Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Let's (Not) Talk About Sex

Yesterday, while checking in on that spectacle-in-motion known here as the Mamaworldforum, I came across a question that left me feeling a bit, well, dirty. Not sexy dirty, but more like Maybe If I Scrub My Brain Long Enough I Won't Be So Disgusted dirty. I'm not even going to provide a link to the post here, because dear reader, I don't want to put that special Ick into your brain which was put into mine.

Let's just boil it down to this: after an introduction, which was an abhorrent attempt at cutesy euphemisms, the "question" was the equivalent of a straw poll of this lovely topic: "Do you do it when you're on your period?"

Need I say more?

Am I missing something here, some new "oh,we are so liberated by Sex and the City" sort of thing, where we all sit around and discuss the intimate details of our personal lives with Total and Complete Strangers? This is something we all have our personal feelings on, as are many aspects of sexuality, but frankly, I don't want to know anyone's answer to this question but my own. It's none of my business, and it was none of the business of the person who posted the question.

Yet, time and time again, women posted personal replies. Some even disagreed with my polite assertion that this was a "bit of an intrusive question" to be asking on this forum. "People ask questions about sex on this site all the time" some defended. Yes, they do. And while I'm not particularly upset by questions regarding "how to get my husband interested in more than football, hey hey" or "How long after baby before we can resume intimacy" or even "What should I expect when I resume sex after birth?", I didn't think this question qualified. Those other sorts of questions are par for the course of a new mom's group; this one in particular, I don't believe, would ever be broached in that sort of setting.

For me, all of this begs the question: Where has our sense of decorum gone? When did we all decide this was okay, to ask questions online one would hardly ask amidst the girlfriends? I'm hardy a prude: I've had women's health issues over the past several years and have had to be pretty candid with my health care providers. After I had my son, some of the usual questions did come up, and even there, I limited asking advice about these issues to one peer mother whom I trust very, very much. I am not ashamed of sex, nor of my body. Nonetheless, I find that when it comes to talking about matters of an intimate nature, the person I should be most interested in talking to is my partner.

Perhaps this is way too old school for this newer world of people who trumpet their most recent hookups on their Facebook page and seem to have no problem oversharing about every little thing. Maybe sex has become just another topic of conversation for a lot of people out there, and so that's why these women have no hesitation when it comes to telling all with their name attached above, for all the world to see, as well as a link to click on their photo and profile. I see this as a folly of a sort, because none of this ever goes away. Marketers use this information we post to collect a profile of us. People who know us read this information and make their own decisions about what we write, and what they think of it.

Even in pleasant conversation with the girls, we might be extolling the physical attributes of our favorite screen gods-- or even recounting a hot scene in a movie-- but somehow we are able to pull on the reins before letting the horses run entirely free. We understand that we don't need to tell each other every little thing. Those moments are a sweet, precious secret between ourselves and our lovers. A funny anecdote now and then is fine-- like when one girlfriend and her husband were almost caught by her mother-in-law-- but overall, we just don't need to know that about each other. I don't think we even want to know that about each other.

Or is it just me?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Quiet Play Time

Twenty minutes of quiet play time. Okay... so Mama fudged a bit with the timer, and it's actually 25 minutes, but you aren't going to tell him, are you?

Each day is so different. We've had a wonderful morning, Kiddo playing with his Tinkertoys and working with markers while I folded laundry and washed up dishes. He helped playfully, handing me things from the laundry basket, and waiting until I was finished with one thing before I fulfilled his various requests. Thelonious Monk played in the background, performing with a Big Band and I wondered what our day held.

Kiddo drew me to the window. "Look, the moon" he said, pointing to an overcast pearl sun. It was due to rain, yet I still felt compelled to get outside. Took a shower and then asked Kiddo what he'd like to do today. "I want to go to sushi." A boy seriously after my own heart. It was misting when we left, and steadily raining when we walked into the restaurant. Both of us were wet, but it just didn't matter. We sat side by side, the easiest way for me to sit with Kiddo when we're out, and ordered a feast of super eel roll, miso soup, rice and edamame (the first two for me, the last two mostly his), then washed our hands and played with foam beading pieces while we waited. Eating wasn't the messy endeavor it usually was --only three edamame beans hit the floor this time. Kiddo was pleasant and relaxed. Our trip to the store afterward was an easy one: salmon, carrots, pitas and a muffin all procured with no fuss. This was sooo not the experience we'd had here the time before, when Joe had to take him out to wait for me in the car because Mama Doesn't Play That whole flopping around thing.

Maybe my being consistent with follow-through influenced today's cooperation, but I think it's also the coming back to Earth after the distractions of the holidays. The first day of being Mama's only companion after days of Daddy being home and having to share her attention with him. It doesn't matter to me what's made today so nice, really.

After we got home from our outings, wet and cold and happy, we went into his room and set up his little tent on his futon. I used string to restrain the tent at all four corners, so it's tied to the frame and can't slide off. Kiddo hung his little lantern his Aunt Chris and Uncle John in Pennsylvania had sent for Christmas. "I love my little lantern" he told me in a cute, happy voice. "You be the lying down one and I'll sit up. I'm Santa Claus and here's toys." He offered me a basket of bristle blocks. We worked together, adding pieces to each other until the panoramic 'city' suddenly looked to Kiddo like a train, so we added wheels and carefully laid our creation in the basket.

I made a snack for him to enjoy in the tent and set the timer. Guess where he is right now? Three feet away from me, under the laundry basket, asking for "pet food" and "I want to set the timer for your twenty minutes" and when I tell him I'll help him get pet food when the timer goes ding and that it's still quiet play time, he says "no, it's quiet playtime for you". So I'll keep on here with my quiet time while he backstrokes all over the kitchen floor with an empty laundry basket held over his head. It's someone's quiet play time, that's for sure. I'm not sure if he's going to ever learn what the word quiet means, besides when he's sleeping. But this will work for now.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Striving for Balance

Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned Alfie Kohn-inspired parent needs something more than just talking it out with the kids.

Let me explain: Kohn's right on when he says we've got to give our kids information, instead of just punishing them or expecting them to 'be good'. Trying to reason with them is good, really. But when, as parents, do we decide that we've had enough conversation and now, it's time help our kids do what needs to be done?

I struggled with this one. I like Kohn, and he has a lot of great principals, but what does unconditional parenting look like in action? Especially when some things in life are non-negotiable? What about when we just don't have all day--or all night--to explain things enough to make our kids feel good about them? Especially when they've dug their heels in and don't want to feel good about them?

Going to bed is one of those times in our house that I wish I wore a wig, because it really makes me want to tear my hair out. A few weeks ago, Kiddo fell into a habit of becoming a big, uncooperative goofball around changing into his pajamas. Now, before you start asking me if I've asked him how he felt about his pajamas, let me reassure you: he has no problem with pajamas. In fact, some mornings, he's in his pjs forever. It's just that when bedtime comes around, he's reluctant to change clothes, period. And he plays hard all day, so I'm not letting him go to sleep in dirty clothes. But this habit of taking 20 minutes to change (throwing pjs while laughing gleefully, sticking his legs into the armholes of his pajama top, sticking both legs into one of the leg name it)... well, we'd decided enough was enough.

What was important in this picture? I asked myself this and decided that on two things. First, we are adherents to a seven o'clock bedtime for Kiddo. He needs the sleep, and we don't jerk him around on this, even for our own convenience. Special occasions, certainly we're flexible, but by and large, and most especially on those nights before preschool, 7pm is our target. Second, Joe and I need to have the downtime in the evening. To decompress, to reconnect with each other. It's important for parents to have some face time, and I know we'd be upset if we compromised this due to Kiddo's being uncooperative.

So, with the 7pm time in mind, we began to decide how we were going to help keep Kiddo on track. Helping him dress was counter-intuitive: it gave him more attention for these undesired habits, and this is an area of development he really does have a grasp on, so let's not move backward. So we explain, now, at the beginning of our bedtime routine, that we need Kiddo to be in bed on time. He regularly has three stories at bedtime, and can have all three, provided we get our jobs done so we have time for them, because his sleep is important. Then, we set a timer for five minutes at the start of the dreaded pajama time. Kiddo knows now that he must be changed before the timer goes 'ding', or we lose the time for one of those stories. What happens if he isn't dressed, or wants me to do it? Well then, he's trading Mama a story for the service of dressing him. Uncooperative with brushing teeth? Well, if it takes a long time, we then don't have time for all three stories.(He does it himself in the morning, and we assist at night so he's not going to bed with a bunch of junk still left on his teeth.)

Now, ideally, we'd have him start all these activities much sooner. But I don't live in a perfect world. Kiddo eats dinner between 5:30 and 6, and usually gets his clothes dirty doing this. We also have toys to clean up, which is important. In short-- I run out of time to be an ideal parent in this area. I could be, if I was willing to have a child who could delay bedtime for his convenience, and if I was willing to deal with the morning meltdown of getting him to preschool without enough sleep. I'm not. I think that actually, I would be a worse parent for letting him stay up and be exhausted the next day. There's no way I'm doing that.

Are these "consequences"? Punishments? I don't think it's a punishment, but a very natural and instructive consequence. For the next 15+ years, he's going to have to get himself ready for school and be other places on time. He has to learn now that when we don't get things done promptly, we may not have time for other things. The loss of stories isn't to make his actions come back to hurt him, but to help him understand that there is an order about our day, and that there are times for being a silly goofball-- most of the day, as a matter of fact-- and there are times that we just need to do our job of getting dressed or putting on shoes or brushing teeth without a lot of cajoling and explaining. And we aren't mean with him about not having time for all three stories, it's just told to him as a matter of fact. Sometimes he petitions for all three, when he's been told we only have time for two, and then we just say "Oh, yes, you spent a lot of time getting your pajamas on, so we don't have time for all three. Tomorrow night, you can get dressed right on time, and then we'll have time for three stories." It's not a forever consequence, tomorrow night he gets a second chance to do it right, and we knows that we believe that he can do it right.

