Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rituals and Responsibility: the Balances of Community

There's something to be said for having some sort of community. 

Last weekend, I spent time within the company of some dear friends. A very close, dear friend and I went out to visit and spend the night with some other friends who live out in the country. For us, this time is meant to be an annual retreat weekend, a ritual of sorts. We visitors take out gobs of good food, make the main dishes for the two big meals (dinner and breakfast) and are treated to lovely lodgings, more good food and a great time. My favorite memories, however, are of another ritual we seem to have spontaneously developed: at some time or another, we all go out and work in the garden. On other visits, we've weeded or brought food in; this time, we planted peas together. In less than an hour, we'd planted several patches of peas around their property and I was glad to know that my work would live on and give them something of substance come late spring. Besides, as the old saying goes, "Many hands make work light."

Living within a family unit can be our children's first, and most potent, experience of community. Preschoolers and children who attend daycare may be said to be participating in the classroom community, to be sure, but it's at home, first, where children learn if they are able to trust in the world and discern their place in it. 

There are benefits for parents, too, when we consider the family as a community. For some of us--certainly myself, on some days--the word "family" is loaded and feels very personal. Perhaps, sometimes, too much so. When we are feeling stretched, when our children are challenging us, or perhaps our partners aren't as helpful as we would like, the idea of our own family may feel negative and draining. Taking a step back, however, and asking ourselves to reflect on our "community at home" might provide  more perspective, especially if we can draw back, not to ourselves, but to a more objective place. Then we can work from that position to sort out the needs of the individuals, and then the group, and to reconcile them in a way that works best for all.

It seems to me that rituals and responsibility have important roles in every community. For example, our next-door neighbor is a neat woman who has invited us over for Solstice potlucks every year. We go and celebrate the light, bring a nice something to eat, and meet a few of her friends. We invite her over for some group events as well. These rituals are pleasant. We also trade pet care when one or the other household is out of town--as she is now-- and last summer we watered the new plants she had put between our houses. It's easy to care for someone, their pets or their plants, when we've broken bread together and shared pleasant conversations. The rituals balance out the favors we ask of each other and provide common ground, so that we care for each other better than we might without that more personal connection.

At home, in our family, it seems that rituals and responsibilities go hand in hand. Years ago, there was more ritual in responsibility. Having separate days of the week for meaningful tasks (baking, washing, mending, etc.) was the norm in many households. However, in our home, with Kiddo going to school only three mornings a week, we needed some different rituals. School mornings and days are very scheduled, and our afternoons are looser, but still provide a sense of consistency and predictability. Those 'stay at home days', though, needed something else. The fact of the matter is that preschool is fun and exciting and for kids; staying at home often means keeping busy while Mama gets the work done. 

This is why we've started The List Ritual, which I've been using for a while now. I divide up a piece of paper into three columns: Need to Do, Want to Do, Plan for the Day. With Kiddo, I name and write down each task/responsibility which needs doing, and I name everything, from taking a shower to each snack and meal we will eat, to any trips we need to take to shop or for appointments. Then I ask him what he wants to do for the day, write down his ideas and a few of my own if I have any. Lastly, I judiciously plug it all in together and then read it aloud for him, so Kiddo knows what our day will look like and when any of his special 'wants' will take place. Knowing that I'll be playing a game with him after doing the dishes makes it easier for him to play while he waits. Of course, for this to work well, I have to consistently keep these small commitments, and when I do, we all feel better, of course.

Another daily ritual we have is a Snack Storytime. Most afternoons (when we're home), around three o'clock, we settle down for a snack for Kiddo, and I read a chapter from a good children's book. After this, Kiddo has his Quiet Playtime for about 45-60 minutes and I have a cup of tea while reading a book. Not only does that connected time of reading together make the separation of Quiet Playtime easier for Kiddo, the break I get helps me catch my breath before the busyness of making dinner. Having this time also allows me more patience in having Kiddo help me with the meal prep. 

The mealtime prep is a fun responsibility for Kiddo. While he's not always excited to set the table, he loves the kitchen work, especially now that he gets to practice using a paring knife on softer veggies and fruits. He's an excellent peeler, too. Even when he doesn't necessarily care for the dish I'm preparing, allowing him to handle the food gives him a better sense of what it is and I expect may eventually inspire him to try a bite or two. He also loves to taste the herbs, spices, oils and vinegars I'm using for the meal. This time of working together preparing meals will help him to  feel competent in the kitchen as he gets older, which is its own reward.

We've also discovered the joys of another sort of ritual, which is designating three Treat Days during the week. We chose Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for days when Kiddo can have a treat. (Those treats, by the way, are very small and simple: an ice cream cone; a small piece of candy; fruit and sweetened yogurt; homemade popsicles; banana or zucchini bread; and occasionally a soda --all natural fruit soda or root beer-- or apple juice if we are out at a restaurant, which is a Big Deal.) We know that it's hard for kids to wait for treats, and having a small something every other day or so eliminates a lot of nagging, sadness and arguments. (And, perhaps, obsessing about it?) Bearing in mind that we eat a fairly healthy diet, small treats in moderation make a lot of sense for us. 

