Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tired

At last, I get to blog in real time. Most of my work these days is done in bits and pieces on the laptop. But tonight I'm hiding out in the basement, taking a little time on my own.

It's been a crazy couple of weeks, it seems. I took a small job directing childcare services for the High Holidays for a synagogue, and it's blossomed into a short-term big job. Lots of email, planning ahead for the unknown, and so many details. It's the first time this group has done any childcare of this sort, and the first time I've directed and worked with multiple committees, so we're all newbies in this. Fortunately, everyone I've worked with has had a great attitude, but even the non-site work is flexing a part of my brain that's kind of been on vacation for a long time. Oh, and Kiddo isn't fond of getting less attention either. But the work must be done. So, as I rev up to do this work, our little preschools planning and considerations must wait.

I'm tired today because we started Kiddo sleeping on his own. He's got a little tent in our room, all cozy with tons of blankets on the floor for a mattress as well as pillows, buddies (Doggie, Kitty and Teddy Bear)and I lay down with him; we snuggle until he falls asleep. We've changed the routine so he no longer nurses to sleep, and I've been sleeping with one ear open for the past two nights. We've done well, all things considered, and I'm not one to force it, but I like having space and not getting kicked in the head or having my shirt pawed on in the wee hours.

Kiddo, however, is pretty stressed. All morning long, as I was working in the yard, he'd lean on my back and say in his little boy voice "Want to hold yoooouuuuuu." I'm trying to fill up his hug bank, and also trying to get our garden in shape for winter veggies; I just bought some kale and onions yesterday. Kiddo doesn't care that I've wanted to take that spotty, high-maintenance rosebush out for ages, or that the roots of the droopy-looking echinacea are so darn deep. He wants to dig where the Swiss chard seeds have sprouted. He wants to pull the wickets up from the ground and turn them into microphones, so he can fake his way through the "ABC" song. And he want, still, to be held more.

I don't even want to think about the pile of dishes in the sink.

So this is what it's like to be all grown up.Again. Job, family, house, garden. I could really use a night out. Girls, let me know if any one of you wants to escape Friday night and grab a beer. Seriously.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Little Senor No-Nap

Sometimes our kids throw us curve balls. When we work with them, we run the risk that an unexpected pleasant surprise might come our way.

Like any two year old, Kiddo has become an unreliable daytime sleeper. Not usually, but there’s often one day a week in which he gets engaged and doesn’t want to nap. I’m not one for forcing naps, but those evenings are certainly harder. He goes down earlier, but needs me more while he’s sleeping and this makes for a not-so-great night on my end. So I do my best to provide some consistency on naps.

This morning was busy, out giving the garden a heavy-duty cleanup. The fallen tomatoes have to come off the ground; if left, they cause a special sort of ‘tomato mold’ that basically wrecks your soil. The giant bristly green squash leaves were grey and dusty-looking and needed to be cut off, exposing the vine and extending the time our plant will stay healthy and producing. Lots of pesky weeds could be found and I’m still not done with them. And please, don’t ask about the crabgrass.

My son is nearly two and a half and is starting to do as he darn well pleases. Yesterday morning he was interested in the toilet, so we took the lid off the tank and looked in, watched the water empty loudly and fill with that white noise sound. An hour later he must have become curious, because I heard the singular sound of the tank lid being moved on the top of the toilet and despite my protestations of “Stop! Stop!” he pushed the lid off the tank, where it fell behind the toilet onto the floor. A loud clang and a breaking sound followed.

And then twice he’s not listened, not stopped running when I’ve called him. He’s quick. I’m also quick—to pop him in the stroller for a while or corral him on the porch.

Although the porch is another story, because today he climbed up on the back of my bike and threw one leg over the porch rail, straddling them both. My heart in my throat, I said slowly and carefully “Please stop. Please get down. That’s very dangerous.” And, thank heaven, he did. But I’m sure he still doesn’t really understand what all that fuss was about and it might take a while before he does.

You get where I’m going with this? This is the kind of week I’m having already, and it’s only Tuesday. When naptime rolled around, well, I’ll spare you the details, but it didn’t go well at all. It was quickly clear that this wasn’t going to be a day for pressing the issue, so I decided to get us out for a walk. This ended up being a real treat.

