As an aunt, I've learned some lessons about hosting nieces and nephews. Here are five ideas for how to enjoy the youngest generation
Shouting, "Here I come, ready or not!" made me feel ridiculous, then wonderful. Last February, sharp, cold air stung my lungs during a game of hide-and-seek at the playground of a neighborhood church. After looking behind trash cans, down an alley, and up the tunnel of a sliding board, I discovered my nephew buried under bark chips. In a second, troubles fled like air from a popped balloon.
Spending the weekend with an eight-year-old is like a chiropractic adjustment to your brain. It pops and bends your neurons until things are lined up right, restoring your perspective to normal. When children in our large, extended family visit me in Charlotte, I discover the city from a child's perspective. There's a lot to do here if you are a kid. We do the things parents often don't have time for, simple and often free things. We take drawing pads to the Mint Museum and sit on the floor and sketch. We look for frogs in the nearby pond. We make lemonade, have tea parties, or swing in the hammock and talk. We gather leaves, create journals, and go for walks. We pack our lunch, ride the LYNX uptown, and see how many fountains we can find. We make mosaics, patiently gluing rows of red lentils and black beans, white limas and speckled field peas onto photocopied pictures, turning them into works of art.
Some children have stayed with me for a week or more. That's a long time to keep a child occupied. To address this problem, I've found five things that make longer visits a joy. They've worked for me and have helped me create deeper relationships with the children I love.
The O Game
Spending lots of time with a child under ten can be exhausting and intimidating, especially if you've grown accustomed to a quiet house in the morning with the newspaper and a cup of coffee. You may wonder what you'll do all day. I used to worry about that, too. Having a plan, one that includes backup ideas for rainy days, has helped my confidence.
I also used to worry about how to handle conflict. A child who won't mind can make it difficult to have fun. Edward VIII, the English king who married Wallis Simpson in the 1930s and abdicated the throne, made an amusing observation about us. "The thing that impresses me the most about America is the way parents obey their children." This tendency has been around for a long time. To combat it, I devised a game that I play each morning with little guests.
The Obedience Game establishes a crucial ground rule: you're in charge. You don't need a six-year-old ignoring simple requests like, "Don't run into the street!" I pick five things for the child to do, and the last is always something outrageously fun, like blowing the deafening foghorn that was once on my father's sailboat. Requests include surprises, like "hop down the stairs on one foot while holding the rail" or "run out the front door and touch the magnolia tree and run back" or "throw this orange three times and catch it with both hands." It's all about learning to follow directions, and, contrary to what one might think, children love this game and beg to play it after breakfast.
Breaking bread together is highly undervalued in our fast-paced world. Unfortunately, many a family meal is controlled by the appetites of a child. Menus should be designed by adults, not kids. As the clever Fran Lebowitz has written, "Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he's buying." While I adjust my menu somewhat to suit children, meal selections are not a democratic process—I know more about nutrition and the budget than they do. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I must add that most kids on the globe go to bed hungry and would be glad to eat American trash for any meal at all. But I'm not militant. I don't have silly rules like "clean your plate" (when did that ever help a starving kid somewhere else in the world?) or "no dessert unless you eat your dinner." No one has to eat what is put before him, ever, but don't come asking me for a snack if you turned up your nose at lunch. I know this method can work because my own children, now grown, are fantastic cooks, very health conscious, and eat just about anything. Although it may be coincidence, I like to think it's the reward for all my suffering, caused not only by them, but also by my own doubts. I also like to involve children as much as possible in cooking—we might make pizza together or bake bread—and I take them to the farmers market or to ethnic groceries (there are lots in Charlotte) with $2 to $5 to buy anything they like. Even if they buy cookies, they've seen and experienced something different, and their curiosity is nurtured.
Another thing we do each morning is to work together. You could argue that a guest shouldn't work, and I would agree, but a child who is staying with me for a week should have some responsibilities. It's part of learning that life isn't entirely fun, and that the freedom to enjoy things is a privilege. Most children know how to play soccer or use the computer, but they can't sweep a porch or dust a lamp. They're not picking up the life skills they need to maintain personal order.
I keep a child-size broom on my back porch that is perfect for sweeping the steps or walkway and feather dusters for cleaning furniture or blinds. I try to remember to repeat the obvious, showing them how to do something and walking through the steps; sometimes we do a task together until they get the hang of it. I never assign something overwhelming, like "clean up this room." When I was a child, I occasionally was sent to the toy room to "clean up," and to this day I remember the trauma of standing frozen in the doorway, not knowing where to start. So I'll break a big job into pieces: we'll each fold ten things or you put away the silverware and I'll do the plates and glasses. Good work develops a sense of pride, community spirit, and industry.
Charlotte has some fabulous parks and gardens; I visit them as much as possible when children come to stay. It's important for kids to be outside and to have the freedom to explore on their own. Meg Houlihan, a Charlotte psychologist and environmentalist who has spoken out on this topic, recently talked to me about the importance of getting kids out into nature. "The parts of nature are not prescribed like toys or games," she explained. Nature requires the imagination; one must initiate to enjoy it. "You can make something happen," she said. "So when kids see streams, they will build dams."
My new favorite hike is the half hour woodland walk to Robinson Rock House at Reedy Creek Nature Preserve. This trail descends through forest to rich bottomland that was once farmed for cotton. At the end of the trail are the remains of an eighteenth-century rock house. The wide stone ledges that once led to the front door are sunny and warm, and lizards dart about in the silence. A fallen Osage orange tree, very large and dating to the 1700s, provides a challenging horizontal climb; its strong limbs curve down like stairs and up into the air like bridges to the sky.
This is a great walk for discovering nature; don't bring an agenda. Houlihan, who has examined the relationship between nature and health, advises parents to give children unstructured time outside. "We realize it's good to be out in nature, but then we structure it like we do everything else," she says. The shoreline at Latta Plantation Nature Preserve, the 1700s farm and Catawba Indian village at the Schiele Museum in Gastonia, the McMillan Greenhouse at the UNC-Charlotte Botanical Gardens, the Treasure Tree Grove of beech trees at RibbonWalk Urban Forest, and the maze of paths at Wing Haven Gardens in Myers Park provide excellent discoveries.
Make a Scrapbook
Charlotte can become a magical place in your child's imagination, especially if you take time to make a scrapbook after a visit. If you're not into scrapbooking (take heart, neither am I), a simple remembrance will do. I use eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch card stock, punch two holes at one end and thread a ribbon through to hold the pages together. Prints from a digital camera can be affixed with a glue stick, and captions handwritten or formatted on the computer. As a writer, I've learned to put in details and avoid generalities; it's better to write, "We could smell the pine needles in the summer heat," than, "We had a nice walk." Over time, a series of books will remind your precious charges that others hold them dear. The children's sense of place in the world will deepen, in part, by a connection to your world, your home, and your heart. And many years from now, when they are grown and speaking of their youth, perhaps to children of their own, they'll recall these times as halcyon days.
Laurie Prince's essays appear regularly on these pages. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org