I myself have a dishwashing ritual that somehow calms me. Joe likes to squeeze some soap on the sponge and wash dishes with the water running. I'll use his method in a pinch, but prefer to be more methodical. To me, there's just something about gathering all the dishes to the counter, stacking them by type, scrubbing out the sinks and filling them with hot, soapy water. Then I wash the dishes, by type, in their turn...this system works for my particular dishrack and best of all, even a large load will all fit in. Afterwards, the kitchen table and stove are wiped down, counters wiped, old napkins thrown into the laundry, dishtowels replaced... all of this is a guarantee of a clean kitchen I'll be happy to return to when it's time to make the next meal. Laundry is folded with this same sort of sorting process as well. These processes work, and when I stray from them, things are left undone or take longer--or frankly, just throw me off my game. The same for cleaning the house; it's a long bit of work, but when I'm finished, it looks great. And after a hard day, of course, cracking open a beer or sipping a nice wine is a good 'end of the workday' ritual which many of us enjoy, wink wink.

All of these things- The List, Snack Storytime, Treat Days--All of these little rituals make life more pleasant for us, and I think that's the secret quality to them that makes them work. A life with only responsibility and no rituals to look forward to can get dull pretty quickly.  Sometimes the ritual is the 'payoff' of the moment, when a child's cleaned their room and readied themselves for sleep and now can look forward to a story and some cuddles and tender talk at the end of the day. Rituals can frame our day. I know I just don't feel the same without my morning cup of tea to start the day. Once I have this, I can move forward feeling that I've taken care of myself and am ready to care for my family.

Our daily rituals add shape and consistency and reassurance that things are reliable, fine. Sometimes, they are just little things we turn to to  make ourselves feel better in a very unsettled world. Slipping into what we call "routine" behavior can have great payoffs, even in spirit. Or a clean house. Or best of all, a happier kid and family. Rituals and responsibility let us know we are of value and necessary to our community, whether it's the smaller one of family or the chosen one of friends or a logical connection with one's neighbors. We make a positive difference, we matter to others because of our contributions, and we strengthen ties with those around us. When we offer these opportunities for ourselves and our children, we offer valuable experiences to learn from and grow through. This teaches our children how to be in a community later on, as they move through summer jobs, college or other schooling, move into homes with friends or their own families and become parents or mentors to others. 

With all this said~~
Time to go and feed the neighbor's cat!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rainy Days, Snowy Days, Busy Days

This winter, I think it's safe to say that our weather is having a bit of an identity crisis. Warm days in February and early March, then snow showers and the first day of spring? I wanted to celebrate, we wanted to go out and clip the just-blooming purple azaleas but it's too darn cold.

Today is a bit of a treat: after long days (and nights) at work, Joe's coming home early. Per a recent post of mine, we haven't taken Kiddo out to any restaurants lately, but Joe and I decided to try a snack trip to Belmont Station today. We've got three things going for us on this venture: an earlier time of day; very little likelihood of misbehaving kids at this venue; and Good Beer. Today is Dogfish Head Fun Day at Belmont Station and we just thought "well, why not?" It's not often we get to do something like this together, Joe and I, so we're both looking forward to it. (Added later: And yes, we had a great time.)

In the meantime, I've a pile of laundry to fold, vacuuming to be done and a few other household tasks. Our Pea House project outdoors is 'on hold' due to the weather. We planted the seeds about two weeks or so ago and only one brave sprout has emerged. With the schizophrenic weather, I've resigned myself to the idea that I might need to replant seeds. Anything hardy enough to have dealt with the repeated freezes and snows will surprise me at this point, although my crocuses and still-closed daffodils are hanging on, the daffs biding their time, I think, waiting for sun.

We're almost done with Kiddo's seat cushion for his wee wooden chair. Mama just has to learn a whip stitch to finish it off. It's padded, cute and will be another small thing I can pat myself on the back for. While I work, Kiddo cuts up all sorts of fabric, sometimes cutting around the pictures on it. Yesterday, he wanted me to staple together bits of poly batting so he could  make " a rope for Tug of War". Today, he has an old, worn out, hole-in-the-knee pair of pajama pants to cut up. Good pincer grip exercise, cutting up cloth. 

There's also a total Dinosaur Party House in our living room right now. Three stories tall, built with unit blocks (he traded out the Little People for the blocks, and "Yay!" to that, because I prefer playing with blocks, thanks) and sheet of cardboard. Kiddo's filled the house with smaller dinos, dimetrodon hanging out with ankylosaurus, many other larger dinos had to duck their heads to fit in. I want to put drink glasses and canapes in their claws...

Kiddo's also taken over the type tray I have on the nature table and has filled it with various treasures: pine cones, rocks, shiny tumbled stones, little dinos, plastic bugs, leaves, small animal toys... I love that he loves this. 

We're also contemplating the summer garden. After many mental gymnastics, I've decided to do our warmer, sun loving tomatoes in the backyard in big black plastic pots. Ugly, but they'll grow better and frankly, that's the space I have available. I must still choose the tomatoes, which is a delicious contemplation. No zucchini this year; after years of growing them, I've decided that perhaps growing the least expensive food to be found at the Farmer's Market is not going to save me so much money as growing greens will. I'm hoping to put in some rainbow or red chard, some kale, and some green beans and a true herb garden this year. I've never done great with peppers, but may try some pepper plants in containers next to the tomatoes just in the interest of fun. Sunflowers, nasturtiums and zinnias are on my list for this year too. 