We strolled, we smelled roses together, we looked at outdoor lighting systems—a real favorite of Kiddos—and stumbled across a summer delight: on a wide, shady piece of grassy parking strip, a woman had left her sprayer nozzle on as a sprinkler. Kiddo absolutely loved this, and it was fun to just watch him have a grand time grabbing the water. I sipped my iced tea and just drank in the moment, the warmth and sun and smell that the air brings just before the season really turns. It was delicious.

In a lazy mood, I walked us over to Laurelhurst Elementary, where he’ll be going in a few years. Kiddo loves to visit the school; he likes to check up on the mason bees house, explore the dandelions and play on the playground when school is out and it’s quieter. I like taking him over there. I want him to grow up knowing his community, knowing where his school is, and to experience the feelings of familiarity and investment. Today, the school was just the place.

We walked by and spied a small cluster of mothers and children next to a snow cone vendor. The cones were a dollar. I looked at Kiddo, who saw the big kids on the playground and couldn’t join them. He wanted so many things he couldn’t have, like Little Bear in the story, where he tells his mother his fantastical wishes and she says repeatedly “You can’t have that, my Little Bear”. I didn’t feel guilty for the things I had told him “no” to, but this snow cone, this was something my own Little Bear could have.

So we went for it. Light syrup. Strawberry/raspberry was the flavor of the day. (The vendor’s got a good mind for kids like that, offering just one choice. After school, that’s exactly what they needed, not to have to choose but to simply enjoy.) We found a shady spot under a tree and Kiddo had at it. We watched a father throw a football with a group of boys. Mothers scootered by us, coming to meet their kids. The bell rang and pickup time officially began. I said hello to the parents of a child I’d met at the preschool pickup last year and we chatted for a brief second. There was community everywhere, even for those of us who aren’t yet ‘going to school’. It was just lovely to see.

Eventually, it was time to keep going. I felt refreshed in my soul, in some inexplicable way. Maybe it was the sweetness of seeing him eat his first snow cone, his earnestness at trying to figure out how to eat it. Or the fact that we’d had a moment of harmony; that I had something to give him by saying “yes” to the moment. He hadn’t even asked for the snowcone—I’d just wanted to give it to him was all.

And he gave me something nice too. Ten minutes later, he was asleep. I should probably wake him up in a few minutes…it’s nearly five now. How did you think I found the time to post this anyhow?*

*Time-schmime! I wrote this last Tuesday and as you can see, it’s the following Monday, so there you go…

Ignore-ance is Bliss

In my last posts, I’ve discussed some of my favorite gems from the Parenting Bag of Tricks: modeling, empathetic language, offering two positive choices and letting our children find their own ‘middle ground’ solutions that work for everyone. Well, today I’d like to introduce you to another Favorite Trick: mindfully ignoring my son.

I’ll let you laugh and roll your eyes for a moment.

As I mentioned in my last post, kids do a lot of things for attention. Can we talk about the child’s desire for attention? Their desire to seek our attention is perfectly reasonable, and in my opinion, very healthy. Even as babies, our children learned that connection with us is vital for their survival as a fully realized human being. It can be frustrating at times, because they often seem want our attention when it most needs to be elsewhere. And sometimes they do dangerous things which require immediate intervention. But what I noticed is that some of the time I was giving my son attention for doing things that were merely annoying. This was a game for him, but a trap for me.

So why do we get stuck in this trap? See, in my profession to we have to address behaviors immediately and thoroughly. “Let’s get to the bottom of this” is the thinking, and as a teacher for toddlers and preschoolers, responding to disruptive behaviors in the moment is essential for the peace and safety of the other 8 or 10 kids in the space. I’d also venture to suggest that there is indeed a proclivity amongst—dare I say it?—overeducated parents whose desire to illuminate their children’s understanding of right and wrong often involves the Long Drawn-Out Explanation. Yet, after careful parental observation, I find the opposite to be true. The more we talk about what we don’t like, the more we see our children doing the exact same things. Lesson learned: Less is more, so (not) to speak.

I’ve never discovered a name or established method for sort of purposeful ignoring (which is actually highly monitored), so I have to use my best judgment and wing it. I pick and choose which things to “ignore” in the moment, based on what’s happening, what’s safe, and what sort of outcome correction and attention will bring.

