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.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to Post an Answer on the Parenting Forum

Forums. Every topic has one, and they all have an audience. A while ago, I wrote on How to Post a Question on a Forum, and since then, I took a long break from the MamaWorld Forum. However, I have since rejoined the round table of rabble, comprised of contemplative intellects, angry pinheads and all manner of audience in between. The balanced and well-rounded voices are present, as are the angry and foolish, and I learn much about humanity from reading such a variety of answers to questions.

So, if you are a newbie to forums, or just interested, here are some things to consider before hitting "submit".
  1. Is your answer relevant to the topic at hand? Sometimes, what we start out writing becomes something altogether different. I've seen some enormous digressions that were mostly irrelevant; these actually undermine the kernel of good advice you might have buried in there, so if you go too off track, remember that it's okay to delete a bit. You don't get extra points for having the longest post, and the poster won't get eye/brain-strain from picking the needle out from the haystack.
  2. Is your answer readable? Using all-caps or no punctuation, or no parenthetic breaks can be a dealbreaker for many readers. Simply put, it's a lot of work to follow a block of all-caps, unpunctuated text. Even all-caps is distracting and considered "shouting", which is fine if you are on a soapbox and have a captive audience waiting for the next bus. Online, we move on by. Paragraphing longer suggestions is very helpful; it serves to organize our thoughts and gives a small break to the reader. Adopting a readable posting style is a plus, because even if someone will disagree with you, your clarity and thoughtfulness makes it less likely to dismiss you completely.
  3. Is your answer respectful? It happens on a daily basis--someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed and decided that they had to share it with the rest of us. Criticism is always easier to receive if it's constructive and not wrathful or judgmental. If you find yourself getting angry at the person posting the question (who you've never met), figure out first what it is that's bugging you. Then ask yourself if your advice is helpful or hurtful. If you posted an asinine question, would you like to be slammed or gently shown the light?
  4. Try the more personal approach. I have found the phrase "if it were me, I would..." very handy in this regard. When it comes to parenting forums, your average question-poster does want help and genuine support, so just sharing what you might do in their situation--or what's worked for you--is more instructive than "You should do this..."
  5. Remember that we all come from different places in life. Some questions are going to be woefully filled with errors of both spelling and grammar. Some posters are not native English language speakers; others may just have difficulty expressing themselves easily. If you are posting a reply, try to address their concern and don't give them a hard time about their proficiency with English. This sort of criticism actually distracts from the advice you are trying to give.
  6. If you are challenging another poster's suggestion, do so with some courtesy. Some people are going to give advice you will find questionable for one reason or another. You make your point better if you don't call people out directly, but address the issue itself. It's right to speak up when one sees advice which would suggest the parent discipline in an abusive manner, and you need to understand the specifics of the word abusive. It's an extremely volatile word and is sometimes used inappropriately by passionate posters.  Many sites also allow us to report posts which contain offensive or abusive language, so this can also be used as a remedy. Dangerous suggestions should also be acknowledged and corrected, and this can also be done without naming names.
  7.  Would your advice be helpful to you? Can you put yourself in the mind of the person seeking advice?Sometimes, it helps to re-read the original question before hitting send. We often miss details on the first read and are left with only impressions, so consider this double-checking your work. This way, we can pare down our suggestions and keep them on-topic, as much as possible. Sometimes, people struggle with more than they're letting on, and may be seeking support more than advice, so if you feel the empathy, share the love.

And lastly remember always...there are still real people on the other end. Enough said.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Most Important Thing You'll Read This Autumn

All Hail the Voter's Pamphlet!

If you are an Oregon resident of voting age and (hopefully!) registered to vote, you've received the most interesting, entertaining and informative piece of mail you'll get this fall.

Last year, or perhaps a couple ago, I posted an extravaganza on the voter's pamphlet. Well, seeing that I am working again and have a little more of a life, I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, the candidates statements still make interesting reading. We've got some newer parties on the ballot (let's hear it for the Working Families Party--welcome!) and some talked-about parties with no group statement (c'mon TEA Partiers, become a party already. Otherwise you're just a group of hangers-outers with no agenda to share with the voting public other than what you don't like. I need more information.). I myself found the methods of selection of the Independent detailed in their Party Statement rather forward-thinking and inclusive, and was impressed with their process.