So maybe it's not perfect, but finding balance is sometimes all about tipping back and forth until we hit center. I feel good that we aren't getting upset with him so much anymore, and he's not being indulged, and our evening isn't being thrown out of whack. For what it's worth, I still think it's pretty damn unconditional. We're all still learning, and I think we've got a pretty good way of going about this for now.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Just Chillin'

Now that I've had a few non-school days under my belt, the Holiday Break Chill Out is setting in. We're blessed to be in our cozy house, the woodstove cranked up and curry simmering on the stove. If it sounds like I'm trying to make everything as hot as can be, yep, you couldn't be more right.

Friday afternoon, I'd picked up Kiddo from school and--in a rather optimistic mood, I should add-- we took the bus and MAX up to the zoo. When Mama's got a plan, she's not as quick to wise up as she should be, because when we got up there, it was cold. I wish there was a font that actually shivers, so I could accurately express how cold it was. Arctic Blast cold. Even with Kiddo in his fleece suit and a lined wind-breaking jacket, it was just too much for both of us. I'm actually pretty phobic about being cold...there's nothing that hurts more and I absolutely hate it. But I was also trying to get past myself, so after the warm break of the restrooms, I decided we'd fortify ourselves with fries in the restaurant before venturing further.

Once we went wandering in, Kiddo spied one of his favorite sights: the blowhole by the tidal pools. Want to see Mama move fast? Watch her yanking Kiddo away from the spray before it descended on his little head. This act of mercy was lost on him. "Want it to spray on me," he told me, Party-Pooper Mama. "Oh, look at the lights!" I countered, with a quick Distract and Redirect. We moseyed down to see the primates, Kiddo stopping to peer into each outdoor exhibit. It took all my parental propriety not to tell him there was no chance that any orangutan was going to freeze his monkey ass outside in this weather, which obviously made them smarter than we were.

Let's fast forward: after stopping at two restrooms primarily to warm up, gawking at some of the Zoo Lights (which were pretty awesome, hafta admit it) we decided to do an about-face and head back downtown to meet Joe at his office and catch a ride home.

Somehow, between Friday and today, I don't think I really ever chased the chill from my bones. The weekend brought our Letter to Santa ritual and a Christmas Tree came into our lives, via the Montavilla Co-op lot. Cold activities, both. Even the Jet Li movie we watched that night (oh gosh! love those fight sequences!) couldn't warm me up. Monday night I met with my mentors over a cold beer followed by a hot toddy, and discussed a decision that will be changing my family's lives in the next year. Still.Cold.

So that brings us to today. The first day I really felt not-cold. The living room is balmy like the South Seas, a lovely 81 degrees. Move away from the woodstove, though, to the kitchen where I sit, and it's more like 75 or so. Still, finally, not hurting and shivering inside, invisibly. Instead, I'm awaiting some veggies and tofu simmered up spicy, and looking forward to Joe coming  home with a dozen and a half of his coworkers fresh-laid organic eggs, so I can make Kiddo a little scramble, because his palate doesn't yet include the really good, spicy stuff. It'll be fun if he one day likes all my favorite hot foods: kim chi, tapatio sauce, pickled golden hungarian peppers, but for now, he can eat what he really likes.

I'm just happy to be warm.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Creeeeping Toward Christmas

Tomorrow is a personal liberation day of sorts. It's my last day of my preschool year, and while I will miss those sweet kids while we are on our winter break, I am very excited to get to get my Yuletide Merriment on.

Saturday is the big start: we finally get to find the wee tree of our dreams and put it up in the house. We'd been waiting on the tree for space reasons, so it didn't cramp the preschool's style. Add to that: there's already enough wacky excitement around the holidays anyway, and I like the kids to be focused on our school goings-on while they are here. They can get nutty about their own trees at home; I'll be plenty busy with the excitement Kiddo will supply. We'll do our tried-and-true method of putting the not-so-precious ornaments within reach and save some of the more delicate pieces for another year...say 2020.

There are other happy holiday traditions I look forward to. Celebrating the Winter Solstice by candlelight is always fun and meaningful for me. Looking forward to the lengthening of days and crossing my fingers for more sunlight, of which we are in constantly short supply until July. And around this time of year, I'm fond of renting that Jimmy Stewart, not "It's a Wonderful Life" but "The Shop Around the Corner", an Ernst Lubitsh film from 1940 which casts Stewart opposite Margaret Sullavan. I like this more than Capra, and here's why---"The Shop..." requires less boo-hooing and Kleenex on my part, and it's just sweet, not trying to be meaningful and no grand sweeping themes. Happy holidays, they call them, right? Just trying to live up to the moniker.

This year is a Stay-At-Home-Go-Nowhere Christmas, which is my all-time favorite kind. Each family has their own traditions, and our's is no exception, excepting the fact that they might not look like your grandma's. Tapioca pudding made with Silk soymilk for the lactose-intolerant Queen of the Castle is a treat this time of year. Our favorite Christmas dinner foods are either a cold feast of smoked salmon, dolmas, olives, cheese, good bread, apples and some other tidbits, or hot, roasted winter veggies with kalamatas and mandarin oranges and some salmon. The former is especially good eaten in front of the woodstove, with some good dark beer, or barleywine and the latter, at the table with a glass of full-bodied red wine. Kiddo will be elated to find a few fortune cookies in the stocking, too.

Our letter to Santa hasn't happened yet, and I've been suggesting to Joe that we avoid 'the list' and just give Mr. Claus a couple suggestions. As of today, Kiddo has been talking about asking Santa for "a welding torch". I have a feeling that the elves would not approve....

Best of all, I'm looking forward to having two weeks with Kiddo to myself. He's been just wanting to rock out with the Tinkertoy guitar, 'make a spark' with the equally-Tinkertoy welding torch, or crush things with his Tinkertoy impact hammer. Good thing we are getting him a new set for this year, because the old Tinks are so used that they aren't staying tightly together any more. Kiddo is also hot to use our Atlas hand-crank pasta maker, and has been asking to for the last few days. I have a feeling we will be tangled up in fettuccine noodles before it's over.

Two of my favorite treats this year are childhood delights we picked up on eBay: a vintage Forest Friends game--as cute as cute can be-- and Dean's Book of Fairy Tales illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame. If you've never seen this book, well, it's amazing. Fairy tales most kids have hardly heard of are illuminated with amazing illustrations that put modern children's books to shame; I received this book for Christmas when I was nine and pored over it for years. Currently out of print, we've seen it sold for up to $70+; lucky us, Joe scored a last-minute bid and picked up a mint copy for about $32 dollars. I can't wait to get my hands on it, and then to share it with Kiddo when he's old enough to take good care of it. For now, the stories are too mature for him, so it will hang out upstairs with his copy of Treasure Island, which I am also playing steward to until he's plenty older.

Other than that, it will likely be pretty low-key, and at least one or two trips to Peacock Lane are in the offing. To walk, and breathe the car fumes? To drive in the heated car and wait in that dreadful line which will paralyze Belmont Street for the next two weeks? Ah, the choices, but it's surely a "can't miss" in our family on Christmas Eve, even if we have seen it all before. Then we'll toodle on home, throw on our James Brown Christmas cd and thank heavens for a little funk and soul while we put on Kiddo's pajamas and remind him that "tomorrow morning... it will be Christmas." Kiddo makes Christmas most special for me, and boy, what a year it's been.

Happy, happy holidays to you and yours!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tummy troubles? Slippery elm!

This last week has been a tough one. Kiddo had caught some terrible lower GI bug which started giving him trouble last Saturday night. He managed to look like things were better, but then again, oh no, they weren't. After all the fluctuations and a visit to the pediatrician, I did a bit of reading. It turns out that Slippery Elm Powder really helps. It's a demulcent, which means that it creates a film that coats mucous membranes, which is why Slippery Elm Lozenges are so popular with voice professionals and singers. It also soothes poor little inflamed insides. The book I have* recommends making a paste of this powder for children over 3 years of age, and suggests 1 teaspoon per day for kids between 3-6 years; children between 7-12 years can take 1 teaspoon, two-three times daily. The powder has little taste and can be mixed with a little apple juice or applesauce into a paste. I chose to give Kiddo some in about 3 ounces of apple juice; it's like dutch powdered cocoa in consistency, so you do have to add a little liquid into it at first to get it to mix in, but it's worth it. I tried a cup myself, and it's wasn't bad. I felt a little better, too, and after 2 days of it, Kiddo is right as rain. I think the bug had worked itself out anyway, but we'll keep up the Slippery Elm for a couple more days, just to speed up the healing. It works!

Just for the record, I am not a doctor and this is not meant to be medical advice. Always consult your child's pediatrician before administering any herbal medications. There. Now don't sue me.

* "Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child: A Practical A-Z Reference for Natural and Conventional Treatments for Infants and Children" by Janet Zand, LAc, OMD; Rachel Walton, RN; and Bob Rountree, MD.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Cup of Tea, Santa and Me

A wintry afternoon, the wind blowing the rain everywhere. I've a cup of Yunnan Fancy at my right and the woodstove aglow and in my sights. I almost let the fire die earlier today and I'm out of newspaper now, so diligence is due, but I still want to write, so I sit at my short little school table and tap it out.