Here’s a simple example: what to do when he says something less than sociable. I think this is a challenge for nearly every parent at one point or another. We hear our child say something not so nice and it feels like we need to nip it in the bud by having a talk about it or doing something more extreme and less helpful. Over the years, however, I’ve discovered that carrying on about why “saying ‘such and such’ is not okay”, etc. can be just the encouragement our kids need to continue repeating it. Instead, I’ve found that ignoring most of these unpleasant utterances is the best tool for making them go away. And, not surprisingly, they do.*

There’s also something to be said for respecting that kids are people, too, and have the right to speak their mind even if it isn’t always comfortable for us. Kiddo has lately taken to repeating a slightly alarming phrase—“Want to hit kids”. When he looks into my face and says this, he’s already got my attention and so I follow up with the usual “Hitting hurts. Our hands are for doing fun, safe things. They are for being gentle with.” I don’t discuss consequences or other intangibles because they are too abstract. And this may very well be his fantasy talk, so when he’s just rattling on to himself about ‘want to hit kids/cat/mama’, I just let him be.

Joe and I are learning how to use this mindful ignoring to our advantage while parenting together. My new motto is: “One parent is a correction; two parents are attention.” While we initially thought we were being supportive of each other, it became clear to us that the attention of two parents was an irresistible inducement. “Wow! I got both of them to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to me! This is great!” We’ve since learned that one parent talking to Kiddo about safe choices is usually enough to move the moment along. This has helped in some very concrete ways. For example: Kiddo likes to turn the television off when we the adults are watching it. Once it occurred to me that he was likely doing this to get our attention, we decided not to respond to his turning off the tv and just talked to each other instead, mindfully ignoring what he was doing. (By the way, we didn’t discuss this in front of him, but used hand signals in the moment and talked about it in private.) It turned out to be exactly what was needed and after a minute he turned the television back on. Without our response and attention, the whole reason for turning the television off was gone. We then found a positive way of engaging him without discussing his previous actions.

I’ve also had to make some hard decisions about when to mindfully ignore. Kiddo likes to stand on chairs, and this has become a big, exciting problem in our house. Regularly, he’ll stand on the seat of his sturdy wooden high chair (which is high up and dangerous due to the things surrounding it) and grin, loving the attention he’s about to receive. Our automatic response now is to just put him on the floor and invite him to play on the kitchen floor or in the living room. But I recently found myself constantly reminding Kiddo to “be careful” on the edge of the couch or the low adult chairs at the kitchen table. Frankly, I was sick of hearing myself. My diligent cautioning fed his desire for attention; but this wasn’t why I wanted to be giving it to him, and he would not stop doing these not-too-dangerous things until he came up with his own reason not to. And so I let him take a few tumbles. This was a hard decision, but he’s become far more cautious on his own now. Of course, we have to be paying enough attention to make certain that the damage will be minimal; falling off a low chair is far different from falling off the porch, right? And what’s he going to be falling onto? But there is a time when we have to pull back and let them learn on their own. Recognizing when it’s truly okay to do this can lessen our frustration and provides them opportunities to learn to be careful on their own.

So, this is how I’m keeping up with my growing boy. Adapting to the moment and really trying to figure out the “whys” of his actions. I’m careful not to crumple his authentic self, but to preserve it by being empathetic. Sometimes his actions—say, hitting (which is rare)—are wrong, and we tell him so, but it’s important to me that he knows he’s not a bad person. Our kids are more work than ever, and we have to find our own sense of balance and calm in the middle of it. It’s important to keep in mind that our negative language may stem from frustration, but our children store up those comments like pennies in a piggy bank. There’s an old saying that “Children Live What they Learn” and it’s true; children are determined to live up to our expectations, no matter how negative. So lastly, be careful for little ears. If you don’t like something your child did, or are concerned about it, keep your own counsel and avoid mentioning it in front of the child or their peers. Remember: our little monkeys are very interested in what interests us, and if we find their previous actions interesting enough to mention to someone else, even in the least-judgmental light, they will think that doing it again might be worth it.

After all, it got our attention.

* I want to clarify here that if my son were older and walking around saying “bleepity bleep bleep” (insert your favorite naughty words here), I might take a different tack. This would be the time to explain that his words are saved for when he’s alone in his room, out of the hearing of others. That’s his space for doing what he wants, within reason. It’s important to notice when our children are capable of receiving the redirection and understanding the context for it; this is something that my son, at two, would not quite understand: why the words are offensive to some and the autonomy being in his own space gives him. There is a progression to all of this. Oh, and when we’re in public, uttered naughty words can get turned into a rhyming game, which is a positive distraction. Believe me, everything naughty rhymes with something!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Finding the Middle Ground

The other day I had a chance to tell you about the fun we are having with our little fella. Each stage of his growth has opened up more opportunities to have fun, and while I enjoy watching him expand his world and become more interested in what we are doing, there is some extra responsibility on Joe’s and my end to keep up our end of the deal. As our children get older, we have to expand our Bag of Parenting Tricks.

