Lessons learnt while on school holidays

How do you feel about your kids at the end of the school holidays?
How do you feel about your kids at the end of the school holidays? Photo: Getty

I can’t say how much I am looking forward to the beginning of term tomorrow. Almost as much, I think, as I was looking forward to the first day of the school holidays.

Life being like a rollercoaster is a proverbial metaphor for most families, but never more is it exemplified than in the holidays, when families are suddenly together all day every day.

I have come to believe that, generally speaking, as a mother (in my case of three boys under seven), it helps to live life in an ongoing state of hope, or denial, or both. Since the holidays seem to bring out both the best and the worst in the entire family, the last couple of weeks have seen both pushed to their limit.

Fundamentally my boys are friends. I mentioned that I was writing this piece and asked them to tell me what they thought of each of their brothers and why. They all unwaveringly answered that they like each other and the reasons ranged from ‘because he’s cute’ (the seven-year-old about the three-year-old) to ‘because he helps with my sight words’ (the five-year-old about the seven-year-old). So why, despite the mutual admiration, do they fight and bicker so much? And do the holidays actually change things or simply give us more time to think?

I’ve even read books looking for answers. One book I had high hopes of was Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, which helpfully suggests “if children are going through a period where there’s constant irritation between them, the parents ought not to subject them to ‘togetherness.’” In fairness, this refers particularly to enforced ‘outings’ where the choice of activity may not be to every child’s tastes, but not having family nearby to call on means that by necessity we come as a package during the break.

My boys are full of vim and vigour. Combined with a competitive streak verging on fanatical, and of course the odd number of individuals, you can only imagine the stress that often accompanies even a journey to the shops – actually, especially a journey to the shops. The flip side to this was seen during the sports camp the two older boys attended in the first week; they both got singled out for their determination and drive. I wonder if a two-week residential sports camp exists? 

One rainy day I suggested they turn a bedroom into a fort with blankets, chairs and anything else (within reason) they needed. I was reminded of two things when I went to check on them: the chasm between my definition of ‘within reason’ and that of my sons, and a crazy-eyed maniacal despot. My eldest, who was standing on a chest of drawers, had balanced a broom between two chairs and was making up challenges for the other two which involved grovelling under the broom without touching it. If it moved he threw a balled-up pair of socks at the culprit. They were all dressed in boardshorts and the younger ones had underpants on their heads. A new regime cometh, it seems.

It didn’t help that at the beginning of the holidays their circadian rhythms were already all over the place after the change to Daylight Savings a week before the end of term. These little bodies need consistency, pattern and routine. This is also why the holidays can send them out of whack; they don’t know what is expected of them at any one time. Suddenly everything changes again and all of a sudden mum is saying ‘yes’ to things that are usually a ‘no’. These include but are not limited to TV before breakfast, Nutella on toast every morning, ABC3 with its facile presenters and scatological humour.

We tried to implement some rules and boundaries to try and bring order to the household. After much trial and error with reward charts we have settled (for now) on the boys having to complete a number of ‘jobs’ in order to earn screen time (immediately gratified during the holidays, accumulative through the week in term time).

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But in spite of our reward system, this holidays I have still found myself administering regular lectures to the boys about how incredibly lucky they are to live the lives they do. After one especially challenging suppertime, having tried and failed to persuade them to eat (scrummy veggie casserole with polenta – why was I surprised?), I played them the Band Aid video that I remember affecting me so strongly almost 30 years ago.  It worked! And it was a win-win-win for everyone. The boys ploughed valiantly through their five – decent sized – mouthfuls, I felt I had ‘won’ the battle and Unicef got a stonking great donation comprising an online payment from me and $14.65, two Lego heads, a paperclip and some balls of fluff from the boys’ piggy bank.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen during term time; I have neither the time nor the patience to experiment with juvenile taste buds, so stick to old favourites which are wolfed down after an activity and before homework. The whole family moves forward on a seemingly pre-determined trajectory without time for reflection or deviation from the relentless routine. 

But in the holidays, even though they bicker, the boys engage with each other more directly than they seem to in term time. And although during my lower moments I have menacingly eyed the wall-to-wall Lego with my high-powered vacuum in mind, I have more often embraced the chaos and celebrated the fact that on the whole we are all rather keen on each other, and more often than not would rather be together than apart.

Julia Cahill is a freelance writer who lives in Sydney with her husband and three young sons. She blogs at www.juliacahillswords.com

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