Santa. The Holly Jolly Fat Man is under attack these days. Which, in rereading that last statement, seems a bit ridiculous outside of a B movie. "Santa Claus and the Martians", perhaps, but "Santa Under Attack"? By whom?

Well, there is that whole group who decries our Jolly Old Elf with the "Santa spells Satan with just one letter changed, so he must indeed be The Horned One". Well, damn, now there's some logic you can't argue with, but it also holds true with the words "Dog" and "God" and I'm pretty sure either item is not the other. What sort of miserliness of life would make this the reason to upset Santa from his throne as Benevolent Supernatural Creature who brings a little nice something to children? There is an omniscient mythology about Santa, true, but he's not saying "Worship Me", just "Maybe, If you get a chance, some cookies and milk would be nice". Santa's not asking for 10% of your income, nor are Santa's believers trying to create legislature to overrun other people's civil liberties. I do think, too, that this extremely vocal group of non-Santa-believers are trying to spread the flavor of mass dissent to the argument, but that they are likely in the minority, even with all that yelling about "standing at the gates of judgment" and being held accountable about having lied about Santa to our kids.

I have to say, if this is the Big Trauma in my son's life, I will be so grateful. Truly.

Reading that lovely Mamaworldforum, more and more often I see posts from parents considering calling foul on Santa. "It's a lie" they say. Yes, and probably one of the most benign lies we will ever tell. I don't believe that every parent is 100%-All-the-Time completely honest with their children, because it simply wouldn't be good parenting. We shield them from traumas (lie through omission), our knowledge of their failings, our disappointments in them and for them. We do all this because we must be the adult and contain some of these situations. We do this because there is so much we don't need to tell our children. How many times have we deceitfully distracted our kids while they were watching us as we tried to sneak the chocolate bars into the cupboard up high, or hand off a desired item to someone else on the sly when baby wasn't looking? Let's not all get on our high horse all at once.

What about the morality of Santa? I like Santa. He's an equal opportunity present-giver. As a character, aside from the pre-scripted "Lives in the North Pole, brings presents late on Christmas Eve" stuff, families can create their own Santa traditions. In our home, we write a letter to Santa every year and mail it at the big mailbox, then celebrate with slices at our local pizza place. We've been coaching our son to ask Santa for very modest things, like seedpods (last year) and bath toys (this year). We add a couple fortune cookies, his favorite, and he's completely delighted. Joe and I trade stockings, usually filled with chocolate and good beer. Simple, and this will be easy to continue over the years. Plus, Santa brings children what he wants to bring them, and so maybe it won't be something on the list. This is a good lesson that we don't always get everything we want. In our house, there is no discussion of 'deserving' Santa's gifts--he's just a really unconditional guy.

This is why I love Santa. You can make him to be anything you like. So, I guess if someone wants to make him the devil, well, it is their choice.

Nonetheless, I just can't imagine anyone getting this worked up over the tooth fairy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Competing With the Media...

After my  post on all the kid-directed goodies and gadgets, my sister Amanda presented a challenge to me in her comment:

I'd like to hear your ideas about how to compete with these techy gadgets, as I'm sure your other readers would. I'm learning that the sweet out of doors compete well, as does reading and good old fashioned "work" for kids.

Competing with instant-gratification has to be just that: gratifying in some way. Thus, homework or taking out the trash isn't going to cut it. Like anything else designed to change some habits, preparation and good strategy are your two best allies. Here are some fun ideas for the stimulus-hungry:

Scavenger Hunt: When I was 10, there was nothing that would have been more exciting than a scavenger hunt. Any halfway-observant parent can trick this game out to suit their family. For younger children, I propose using a list of pictured objects to hunt for in your neighborhood. Older kids can have more sophisticated items to hunt for, with coded clues or use a camera to document what they've found. This can even be tied into their own interests or favorite places. And for an added twist, older children can help to create scavenger hunts for younger siblings. Having a "prize" at the end is fun too, whether it's a little sweet, a packet of stickers, or new packs of play dough (which is another great 'immediate gratification' activity, by the way.) Even a bowl of popcorn at the end is a marvelous treat.

Hot Wheels/Racetrack Challenge: Fun for any kid who likes to build or race cars. Use index cards to come up with several challenges in building a race track according to your child's level of ability. This can be anything from "make a track with two bumps" to "using a protractor, build a track with at least one 30 degree incline. how will the car make it up the incline and continue?" and other ideas of this nature. Challenges for the "shortest completed lap track" or 'steepest', or even 'track most covered by tunnels or other enclosures'.
The sky's the limit....

Paper Dolls/Making Doll Clothes: Boys aren't the only kids who need alternatives to television and video games. Depending on their ages and abilities, girls can have a lot of fun drawing a girl onto stiff card stock and cutting her out, careful to make sure there are shoulders to support the tabs which will hang the clothes, and use the body to make the basic template for the clothes. This can be as detailed or as simple as you like. I've made paper dolls with children who were happy to decorate the clothes once they were cut out with watercolors or sequins and trim glued on, and other children were able to do most of this themselves. Providing a variety of papers and materials only makes it more interesting and complex. Likewise, if you have some scraps of fabric, doll clothes can be created with a few folds and stitches---even simple robes and tunics can be devised for baby dolls; more advanced sewers can attempt clothes that are a bit more sophisticated, depending on the level of help the parent can provide. I'd also say that simple knitting and sewing projects like little purses can fall into this category.

Treasure Hunts: Who doesn't like a treasure hunt? You can use simple or challenging clues, even incorporating math ("Add the ages of yourself and your friend. Now take that number of steps down the hall...and look up. Your next clue is waiting nearby for you.") If you can prep ahead of time, and compose several games, this is a perfect 'inside on a rainy day' game. Just make sure the treasure is for everyone to enjoy. It could even be a new book about maps or something great for story time or another activity, like a new game, waiting at the end, to lead your kids onto the next fun thing.

Paper Airplanes:I've had great luck with this one! Bring out lots of paper, a few sets of instructions for paper airplanes (you can find them online easily), a roll of masking tape and a tape measure. Let the kids roll out a length of masking tape onto the floor wherever you plan on flying your planes. Hallways and long areas work well. Then, have them use the tape measure and a pencil to mark out 6" increments, labeling the 1 foot measures as they go. Then, let the airplanes fly! You can make it as simple as a contest to see whose plane goes farthest or something more experimental, using graphs and charts to measure which designs of planes are most effective and fly the longest most consistently. Kids can also fly them from opposite directions to try to 'crash' them in mid-air, if this appeals, or you can hang a target from the ceiling--even a crumpled ball of foil or paper plate are perfect for this, and let those paper planes fly!

Beading Kits: I can't say enough good things about beading kits. What first comes to mind is necklaces or jewelry, but a few twists can provide some added fun. Magic Wand: buy some wire, go for a walk to find a 'magic wand' (a nice stick off the ground is fine, just clean it to their satisfaction...some mosses and lichens are really neat), twist the wire around one end a couple times and then let them add beads and wrap the length of wire around the twig just as they please. This can also be done on the neck of a bottle to make it a vase. Otherwise, a simple needle and some good beading string (even dental floss will work in a pinch) is all you need for some fun.

Origami: Most packets of this beautiful square paper come with directions, otherwise, you can check out everything from beginner to advanced books at your local library, and they can also be found easily online. Note: be sure to practice some of these projects first and make notes to avoid trouble spots when you are ready to do it. Also: younger children can enjoy this too; help them fold the paper into quarters and let them cut 'snowflakes', then tape them up in a window. Perfect for this time of year.

Challenges: There are some bright, inquisitive kids and parents in this world. If you want something a little more engaging for both of you, check out Mensa for Kids  for ideas. Also check out rules online for challenges like the Egg Drop, where kids try to package an egg within certain guidelines so that, when the box containing the egg is dropped, the egg stays intact. I watched two 12 year old girls spend a morning very happily with this challenge.

Letterboxing:  I read about this in a magazine a couple years ago, and while I haven't yet gone on our first letterboxing adventure, everyone I know who has--well, they've just loved it. Letterboxers either hide a "letterbox", which is a little case containing a logbook and homemade stamp, in a public place for others to find, or they search for another person's letterbox and leave their own stamp in the logbook, while stamping their own logbook with the unique stamp found within the letterbox. Too cool, or what? Use this link to get started on this special sort of treasure hunt. One more reason to play in the great outdoors.

You might have noticed that several of these proposed activities present challenges to be overcome. I think this is important in showing our children that they can be good at more than video games; they can be thinkers, solve problems, create, and often, have something to show for it. As I said before, preparation and forethought is necessary in wooing our children's attentions away from all the mind candy, but once you have a few activities prepped, you'll see how easy it is to use these ideas. So when they ask for games or tv, having something immediately fun on hand to distract them with will have the desired effect. And once you've done them a few times, they'll have something new to beg you to do. "Mommy, can we pleeeease do a treasure hunt?" certainly sounds more enticing to a parent than "Can I sit on my bottom all afternoon and stare at a screen, and then get upset when I have to stop before completing Level 2000?"

Have fun!

