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.