Of course, we all know that the most powerful trick in the Parenting Bag is modeling. We try to use this to our advantage by showing our son safe and appropriate behavior, even at the risk of sounding like a complete idiot as we narrate for added effect. “I like to use the handrail. I hold on so I can be safe” or “Oh, I like to sit on my bottom when I eat. It’s just right for me.” This sort of talk sounds absolutely inane to anyone who hasn’t had a kid who will teeter no-hands down the concrete porch stairs and can’t seem to sit down for a meal unless it’s at a restaurant, strapped into a high chair. Modeling means keeping food in the kitchen…well, most of the time. And going in together to wash our hands before meals. We are trying to capitalize on the Monkey See, Monkey Do, and so modeling often creates a bigger impression than just telling him to wash hands. He’d much rather do it with us, and when he does, he also learns how to do it correctly. (This is especially important with all these new, exciting germs going round!)

It also seems that there are more opportunities for conflict than there used to be. Kiddo is feeling his oats, so to speak. He likes to use a really loud voice to make big noises, just to say “world, here I am!” and going on about his business. He wants what he wants, when he wants it, and we are doing our best to model patience and walk him through the moment as best we can. The empathetic language is essential for those moments when he really, truly cannot do nor have what he wants. Having that connection with us--our understanding of his desires-- before correcting or redirecting helps him to be more able to hear what we are saying. Somehow, the acknowledgment of “Gee, I see you really want to stand on the table. You like to be up high” clears his mind (now he knows that I know what’s going on with him) and now he’s able to move on to “I can see that you need something safer because standing on the table is dangerous. You may stand on your stepstool or I can hold you for a minute.” The acknowledgment of his feelings helps him move past his present action to a more constructive place, and a friendly invitation to make a choice from two pleasant things is so much more enticing than having someone tell you to cease and desist, now.

While one of my favorite Tricks is to give Kiddo two positive choices, when I’m in the moment it can feel like a mental struggle to remember that this is what they are supposed to be: positive choices. It’s all too easy to resort to “stop banging your spoon or I’ll take it away”; lots more effort to suggest that “I know you like the sound your spoon makes, but it is not for hitting. You may use your spoon for eating, or you may go play with your drum.” Some parents might see that sort of choice as a reward for misbehavior; I choose to look at it as the whole-family friendly solution: either way, the people at the table will have some peace and frankly, he’s two. If he wants to play his drum, that’s fine with me—his dinner will sit until he’s ready to eat and it’s no skin off my nose. Trying to make him sit quietly at the table (fine dining manners, intelligent conversation) is not my first priority. Kids wiggle and squirm. I understand that mealtimes are for meals, but he’ll learn with more comprehension as he grows.

I’m also learning to become flexible with him making an unspoken third choice. Sometimes at dinner he’s all over the place, standing up to eat and wanting to take bites from our plates even if it’s the same food. A few nights ago I gave him the choice: “You may sit down to eat or go play in the living room; Mama and Daddy want to eat our food.” Kiddo chose to find something to do on the floor near the table. In my mind, there were two choices: either frog-march him out into the living room or to let him play comfortably and eat in peace. I think it’s important to notice when a non-choice is acceptable and to follow through when it isn’t. Had he continued to pester us about our food, I would have moved him in a heartbeat, but he’d figured out how to stay in our company, and there’s value in honoring his choices when they end up pleasantly solving problems. Once again, some would say that I’ve become too lax, but I think that this happy-medium reduces the child’s biggest incentive for disruptive actions: attention.