Friday, December 3, 2010


Today I had the most splendid morning. After saying goodbye to my son at his preschool--he who could not simply take off the shoes and put on the slippers, but had to toss socks to friends and flop the slippers around-- I met my dear friend for a walk. The early day was lovely; the sun was out, and even in the cold, it just felt good not to have a ceiling of clouds overhead. We headed out for a loop around Laurelhurst Park and then some, and chatted about life. I love being outside with her--she's the kind of friend that stops at houses and looks into them, scopes out pretty things and makes you look at them, appreciate them with her. When you stop to smell the wintersweet, she knows what a gift that moment is and breathes the fragrance in with you, smiling. I am so blessed to have her.

After saying goodbye to her back at her house, I took a stroll over to Movie Madness to pick up some dvds. We made a concious decision as a family to support the local video store instead of going with Netflix. Sure, it's not as convenient as mail, and yes, I know it costs a little more, but it provides more spontonaiety and it's local. I like being able to get something that took no emissions to transport...just my own two feet.

Feeling hungry, I stopped at a food cart plaza right nearby for a veggie dog. Not imaginative, but I wanted something to take with me, so a veggie dog was procured and I wandered home to the real prize of my morning: my artichoke.

Surely, this felt a little excessive food-wise, but I didn't care. Yesterday, the artichoke had been purchased with hopes for this exact moment. The time when I could eat it and No One Would Ask Me For Anything.
I was home, completely alone, with my just-rented season 3 of Arrested Development. I was making this artichoke. Nothing was stopping me.

The secrets to steaming an artichoke in decent time are simply this: trim it well and use hot steam right off. I cut down just as far from the top as I can without taking off too much of those crown leaves, and used scissors to trim the tops of the other leaves, working from top to bottom. Cut the stem and trimmed off the tougher outer parts that were scarred up or frostburnt. This is part of my artichoke ritual, and I enjoy it, truly. It's part of the anticipation, preparing the sacred flower for becoming food. I opened up the artichoke as far as possible, fanning out the leaves and making as much space between them as possible, and rinsed it with fast-flowing cold water. Pop it upside down on the steam basket; the heat gets right in there and the artichoke cooks faster, which was what I needed. Sure enough, 35 minutes later it was perfect and tender. Lemon butter and salt and oh! what goodness! I spent the next 20 minutes happily celebrating the time alone and the end of my week. Walking back to the preschool to pick up Kiddo was easy because I'd spent some time on myself this morning, and I could feel its good effect.

Today I had the most splendid morning: an artichoke lunch morning. It's splendid because it really doesn't happen everyday. These little moments are a respite from the daily hoo-rah of being a working wife and mother.  There's a whole spectrum of lofty moments and crushingly stupid drudgery and everything in between that we experience as parents, and overall, I'm glad to do it.

So, as long as I can have an artichoke alone from time to time, I'll be okay.

Monday, November 29, 2010

It's Not that I'm Opposed to Technology...

This morning, the Mamaworldforum featured a blogpost entitled "Babies Now Have Email Addresses...Have We Gone Too Far?". I had just read the title and before I could help it, my eyes were rolling so far back in my head I was looking at last week. The post itself asked some good questions, but for me it was just another reminder of how unhealthy we have become in our loving embrace of technology.

Some of these thoughts make me feel I have a big "Grumpy Old Lady" tee shirt coming my way. All kidding aside, what I've noticed is that, as we integrate each technology into our lives, our children are the ones who are missing out most, even when it looks like they're simply 'having fun'. And this can be traced back to times as early in life as infanthood with the Bumbo chair, exersaucers and "walkers", and continues on with every further device invented to keep baby or the kid 'entertained' and out of our hair, temporarily happy.

What do our kids miss out on? An unexpected, but truly meaningful, list of experiences:
  1. Frustration~ The best observers of babies and how they learn know that good  frustration can be an extremely effective motivator. (This isn't to be confused with frustrations resulting from such adult-remedied needs as hunger or being upset with a dirty diaper... these are things children cannot yet take control of.) To my thinking, good frustration compels a child to stretch one's will and work harder to do something they want to do, such as rolling over or sitting up, or keeping their balance to reach. Later in life, challenging activities such as puzzles, building, sewing, following recipes will require our children to have had positive experiences of frustration, those which have resulted in the child's own motivation to mastery.
  2. Boredom~  A little boredom can be a good thing, especially for older children. When they're younger, it's our job to distract and redirect as much as possible, and when we can. Admittedly, there are times when it just doesn't work for our kids to be bored, but it's probably less often than we think. Boredom teaches our children how to Find Something to Do on their own.
  3. Appropriate Social Interaction~ Let's face it, our kids need all the practice they can get in learning social graces. In this day of worries about self-esteem and the ubiquitous best friend/ helicopter parenting, our kids miss the message that it isn't, in fact All About Them. Awareness of others heightens the child's ability to function well within the community, and not just to look out for themselves. We can include self-regulation in here too, because children must learn not to pitch a fit every time things aren't going their way, and each challenge is just one more opportunity for them to master the feelings they have.
  4. Life Skills~ Our computers can do everything for us, but they shouldn't. Kids need to learn how to do math and figure sums without a calculator. They need to learn how to use an index, a dictionary, how to write thank-you notes and cook, and even how to write legibly.
  5. Family Face Time~ To me, this is the most important loss. Our kids are struggling to stay in school, to make good choices, to find comfortable ways to talk to us, all in a world where we are increasingly distracted from one another.
A lot of very well-meaning parents, who love their kids a bunch, give their children things that perhaps they are too young for, not ready for, all out of a desire to make the child happy, whether for momentary peace or to include them, especially when younger siblings are involved. For many gadgets, children have to be capable of accepting adult-imposed regulations and limits, and this really depends on the child and not any specific age. The list of items below, and the qualities that I see missing in them, isn't to make parents feel badly about using them, because these things aren't terrible in and of themselves, but just to encourage thoughtfulness when we allow our children to use them.

Bumbo Chair: Babies like to be upright, and the Bumbo does just that. You can read all about it here (product reviews, which are enlightening.) What's the reason for all the injuries? The Bumbo isn't developmentally appropriate for growing babies, period. Missing: Frustration (which would have a catalyst for developing the ability to sit up), possible Boredom.

Exersaucer: Despite the fact that I have nearly broken my back several times trying not to trip over these things, I understand the allure for many parents,especially around dinnertime. Containment and entertainment. If you must buy one, get one with objects to manipulate instead of the computerized noise-and-light show, which will either overstimulate you, baby or both. We opted to go for a basket for baby, and later, a blanket of toys on a few floor pads/blankets. Once containment was an issue, then Kiddo was in the high chair while I worked at the counter or table while he ate or played.  Here's a debate on the concerns regarding the exersaucer and muscle development; I think in small amounts, not a big deal, but if the kids are in for a while, well... Missing: Frustration, Boredom, possible Family Face Time.

Walkers: It's all fun and good until they crash down the stairs. Oh, wait, no, there's more evidence that the walkers, too, teach incorrect muscle coordination for actually walking unassisted. I can't even put a "Missing" note on this because they should be banned.

Light-Up Noise Toys: Everything it can do, you can do better. Kids don't need to learn how to push a button to make a noise (hey, that label "Stimulates Learning!"? It teaches them how to push buttons, and just pretty much that. ) Old-school busyboxes that are designed to exercise daily-need fine motor skills like flipping switches, and twisting and turning knobs actually have more instructional and creative value. The play truck doesn't need to drive itself-typically, children have legs and can do this. Your child wants you as their teacher and best of toys, not a machine, and all it requires is a few minutes of being responsive. Missing:  Family Face Time; possible Boredom (because having your toy 'talk back' to you can be sadly 'engaging'.)

Leapster-style Educational Computer Systems: Sometimes actually a cause of frustration, because we aren't all born computer-users, this product introduces tech in a big way. Everyone seems to love it, and the usual reason I hear is that it buys adults some time.  Once again, everything these toys can do, parents can do better-- except that we don't have batteries and endless stores of patience. Better, in my opinion, for them to look at real books or listen to books on tape, being read as real language is spoken, or entertain themselves with other educational pursuits like counting cars, finding the letters on road signs, looking at maps and learning to read them, identifying the scenery, etc. Missing: Boredom , Social Interaction, Family Face Time.

Hand-Held Video Game Systems/Video Games in general: Gaming is addictive, fun, and a lot of parents like to use it as a babysitter. Aside from the fact that sitting on one's behind playing games keeps them from getting exercise, playing outdoors, or playing imaginative games of one's own creation, these products can become problematic over time. The device can also become more influential than it should be: it's the reason our kids will listen (incentive), it becomes the item that is taken away due to uncooperative behavior (punishment), it becomes the 'reason' our kids do what's usually expected of them (performance-based 'earning' of computer/video game time) and ultimately, it can become a big focus of whining and arguing between children and their parents as well as a potential source of serious animosity between siblings.  Pandora's Box. I think they're fine when introduced at an appropriate age, which means capable--mentally and emotionally-- of understanding a limited playtime schedule, taking turns with siblings, being a good loser, being able to quit a game if need be, even before they 'get to the next level'. Otherwise, they come with a heaping helping of bad frustration. Good luck with this! Missing: Boredom, Family Face Time, Appropriate Social Interaction, good Frustration (which would come with doing more hands-on challenging things).

