep up, his eyes darting from one classmate to the next, mimicking their effortless moves with his delayed imitations.
On either side, I heard parents whispering the forms as their children completed them. By the ninth move, Nick was adrift, chewing on the end of his white belt until Master Kwok told him to sit down while the others continued. While the students celebrated their new yellow belts, Nick and I slipped away unnoticed.
In the car, he stared through the window, forehead pressed against the glass.
“Nick,” I said, “I’m sorry about your test. I should have practiced with you.”
“Do you like taekwondo?”
“We’re almost home, kiddo.” I refocused my water-filled eyes on the road.
We walked away from a year-long contract and the hopes of a black-belt champion. If Nick missed his class, he never mentioned it, but his joie de vivre was tempered by the experience. His somber mood over the next few days spreads across the family, as the warmth of Indian summer settled into the chill of fall.
“We need a vacation,” I told Lori, as I lay in bed surfing for all-inclusive getaways. Nick still hadn’t recovered from his taekwondo test two weeks prior. Gabe had entered his terrible threes, a meltdown always moments away, and Olivia had taken up screaming as her mode of communication. Even Lori and I were more snappish than usual. We were a family on the edge.
“When would we find time to go? Where would we go? It’s too expensive to fly. We’d have to drive. Oh my god, three kids in the car?”
As Lori’s mind whirred with potential problems, I pondered the one we had: we weren’t having fun. We were stuck in a rut and had to either change what we doing, or risk sinking even more.
I still had no answers as I drove to pick up the kids the next day. We could try another sport with Nick, or maybe try to find somewhere close for the whole family to visit—
When the car in front of me braked suddenly I cursed a blue streak, but then burst out laughing when I read the bumper sticker: “Do or not do. There is no try.”
Loud and clear, Master Yoda, I thought, pulling into the school parking lot.
“We’re getting your brother and sister early today,” I told Nick, as he buckled his seat belt.
He froze, perplexed. “But what would we do with them?” He had grown so accustomed to being shuttled from school to activity to home to bed, that the concept of unstructured time short-circuited his brain.
“We have a whole backyard to use. We can come up with something.”
At first the kids stared at the shovels, scrap wood and pails with some trepidation. Gabe clutched his security blanket while Olivia clung to my leg. I showed Olivia how she could scoop dirt into one of the pails while Nick tentatively picked up a board.
“Whatadya think, Sweetie?”
He turned the board over, running his hand along the edge, examining the grain. Then I saw a glimmer in his eyes.
“Gabe,” he exclaimed. “We can make a spaceship!” He pulled his brother by the arm, directing him to gather more pieces of wood. “C’mon, Olivia. You can be the alien.” The three scurried to the edge of our yard, making plans for some grand adventure. I left them to their talk of space pirates and dinosaur bones while I went inside to make snacks. From the kitchen window clumps of dirt and flowers flew well past the nine-foot-high window sill—just as Lori pulled into the driveway.
“Mommy, we’re making a slide!” Nick gestured excitedly to the deconstructed flower-boxes leaning against the trunk of our magnolia tree. Lori moved slowly into the yard, absorbing the transformation that had occurred in her eight-hour absence. Even I was stunned by what they kids had managed to do in such a short time. There were holes of varying depth covering most of the yard, and plant remnants strewn across the walkway. I met Lori on the porch as we surveyed the damage.
“Holy shit,” we said in unison.
She took a deep breath, and then stretched her arms towards our kids for a hug. “Did you guys have fun?”
A chorus of young voices lifted into the air as we embraced our offspring, dirt and all. We would never have our neighbor’s yard, with its primroses and daffodils, nor enjoy a babbling fountain or a pristine stone patio. But we would accept our future mud pit, dead grass, and trampled tulips.
“Will you climb the tree with us?” Nick asked, pointing to his makeshift ramp.
“Of course we will.”
After dinner we eschewed our usual temptation to send the kids to bed as early as possible so we could squeeze in a few more hours’ work. The kids, still high from their outdoor play, were bouncing with energy.
“Everyone, to the garage!” I yelled, running across the yard. I was several strides into the movement before I realized I was actually running, not shuffling or hobbling, but stretching one leg out in front of the other and feeling great. I had protected my knees for so long that I’d forgotten what they could actually do. Not unlike my children.
“Everything ok?” Lori asked when she caught up with me at the garage door.
“Nothing, I just—” I planted a kiss on her check. “C’mon, let’s just go do this!”
“Bike! Bike!” Olivia squealed, as we strap her into her front-loaded seat.
After reviewing the rules of the road, we set off for adventure: Nick as the line leader, Lori and Olivia behind, Gabe on his two-wheeler, and me bringing up the rear. While the kids enjoyed their carefree ride, singing every pop tune in their limited repertoire, Lori and I scanned the landscape for urban potholes—raised curbs, open car doors, distracted drivers, and the occasional marijuana cloud—to bike around. I had forgotten the sheer joy of riding, and from the smile that was stretched across Lori’s face, so had she.
The sound of the kids’ laughter was infectious. We rode along the lake, the tang from the beach filling our nostrils.
“Can we go swimming tomorrow?” Nick shouted, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from answering the way I always do. It’s too cold. Let me check the schedule. Maybe another time. I reminded myself that if the water was too cold, they could build castles on the shore. The sand that would cover our hardwood floors could easily be swept away. But these fleeting moments of childhood, the memories that make a family, would be gone before I knew it.
“Of course we can.”
We walked into the house, winded but content. Nick opened the DVD player and popped in a family yoga disc.
“I dunno,” he shrugged, pulling the mats out the hall closet. “I just feel like I want to breathe a little.”
I smiled at his suggestion, and the five us settled into our positions. After a few simple stretches—downward dog for some, downward puppy for others—I felt the exhilaration from the ride gradually transform into a quiet happiness. There was a moment when our breathing aligned: inhale…exhale. I marveled at how easy it is to forget how easy this life can be.
Nick opened his eyes, poked my knee, then Lori’s. “We have a lot of fun together, don’t we?” He smiled, tackling all of us to the ground in a huge bear hug.
“Of course we do.”
We found what was missing from our family life: more discovery, not discipline; more freedom, not formality.
Our children needed space for their bodies to move, their spirits to simply be.
It turns out, so did we.