This is the reason I love the Voter's Pamphlet. As an unaffiliated voter, I get a chance to see how some of the political machines are actually run. Some party statements are wonderfully educational, and some woefully rhetorical, but they are all illuminating and give me a nice insight into what each party and candidate thinks is important in this election cycle. We've also got a few measures to vote on, too, so be sure to read about them instead of just relying on mailers, editorials and television ads. Your email in-box is likely going to be busy with messages from people who think just like you do, because that's how they got your address, so the Voter's Pamphlet is your chance to get the full picture. Whether or not you agree with an opposing position or viewpoint is no reason not to be curious why they think what they think.

And one more thing to add-- Oregon Rocks the Mail-In Ballot! If we did this in all 50 States, there'd be better record keeping, accountability and more facile recounts. No conspiracy theories blaming DieBold for rigging elections, and everyone would have the chance to vote without waiting for hours at the polls. More equality in elections, period. I love living here, so I vote! Send in your ballot and exercise your right to fully live in a country where you actually can vote and see your vote counted. It's a beautiful thing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hey Pampers...Kids Aren't Stupid

Just saw the most inane commercial for Pampers "Easy-Ups", another underpant-style diaper on the market. Apparently, children get confused about wearing diapers to bed when they are potty training, so now their product "holds 25% more".

Let me get this straight-- Putting a child who is learning how to use the toilet into a glorified diaper--where they can't really feel themselves wetting their pants--is somehow less confusing than underwear? I've been around this block too many times to be anything but completely convinced that these products are designed to prolong the toilet learning process as well as their flow of revenue. When the Pampers-loyal consumers stop buying diapers and put their kids in underpants, Pampers stops making money. What better way to keep milking that cash cow than to impede the process?

The only good that comes from these products is not having a pee mess to clean up. Hence, the item serves the parent, not the child, who can learn that pants-wetting is a logical consequence of not making it to the toilet. Pampers would like you to have your child use their product all day and then again at night, so as not to "confuse" them.  24 hour dependence on diapers isn't going to help any child graduate to underwear.


My son isn't an idiot, and he's not confused by wearing diapers to bed. He'd like to wear underpants to bed, and we are working with him. We've told him that if has dry morning diapers for a couple of weeks, we'll get the special sheets for the bed and let him sleep in underpants. We've been doing underwear since June/July or so, and it's been fine. We'll take a pass on the Pampers and save our money, reinvest it in the one-time cost of a couple waterproof sheets, thanks. I'm sure it'll cost a heck of a lot less...and take Kiddo less time to stay dry at night, too.

A Dead Squirrel and Some Thoughts on Mortality

A couple days ago, Kiddo returned home from an afternoon with Ang. He sat at the kitchen table, eating a snack of lunchbox leftovers and I worked on the pile of dishes at the sink. Our conversation was fairly mundane when he suddenly switched gears.

"I saw a dead squirrel today." he announced to me. This was the first time he'd mentioned the word 'dead' to me, as I usually refer to dead bugs as "not alive anymore", which I find to be more instructive initially. I wasn't upset that Ang had used the "D-Word", either. Dead is dead, right?

"Oh." I waited a beat for him to say more, then asked him "Was it not-moving dead or yucky dead?" This is my gentle way of determining if the squirrel in question was peacefully lying in state, or full-on roadkill.

"It was not-moving dead" he replied, then took another bite of his sandwich.  I washed another dish, and then he asked, "Mama, why do things get dead?"

Well, that was an open-ended question. Since he's so young, and this was our first real conversation that had included the word "dead",  I kept the answer close to the topic at hand. "Hmm. That's an interesting question. There are lots of reasons squirrels die. Some of them fall out of those high trees, or off the power lines. Some of them run out into the street and get hit by a car. Sometimes squirrels have lived a long life, and their body is all done being alive and the squirrel dies." I avoided talking about squirrels getting sick or their bodies growing tired when they are old because talking about 'getting sick/tired and dying" can be very confusing to young children. What if they get sick? Or tired? I didn't want him to think he'd die because he was sick or tired.  I didn't mention that other animals hunt squirrels, either, because we haven't done a lot of talking about animals hunting and killing each other at this point. Someday it will come up, but for now I was keeping things pretty simple.
Kiddo seemed content with my explanation and moved on to other topics--his preschool day, what he was eating. But our short conversation stayed with me and made me wonder about what I had to offer in regard to further inquiries.