Television: Did you know that, in our lovely United States, one in four toddlers have a television in their own rooms? A while back, with the arrival of cheap technology, the television no longer was the domain of The Adults, who got to choose what to watch, but there seemed to be a call to get a television in any and every room possible. Even your local broadband companies know this is a selling point. What's the fallout of kids watching television? Well, childhood obesity has been linked to it, and teachers like myself have noticed different behaviors in children when they get a zap of media saturation: besides sometimes violent play, they temporarily lose their abilities to play creatively and entertain oneself. Fortunately, this can be undone quickly if allowed to have some non-media time, but watching their ability to initiate play being temporarily paralyzed is a shocker. Bad boredom is a reaction; for many kids, once the tv is off, they don't always know how to go get busy entertaining themselves. Add to this the arguments that revolve around "Just one more" or "But it's not over yet"; add to this the effects of television (and computers) on child's sleep... Watching anything on the television should be done thoughtfully. Putting a tv in your kid's room also gives parents limited supervision as to what their children are watching, and doesn't provide an accurate idea of 'how much' they're watching or what kinds of ads your child is exposed to. And all of this is irrelevant of content, which is at best marginal.One question I want to throw out: would you let a child use the computer in their room, unsupervised? Because the argument/rules to keep the computer in the common areas becomes difficult to enforce when the kids have already had a taste of media-liberty at an all-too-early age. Missing: Boredom, Appropriate Social Interactions, Family Face Time, Life Skills (eventually relying on television for news/information as opposed to learning how to find other, less biased sources)

Facebook/Internet/Social Networking vehicles: With all the crap going on online, why would we think this is a good idea until our child is of age to sign the agreements necessary? A simple email account, set up under mom or dad's account, is perfect for sending pictures and videos. Most of these sites own all the content you post, which is no good. (Even here on blogger, we writers own the rights to our own work.) Add to this: I'm not keen on exposing my son to online society, which seems to have set the bar significantly lower than actual human face-to-face interactions. I don't need him to read what others think of him, esp. those children whose parents feel that "my child's Facebook page is like their diary...they'd be so upset if I read it". While these numbnuts are part of the act, we are choosing not to partake, thanks. Missing: Appropriate Social Interactions, Family Face Time, Life Skills (sending thank you notes, sending invitations, sending letters, knowing how to politely make a telephone call...because it's not All About Them...)

Smartphones: Does your kid really need "an app for that"? Are they so independent that they will need to be finding restaurants or directions on the fly in unfamiliar areas, because you haven't supplied food or information? I'm personally of the opinion that 'she who cannot pay for her phone doesn't have one'. Kids tend to abuse these devices at school and become more disengaged from their surroundings, focused on their expensive toy. Heck, I know adults who can't put their down, and have seen whole families out to dinner, everyone texting or playing games on phones. It's pretty sad.  I like the cell phones that allow a limited amount of numbers to be dialed out/ring in, and this makes more sense than giving them the whole kit and caboodle. Missing: Family Face Time, Life Skills, Boredom

These are the main culprits that I see as problematic to our children's development if introduced too early.
Notice, too, that ipods are not on my big list. Music isn't ever a bad thing, in my opinion, --okay, some of it sounds pretty stupid. Overall, though, we just have to be very careful about volume and protecting their hearing. And I hope this list provided a chuckle or two, or helps inspire some thoughtful conversations. I'm not here to be the buzzkill, just the reality check. All our shiny new options aren't always what they're cracked up to be. The science fiction writers were right: all this convenience only serves to compromise us in the long run, if we aren't careful. Just read some Huxley or Bradbury. And not on your Kindle, please.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"I'm Thank You For..." some thoughts about Gratitude and Parenting

Today, as my little group of preschoolers was saying their farewells to each other, we went round the group once more to answer a simple question: "What do you have in your life that you are glad for?"

"Skis", said one. "Lunch" said another, who lives for their turn to be the lunchtime helper and set out lunchboxes at each child's place. And the last answer made my heart proud and melty, even in the 30 degree cold.

"I'm thank you (thankful) for school." she replied.

Excuse me a minute while I bask in the afterglow of that comment!

Earlier today, I read a great post by Gila Brown about keeping holidays sane. One thing that caught my eye was her advice about instilling a sense of gratitude in our own children. Brown points out that our own gratitude, giving our children a "thank you" and a smile when they help or make life easier or more pleasant in general-- this is what our children notice, and what makes a more lasting impression than telling them why they should be grateful.

The "attitude of gratitude" seems very relevant to this season of giving, and it's been a hot topic on the good ol' Mamaworldforum. There appear to be a lot of parents who have some well-intentioned-but-developmentally-unreasonable expectations of their children around being grateful and giving. Add to this the many different feelings around the holidays themselves, and the idea of teaching gratitude can become a hairy soup. One parent pondered teaching her child (who apparently has everything) gratitude through deprivation, by serving only rice and beans at meals, taking away all her toys, the television, computer and superfluous clothing for a while; perhaps this experience would help her child learn some empathy for others and appreciation for what she did have. Many parents lament that their children focus on Christmas as a time of gifts instead of the religious significance within those traditions, and thus another debate over "do you do Santa, and why?" was born, causing one mother to write that she doesn't do Santa because she works hard for those gifts, and wants her children to know they came from her. Another mom wanted to find volunteer opportunities so that her two year old child could learn the value of giving: I suggested making cookies for the neighbors, and letting her child give the plates of cookies over to the friends; knowing there were cookies at home would make this easier for such a young child.

While gratitude is a great quality to see in a person, it seems we might be just a wee bit panicked about it.

What's missing, to me, is a little self-reflection. Did we forget that we had to grow into feeling gratitude, and that even as adults, it is a sometimes very elusive feeling? If we nice, grown, virtuous adults took a realistic look back in time, weren't we all subject to some severe cases of the gimmegimmes? Even if we had a suitcase full of dollies, didn't we want "that one", the one that caught our eye at the toy store or at our friend's house? Or that other Lego system, or game, or gadget? Don't we sometimes speak wistfully in front of our own children about what we want, and don't we ask them to do a lot for us, even if it does fall under the umbrella of "following directions"? In fact, what we often model to our children is that we expect cooperation of them, instead of acknowledging that their cooperation is something they are voluntarily choosing to give.

Isn't this the exact same attitude so many parents are fighting against, that attitude of expectation our kids have? That we will give them what they want, when they want it, right now? How can we want our children to behave better than ourselves, or possess attributes we don't always find in ourselves, if truth be told? I'm not saying this to be harsh, but just as a realistic double-take. I know that I, myself, am not the most grateful person that ever lived. Sometimes I am just a tired, grumpy mom and I know that when I'm getting that back from Kiddo, it may be more to do with me than it is with him. Parents must be in authority in the parent/child relationship, but we can all stand to be more appreciative of our children's efforts, and to express it to them.

And, too, we can circumvent some of this by limiting what they do have in a loving way. We don't have to say yes to everything. Save the blowout birthday parties for special ages and not every year, even if the best friend had the full-on pirate or Thomas or American Girl party. Christmas can be a modest holiday and still loads of fun, if we think wisely about presents instead of buying the popular big ticket item. They might want it today, or tomorrow, but will it be of interest to them say a week or a month from now, when something newer and better comes into their circle of friends? What they do need from us, though, is pleasant time together we consider special, or something that supports their deeper interests. This year, one of my sisters opted to give her newly-nine year old a chance to take pictures of things that interested him and to make a book of it. What a great way to encourage appreciation: she is appreciating--and helping him to continue appreciating--those things that seem worthy of notice to him. This sort of gift shows that not only do we value what our child values, we also feel it's worthy of our time to spend it helping them to make their ideas manifest.

We don't need to give our kids toys and treats to reward behavior or for using the toilet. Children tend to confuse incentives with entitlement, no matter how much we try to differentiate the two;  how much better to enjoy something fun 'just because' than having to connect our being giving with something they did. Some parents worry about their children missing out, or not being popular, and so the child is given all the gadgets and fashions to keep up the charade, instead of giving their child the gift of values and ethics by not participating in the new kid version of Keeping Up With the Joneses, but by being deliberate in their purchases and selections. Being popular, in the long run, is not about what one has, but who one is, treating people in such a way that they generally enjoy being around you.

Here, my little idea here has come full circle: we want our kids to have those qualities: pleasant, well-regarded, and grateful. So I know for our family, I have to start with myself. I was certainly grateful for the little girl who told me how much school meant to her. Her actions at school tell me more than her words: she's cooperative, enjoyable, easy to get along with and always brings me new ideas. It's not always about the 'please and thank you', sometimes it's just about moments like these. Our children have gratitude-- I think it comes inherent in some children, the way they look at us as babies as we nurse or feed them, with such a devoted gaze. We just have to help them let it shine.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Log Cabin Lady

The wood stove is aglow right now, the coals of the last log a  neon red-orange pulsing bright through the glass doors. All day, Kiddo and I have been playing and working in measured time, no matter how busy we get, always coming back to the wood stove to add another piece of wood to a hot pile of coals, watch it catch flame and blaze, then close the draught so that the catalytic converter can draw the most energy from the log it burns. It's been the rhythm of my day today, as Kiddo introduces counter melodies of "I'm hungry. I want something to eat." and "Play with me now, Mommy." Heat, food and entertainment... it really can't get any more elemental with a three year old.

Today was my prep day and as the weather was miserable, we hung out at home, tending the fire and taking care of all the little bits that make the week. A head-to-toe houseclean as usual, and some extra-special work, prepping snowflake-shaped lacing cards for the children to draw yarn through tomorrow. This little project took more time than I would have thought: making the first snowflake on typing paper by tracing a plate's circle, cutting it out, folding in half,then thirds, and pray for some semblance of symmetry, cut out snowflake and trace onto card stock three times, cut out each and then use a hole punch around the edges to create a path for the lacing. Kiddo sat next to me, cutting his own work with scissors and then having fun using the hole punch and trying to push his own piece of yarn through the paper. We used up nearly an hour doing this and when I set the lacing cards aside for tomorrow, I was glad we'd had this stretch of time to just relax and chat while we worked.

