Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Birthday Time

Two weeks to go. July 5th is my son's first birthday. He's long been toddling, so will officially leave babyhood very soon.

In my family, there is an unspoken rule that a child's first birthday must be celebrated with a big party. Since Little A is the first grandson on his father's side, we figured we would have no choice but to celebrate. My first idea was a pirate party. How cute would that be? Eye patches for everyone, Little A in his red and white striped Marimekko top from godmother P in Finland, Peter Pan-inspired games. Big A nixed the idea - he said too many people would have the same theme since Disney's big Pirates of the Caribbean franchise had just released its final movie in the trilogy. He was right. At a christening, we overheard the baby's mother saying she was already organising the pirate-themed party for her son's first birthday.

Big A wanted a manly theme. Knights, then. And princesses for the girls (though he preferred Knights and Wenches, with activities like rape and pillage, looting the town and the like.) Excited, I started planning. A 3-stanza poem would comprise the invitation, and it would be printed on tea-stained parchment and rolled up like a scroll. We would hire a bouncy castle, or one shaped like a dragon, and looked into the cost of having Shetland ponies for the kids to ride. We bought plastic swords for the boys and costume jewelry for the girls. Art activities would be shield and cone hat decoration.

But Little A's birthday falls during Manila's rainy season, and this year was a particularly stormy one. Then his grandmother fell ill with a mosquito-borne fever that could be potentially fatal. So the party in my parents' huge garden needed to be rethought.

Indoor venues large enough to hold bouncy castles and tables and chairs for 40 children and 80 adults in our area were not easy to come by without huge cost. Discouraged, I packed away the swords and jewelry and decided to just take Little A and his cousins to Gymboree and then out for a meal and cake. The Knight party could wait for another year, and in the meantime, we could go on a trip with the money we would save.

Two Sundays ago, we went to inquire about a small private party at Gymboree, only to find out it was closed on Sundays. No matter, there was a backup plan. A restaurant with a massive indoor play area had just opened nearby, so we went to see that. Little A was asleep, so he and I stayed in the car while Big A when down to get information, phone numbers and the like.

Half an hour later, he came back with a huge smile on his face. He loved it and immediately booked a 20 child party. I was to take care of the details and we would confirm the following weekend.

Since I hadn't seen the inside, all I had to go by were friends' photos of the place. I selected a menu, spoke to someone on the phone and told them I wanted to see the loot bags and birthday cake that came with the package when we made the confirmation deposit. Unsure about the quality or quantity of the giveaways, I purchased additional ones and had stickers made to label them as Little A's 1st birthday thank you tokens.

I was pleasantly surprised the following weekend, not only by the cleanliness of the play area (Little A is still at the stage of licking everything in sight) but by the loot bags, the cake (though there was no telling what it would taste like!) and even the invitations they provided. We sealed the deal, and in 2 weeks, Little A and 19 of his friends get to run riot for 2 hours under careful supervision by qualified staff. He will turn one with a celebration, that much is certain.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Reading Bug

Old habits die hard, or not at all. 

As young children, my parents made sure that my sisters and I never got addicted to television simply by giving us more interesting things to do than sit in front of a black box frying our brain cells. Don't get me wrong, we had regular viewing times for Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Electric Company and Saturday Fun Machine, but television was just something to look at if there was nothing better to do. Of course, it helped that there were only 5 channels and not many children's programs in English at the time. 

In recent years, with the advent of cable tv bringing dozens of channels and more interesting programs, I've been watching much more television than I used to. But since Little A was born, I never get to watch tv anymore, mostly because he's never in one place long enough for me to pay attention to a particular program. 

Today, countless children are obese and/or intellectually-challenged because they sit in front of the box watching all-day cable cartoon channels instead of playing outdoors and reading books. What a shame. Naturally every new parent wants to make sure their child doesn't grow up this way, and I am one of them. I think Little A will have a good chance, with two parents who enjoy reading.

I was taught to love the written word at a very young age. I am currently searching the bookstores for a copy of Wynken, Blynken and Nod, a book I remember my mom reading to me at bedtime as a very little girl. She made sure we had the complete sets of children's classics, nursery rhymes, Little House books, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and many more. She introduced me to Enid Blyton, who in turn opened up my literary world to the wonderful side of English writers. 

Sundays when we were kids consisted of church, lunch, and then a trip to the bookstore, where we were each allowed to buy one title. If we'd gotten good reports at school, we were allowed to buy more books. When my parents travelled to London as my dad often did for business, he would bring back more books by authors that were locally unavailable at the time. As we got older and started choosing our own reading material, my dad always made sure that these purchases were subsidised by him and didn't need to come from our own pockets. College meant each daughter got an extension of his credit card to be used only for groceries, petrol and books. 