I myself  have been of the belief for a very long time that when you're dead, you're dead. Joe and I both joke, in all seriousness, that we take comfort in this idea. I personally don't want to live on forever and ever, and it's not even about the company I might keep in heaven or anything of that nature. I just like the idea that we all get one turn on the ride and we do our best to leave the place better than we found it. Sometimes I'll joke that "I don't believe in hell, but there's gotta be a place for those so-and-so's to go when they're done screwing it up for the rest of us". Even then, though, I don't have it in myself to wish eternal punishment on anyone, no matter how heinous they are. Eternity? Even if it's in a nice, happy place, just the thought of it makes me tired.

I take solace in this dead-is-dead notion the way most people take comfort in the peaceful, harp-filled hereafter. But I'm also turning forty in a week, so I've had a lot of time to digest this information. My little boy? So alive and aglow with life, with not even a dead-pet experience of death? What will I tell him? That our bodies go back into the earth, and our souls become stardust, dissipating and heading out into the ether, perhaps to join other bits of stardust in becoming a new soul someday?

A few weeks before my son was born, Kurt Vonnegut passed. Outspoken and a champion of humanity, Vonnegut's writings have inspired me for years. I was on a walk with Joe, big belly leading the way, when he told me that Vonnegut was gone. It wasn't hormones that had made me tear up either--it was one of the good ones, gone. "I hope our Kiddo gets a little bit of him, somehow," I told Joe, and he agreed. Whether that stardust goes on to contribute to the next generations, we'll never know. But I'd like to think that spirit of humanity, that spark of life, lives on in the eyes of the babies who come into our world, day after day. I see that light of life in my son's eyes and know that this is his gift to the world right now, his enthusiasm and joie de vivre. May it live on for a long, long time.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dear Neil Finn

My son has informed me that he'd like to trade guitars with you. He's had his eye on that black one you played on the Seven Worlds Collide dvd for quite a while. I do not know the make and model of it as I am not a guitar enthusiast, nor can I recall which songs you played it on as I am a busy mother, so I cannot be more exact in specifying which guitar he desires.

Oh, and he's three years old;  his guitar is virtually untunable and has fallen several times from where he hangs it on the edge of the blocks shelf. So, you'd most definitely be on the losing end of this deal. However, if you feel this trade to be worthy of your consideration, we appreciate the time you will spend pondering it before kindly refusing.

All in good fun and just parlaying the interest of my little popster. (Note: I did not say pop star. Who'd want that for their child?)


PS--The running races during the last tour stop here? Lovely. Thanks for thinking of the kids.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Meet the High Needs Parent

Last spring I received a call from a mother looking for a preschool. It was late in the game, and her son's pre-K plans had fallen apart due to school budget cuts. After telling me this, she mentioned that I wasn't her first choice, but that she'd been referred to me by another preschool which was preferable, but full. This was all well and good, although a little tactless. Nonetheless, I began to describe my program when she interrupted me.

"She's reading" she said of her child. Great, I told her, and gave her several suggestions as to how we could  support her abilities at her level.

"She's reading books" she clarified emphatically, as if I had no idea what she'd been talking about before. When I reassured her I could still provide a rich environment for her child, she asked about my enrollment numbers (four, maximum, so the children have enough room to move and play comfortably), my tuition rates and my background. Then she asked if she could visit my facility.

I reminded her that I have a home-based preschool, and gave her my address. We set up a time for her to visit the next week. Fast forward to the day of our visit: The phone rang and an annoyed voice answered my hello. Apparently, I had given her the wrong address. This was a surprise, as I've lived here for eight years. I directed her to my porch, and once we shook hands she brusquely informed me that she hadn't much time to visit. Her once over of the preschool rooms left her overtly unimpressed. Admittedly, preschool at the end of the day is a bit less glamorous, but it's as real as it gets. Still tidy, but needing a little sweep; a couple books in the library corner were askew, but nothing glaringly bad. A few paintings were on the table drying in the sunshine and some snack dishes were soaking in the sink. To me, as a teacher, this says "When your child is here, my focus is on them. Not on dishes, or getting every crumb off the floor." As I showed her through the space, the labeled coat hooks and spaces for shoes and slippers, she asked where the spaces for the 'other children were'. Confused, I reminded her that I had just four enrolled, but she didn't need to hear from me. "You told me you had eight children here."


