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The phrase “balancing work and home life” always makes me think of the symbol of justice: a woman with a scale dangling from her outstretched hand—it is no accident she is blindfolded.

Life can’t possibly fit onto a scale without something dripping off the side.

Rather, the components of life are chopped up and tossed into a big bowl; and the ingredients are never in perfect proportion.

A few years ago (when I was losing weight for the 4th time), I made a bet with myself: any time it occurred to me to exercise, I HAD to do it—no excuses.

Recently my oldest daughter had her 12th birthday, and I became acutely aware of all the chances I had missed with her, and the chances I have been missing with my younger kids.

So, I made another deal with myself: instead of telling the children to go play with their siblings (like I usually do), I decided to play with them (or do a particular activity with them) any reasonable time they asked—no excuses.

Because I am a work-at-home, homeschooling mom, it is easy to shrug off the kids when they want to play. I can rationalize that the hours of being together, studying and doing chores somehow compensate for what they really want, which is to simply have some fun with mom.

At the core, I am selfish.

Really.

I get focused on a task (writing, blogging, running, cleaning, whatever), and it is easy to push the kids aside—because I am with them all day, every day.

Shouldn’t that be enough?

Just because I am a mom who is with my children 24/7, does not mean I have achieved some sort of mommy nirvana.

I have to work hard to stay focused on priorities, just as any full-time working mom. I can become so sidetracked with other things, even with homeschooling (which is FOR the kids) that I miss winning their hearts.

Thus, the playtime challenge.

I honestly don’t know why the kids want to play with me because it seems like it could be a punishment.

I brush hair, search for matching shoes, and make sure all the dolls are wearing pants. Even when every game ends up with a talent/fashion/college-scholarship-winner show, the kids, amazingly, love it.

Not only does our youngest light up with razzle-dazzle sparkles in her eyes, but the other kids join the game, incorporating machines that try to sabotage the contest, or aliens who are squashed like bugs under Barbie’s ridiculously high heel.

Playtime is for fun and silliness; and while it often seems like the empty calories of the day (a lot of fun but not much substance), for the children, it appears to be nourishing for their souls.

I may not realize for a long while how playtime is affecting the family, but I can only think it is good for us:  

A few extra servings of something healthy and sweet tossed into the big bowl of life.

 “I am glad when our kids play together,” said a friend as she sipped her coffee, “because your kids are so sheltered.”

Sheltered?

The word immediately brought to mind girls wearing pinafores over their high-necked dresses, with intricately braided hair under puffy white caps; and boys with button down shirts, straw hats, and dress pants that never have the chance to be ripped on playground equipment.

My kids have been taunted in at least three different languages, how can they be sheltered?

I suppose it all depends on your definition. If sheltered means ignorant of real-world issues, then I beg to differ.

In our house, we discuss everything; and believe me, coming from the secluded arctic to Europe has led to some eye-opening conversations.

Here are a few examples:

Sex:

First of all, my kids have known how reproduction works ever since our cavy decided to piggy-back the other, resulting in two furry little offspring. My children learned about sex without the help of gyrating Mtv Pop Tarts or graphic internet pop-ups. With this groundwork, I have been able to discuss subjects like pornography and prostitution, while remaining tolerably un-squeamish.

And Europe gives us many, many chances to talk about sex and the human body.

While ordering happy meals at McDonalds, I noticed a stack of newspapers for sale on the counter. Gracing the cover was a woman wearing nothing but a scowl for the paparazzi. My son glanced at it briefly and then stated in his manner-of-fact sort of way, “I don’t think they know about modesty here.”

On another occasion, while waiting at a stoplight, my youngest daughter chimed from her booster seat, “What is a Dolly Buster?” I looked over to see a poster of a well-endowed woman spilling out of her underwear—and she wasn’t selling children’s toys.

One morning, on our way from the central train station to our pediatric dentist, the kids and I inadvertently walked through the red light district in Frankfurt, which led to a fascinating discussion on government regulated prostitution.

Drugs:

I love Holland. The people are friendly, they love children, and they have the best cheese in the world. Plus, if you ever want to talk to your kids about drugs, this is the place to go.

But beware, if your youngest children are like ours, they will shriek “Eeewwww!” upon encountering funny smells and plug their noses as they scurry away. For us, it was a rather embarrassing way to begin a very public conversation on legalized marijuana.

We’ve stepped over crack pipes in underpasses. We’ve seen people in subway stations whose minds are so far gone because of drugs, they’re not even aware of the people around them. And each time we encounter something like this, it gives us the chance to talk about the devastating effects of drug abuse, and how each country handles addicts differently.

Rock-n-Roll & Cursing:

You may think I’m going to say that my kids have learned how to cuss in German, but that’s not the case. My kids have learned curse words in English since moving to Germany.

Instead of innocuous synthesizer music blaring in supermarkets, hair salons, or department stores,  German Rock music often contains English phrases that have you leaping across the aisle to cover your kids’ ears.

Curse words just don’t seem so offensive when in a different language. Even my sweet landlady utters epithets that could make a sailor blush.

Bullies:

Go to any playground or park in any country in the world and you will encounter bullies. A taunt is a taunt, no matter what the language. Yes, it’s hurtful, but our kids have learned when to make a stand and when to walk away.

Peer Pressure:

My children do not live in a bubble, and we are NOT Amish!

My kids actually leave the house, take classes, go shopping, and play on playgrounds where they interact with living, breathing homo sapiens.

One of my kids was nicknamed “Dracula” in a gymnastics class. Yes, I wanted to strangle the culprits, but instead, we worked through it (nonviolently).

Our kids have made friends with Americans and with Germans, and though they may have their feelings hurt from time to time, my kids aren’t swayed by what children outside the family think. The only peer pressure is from siblings, which can actually be a good thing.

World Religions:

Have you ever planted your pasty white family in a neighborhood where 8 out of 10 women wear long black robes and headscarves? Do you hear the church bells ring every 15 minutes in a town that has a brothel next to the mall? Have you ever had to wear a money belt next to your skin, while making your way into the world’s most magnificent House of God?

These experiences have given us great opportunities to discuss how people choose to worship God and the role and responsibilities of religion in society.

How do you define “sheltered?”

A friend of mine said that being sheltered means “protected from the storm.”

I like this idea.

While our family does not circumnavigate storms, we don’t toss our babies into the gales either.

Instead, we create an environment where the kids can grow until they are strong enough to withstand any tempest of life.

We do this by stressing the importance of honesty, integrity, and willingness to see through the eyes of people who may be radically different from us.

I love that my children can look at any situation, from prostitution to drug use, and view it in a logical, yet compassionate manner.

My children do not live in a bubble, nor do they live in some kind of backwoods compound with other little automatons.

We walk through this gritty, beautiful world like any other family, and we have seen some incredible things.

To us, “sheltered” does not mean to cloister; it means to foster soundness of mind and character, so the children can look at varying points of view, foreign cultures and alternative lifestyles with a sense of love for people, rather than mindless rejection.

I want them to think, and live, and breathe on their own.

Our children may not know exactly where the currents of life will sweep them, but I have confidence they can voyage to any corner of this world, without being swallowed up by the waves.

That’s what sheltering is all about.