I like the chance to experiment, learn--even if it's a failed attempt, like growing peas up the forsythia-- and try again. Having one's own patch of soil allows this. After years of living in apartments, I had no idea how much versatility and joy are to be had in soil, and how much it can change. Over the last ten years I've been here in this little house, though, things have changed a lot. I'm hoping to put blueberries along the fence when our grapevines are gone and the plum tree--now, so obviously dying--is eventually removed.

Anyone need some Fall Gold raspberries? We've got a small abundance of canes... let me know....

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Privilege of Being Full of Herself- On Youth, Promise and What We Don't Know

Ah, certainty! I miss thee...

Tonight I get the treat of going to see a dear friend's daughter, Big Girl, perform in a recital of sorts for a trapeze and acrobatics class she's taking. I have a special affection for Big Girl because I've known her since the day she was born. In her fifteen years on the planet, I have watched her change so much, from a wee baby into a responsible, beautiful young lady. When I called to firm up plans for this evening, my friend laughingly observed that in anticipation of the performance, her daughter was "very full of herself today".

"Well, let her enjoy it while she can" was my reply.  I am sure it's a pain to many mothers--children who are full of themselves--but I expect my young friend will make it through the day tolerably enough. Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that being Full of One's Self is a privilege usually wasted on youth. Youth--which is probably intrinsic to even having that "full of oneself" feeling--is a blessing unknown to the young. They are always pushing the limits to feel older in some ways, whether that entails sneaking their 'cool' or 'sexy' clothes out of the house and putting on forbidden makeup in the bathroom at school or having the covert Facebook page or illicit smoking and drinking or rampant swearing... there's a reason that for that saying "youth is wasted on the young". Because it's true. 

I, on the other hand, cannot remember the last time I felt even the littlest bit 'full of myself' in any real capacity. If you believe I'm mistaken, please remember that I took three years of drama class in school and can certainly act the part of a confident woman. This worked especially well when I had to meet new prospective parents for my preschool or when I was a nanny, and I don't think anyone was disappointed later on. But the certainty which makes young people full of themselves--well, I can't say I have that. Not at all. When I look in the mirror, I am not seeing All That, I'm seeing a woman who needs a haircut and a more flattering pair of jeans. And a few more hours of sleep. Yeah, always that last one.

Unlike those young people going heads-up-and-chins-forward fearlessly into the future, I'm feeling more uncertain than I have in a long time. Part of it comes with being an adult and having dealt with real life challenges that many of our young people have never had to think about. (Age.) Another part of it comes with being a mom. (Current occupation.) Another whole other wrinkle comes with being a mom to a child of my son's age. (Stages of his development--where are we today?!) And lastly, of course, there's the final aspect of simply Being A Mom To THIS Kid. (think: unpredictable, random assortment of free radicals made into something cute and very lovable)

Does that narrow it down for you enough? 

Yesterday I was asked about my plans for going back to work. "Uhhhh...." That's a big one hanging up in the air. Yes, someday, for my own edification and sanity, I would like to go back to work. But in what capacity? Not being formally trained in my profession is a black mark against me, especially in a world that seems to blindly depend on degrees to qualify and quantify training and expertise. I'm exploring some options right now and am considering creating my own internship-- but all of this is on hold until after next year, when Kiddo goes to half-day kindergarten and we see how all of that shakes out. I have a very easily-distracted boy and who knows what public academic instruction in a group of 23 kids is going to look like? I also don't want to pull him away from his friends, but I do love the idea of homeschooling. My sister has three boys and schools until noon or so, and then they're free to do things their family is interested in for the rest of the day. Ah, so two strikes of uncertainty-- the possible job front and the educational future of The Kiddo. Not insignificant, huh?

Or what about just the day to day petty uncertainties we all face as parents? Sometimes it seems ridiculously simple, our dilemmas. We've all had those days when we look at our kids and we look at the grocery list and we wonder "Is it worth it? Is this trip to the store going to be worth it? Or am I just making eggs and rice for dinner because that's what we have here?". Of course, twenty minutes later, we also second-guess ourselves when they're grumpy and carping at us or each other anyway and then we say to ourselves  "It wouldn't have mattered, going to the store or not, because we're all miserable and now all we've got to look forward to is eggs and rice for dinner... and why oh why did I have kids?"

Or what about all that parenting advice out there? What about the hundreds of instances when our little one is upset and we stop and have to ask ourselves if what we are doing is right, is best, "is there any way to make this better"? What about those moments when you think that you did the best you could, and then you read something, somewhere, which basically says "Hey You, Mama-- You're doing it wrong. In fact, you're crapping it up big time." I think those articles need a little companion piece immediately following, something like this:

     "So, now that you've finished reading another article which has shined the sad spotlight on your pathetic parenting, let's talk. You aren't a bad parent. Heck, the fact that you are even reading these things is proof that you do care about your kids and that you don't think you know it all. You are hungry for knowledge, for new parenting tools.  You really are doing the best you can. Don't think so? Well, maybe you'll try better tomorrow. Don't worry, those other techniques you were using --don't think of that as messing your kid up, think of it as having more to improve on! Let's hold hands, now, here's a hug, I'll go make you a cup of tea and you can tell me all about it... I know it's hard..." 