More than once today I thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her homes growing up; the one-room cabins in both Wisconsin and Kansas that still live on in my mind. I can't help but think that the fireplace and wood stove was the center of everything in their lives, most especially when the autumn and winter blew in on the air. Winter seems to be a state of mind more than a calendar season any more; not yet Thanksgiving, and now there's snow being talked about? I felt like Laura today, a steward to the fire and a guardian of the wood. In "On the Banks of Plum Creek", Wilder recounts the bravery of young Laura, going out into a blizzard to get more wood for the fire, lest it go out while Ma and Pa have gone to town. Aware, even then, that people had died doing the same. Did she use a rope or guideline to help her? I can't remember. I just know that I find it hard to picture some of the kids today, texting and sulking over their computers and all that they have which makes life too easy, braving a windy snowstorm without the help of Gore-Tex or Columbia Sportswear to bring in the woodpile.

Years ago, when we got our wood stove (courtesy of our anxiety regarding Peak Oil), Joe ordered a half-cord of wood. Mt Scott Fuel came and dropped it off at the bottom of our skinny little driveway, wet and dirty, leaving me to haul and stack it, pieces at a time, on a cold day in a rainstorm. I can't remember how long it took, but my clothes were soaked and before it was over, I'd slipped into that giddy euphoria of "I'm doing something physically exhausting and slightly stupid in the worst of the elements, tee hee! Yeay for me!" that others might describe as a "runner's high". This is as close as I'll get to that, as I don't really, ahem, run, per se, more like bounce all over until my ankles twist and make Joe laugh. I'll let him run for me, thanks. And I would've let him stack the wood, but truth be told, I'd seen that pile of wood and it was like some sort of crazy Mt. Everest thing, where mountain climbers are held in its thrall--I have to climb it! That wood had to be stacked; it had to be stacked, and I had to be the one to do it. Alone. This huge pile of wood, askew, had called me like some sort of tedious urban vision quest. I wasn't going to see anything new, except the tricks of the fog and rain on my eyeglasses. There was some sort of point of pride I now realize I never need to earn to myself ever, ever again. Which just goes to show you that I did keep my sanity after all.

The coals are gone, now, the fire gone to bed for the evening. It's been a relaxing day, and I'm looking forward to preschool tomorrow, entering the rhythm of the next two days. I'm grateful for Thanksgiving this week, if only for Joe getting an extra day off. Our house is filled with winter traditions everywhere: paperwhites being forced in jars, apple cider being warmed up, cinnamon on pears and apples, and a full woodbox, waiting for me to open it up tomorrow and warm up our cozy little bungalow once again.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Morning After...

For those of you who read my last post, here's my tq email this morning sent to my friend:

Hey lady,

That benadryl suggestion worked like a charm. Everyone got a little rest. My status has been updated from "Grumpy Tired Bitch" to "Fairly Good-Natured Broad". What a miracle suggestion...


Thursday, November 18, 2010

On the Floor

Eleven o'clock last night and I found myself moving down onto the little bed with Kiddo. He'd been coughing again--the third night in a row--and it was once again my night for what Joe and I call Floor Duty. These days we usually we have clearly defined boundaries: Mama and Daddy on the big bed and Kiddo on the little bed, which is a full-sized futon on the floor in our room. Our stairs are too steep for Kiddo to scale unattended, especially tired in the middle of the night, and as our attic master bedroom is warm and cozy, it makes no sense to us to put Kiddo to bed in his own room, which is less so.

But I'd found myself sleeping in Kiddo's room the night before, because the coughing and snoring were getting to me. Last night, Joe was in his room. It's great to have a second bed, but said second bed is very uncomfortable. It's a passed-on futon with a permanent Crease of Hardness down the middle. And after three nights of crap sleep, I suspect some might accuse me of having a temporary crease of hardness. This cold has been going since Monday afternoon, and I'm all but worn out.

So when my older, wiser girlfriend gently suggested giving Kiddo some benadryl so we could all get some rest tonight, all I could think was "That is a damn fine idea."

Being this tired puts Joe and I off our game. This morning we came downstairs to get ready for our respective days: work for Joe and I, preschool for Kiddo and I. I came out of the shower to find Kiddo, still in his pajamas, no breakfast yet,  playing with the bicycle pump. If you do not know my son, let me give you a reference that you might relate to: giving him a bike pump first thing in the morning is a little like handing a teenager a new PlayStation an hour before school starts with all his favorite games on it. Really, really dumb move, Dad. Because guess who gets to be the Mean Mom on that one?

The day just slowly slid downhill from there. My school day with my group was fair-to-middling 'okay', not great. My enthusiastic suggestion to catch one last leaf walk in the narrow window of daily sunshine was met with a petulant "I don't want to". (I should've just made them go, as our outside time later on was rained out.) I have other stories, but recalling them here would border on unprofessional, and they weren't terrible, actually amusing in hindsight but draining in the moment. I braved a rainstorm to go pick up more fresh produce and some salmon for supper, calling Dear Husband on the way and leaving a message on his voice mail that he had 10 minutes to call me back if he wanted anything special. His email later stated that "anything's fine". Soaked like a rat on arriving home, reading the email, all I could think was "It had damn better be."

Later, Kiddo was dropped off and went from cheery and silly (and not exactly listening to directions) to Mr. "I Have No Focus In Life Whatsoever Other Than Doing The Exact Opposite of What You Say". He said he was hungry and after finishing his lunchbox apples, I offered him carrots, as dinner was in the very near future. "I don't like carrots. I want yogurt." he whined, then (I kid you not) went and sat under the child-height school table and began to loudly complain "I want to stand up! Mama, help me stand up!"

This is where I begin to think I might have raised a moron, because this table is less than two feet tall and serious work to get under.

More "I'm hungry, come wipe my nose, I can't do it, I don't want carrots" ensued, followed by a pair of stern warnings and then, after some Last Straw Breaking moment,  Kiddo was loudly escorted to his room, wailing like an ambulance. "Hold me! Want you to make me happy!"  I put on the timer for five minutes, and went back to finish cooking what by now was devolving into a joyless meal, and heard the hallway gate rattling. Good thing I thought to take a look: he was trying to climb over the safety gate.

It is such a good thing we are not a spanking family.

And now I'm sitting on the floor, typing this in front of the wood stove. I've had a lot of little rants running through my head lately. The unattractive xenophobia and paranoia the Christmas season brings out in the zealots is already beginning to emerge, and it's not even Thanksgiving yet. I'm sure other cultures have their own version of this. I'm not knocking Christianity here, but apparently I'm risking hell if I keep perpetuating that Santa Claus myth.  I'm interested--and a bit alarmed--at the 30/30 split in the House along the lines of state government (my fellow Oregonians, prepare for more dithering and little progress). I wonder in general at so much of our country, so dumbed-down that we confuse the Blond Bimbo Brigade and Glenn Beck for people to actually pay attention to, and yet the latest post-2010 elections survey findings from the Public Religion Research Institute makes a solid case that we aren't adequately comprehending the things that we do need to be paying attention to.

Yet, in a minute or two, I will go and open a beer, turn on Tina Fey--if I could be one living person in the world, it would be her-- and laugh at the stupidity of typecast sitcom characters. It feels good. I will momentarily forget about this fairly crappy day and laugh out loud. Or maybe if I'm lucky, it'll come full circle  and I'll ROTFL.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


A few days ago, I got some interesting feedback regarding my post on inter-child relationships and allowing children to have their feelings about each other. It seems that what I wrote might have been interpreted as an argument for allowing children to exclude each other, and so I wanted to take a moment and do what I do best-- write about it.

Inclusion is a tricky thing. In this season of heightened awareness of school bullies (I say season because, with our dinky attention-span-of-a-gnat news cycles, unfortunately it will be replaced by some other sensation du jour--- we have always had school bullies), the call to arms is often Include Everyone Whether You Like Them Or Not. Some of this is justified and I'm not going to argue with the idea that everyone deserves to be treated as dignified human beings. I'm aware that parents are the biggest examples of exclusion: we don't want our kid to play with so and so because, well, so and so's a hellion! or so and so's parents let them eat Hostess snacks and play Grand Theft Auto--my kid's never going to their house! I'm of the belief that it's not the obligation of parents to invite every kid to their child's birthday party. And yeah, my kid is probably going to be left out sometimes. It's a good growing-up experience, in some ways, to know that life indeed is not always all about you. Sometimes, classmates find more in common with others and those kids are invited. Just putting my perspective on this out there so you won't think I'm all touchy-feely in the next paragraph.

Aside from those grade-school character building moments (and parental judgemental judgment calls, of which I too will likely be found guilty) I do think there's something to be said for as much inclusion as possible within the preschool and older age classroom environments. There's a certain morality in the act of working toward inclusion, even when the children say "I don't want to play with Bobby", they are more likely to perceive Bobby as an equal if we work hard to find ways to include him. Bobby may have underdeveloped social skills, Bobby may hit when he's mad instead of talking out his problem, Bobby may even be a little hard to play with because he has strong ideas that conflict with his classmates. And still, with all this in mind, we owe it to Bobby to figure out how to become part of the preschool classroom community.

"Bobby" is a phase many kids will go through at one time or another. Some children have seasons of not quite clicking with their peers. Sometimes, Bobby hits those around him when he's frustrated, and they rightfully don't want to be around a person who hurts them. Sometimes, too, Bobby just doesn't seem to be on the same planet. How do we bring this child into the group, while respecting both the group and Bobby?