At this point, she and I were pretty equally disinterested in each other. While she was busy being obvious in her condescension and rejection of what I had to offer, I'd already decided I would rather go broke than deal with this parent for a whole school year. I didn't have to be rude or make excuses for what she perceived as shortcomings. I learned a lot about her in a short time: she didn't think I'd be able to meet her genius child's needs, she didn't listen well, she blamed other people for her misunderstandings and she exhibited behaviors that would have been deplorable in a child. Just unpleasant. In short, a high-needs parent.

Here's a secret I learned a long time ago as a teacher-- children are adaptable; some parents, not so much. When I was younger and worked at daycares, I spent much more time than I care to remember dealing with this sort of parent and now that I do my own enrollment, I simply don't invite High Needs parents into my life.Or, for that matter, into the lives of the other parents whose children I teach. I would rather lose money than have to cowtow, placate and generally play nanny to an overgrown child who hasn't yet figured out that the world doesn't revolve around themselves or their child.

What a makes one a High Needs Parent? Here's a simple list of their beliefs:
  1. They, and their child, has more right to happiness than anyone else.
  2. Their child deserves to have a special snack if they "don't like" the kid-friendly snack I'm already offering. (I'm not talking about accommodating allergies, either. I'm talking about the kid who now, today, doesn't like yogurt, so since he's off yogurt, I should make up something else for him so he won't 'go hungry'.)
  3. They will use guilt to passive-aggressively get me to do what they want. (See above.)
  4. They bring their child late to school regularly, disrupting our group with long, dramatic goodbyes.
  5. They want to tell me all about their child's horrible night and hard morning (usually all this in front of the child) so that if the child is acting out, I'll know why.
  6. When their child acts out, "they don't really mean it. They're just playing". Always.
  7. They expect me to get more teacher training to deal with their special, perfect child's moods and behaviors. Or they bring me a book to read so I can 'understand' their kid.
  8. They get upset and want to know the name of the child that bit/hurt their child and want to know what I did to punish them. If their child bites, they are teething or having a bad day or stressed out.
  9. If their child isn't invited to a birthday party, they make it my problem instead of the other parent's. (Never mind that they've usually completely alienated the other parents.)
  10. When I approach them about their child's hurting other children, they turn it back on me with some silly condemnation  for unrelated inanities like "not playing reggae music like the last teacher, who he had no problem with". ( I actually had a parent tell me this during a conference!)
  11. Their child doesn't need to adapt to the schedule and daily rhythms of the group; we teachers instead must take extra time and "work with" their child who has been given carte blanche to not listen to their teachers or other children.
  12. They feel compelled to tell me things about their personal life I'd never, ever want to know.
  13. They want me to appear in court to testify against their ex during the custody hearing. (Awkward. And yes, this has happened too.)
I think you get the picture. As a teacher, I am mindful of the abilities of the children in my group. When we have children with actual special needs, we do our best to bring those children lovingly into the group. When we have children in our group who are going through troubles at home, we factor that into how we interact with the child and understand that stressed children do act out. But when parents are unwilling to take any responsibility for helping their child to become a better person, or refuse to understand there's a reason people pay extra to hire a nanny to cater to their Little Prince or Princess, well, then we've got problems.

The biggest problem of all, of course, is that the child is done a disservice. All this drama and blame-shifting leads to nothing other than raising a spoiled brat. Because the parent is so enchanted with themselves and their superiority, or is too busy polishing their child's halo and keeping the blinders on, it makes teachers lives a lot harder. When parents can't separate their own self-image and needs from those of their child, everyone loses.

If you are dealing with someone like this, good luck. I have no lofty advice here, other than Know Who/What You Are Dealing With, and communicate clearly. Use the techniques I suggested in How to Deal With a Whiny Youngster, because their memory might be longer, but they sure as hell won't back down on the drama unless you ignore it. Be polite, and don't feel like you need to befriend them...unless you yourself are a Drama Queen. Then hey--you have fun with that. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The NannyMama Twist

This autumn is a fall of firsts for me. It's the first full school year for my little Plumtree Nursery School. It's the first time Kiddo's gone to preschool with a teacher besides myself, and it's the first time I've arranged to have regular child care for him so that I can finish my work day in relative peace. Even after my little group goes home with their parents, I have at least another hour or more of cleanup and prep to do for the next day. Last spring, having Kiddo home with me at that time was stressful for both of us. He wanted to play with me and I needed my focus to be elsewhere. This school year, Kiddo already has to entertain himself for an hour before his preschool day while I transform our home to a school space. Bookending his preschool day with my prep times would have been overly demanding and potentially disastrous, so we knew that child care was essential to family harmony.