I think these should be an obligatory offering every time the Wall Street Journal continues its attacks on mothers, telling us why everyone else in the world is doing it better. (Wall Street Journal, you suck in this regard. Give me something helpful, please. Something with less bias and more nuance. Something that doesn't start with "Why Any Other Country's Parents are So Much Better than You... Fool".)

Young people have all this promise ahead of them, it's theirs to squander. It really is. Even without directly comparing the Big Girl's upbringing--and that of her peers--to mine, there's still so much out there to be had for the first time. Jobs. Educational opportunities. Late nights out. Traveling. Sex. I think nearly everyone my age can say that all of these prospects, at some time or another, have been devastatingly disappointing. Yet, for many teens, those prospects haven't lost their candy-coating. Jobs are for spending money, not real bills; college is where you go to get away from your parents and fancy yourself a real 'grown-up'... the last three will change all through life, depending on our circumstances and the company we keep. Although, with the Late Night Out, I am usually certain to feel like crap the next morning--no ambiguities there. 

Certainty is the companion of the young; to me it is a fondly (or sometimes, uncomfortably) remembered friend from my past. Uncertainty and I have become much closer over the years, as I question myself and  know myself to be so much less than perfect or right.

I'm going to enjoy every minute, tonight, of seeing my friend and her daughter. They are truly like family to me. And perhaps  I should bless the uncertainties, too, because-- even when they depress the hell out of me at times-- they do keep me on my toes. Which means that I can stay limber in some of the right ways...without having to take a class in high-flying aerial acrobatics to do it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Pea House, the Plum Tree and More Fun Projects

Last autumn, Kiddo and I set out to build him a frame for a house, whatever sort of house he wanted to make it. I've learned that kids generally use their own creations more because of that sense of pride in ownership--their idea, brought to fruition. I did the grunt work he couldn't do, namely driving sticks and stakes into the ground and then lashing together a rather crude frame at the top to support a roof of whatever contrivance he chose. For the last month or so, there have been sticks across the top. It's been sweet to watch the juncos perch up there, so rustic. 

A couple of days ago we were outside, getting ready to plant peas. We had counted the seeds already indoors (101 in the packet, Territorial Seed Company's Oregon Sugar 2 Snow Peas, a dwarf variety) and figuring the 1" thinning distance, we measured out for about 108" across the grass. This gave Kiddo an idea of how long the line for planting needed to be. I'd planned on putting them all in a line, a gentle arc that would leave enough room for 'traffic' from the sandbox and just skirt the wooden twig house. Instead, Kiddo told me he wanted to use the peas for the walls of his house. What a great idea, and this was his project, so I just took orders. Together, we dug out the sod, removed the grass roots, and then mixed in some compost. Afterward, long lines of the white peas were carefully spaced and covered with a blanket of the rich soil.  It was a lot of fun; the peas are planted along the three most southern sides of his house, with a western wall added as a screen, to ensure it gets full sun as well. He's had a lot of fun watering it with his little can and digging a random hole near that area. 

He's also been climbing our now-dying plum tree. I've decided that since it's so low to the ground, if he falls off this tree in our yard, he's probably not going to be too horribly injured. It's a risk I'm willing to take. I need to let him fall sometimes, so that he'll understand things about climbing trees or putting himself in potentially riskier situations. He was a hoot up in that tree, I must say. He's testing his limits and it's nice to watch. I have to just stay back, turn my back from time to time and focus on the weeding and let him take some chances...

We're all excited about the prospect of taking a family vacation in a few weeks. We've already done the paper chain, and I've decided that letting him remove as many links as he wants is a great invitation to checking the wall calendar, counting the links, figuring if the numbers are equal and then counting how many we need to replace and doing that. Learning experience. We've also made another calendar for the wall with days of the week on it. He can put a sticker on that day at bedtime or at another regular time. 

All of this happens so fast--this craving of his to learn more, to master all this information. I see increasing frustration in some things, and I realize that if I want to encourage his writing, he's the kind of kid who needs someone to sit down with him and show him the way to do it.  Making a mental note to go to Learning Palace to get some lined writing paper (you know, with the ruled lines and dotted lines in the middle), I realized I need to show him where each letter goes. He's not a kid who is just happy to do it all over the place and intuitively; he wants to know how it is supposed to be. 

Ah, Maria Montessori,  methinks you built a whole educational philosophy on that last sentence. 

We're also going to make a cushion for his neat little Adirondack chair that our friend Mikel made for him. He has a quarter-yard panel of an orchestral instruments-themed print fabric I gave him at Christmas which we'll use  for the project. He can help with measuring, cutting the fabric on chalk lines--this is where a knee-pedal sewing machine has it's drawbacks, because he's too big to sew with me any more, due to the cabinet on my machine. Old 50's Singers have their drawbacks, but I've got all the cogs so I'm not too bad off. We finished a dinosaur pillow a bit ago, which was also a project for me as well. The seat cushion will be a nice 'thing to do' today (because now, it is Monday morning...hello Daylight Savings Time...yawn).