Number one on the list is an adult presence who is focused on observing Bobby and how he interacts with the group. Like my first post on this subject, knowing who Bobby is and predicting his way of relating goes far in heading off trouble. This means wanting to know Bobby outside of the conflict, to see his potential--his desire to relate to other children, even as clumsily executed as it may be-- and to discover as much as we can the "why" of his limitations or disruptive actions.

Next on the list is Bobby. Bobby has to be invested in wanting to be with the group, and willing to receive help or guidance from a caring adult. If he doesn't truly want to be with the group, the attempt at inclusion should be changed, and a safe place for Bobby to play parallel to the other children should be created. If he's trying to harm members of the group, or is wreaking havoc, then Bobby needs to be set alone to another activity, and allowed to work alone until he's ready to play safely and cooperatively within the guidelines agreed-upon for the play at hand. This doesn't mean excluding because Bobby makes car noises while his friends are playing house-- we can use our imagination to bridge that gap. "Bobby, are you the family car, or are you inside the car? Okay, you're the car. Would you like a garage? Betty, could you grab that scarf over there and lay it on the floor? Bobby, that scarf is your garage. What does your car do now?" By staying close, we can help expand the play to include everyone.

Third in this equation, of course, are the other children. Sometimes, kids may balk at having to share space with someone who puts them off their game. "I don't want to play with Bobby" says Betty, because last week Bobby was too rough with the cupboard and shut her fingers in the door. This is the teacher's cue to find out what Betty's real objection is. "Betty, Bobby would like to play here too. So, tell Bobby what you need him to do so he can play here with you?" With a question like this, we validate Betty's feelings while still continuing to be solution--and inclusion--oriented. Betty may look at her fingers and say "I need Bobby to not shut my fingers." It's our job to make sure Bobby's heard Betty's message. We look at Bobby. "Bobby, Betty says you can play if you are able to be careful for your body. Can you agree to that?" Once again, now it's up to Bobby to decide if he can and will follow through. If he says yes, then we take him at his word and stay close enough to help, but not to hover. If he says no, then we let him know that we'd like to find something else for him to do in a different space.

This follow-up of finding something else to do is different from exclusion. For many young children, a critical part of playing together is honoring the agreements made between them. In the last scenario, Bobby wasn't willing to meet a reasonable request: being safe for Betty's body. If Betty's requirement had been that Bobby had to meet a specific role in the play or do something outside the realm of fair play, then Betty would have been guided to be flexible or find her own activity, because certain areas of the classroom are common areas and some aren't. If Bobby is approaching play in the common area, and he is willing to receive our help, we must include him, even if it means someone else's nose getting bent our of joint.

This happens often with boy/girl relationships; as they get older, the tendency to announce "no boys/girls allowed" overshadows our more positive messages of inclusion. I deal with this by making it clear that everyone who can play safely is allowed and then stand by to help the children should they need ideas. Usually, though, once this contradiction to their own gender-oriented preferences is made, there's rarely any conflict in regard to it.

What's most important, though, is that the adult or teacher present is modeling inclusion and giving children positive examples whenever possible. Adults don't often know it, but when teachers ask a question and skip over the child who hums, hems and haws, they too are practicing exclusion. Better to give that child a few  moments to think, and then when met with 'ums' and silence, suggest that we give them time to think more about it and ask them again later. Kids notice this. When a child isn't offered a special job when everyone else is because the teacher thinks they can't quite cut it, that's exclusion. Better to give them that job and be close to help with any difficulties that may arise than not to give that child a turn.

Children are bright. They see what they are missing out on. Their sense of Fair is so much stronger than ours, because they are always watching. Being in the community means being given the choice to be included, the choice to try again and do better--sometimes with much facility on the part of the teacher or adult present--and to feel just as important as the person sitting next to you. For many children who struggle with developing social skills, just seeing that bright look in their eyes when they get it and feel so proud to be part of the group--this is the work worth doing. Positive experiences between these children and the others strengthen the community of the classroom, and open up more future opportunities for fair play.

Obscure Connections

Just an aside here, but when I check my stats, I also see what's linking people to my blog. This week, I got quite a surprise: someone's been connecting to me through an adult video website. Enough that this link has appeared a couple times already.

That's fine if someone wants to read this child-oriented writing, but I have to say that this blog is all about what happens after the lovin', not during.

Obscure connection, indeed!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Inter-Child Relationship

I love, love, love my work as a preschool teacher. I love creating art opportunities for children, so that they can express themselves and experiment while practicing those all-important fine motor skills. I get excited when I find new songs and activities to share and engage the group with. I adore, too, the quiet moments or busy neighborhood walks when I watch the children just being themselves, either immersed in scrutiny at an activity or book or running and shrieking through the autumn leaves and always stopping to marvel at the neighbors "No Poop" sign on her grass.

But what gives my heart the most meaningful joy is seeing each child learning and growing to be with other children in a positive way. The sweet interactions when children come to trust each other and lose themselves with each other, playing side-by-side. This trust allows them to immerse themselves deeper into their play. When this sense of trust and fair play are present, things like taking turns with toys--and even taking turns with ideas for how the play should go--become more easy for everyone. Much of this trust is a direct product of my presence. Sitting near the children, listening to tones of voices and observing the action, it becomes easier as time goes by for me to know when to sit back and see if the children can work through their disagreements and when to gently begin to narrate. "Wow, I see two people who both want to use this toy. Let me hold it while we figure out a plan." or "It looks like Susie's getting mad, Sally. I see you are trying to grab her block. Susie, are you using the block? Okay, tell, Sally 'I'm using this block right now. You can have it when I'm done.' Well done. Sally, I see that Susie is using that block. You can let go now, because she'll give it to you when she's finished. Let's go over here and find another block for your work for now."

It seems like a lot of work, and you know what? It is. Nonetheless, presence and observation means cutting off trouble at the pass. Part of the beauty of my work is to know each child and where their abilities lie.Some children have a rough time figuring out how to play with other children because they simply don't know how to do it gracefully, and this is one area that makes other children wary of that first child. See here: it's very common for a child to watch another one playing. Once the first child decides that what the second child is doing is interesting, they may go over and take the toy, instead of asking "can I play too?" And of course, conflict emerges. This is why I sit close and listen, so that when I see Susie approaching Sally, I'm able to recollect that Susie isn't in the habit of asking to play, so I can smile at Susie, bring her close and say "I see you are watching Sally. You look very interested in how she's using that toy." Then I can find another one for her to play with near Sally, or suggest to Susie "This is a good time to ask Sally if you can play too." Staying present for the entire exchange, Susie and Sally both feel this experience is grounded and contained because they do need help, and there was a loving adult present to guide them through the moment.

While we read a lot about parent/child interactions, one idea I haven't seen discussed is this: children learn from these social experiences--and how they feel about other children-- not specifically because of my words, necessarily, but because of what/ how they feel in their bodies during those disagreements and conflict. When their emotions might be flustered, but don't rise to anxiety or anger, these interactions--even ones around disputes--feel much safer. Thus, Sally learns that playing with Susie 'feels' okay and safe, because the situation wasn't allowed to go farther than a moment of conflict before problem-solving and guidance began.

Likewise, sad incidences and accidents can trouble one child's relationship with another. Last Friday, Kiddo came home with a cut on his ear  and a note stating that there had been an accident with a shovel. I gently asked Kiddo about it over dinner "Oh, can you remember what happened with the shovels?" Kiddo said his friend (we'll call him Johnny) had "hurt my ear with the shovel, and then he hurt Carlos." Kiddo ate another bite and then declared "I don't want to play with Johnny."  While it was tempting to remind Kiddo that Johnny had been his friend since nearly the first day of preschool--I have loads of notes sent home on how Johnny and Kiddo played together-- I understood. Johnny is a rougher kid, and a very sweet one too. It was, likely, an accident that had occurred. But Kiddo's physical experience of Johnny had changed, because Johnny had hurt him, and so his response of "I don't want to play" seemed reasonable to me.

There's something for us as adults to remember, too: we ourselves have our own strong opinions about who we want to spend our own time with. Rarely does this involve the sort of physicality that our children experience; it's more subtle than that. But most adults shun other adults or situations that make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable inside their bodies. For many of us, it could be a family member or a co-worker. I used to ride the bus with a woman who had worked at the same non-profit as myself years earlier. Unless I could help it, I always sat away from her because once she got started talking, she was out of control. (We'd had to censure her at the job for the same reason.) She had no social boundaries, was obsessed-beyond-proportion about Y2K and couldn't read any social cues like trying to change the subject or my curt answers and opening a book. Finally, a Walkman was my only line of defense.

In my mind, this woman was much like many of our little kids are, with relatively the same skill set. And I wonder, why should we expect our children to be more tolerant of unpredictable or unpleasant peers than we ourselves are? We all want our kids to like each other, but the fact of the matter is, children have different play styles. Some children will play well together, others are more wary of each other and shouldn't be expected to go outside of their comfort zone to accommodate a child who might be less socially appropriate, any more than it would have been expected of me to engage in detailed discussions of disaster plans regarding Y2K.