By the time I was a teenager, our house was like a public library, with friends trooping in regularly to borrow titles that they couldn't find in the bookstores. When I moved out of my parents' house, most of my books came with me, and to this day there are always a dozen or so books out on loan at any given time. I've mastered the art of finding out-of-print titles in secondhand bookstores and adding them to my collection or giving them as gifts. 

Books were truly a treasure, and continue to be so to me. While I read most types of books nowadays, children's books still hold a special place in my heart, and I hope one day to get a degree in Children's Literature and maybe write my own.

My sisters and I in turn try to provide our own kids with the same well-stocked home libraries that our parents gave us. For other parents out there, here's a list of must-haves for your children's shelves:

Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes
Aesop's Fables
The Fairy Tale Classics - Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Rumplestiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, The Gingerbread Man, The Little Red Hen, The Billy Goats Gruff etc.
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
The Complete Stories of Beatrix Potter
The Winnie the Pooh stories by E.E. Milne
Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit

The Children's Classics - Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, Pollyanna, The Five Little Peppers etc.
C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia
Everything by Roald Dahl
Enid Blyton's Fantastic Four or Secret Seven series
Enid Blyton's Enchanted Wood/Magic Faraway Tree series
The Bobbsey Twins
Judy Blume's children's titles - the Fudge series, in particular
J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series
Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series
E.B. White's children's books - Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan

For Girls -
Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series
Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik series
The Nancy Drew series

For Boys-
The Hardy Boys series

Older readers may enjoy these:
Isabelle Allende's children's trilogy - City of the Beasts, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, Forest of the Pygmies
Zizou Corder's Lionboy trilogy
J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy

With thousands of new titles being published each year, there are so many books and authors out there to discover. May all parents teach there children that the world is much bigger than what the flat screen tv shows, and that reading feeds the imagination the way nothing else can.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Day for Dads

There are basically two types of parenting styles - hands on, and hands off. Everyone else falls somewhere in between. For a child lucky enough to enjoy both parents, mom's style tends to differ from dad's. While one generally assumes that mothers are more hands-on, this isn't always true.

Funny how it's the men you least expect to be hands-on parents who surprise you. Both my brothers-in-law were not particular child-lovers, but upon having their own suddenly turned into surprisingly doting dads. BIL#1 changes diapers, feeds, burps and puts his kids to sleep - he can sometimes even be more hands-on than my sister! BIL#2 has changed diapers, something Little A's dad has never yet done.

My own father features vividly in my childhood memories, despite his being a full-time working dad. There is a scar on his thigh, maybe 6 inches long, from where one of my diaper pins wounded him when he was changing me. He used to peel me grapes and feed them to me in my high chair, and I bit his finger at least once. As a one-year old, I'd listen to his car come into the driveway in the evenings and if someone carried me high enough, I could watch the car drive in. One evening there was no one to lift me up, so I had the brilliant idea of climbing the glass panes, called jalousies, to see for myself. Obviously I came crashing down and was promptly rushed to the hospital to have the glass shards taken out of my feet.

Growing up, he made sure we never wanted for anything, right up until the present, when he gifted each daughter with their own home when they got married and invested generously in his son-in-laws' business ventures. He provided well enough for us that we were able to travel regularly and study abroad, both priceless experiences. He has set the bar high for the standard that we want to meet when raising our own children.

Fathers play important roles in their children's lives. Whether they take on the role of disciplinarian, breadwinner, or playtime companion, a family isn't complete without both parents. As a stay-at-home mother to Little A, there is a definite absence in our days when Big A comes home late because of a work dinner or travels abroad for business. Little A certainly looks forward to seeing his dad at the end of every day, and listens with a smile when he calls home in the afternoons.

Big A isn't very hands-on, never having fed his son or given him a bath in the entire 11.5 months since his birth, but that may change when Little A is bigger. I don't think his hands-off policy is due to lack of thoughtfulness, though, but because he just doesn't realize that 24 hour parenting is far more exhausting than a 12 hour workday, and he probably thinks he would be criticized for doing something wrong if he attempted to feed or bathe his son. (Which may be true, but remains to be seen.)

I know he takes fatherhood seriously, though, because his end goals have now changed. He works to provide his son with a future and no longer spends much time playing golf or drinking with the boys. When he can refuse, he turns down business travel assignments to be home with his wife and son. If he must travel for work, he takes us with him. Little A and I are far more important to him than just bathtime and mealtime would indicate. He has the big picture in mind, and lets me take care of the little details. This arrangement works out fine.

On Sunday we commemorate Father's Day. Whatever their parenting style, provided they are present in their children's lives, that is enough to salute them.