And my next project should be a cup of tea. I think Kiddo's next project is going to be making a 'slingshot' with those huge rubber bands one gets from the produce section and a box of multi-colored bread tabs which, like many a preschool teacher, I save compulsively. You never know what you can do with bread tabs, ha ha, although I expect I know what I'll be doing with them later on today--picking them up from all over the house! Ta ta...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tough, Tough Love

Sometime yesterday and today, I decided enough was enough. I say 'yesterday and today' because when one has a wisp of an idea niggling at them, sometimes it doesn't come on all at once. Rarely are epiphanies --and this is less Dramatic Epiphany and more of a Gradual Realization--fully formed. Instead, the better discoveries sometimes reveal themselves in a slower, more thorough fashion.

Let me say, before diving in, that I have a son who is a relatively sweet, neat Kiddo. He can set a pleasant table for dinner. He's a good companion and helper in the kitchen and the garden. I like going on walks with him, I love his enthusiasm and wonder for the natural world and all the stuff that goes on on the neighborhood around him. I love the things he keeps track of, like what sorts of plants are on display in the planter box outside the flower shop (he loves collecting the fallen blooms), or how much work has been done on the neighborhood planter swale, or the fungus and burls growing on certain trees. All of this adored and aside...

Being a parent, sometimes you see a problem with your kid and decide, "I'm gonna own this... or at least my part in this." Lately, our two biggest problems seem to occur when we are  in situations where other children are doing these things--running off or misbehaving in public--and are either getting away with them, or getting a lot of attention for it. Unfortunately, the attention Kiddo usually sees other kids getting is often the wheedling, coaxing, 'reasoning with and negotiating'  kind instead of the immediate "these are the limits" corrections which need to take place. When problems come in this sort of package--emboldened to disobey by peers who are making disobedience 'work' for them (either by being allowed to continue to disobey or being given way too much power in the relationship by mom or dad) --the more simple problem becomes a two-pronged problem: Them and Us. 

First, let me say this: To the "Them"-- you are making the job more difficult for many of us. Harder. Stop asking your children if they will be compliant. Stop using your 'nice' voice  when it should be stern--you are not their concierge, you are their parent. Do not try to talk them into minding; expect that they should mind.  And stop looking at me like I grew an arm out of my head when I'm actually doing my job by expecting my child to behave.  Just stop it now. Stop looking at me--I'm not the one making a scene. Look at your own kid. They need your attention, not me. 

Now, to my part in this: No matter if all the other parents let their kids jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, mine doesn't get permission to do that.  And this is what he has to learn--Even if everyone else is doing stupid stuff, you are expected to behave.

Yesterday I picked up Kiddo from his preschool and he did what many other kids do-- he ran off and away from me. When I called him back, he ran into a neighboring yard and hid in the bushes, something he's seen other children do and which he knows he is not allowed to do. So when I called him back and he didn't come, I began counting at a reasonable pace. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. 

In that moment I decided that this was going to mean six minutes off of our twenty-minute story-time for bedtime. And then the light bulb went off in my head: every time he didn't come back immediately when I called him, I'd start counting and he'd lose minutes. I'm not worried about his 'literacy' reading time; we read plenty during the day, especially at afternoon snack times, usually a chapter of something good. The bedtime story-time is gravy for him, he looks forward to it. Tonight, we had a six minute story-time because of a couple 'not stopping and coming back' moments. Tomorrow might be the same, who knows? It may take a few weeks, but we'll get there. And I'm not going to let the fact that other children get a lot of gentle discussion dissuade me from doing my job. He knows the rules, and enough is enough. (Admittedly, for some kids, holding my hand the rest of the way home would have been a lesson enough. Not him...he loves holding hands, and I love it too, so it's not the logical consequence it might be for some children, it's a treat.)

I reached the same conclusion about going out to meals at restaurants. We aren't going to do that for a couple weeks at least, maybe a month, maybe longer...who knows? There's no reason I should be having to have a 'get your stuff straightened out' conversation with him while I'm out for a meal. So, when he asks to go out for the next few weeks, we're just going to tell him no, and why. This will likely be harder on Joe and I (what parent doesn't like a change of scenery or a break on making dinner?), but we feel that we are going to have better behavior in the long run. He is nearly five and we think it's reasonable that he can sit with us, do some fun activities with some of our attention and assistance,  and use good manners and behavior. He's done it before and we expect it of him, even if other kids are allowed to do as they please. We don't want our son to be considered a little jerk when he's out as an older kid, so we're going to do the work now, before 'it isn't cute anymore'-- because it never was in the first place.

