a peek inside the fishbowl

11 Jun, 2010

Your Kids + (Your Time + Effort) = Good Kids & Happy People

Posted by andrea tomkins in: parenting

How much time and effort should we, as parents, spend on exposing our children to stuff? And what kind of stuff?

When Emma was 2 1/2 and Sarah was still a baby we all made a trip down to Orillia to visit Mark’s parents. The goal? To bring the eldest to the Toronto Zoo, for the first time ever. It was something we’d been looking forward to for a long time. Real life monkeys! Giraffes! Polar bears! All the animals that stories are made of – and more, regardless of their cuteness factor. (For example, Naked Mole Rats. They make my skin crawl. As do the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. Brr. Have I ever mentioned that I find all members of the Crocodylidae family really creepy? But this is neither here nor there.)

So there we were, at the zoo. It was a lovely sunny day. We borrowed a stroller and proceeded to pay a visit to every animal we could.

We bought Emma popcorn – which, as an aside, was mildly burnt – but she was so utterly fixated on that popcorn that she was practically ignoring the animals we’d driven all this way to see. I think we made a mistake by plunking that huge bag down on her lap. She acted as if she hadn’t eaten. Ever.

“LOOK AT THE ELEPHANTS HONEY!” we said, in that high-pitched voice that parents tend to use when (a) trying to get their kids attention and (b) trying to drum up some extra enthusiasm for the subject of their keen observation.
“LOOK! They’re like the ones in your books at home! Look!”
“Emma, LOOK! LOOK! Elephants!”

At the time I remember considering whether the whole excursion had been a waste of time, but in hindsight I don’t think it was. Maybe she didn’t notice the elephants, but she sure did notice the popcorn, and maybe she gleaned a few things from that trip, including the comfort of being wheeled around (because we ditched the stroller when her little sister came along and never looked back). But who really knows what impact – if any – it had on her little elephant-ignoring heart.

It may  have been just as worthwhile (and easier) to bring her to the local pet store. She may have been more excited to see goldfish instead of a stinky old elephant. Or maybe in her mind, she didn’t quite understand how cool it is to see an elephant, and how rare a thing it is.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

Parenting is work. Sometimes I find it very hard to get off my duff to go somewhere and do something, but do you know what? I am always glad I did. Even that day at the zoo.

I’m willing to argue that the more you put in to parenting, the more you get out of it later on. It’s very easy to stay at home and let your kid learn about goldfish and elephants from the TV. I think it’s important to get out of the house, no matter what. And that “window of interest” is actually pretty small. It doesn’t matter how you do it or how much money you spend, but getting out with the kids to Do Stuff is a must. In fact I bet the best experiences are free. Like feeding the ducks (see this recent post about it on Kids in the Capital), or just checking out one of the many outdoor spaces this lovely city has to offer.

You don’t know what they’re going to glean from an outing and how it’s going to shape and change them. Any experience you have with your kids might be the foundation of a lifelong passion.

As the parent of older kids, I look back now and I can say, with confidence, that it was worth it.

We’re going camping again this year. We started going when they were very small … at which point it was an awful lot of work. But here the thing, they don’t remember how much work it was. They just remember wading in the lake with their boots on, and taking one step too far and getting a soaker. They remember feeding the chipmunks, skipping stones and roasting marshmallows.

All the girls remember is that we’ve been going out and doing fun things as a family, well, forever.

What do you think?

11 Responses to "Your Kids + (Your Time + Effort) = Good Kids & Happy People"

1 | bushidoka

June 11th, 2010 at 9:19 am


I agree in principle with the notion that the more you put in, the more you get out and the happier everyone will be, but I think there is a very dangerous line there somewhere, and when you cross it you get into “hyperparenting” with hectic schedules and overstimulated kids.

We do go out of our way for some things – like camping is a good example. I became a Beaver leader this year because I saw it as a good opportunity to do more outdoor stuff with the boys. Not that I could not do this without becoming a leader – but rather I thought I had something to offer other kids in that area as well.

But rather than going out of our way to expose our kids to wide ranging things, we make the effort to teach them the details of the everyday things they encounter around them. Even simple things like explaining words they do not understand. Or helping notice new plants blooming in the yard, and getting out a field guide book to look it up and learn something about it. This is sort of the “unschooling” approach, to the best of my limited understanding of that movement. It is also consistent with my spiritual beliefs of appreciating what you have right here, right now, rather than always looking over the fence to see where there might be greener grass. There are limitless things in our daily lives which can be used as opportunities to teach our kids important things and help them grow as people. But most of us pass right by them.

Not that I think this is what you were suggesting or doing – but to finish where I started off – I think there is a line there somewhere that we have to be careful not to cross.

2 | andrea

June 11th, 2010 at 9:43 am


I certainly don’t think that the more violin/ballet/soccer/pottery/swimming lessons you enroll your kids in will result in better and happier kids.

Unscheduled and spontaneous fun is the way to go, but not everything needs to be made into a teachable moment. It’s very easy to go overboard in that area and I have to confess, when I hear parents over-explaining every single thing it kind of drives me crazy.

i.e. “Look! There’s a worm! It’s non-arthropod invertebrate animal! And there’s a flower, a lupin, and they are good at fertilizing the soil for other plants and can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia via a rhizobium-root nodule symbiosis!” and procede to regurgitate a very long list of attributes for whatever they’re looking at. Often it is enough to say WOW A WIGGLY WORM or WOW A PRETTY FLOWER, and stop to sniff it (the flower, not the worm that is). You know what I mean? :)

3 | coffee with julie

June 11th, 2010 at 10:23 am


I think I agree with everything you just wrote, except for the title. I think that it is possible for parents to provide their children with lots of time and effort and still end up with kids who may not be so “good” or people who may not be happy. Sometimes life is just not fair. You know what I mean?