Our kids need us to be reasonable, to be present and coach them, and to be allowed to decide what feels safe for themselves and what they need more help navigating--and we need to be in tune with what we should feel okay allowing them to avoid. This is actually a life-saving instinct they are developing and responding to, one that we want them to have a strong sense of as they grow into older children and adults. Think of all the times people you know have made good, critical decisions based on how they felt in their bodies at the moment. I don't correct Kiddo's "I don't want to play with Johnny" because I want to honor that feeling he's got. I know his teachers will rewrite that script for him, in continuing to provide support and coaching for Johnny, and in a few weeks, this will blow over. I also want my son to respond to that feeling when he's in high school and considering getting into a car with someone who doesn't feel safe, be it a friend who's under the influence or a popular kid with a hidden penchant for mischief or destructive behavior. Honoring how he's feeling now strengthens his ability to trust himself in other such situations later in life.

So this is what I feel proudest of in my work with children. Helping to create those trusting relationships between children. I'm not doing all the work here--the children do their part by being willing to respect my guidance and allowing me to help, which is work for them. And these moments feel beautiful, when the children move past their immediate emotion and trust me enough to allow themselves to be guided. It's a mutual positive regard for each other that makes it all work so well. It's my best work of all.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Brubeck Boy

Yesterday, Kiddo and I took a long, rainy walk over to Portland Nursery. We were there to buy some suet for the backyard critters and to observe fountains. After this venture, we headed over to Belmont Station for an afternoon snack of pretzels and almonds (his choice) and a glass of good beer (mine).

Over the speakers came the hip bebop sounds of KMHD, the local jazz station. Maybe it was the rainy afternoon, feeling cold like winter-- I don't know, but their dj was on a roll. Tune after tune rolled along, and then a lively horn piece caught my ear.

"I know this song" I said aloud to Kiddo, making conversation and trying to place the familiar tune.

"We know this song. It's Brubeck." he replied. I was stunned. Of course it was a Dave Brubeck Quartet piece, "Blue Rondo A La Turk" from the classic "Time Out" album. Yeah, the one with "Take Five". Yet, the arrangement was done with horns by the Miami Saxophone Quartet and was wonderful. So I gaped at Kiddo and yep, I don't think I could be any more proud.

Now you know where my priorities lie. Skewed? Maybe. But my kid can hit on Brubeck faster than I could. Not bad for three and a half.

( A little trivia-- Dave Brubeck was one of the few real musicians to be mentioned by name on Perry Mason. Just in case you were wondering. It's in "The Case of the Missing Melody", Season 5, Episode 3. And yeah, I am geeky like that!)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Parenting at the Playgroup

Does your playgroup need a little direction? I conjured this up for my friend's sister, but you can use it too!

Parenting at the Playgroup

When children get older and stronger, those petty skirmishes over toys or taking turns can become something much bigger than just two toddlers tussling. While we all have different parenting styles, playgroup needs to be a neutral ground with every parent on the same page in regard to guidelines for keeping children safe.

Part of this involves reshifting the group focus. At playgroup events, the focus must be on the children first and foremost. While we love to see other moms and socialize, the fact of the matter is that our children need constant attention for negotiating the many challenges that typically arise when groups of children are playing in the same space.


Parents must be within sight and sound of their child at all times. If you need to go out of the room, please ask another parent to watch your child. At this age, children need parental support for the social work of taking turns, asking to use another child's toy, and just being safe with their bodies and words. Leaving your child unattended does a disservice to both your child--who needs your coaching-- as well as other parents and children. Stay with your kid.

Taking turns within a group setting is tricky. Sometimes, we feel it isn't 'fair' if our child doesn't get to use a desired toy. Nonetheless, if a child is using a toy, it's worthwhile to consider letting them use those one or two toys until they are finished with it and ready to move on. If your child is waiting for a toy another child is using, try to help your child engage with a similar toy/activity instead of encouraging them to wait for their turn. While adults can cognitively understand "you can have it in 5 minutes", this may be more than what your child can manage. Sometimes, we don't all get a turn, but if we help our children move on, or are available to comfort disappointed feelings, our children are less likely to act out physically.

Hitting, biting, slapping, spitting, pinching, or hair-pulling are not allowed. All of these actions have the potential to seriously hurt another child. Parent presence, once again, can greatly reduce the possibility of children coming to blows with each other. If your child acts out physically toward another child, it is good to check in with the other child first, make amends (take your child with you while you get an ice pack or bandage) then see if play can be resumed. If, after one incident, it is apparent that your child is likely to hurt another child (they are still upset or acting out), the parent should take the child to a quieter area and stay with them until the child is calm and ready to go back to playing. Make this call by observing their actions, not words: children are more than happy to promise to play nice whether or not they are actually capable of this, so wait until your child is calm and then help them engage in a different activity if possible.

Make the call early. Don't stay longer than your child's ability to get along and play safely. For your child's sake, setting boundaries around what is acceptable and being consistent with them is the best way to go. If your child seems out of sorts and you suspect that the work of playgroup may be too much, it's better to skip it for the day. Children are impressed when we tell them "I see you aren't being safe with your body/choices today. We'll try playgroup on another day, when I see you are ready to cooperate." And then, stick with your choice. Likewise, if you find your child has seriously hurt another child (look at the other parent's face-- you'll know) or isn't cooperating, leave immediately and let your child know why. When we allow our children to hurt other children, this in fact sends a message that we aren't in charge, which our kids need us to be, and they can feel even more out of control than before.

Leave when you say you are going to leave. If you tell your child you are leaving, leave. "Second chances" usually results in the child having a second chance to hurt someone else. Likewise, the playgroup operates successfully on the premise that the children are willing to take direction from the other adults in the room; if your child is challenging their authority ("you can't make me" or "I don't have to listen to you", being rude, etc.), explain to your child that you are going home, and why, and that you'll try for a better playtime next time. This acts to enforce the authority of other parents, which they do need from you. In fact, this honoring of each other's authority is essential for a successful playgroup. And even when things are going well, long goodbyes are confusing to our children, so consider saying your farewells before transitioning your child out the door. Too often, tears and tantrums arise from tired children who are prepared to go home and now find themselves standing around, waiting for mom.

Your children need strong, loving parents to help them understand the limits and expectations of being in groups with other children. Our children thrive on positive expectations, and they do want to do well. When we understand that all children need coaching, support and discipline at playgroup, playtime is better for everyone.

Choosing Rest

This morning, my little Kiddo was hankering to get his adventure on. "Mama, I want to go to the zoo today" he announced over breakfast.

My first inclination was to agree, then reality set in. Of course I'd love to take Kiddo to the zoo; on rainy days like this, there are less visitors, which I like much better. But I'm back to work teaching tomorrow and there's a lot to be done today to prep preschool. Vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, making sure the last bits of prep are done so that all our activities for the week are ready to go. Add to this the daily demands of meals (lunch, two snacks and dinner await), dishes, laundry, GusKitty care, and a few phone calls-- suddenly my day of possibility looks whittled down to some pockets of time I'll be able to sit down and play with Kiddo.

So, I said no to the zoo, and now Kiddo's playing in the container drawer. He's constructed a fancy fountain from a bowl, plate, food mill parts and the lid from a thermos. "That's my water fountain that sprays out. I need to put a little more cranking into the fountain. Urrchh. Urrchh. Urrchh." He's talking to himself, figuring out how all these disparate pieces might fit together. "I think it goes with that" he declares, shoving a plastic spice bottle into the bottom of the food mill, then explaining the path the water will travel.

There's something to be said for zoo adventures, but I see he's creating his own world here on the kitchen floor. If I'd chosen an outing, we'd be in full swing right now; I'd be exhorting him to get dressed already and trying to maneuver myself into the shower, then hastily throw some sort of lunch together. Instead, he's getting a chance to play at his own pace, to explore how all the pieces of the thermos screw together and to create his own stories. (He's brought the thermos to our little kitchen now, to "pack lunch" with our wooden carrots and bananas.) Sometimes saying 'yes' is great, but I think for today, saying 'no' is better. Taking a 'down day' at home before we kick off our respective preschool weeks will give us more breathing room throughout the days activities and provide a time to relax. I'm still off to take a shower, but I think it will be a long one I'll enjoy, not rushed as it usually is. Good to stop and rest sometimes.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Stepping Out With Your Kiddo

Some days, getting the kids out of the house for a walk can seem like a chore. Kids are often craving novelty, and the daily walk around the neighborhood can sometimes be less attractive than play, but just as important. When rainy days come, or cold ones too, some children are very reluctant to leave off their fun to go outside, but if you need to go to the store or walk the dog, you've just got to help them find some fun.

Making a picture treasure hunt can be just the thing to help kids look forward to an outing. A few years ago, I nannied for a family whose children were loathe to go out for walks, so I came up with an idea-- what if there was another focus to the walk? I grabbed a piece of paper for each child and drew five simple pictures on it: a squirrel, a dog, a cat, a bicycle and a stop sign--things we'd see on most walks, if only we paid attention. I grabbed a crayon for each child and once outside, I gave them their lists and told them the game; we would look for the objects pictured and when we found them, cross them out.

Over the years, I've played this with many children. This 'treasure hunt' list is very versatile and can be adapted for each child's level of ability and knowledge, or interest. Kids learning letters can have a couple on their list, and a number or two. You can use shapes as your guide, including squares, circles, triangles, etc.  Sometimes, I'd put a block of crayon on to ask them to find a specific color. Flowers, birds, flags-- anything you might find in your neighborhood is worthy. Younger children need simple things while older kids might like to make their own lists of what they want to look for or see. Don't forget things like puddles or the sound of windchimes, and different sorts of holiday decorations can be interesting too. One year we counted how many wreathes we saw on our walks. Young children will appreciate anything you can draw, children learning literacy need both pictures and words, and older readers can help to do the writing on their lists.

A little imagination, a strip of paper and a crayon or pencil = a walk made easier.