Lastly, I'm coming to the realization that Kiddo has had access to more toys in his short life than I did in my entire childhood. (This is due having collected up a lot of neat stuff over my years spent as a toddler and preschool teacher.) Tomorrow while he's at school I'm going to do a strategic clearing out of the available toys. Lately I've noticed that when he's experimenting or upset, he's become pretty reckless with some of his belongings. I've already laid down the law that any toy which breaks due to his being careless or angry with it is not going to be replaced by us.  He will just have to make do until he saves up money for a replacement himself. When he's five, in a month or so, we'll start him on a $1 a week allowance so that he has a chance to learn about money in a way that he can understand. (Thanks, Amanda, for the advice you gave us on this subject. You are endlessly awesome, sis.) In this way, by not valuing his toys 'for him', we create a situation where the consequence for his actions lands right square in his lap. When they are my preschool toys, any abuse results in the toy simply being packed away again. Heck, I paid a lot of money for my instructional toys and puzzles--they are not community property. 

So, little steps at a time. In some ways, I guess this means that I'm beginning to 'peer-proof' my son, teaching him that our family's values are different from those of others, and guiding him along a path which I think will serve him better in the long run.  Truthfully, it's often very uncomfortable to be That Mom, the one which goes against the grain, when everyone is letting the kids do as they wish. It's like having a scarlet letter on my forehead. But there are good reasons why I have to do this socially-awkward job of saying "no" when many others are saying "yeah, whatever", and I hope that I can show other parents that "no" is what their children need. What they crave. Limits. Guidance. The belief that their parent won't let them go too, too far down the wrong path before calling them back and saying "that was a wrong path, now, let me show you the right one". Those moments can be hard for us, but it's better than letting them go down that path and having that unspoken question hanging there for all to see~ "Don't they even care?"

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

You Don't Have to Solve the Problem For Them--Just Be There

Some days, you just don't know. What's eating them? Why all the existential angst? What do we do when we don't know quite what or how to answer their upset and frustrations?

I think, oftentimes, just being there for our kids--with open ears, an open mind and a very open heart--might be enough. And thank goodness it is... 

Here are three short stories~

Story One. This Morning. "Damn."

Story One is almost silly and not very exciting, but it just shows me how my thinking and Kiddo's thinking about things really aren't the same. 

I'm in the shower this morning. Kiddo is playing in his room, then suddenly is in the bathroom. I hear "Mama" then some sad-angry grumbling. I peek my head out from behind the shower curtain to see a downhearted face. "Could you tell me that again? I couldn't hear you."

He looks up into my eyes. "Mama, I am so mad I want to say 'damn'."

"Oh? What's going on?" 

"My marble race is not working and I want to say 'damn' because I'm mad." 

"Oh, I see. That sounds like a problem. Hmmm...."

and before I can even think to say anything about it, he perks up and says "I could make another one." Great idea. And off he goes...*

Story Two. Last Week Wednesday. The Evening from H-E-Double-Toothpicks.

It's one of those evenings, when everyone's a bit tired and all the patience I have left has been spent on events that amount to penny-candy in the grand scheme of things. But Joe really wanted to go out for pizza and Kiddo had pulled out all the stops to behave during the afternoon because he wanted this dinner out as well. Which turned out to be No Fun For Anyone. Part of this was due to the family in the booth next to us, who felt it was okay for their son to pull decorations off the wall, bang them on our (then-empty) side of the booth, and to allow their kid to be pretty  much hanging out and in our faces without so much as a "no" being uttered. Of course, Kiddo interprets this as a gold-plated invitation to eschew his manners and thus begins the slow downward spiral. 

This, of course, is exacerbated emotionally (for me) by the parents in that neighboring booth, who look at me like I am totally bitching out and riding my son's butt on the manners.  Nonetheless, letting Kiddo stand on the seat of the booth or grab things out of my hand doesn't fly for me, so we go outside and have a matter-of-fact "If we have to go home because you choose not to use good manners, that will ruin the dinner for Daddy and I, and You Will Be Going Straight To Bed" conversation. When I return, I am now getting the unabashed "that mother is a holy terror" look from the other booth, as their son continues to take things off the wall...

At home, the bedtime routine goes a little better and then we are in bed, stories have been read.  He's off to the bathroom for one last potty break...but he doesn't come out. And doesn't come out. I don't want to rush him, so after five minutes I go in to check on him

and find him laying on the floor, flopping around, grinning. "Hi Mama. Look at." 

Really?  I was done. Done. Done. Done.
I told him to get in bed and Goodnight. No songs. No cuddles. Just go to bed. "I'll check on you in a bit" I reassured him, and turned off the light. "It's time for you to go to sleep."

Fifteen minutes later I'd had some time to cool my head off, and I peeked around his door. Usually he was asleep, but not tonight.

"Mama, I don't feel good."

"What's the problem?" my voice was still a bit brusque. Fifteen minutes doesn't nullify the last two hours of hardcore nonsense, not to mention the starter course of b.s. that I'd dealt with that morning.

"I don't like that you didn't sing the song."

"You didn't like that, huh?" my tone softened and was more empathetic. Instead of re-explaining why it happened or defending my actions, I just neutrally agreed with what he was feeling--no songs and no cuddles wasn't a pleasant way to end the day. I understand this deep in my bones: as a child, when my own mother was mad at me, she wouldn't come in to kiss me goodnight or check on me. This happened enough for me to know the gut-twisting anxiety of "I'm so bad, she doesn't even want to kiss me" . From there, it's a very short leap to "She doesn't love me", which is the worst way to fall asleep.  Which is why I leaned over, kissed him and said:

"We'll try it again tomorrow. We had a hard evening, and I still love you very, very  much. Have good dreams and I'll see you in the morning." 