It takes a lot of experience with our child and confidence in ourselves as parents to comfortably live in that middle space between insisting our children follow our directions to the letter and just letting them ride roughshod, shrugging our shoulders. Just as much as we should guard ourselves against excusing our child’s behavior out of hand, we should also be wary of being overly strict. If every single parental request must be followed to the letter, we might want to look at what sort of fear and beliefs are behind this. Likewise, if we find ourselves being dismissive of our child’s actions when they are being disruptive and hurting others or themselves, we need to do some soul searching and find out why we are afraid to deal directly and honestly with what's going on. Somewhere in between, I believe, is a place where children can be respectful of the people and the activities around them and be able to find their own way of doing things in a constructive manner. If we can support and respect their process while giving them positive guidance and being clear and consistent regarding limits, we offer them opportunities to problem-solve in ways that only enhance the sense of family harmony. In this way, nothing is taken from the parent or child, but the moment gives back to everyone.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Monkey See, Monkey Do---With You

Now that he’s playing in the sink and I have a few minutes…

It seems like we’ve entered the season of Monkey See, Monkey Do. That is, Kiddo is all about doing what Mama’s doing these days. He saw me doing dishes and said “Want to play water”. This is nice, as it does keep him busy and it hasn’t yet appeared to impact the water bill. Finally, one good thing about the low-flow faucet! Some of the things we’re doing together:

Cooking: Kiddo likes to “poke the yolks” and “stir batter” for scrambled eggs and French toast. We’ve come into an abundance of zucchini, which is perfect for slicing into long strips and letting him cut with a butter knife on a cutting board at the table. (I work with the sharp knife at the counter and this space keeps him out of my work and far safer than being next to me.) Mushrooms are good for cutting practice too—just wipe clean, trim the stem and cut in half so it will lie flat on the cutting board. Apples also work if you are willing to precut, and bananas with their peels removed are easy cutting.

Laundry: He’s so excited now about the washer and dryer, it would be just criminal (and foolish) not to use this as a time to teach the basics, namely transferring the clothes from the pile on the floor into the washer, then from the washer to the dryer (I pull them out, shake them out and hand them to him), and finally from the dryer into the laundry basket. At that point, I need very little help, but he gets to learn about the process and loves to watch the water cascading into the washing machine basin.

Putting toys away: While Kiddo has been quite a pro at putting away toys for a while, I come across myself finding a lot of moments when he needs to have some adult involvement in the task. I’m noticing that it works better to clean up a toy right as we finish with it, and I can always make the transition more appealing by positing it in a friendly light ‘Let’s hop the blocks into the basket so we have room to play such-and-such”. Coming back to a mess seems to invite more play with the toys he was previously done with, so another reason for prompt cleanup. I also have found that talking to the toys and using dramatic play helps. The toys can be invited to “hop into” the basket, or sometimes we are a pusher and a crane, one of us pushing the toys toward the basket and the other picking them up and dropping them in. Sorting games also come in handy, as in “should we put in the blue blocks or the red blocks?” and also gives Kiddo a choice as to how we will clean up. Some toys we say “night night” to when we are finished with them and we cover them with a baby blanket to put them to bed. It’s amazing how well “out of sight, out of mind” works in this regard.

Yardwork: this is by far the trickiest of the lot. Kiddo wants to help, but when he sees Mama weeding, it’s just as likely that a ‘good’ plant will be plucked from the dirt as a weed. Likewise with the fruit; we are in a phase where the green fruit is getting pulled from the tomato and berry vines. Don’t get me started about the grapes! How can he resist? A lot of what I end up doing is redirecting him toward water play with the hose or over to the blueberry bushes to eat ripe fruit. He also has a few dirt patches to dig in. When he wants to pick, he is reminded that he may pick the rosemary, lavender, sage and lemon balm—all are safe—this gives him some choices so that he can pick and trim like me. This is an age, too, where kids notice us ‘eating leaves’ in our meals ( a la salads and chopped herbs) so keeping a close eye out for toxic plants and weeds is still important.

Cribbage: Joe has noted Kiddo’s interest in Daddy’s cribbage boards and has given him a board to play with. When I balked at letting our son play with the choking-hazard-little pegs, he reassured me that he would supervise and was using them to help our son count. I had to admit that I was skeptical at first, but Joe’s capitalized on a window of interest, and I have had more participation when reading counting books than I had before.

Sharing our world with Kiddo means more effort on our part to include him. But it also means that, side by side, there’s a lot of fun. Children who work with their families don’t just learn new skills; when we have a positive attitude about what we do, our children learn the value and importance of these activities in our daily lives. When we give them opportunities to contribute in real ways, our kids feel included in the family.

“You’re a big helper.” We tell our little guy. He smiles and repeats it. “Big helper.”

And you know what? He is.