For instance, in my own life, I can look back to kids I grew up with. Their upbringing was similar to mine, but one might have ended up a drug addict, while another committed suicide. I don’t think it was parenting per se that led to these results, but rather something so much more complicated. And sometimes, just plain luck (or bad luck).

I’m not saying that parents should be excused from doing their best — in effort and time — but I don’t think it is an equation that works out for all parents.

4 | Javamom

June 11th, 2010 at 10:34 am


We had a similar experience at the zoo when we took our older boy, at the age of toddlerhood, to see the animals. Well. He was interested in the pickup trucks. And the tractors. And pretty much any vehicle that had wheels that turned. The animals? Pff…sure, he looked at them, but his eyes were searching far and wide past the elephant’s trunk to find a guy with a truck he was about to drive someplace….

But like you, I do not feel like it was a waste of time. Sure, at the time, we thought why bother spending the money to go look at pickup trucks when we can do that for free up the street…but we also had a picnic. And we were together as a family. And we drove longer than we normally do when we get in the car. It was, in his toddler memory, a family excursion out of the ordinary everyday life that we live (which, in itself, he’s quite happy with even today at 5).

A family bike ride. A trip to the farmer’s market. A climb into a tree with the neighbour’s kids. It’s the accumulation of things we do locally and not so locally as parents. You are absolutely right – got off the butt and go out with them, even if it’s just up the street to look at trucks.

Even though often I would rather sit here and ponder my writing career….

They’re only young once. And they keep us young(er) with all of their activities, no?

5 | andrea

June 11th, 2010 at 10:39 am


julie: it’s funny you should mention the title of this post, because I originally posted it with a question mark at the end. I think I should have kept it in, because you’re totally right. We can pour ton of love and effort into our kids and they can still turn out “badly.”

Javamom – I love your ideas. And you’re so right! They do keep us younger.

6 | bushidoka

June 11th, 2010 at 10:57 am


Yes, it is definitely a fine balance in both directions. We generally follow the kids’ lead when we decide to use the moment to teach. And it also depends greatly on the child. Our oldest will almost always want all the details and to learn something, while the youngest will most likely just want the wiggly worm :-)

I guess I also agree with Julie that the formula does not always work that way – life is pretty unfair a lot of times.

7 | Capital Mom

June 11th, 2010 at 6:31 pm


Parenting is a lot of work. A lot. And it is worth it. But somedays… :-)
I like not doing scheduled things with the kids. The girl goes to preschool 5 mornings a week and I feel like that is enough. We spent about 2 hours every day at the park and I like that they have to make their own fun.

8 | Littlehouse

June 11th, 2010 at 10:57 pm


An aside for your aside…
You should read ‘Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed’ by Mo Williams. Aimed at younger children than yours, but everyone should have a little Mo in their lives.

9 | Scatteredmom

June 13th, 2010 at 11:14 am


Unschedualed fun time with Mom or Dad is, I think, priceless. When Jake was small he was like a puppy-needing to be taken out and RUN every day. His curiosity is so intense that I took him out to do things more for survival than anything.

Some of our best memories were the time when we spontaneously decided to go swimming at Qualicum Beach (he was in his clothes even) on the way home from a trip to a wildlife rescue place. I had a towel and change of clothes in the car, it was all good.

We used to walk down the road and visit some beavers that had built a damn there-then catch frogs or bugs, pick blackberries, and sometimes we’d see bears or deer.

It may be work, but I have had MORE fun hanging out and doing things with him then anything else. It’s been my favorite moments too. People complain about having their kids home for the summer, but honestly it’s my favorite time of year and I look forward to being out and about with Jake (going into grade TEN in September!) doing fun stuff together.

Our road trip vacations to wild and wonderful places have given him a broader view of the world, and he LOVES them.

10 | andrea

June 14th, 2010 at 10:07 am


Capital Mom: I’ve been thinking about your comment. I think that mothers need to put themselves first, or at least, alongside with their kids in terms of priorities.

We need to make sure we’re (decently!) rested, fed and watered. We can’t lose sight of ourselves, because if we are weary and ill and undernourished (physically and mentally and spiritually) it is that much harder to mother.

So if that means not taking a trip to the zoo because mum needs a nap and a shower, so be it. Everyone will be happier (not just the mum).

When there is a bit of energy left to spare – or something we can scrape up – that’s when we undertake bigger outings.

I guess the point of my post is that it IS worth pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and doing something above and beyond – whether it’s baking a batch of muffins, taking the kids to visit the goldfish at the petstore, going out for a playdate in the park, drawing a hopscotch grid on the driveway.. whatever. It’s hard work, sometimes, but so worth it.

11 | Marla

June 16th, 2010 at 6:50 am


That’s in Mommy Mantras – I believe it’s the one called “Surrender to the Goat” or “Worship the Goat” – and it’s mentioned here:


And it kicks my butt thrice weekly.

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