"Will you check on me again?"

I did. Five minutes later, he was snoring peacefully. His problem-- of being aware of his mistakes and of my disapproval, of needing to reconnect and know I still loved him--was solved, just because I'd bothered to check in.

Story Three. Last Tuesday night. Swords and Guns.

One of those pleasant evenings. Bedtime had gone smoothly, stories were read, our song was sung. Ten minutes later I went to use the bathroom (which is next to Kiddo's room) and he called out "Mom. I need you to come lay with me."

Two minutes later, I was in his room. "What do you need?"

"I'm scared. I don't want to fall asleep."

"Oh? What are you worried about?"

"I am afraid of dinosaurs eating people." His voice was small and upset. Ah, this was a serious one, this worry. It wasn't that he thought it would happen, he was afraid he'd dream about it, which means he must have been thinking about it. I lay down on the bed and cuddled up to him.

"You know what, sweetie, I can understand that. If there were really dinosaurs alive right now, that would be very frightening to think about. And it would be smart to be scared about it." I hugged him and he was quiet. "I know that you know there are no scary dinosaurs alive right now. Are you worried you are going to dream about it?" He said yes, he was. 

"Well, if this happened in your dream, what could you do?"

"I could get a gun and a sword and I could kill it." 

"Wow. That would be very, very brave of you. And would that work for you?"

It was then that Kiddo created a new, alternate Very Brave Story to replace his anxieties. He became a powerful dinosaur slayer, protecting one and all. I snuggled him up a little more and told him what a brave plan he had made and that he could use it tonight in his dreams.

Suddenly, I felt him tense up. "Is it okay to have a gun and a sword to fight?" 

"You know, sweetie, it is a gun and a sword in your dreams. And you are using them to protect. That is really okay, because we know dreams are like pretend. It would be a problem if you had a gun and a sword in real life, because you could hurt someone or yourself with those things. But in dreams, they are fine. And you have a good plan, too.  I'll lay here with you for a while--go to sleep now."

Sometimes, it's just the Being There. To hear their complaint--just so someone they love knows. Knows how hard it is to be a kid sometimes. Sometimes, it's to check in and let them know that no matter how challenging a day is for everyone, that they are indeed very, very loved-- that we love them no matter what, and that their mistakes do not make them unlovable. And sometimes, it's a calm presence, a   listening ear, and space to talk out anxieties and make a plan, just in case the feared nightmare does come to play out on the dream-screen inside one's head. For a child, I think it's a powerful knowledge, to know that someone who loves them will listen, will make a space for them in their times of need or frustration...I think that this gives a child the support of what Abraham Mazlow** called "Being Love" (that we love them just for their own existence) and helps the child to move with confidence toward the next level, which is competency, trusting in their own skills and abilities to solve their own problems in ways that work for them. When they come up with their own answers, their own solutions--this is a powerful experience for them. And it takes a the burden off of us as parents. 

Besides --do you want to be the designated problem solver for the rest of your child's life? Not me!

*In case you were wondering, we are not cool with Kiddo swearing or cursing. However, this was about the level of his feeling of frustration,  (so big he wanted to use a very strong, even wrong, word)  and my correcting him would have gotten him off track from solving his first, very real problem of the marble race. Had I censured him instead of listening, the problem would have grown more frustrating for him--I would have been attending to the distraction of what had been said, but not what was meant--and would likely have rendered him to feeling even more incapable of dealing with the challenge.

Listening without prejudice as a parent is a challenge at times, to know what to attend to and what to let pass along without comment.  Had Kiddo been cursing at someone or something, I would have certainly responded differently. But to say that one is so mad they want to use forbidden words--well,  that's something else entirely.

**Are you familiar with Abraham Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs? Read more about it.

The Wiki is actually the most useful version of this I could find.  JoAnne Nordling has reframed this into The Child's Staircase of Needs in her book "Taking Charge: Caring Discipline That Works at Home and At School." This Staircase is always on my cupboard door, a welcome reminder for me and a quick reference.

And a quote by Mazlow~
"I wanted to make science consider all the problems that nonscientists have been handling— religion, poetry, values, philosophy, art. I went about it by trying to understand great people, the best specimens of mankind I could find."

Friday, March 2, 2012

On Middle-Aged Mothering

There's a conventional wisdom which suggests that having one's children while being a younger person is preferrable to having them when one is an 'older' person. I've tried to Google up a nice quote on this, however, my pc is too PC and won't supply me with some nice, witty quip. Instead, I've been confronted by this peanut gallery:

First, the musings of 30 Rock star Tracey Morgan: 
     "You've got society telling young boys and girls not to have kids. I grew up with my kids. I wasn't 50 years-old when I decided to have my child so I can't play because I've got arthritis or we don't listen to the same music, we don't relate ... No, have your children when you're young and grow."