To this end, we've been blessed with my dear friend's househusband, who I will call Ang (an acronym for Awesome Neighbor Guy). Ang picks Kiddo up from preschool everyday at one and keeps him for the afternoon. Kiddo loves Ang, and is a bit disappointed on Fridays when I am the one to come pick him up instead. He and Ang, and Ang's daughter, are buddies. They do the things in the afternoon that I would have done with him on my days off-- leisurely trips to Laurelhurst Park to watch the big machines cleaning out the algae-infested pond, trips to Portland Nursery to peruse fountains or long playtimes on the playground after Ang's daughter's kindergarten lets out. It's nice to have someone else in Kiddo's life who will ask him to quiet down at the library or tell him to finish his carrots from his lunchbox before we start getting out more food. I've had the good fortune of working with some wonderful male co-teachers at the daycares and caring, involved fathers in their homes, so I appreciate the more masculine caregiving style and see the potential for balance in Kiddo's life, as his other caregivers and teachers are all women.

It was 1993 when took my first nanny job. I was young and wondered why on earth the kids behaved so much worse for their own parents than they did for me. Fast forward a few years, and I began to see those family/caregiver situations as more nuanced. Children have an entirely different comfort level with their own parents than they do nearly anyone else, and this will sometimes show itself in the outbursts and boundary-testing that spring up when the child sees their parent at the end of the day. Having observed this dynamic time and again makes it easier to understand the differences in Kiddo's behavior when he's with Ang and with me. I understand that whole "I love you and now I'm going to try to get your attention in all the worst ways" sort of thing that goes on during the drop-off transition. As a nanny, I witnessed this almost every evening: Mom comes home from work and the whole place falls apart. The kids, who were holding it together, now come at her from all sides with demands, complaints and sorrows. It wasn't until the children were significantly older that this end-of-day time became less stressful for the family; instead, it was a transition time all around for most youngsters. So I know that my Kiddo is no exception.

It's also easy for working parents to believe that the nanny gets the best of their kids and the best parts of their child's day. I've read a few books about the complex relationships between mothers and nannies; most have been less than helpful, so I'm not naming titles here, but one thing's clear to me: there's a bit of resentment on the part of some mothers that the nanny is loved and trusted by the child. I find this to be a simplistic overglorification of the nanny-child relationship. The children might have loved and trusted me, but I was also privileged to their tantrums, meltdowns (both at home and in public) and other less-than-lovely disciplinary moments. There were a lot of fun days, sure, and there were also a lot of hard days when I stopped at the pub on the way home from work to decompress before making dinner, replaying that day's difficulties over in my head and wondering what could be done differently next time. So I'm not laboring under any delusions that Kiddo is all sweetness and light when he's with Ang. In fact, I'm sure that sometimes he's a handful and that some days, they are going to be tired of each other. It's just the way it is.

I'm glad I had the job before I became the client. In many ways, Ang has saved our bacon, and I do my best to show him that I value the time he spends with Kiddo. At the very beginning, Ang and I went to coffee and sketched out an agreement. We discussed what would work best for both of us, agreed on a reasonable rate of pay, then signed it as a contract. From past experience, I know that being very clear about expectations on both sides is crucial to having a good caregiver/parent partnership. And we have the liability waivers to back this up; being friends, we don't want to end up suing each other. We've taken what could have been a loose, informal agreement and professionalized it to a degree, and we both feel the better for it.

It's this last piece of the puzzle that makes me so value how much my life has changed. The shoe is on the other foot, and I know what that shoe looks like for Ang. I know how to be a good client, and I understand the reality of the entire situation. His job is hard, so while I might miss my son for a moment in the afternoons, I am not jealous or resentful of Ang. It's my choice to work, because it's vital for me to keep myself in the game. Teaching preschoolers is rich, meaningful work to me.Ang makes all of this so much easier because I know Kiddo's in good hands. Ang may be Kiddo's surrogate parent for several hours a week, but I'm not afraid of him replacing me in my son's affections. In a season of firsts, these new arrangements already feel so comfortable and friendly, they don't feel new at all. They just feel right.