What I Have Learned About Writing and Life from Lego (and my kids)

Three and a half years ago, after my son Aidan broke his leg on the slippery floor of a Franprix supermarket in Paris, and after the initial shock and pain began to wear off, we had to figure out what on earth we were going to do with a suddenly immobile almost-4 year old. One can only watch so many movies, and I wasn’t at all sure I was ready to introduce him to video games.

So I consulted my Paris guidebook, located the nearest toyshop on the map, and headed over with my mom and Graeme, who was then a 1-year-old cherub with golden curls. I don’t remember what-all was purchased on that day—there may have been some crayons and coloring books, long since consumed—except that this was when we bought our family’s first box of Lego (and one of Duplo, so as not to leave out the cherub.)

We set Aidan up in bed with a tray upon which to build, and build he did—and hasn’t really stopped since.

Within the year he was creating his own designs, based on things we’d see around town, things he saw in books or in movies, cars and trucks he saw driving by, and so on. (And of course, he was making Lego swords and other weapons, too, sigh.) Every birthday and Christmas saw his collection increase, and the vast majority of toys brought to Malawi from home are…Lego, of course.

What I love about Lego is that most Lego bricks—even if they come as part of a kit—are fabulously open-ended. A piece from a castle can become part of a spaceship or part of a digger or part of a scabbard or part of a ship. I love that there is simply no limit to what can be made with them—they have made binoculars and dragons and medical equipment. I love that when they hear a new story or go on a new sort of adventure, they come back to the pile of Lego and recreate what they’ve encountered…in Lego. They are always confident that the exact right piece exists and that they can find it. They’re always tweaking their creations and improving them. And it’s not work for them…it’s pure pleasure.

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When I watch them build, or when they proudly present their creations to me, I feel like I’m encountering something that’s so pure and important, not because of childhood innocence or some such thing, but because they work with the raw materials of their craft with such fearless confidence. They see a Land Rover, determine to recreate one in Lego, gather the pieces, build it, play with it…it might take hours, but they will do it with such focus and seriousness that it’s easy to forget they are children at play.

This is the kind of thing, I think, that most of us are—or were—capable of; that self-forgetfulness, that feverish making-of-things, even if the things we are making are made only (only!) of words. We encounter something that inspires us—on Pinterest, or at the market, on a hike, or in a book—and we are determined to make something of it with whatever it is we have at our disposal: pen and paper, fresh ingredients, fabric and thread, acrylic and canvas. We can use whatever we have and take our time, and we can always take a break to eat some peanut butter and crackers or page through a Tintin book. We end up doing more than just distracting ourselves from boredom and pain and (what feels like immobility.)

We are binding up the broken bits and mapping our way through streets and wildernesses unknown, one brick, one word, one glimpse at a time.

Better a Bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese Where Love Is…

A few days ago, I came across this great post at The Power of Moms: it’s about how your children want and need you–not Pinterest-perfect meals, home decor, and crafts:

“Can we remind each other that it is our uniqueness and love that our children long for? It is our voices. Our smiles. Our jiggly tummies. Of course we want to learn, improve, exercise, cook better, make our homes lovelier, and provide beautiful experiences for our children, but at the end of the day, our children don’t want a discouraged, stressed-out mom who is wishing she were someone else.”

Or, I would add, snapping at her husband and/or kids because of her stressed-out perfectionism, which happens around here more often than I would like to admit.

I want to be the mom who makes perfectly nourishing chicken soup when my kids are sick:

and perfectly cozy, adorable blankets with their names on them:

and tasty, diverse foods:

veggie sushi with yummy plum powder from Japan (thanks, Susan!)

But more than anything, I want to be the mom who is close to her kids, who lets them know in thousands of ways that they are loved and they are safe in the world, that they are beautiful and so, so precious.

The other day when I was making the empty tomb cake, I found myself ready to snap at the children for (understandably) swiping bits of frosting and hovering around me as I assembled and decorated the cake. I had, in my mind, a Pinterest-perfect picture of how I wanted it to look. And so when I pulled out the bag of candy rocks, I wanted to be the one to put each one perfectly in place.

Okay, guys, you can each put on five rocks. And then I want you to let me do the rest.

But then I started to feel as if I’d eaten too many candy rocks and they were gathering in my stomach. And so I had a little talk with myself–what is this all about, anyway?–and handed them the bag.

Go wild, guys. Just decorate it up.

Anne Lamott, who’s one of my very favorite writers, has this great piece up at the O magazine. She talks about how her parents read Julia Child and served up world-class cassoulet, chutneys, and mole poblano, but hated each other with a silent, stuffed-down anger. On the other hand, her friends’ families served up “aggressively modest” food like English muffin pizza and tuna noodle casserole, which was delicious to her because of the spiritual food–the love–that went with it.

She writes:

the steamed persimmon pudding was easy on the taste buds but hard to swallow, because it came at such a cost: a lump in the throat, anxiety in our bellies.”

Proverbs 15:17 sums this bit of insight well:

A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate. (NLT)

or, if you like:

Better a bread crust shared in love than a slab of prime rib served in hate. (MSG–other translations here.)

And so while I value good, wholesome food that’s been raised responsibly and prepared well–and while I think that this can be a tangible (edible?) way of loving other people, especially my family–why, I still think the essential ingredient is love.
And, of course, joy.
The other day I was rolling fresh pasta and started to get really ticked at the boys because they were doing all sorts of normal and age-appropriate things like sticking their fingers in the gears and generally getting in the way, and I thought:
Better I should buy some Ronzoni than snap at my kids because I’m stressed about fresh pasta.
Better a bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese where love is, than a Gratin Dauphinois with grumbling.
Better to order in a pizza than spend all your time hand-stretching foccacia and having no time to play Candy Land.
What other “better a _____ than ______?” would you add?
(tech stuff: C77ZZVJT65E5)

Parent of an Overweight Child? *Sensible* advice, for a change

{As a follow up to yesterday’s dieting Tiger Mom, sensible advice from Ellyn Satter, registered dietician and counselor specializing in eating competency.}

Children come in all sizes – some are big, some are small, some are sturdy or even chubby, others are slender. If your child’s weight is relatively high, even if it plots above the 95th or even the 97th percentile, it is likely to be normal if it follows along a particular percentile curve on the growth chart.

On the other hand, if your child’s weight percentiles are going up, there could be a problem. Some children carry the genes for fatness, and those genes let them get too fat – they don’t make them too fat.

Errors in feeding can make vulnerable children too fat. What are those errors?

1) Too much interference

2) Too little structure

3) Both together

Instead of trying to get your child to eat less and slim him down, support his normal pattern of development by doing an excellent job of feeding, parenting reliably and well, and letting your child grow up to get the body that is right for him:

  • Get started with family meals, if you aren’t having them already. Give sit-down snacks between times, but don’t let him have free access to food or beverages, except for water.
  • To provide support without interfering with feeding, maintain a division of responsibility in feeding. You manage the what, when and where of feeding and trust your child to do the how much and whether of eating from what you put on the table.
  • Throughout your child’s growing-up years, feed in a developmentally appropriate fashion.
  • To provide structure without interfering with activity, maintain a division of responsibility in activity:
  • You provide structure, safety and opportunities. Your child chooses how much and whether to move and the manner of moving

For more about raising children who eat as much as they need and get bodies that are right for them (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter’s Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming, Kelcy Press, 2005.

Also see www.EllynSatter.com to purchase books and to review other resources.

Copyright © 2012 by Ellyn Satter. Published at www.EllynSatter.com.