Anyone on board with this knucklehead? (Who, by the way, I love on t.v.)  Apparently so....

one poster concurs: "I'm not saying TOO young, I'm saying like 25-30 range, because then you can actually PLAY with your kids. Young kids need an active parent, not someone who has to sit down after 20 minutes because their back aches."  

Advil, anyone? Doan's Back Pills?

Followed by this bit of thoughtful advice: "Yes you should be young enough to have fun and enjoy them. It would have been good to be more settled in my career and for us to have had more money but we got by and I was able to spend a lot of time with my boys." (Less insulting but still a bit of a narrow view.)

and lastly, some wisdom for the ages:
     "YES! Have them when you're young and stupid, (like I did) so at least you can keep up with them!"

First, let me say that I don't take any of this to heart for myself. There's a little bit of truth there, in that it is harder to chase a child around than it used to be. However, I am also mature enough to have the patience and smarts to get a child to come to me instead of chasing them. I think this sort of smarts has to count for something. Perhaps it's because I'm an older parent (and not so inclined to running) that my son learned early on: any runaway attempts won't end up in a repeated game of "Mama chases me when I run away", instead, he had a mandatory invitation to sit in the stroller because "when Mama calls you back over,  you come right away". 

And really, how much of one's 'parenting' is spent running? Unless you are an athlete and enjoy chasing your tyke around, running does not require youth or even glowing health. I don't particularly care for the activity of running, but this is due to an inherited tendency to roll my ankles, not aging. Besides, we have a No Running In the House rule. And safety gates. Safety gates limit the amount of ground they can cover and not get hurt on stairs or a woodstove. I've got four gates in our house and yes, I am a genius because I have created a situation where I rarely have to run after my child. See how that works? Forethought, maturity and wisdom get the slam-dunk on this one. 

I think we need to reassess the advantages of having children a bit later in life. I am glad that Joe and I had Kiddo as older parents. Everyone has their own life stories, their own family histories...mine precludes being a younger mom, for so many good reasons. I feel lucky, really. Being an older parent, I had a chance to get my personal life a bit more squared away. My career informs my work as a  parent, so that's another point in my favor--everything I've learned as a nanny and preschool teacher brings a 'plus' to my relationship with my son. Joe and I also had five years together before becoming parents. This gave us a lot of time to really learn about each other, and while parenting is never an easy undertaking for any couple, I think we did better than we would have done, had Kiddo come along sooner. 

We also have an added bonus in life experience. We've had time to live, to decide what's important to us. For Joe, who's been around the world and back again, the early nights at home rarely give him a sense that he's missing out. We've done the Late Nights Out at clubs or movies, the Art Parties, the Poetry Happenings, the party-all-weekend camping trips... and we know what we've traded away, becoming (hopefully, responsible) parents. We miss being more available to our friends, and to be truthful, I miss those uninterrupted-by-kids conversations we could have before. But there's something more rich in our lives, a child who makes us know how necessary we are, even if only to him--but also to each other. Before Kiddo, Joe and I would joke to each other "No matter what, we'll always have cribbage." Nearly five years after having Kiddo, it's easy to see how much his addition to our family gives to us as a couple. We have more structure, we are comfortable going at the slower kid-pace, and we get a chance to learn things anew, be they dinosaurs, creatures of the tidepool, the names and nomenclature of every.single.big.machine. All of this enriches us as human beings. Learning better ways of parenting challenges us to look at ourselves and our own habits anew, to reexamine what we've taken for granted about ourselves and each other. 

Some of my best moments come from seeing Joe, so tall, holding hands with Kiddo as they walk, or scooping him up for a big hug and kiss goodnight. Seeing this big man, who so captivated me with his poetry and exuberant gregarious manner--seeing him snuggle our son makes me so thankful that he's the guy who I'm doing this 'family thing' with. I like that he is an older guy as a parent, that he's happy to be responsible and to wait until after the bedtime routine before going out to meet friends or watch 'grown-up tv'. Perhaps this sort of consideration is brought to us courtesy of age and Time Spent On Earth and life experience? I can't say that for sure, but I believe it is the case with us. 

None of this is meant to be critical of the younger parents, by the way. I just know that I would have made a lousy younger parent. We are happy to be 'older parents'. My family keeps me centered. Grateful. Thankful for how things are right here, right now, as a middle aged mama. Tracy Morgan may be right in stating that you get to grow up with your kids, but for me, I think that would have been the silver lining, not the sunshine. I am glad I was grown up enough to feel good being the parent, and that while I'm not going to be hip to all of Kiddo's favorite bands or movies, I don't have to be. He'll have friends to share that with--my job is to be The Mom. Not the Hip Mom or the Cool Mom, just Kiddo's Mom. I like the separateness of our ages and I'm comfortable with this. I might not be a spring chicken. I might end up being a bit like Crazy Mom, when he's in his mid-teens and menopause fully descends upon my being. But heck, every kid needs a few Crazy Mom stories to grow up with and share, right? It's perfect timing, because he'll be a teen and teens are supposed to be annoyed with their old, square parents. It's called separation, right?When they begin to discover that they don't want to stay at home with these "cool people" forever, but maybe get some education or a job and get the hell out of there?  I'm glad to be a grown-up before I took on this big jumble of love, responsibility, frustration and joy.