Friday, July 13, 2012

The Present Tense: Letting our Children Enjoy Today

"When should I tell my young child that we're pregnant?" was one of the questions I ran across today on the Mamaworldforum. An excited mom of a three year old was wondering when it would be most helpful to share the news with her son, and wanted advice on helping him transition. Good for her for asking.

I typed in my own story and opinion: I was nannying for two families when I became pregnant, and I'd asked the parents not to share the good news until the kids began to ask questions. A part of this was informed by past disappointments, because I do think we need to keep kids lives easier, and for young children, miscarriage and death can be very confusing. A larger part, though, was out of respect for our present situations and relationships. For one family, I'd nannied since their eldest was 4 months old. She was then entering kindergarten, but I'd always been around as her nanny. For the other, I'd come on to work with their youngest when she was nine months old and had become pregnant the summer before she turned three. Nonetheless, they were my Special Ones, in their eyes as well as mine. Through September and October, and even most of November, I kept quiet about the baby to the children, until one day one of them asked why I was "looking fat", the way kids will.

"Oh, well, I'm growing a baby in there." I explained. Over the next month, the children began to occasionally ask questions to remind themselves of the upcoming baby, although some small part of me began to suspect the older ones just liked to ask why I was fat, because it was a safe situation to ask that question in. But we didn't tell the children I was leaving as their nanny until about a week or so before it happened. I began to get things in order for the other nannies who would be coming into their lives, and reminded the children that I would still see them from time to time. This was true: one family lives in my neighborhood; and the little girl who was nearly three, I would provide aftercare for once she'd started preschool, when Kiddo was 5 months old. Even in this short amount of time, the children wanted a lot of reassurance and asked the same question repeatedly, as if they were trying to take it all in: When was I leaving?

It took me a day or two before I realized that they wanted the waiting period to be over, for me to go already, to not be in anticipation of my leaving, but for me to have gone already so that they could get on with processing this. And more importantly, so they could just get on with things.

I'm glad, now, that I had waited so long to share the baby news, because those children didn't have to share me with the new baby until I had nearly actually left. Their attention wasn't distracted from our time together, and they got to feel like the special ones in my life for a little longer. I realized through that experience that by choosing not to tell them I was leaving, by not choosing to focus on my anxieties about their transitions regarding my going, I had saved them from a lot of anxiousness and worry about the future. Instead of having our interactions colored with preparing the children for this change, even as significant as it was, I let them be in their own present tense space and honored our time in the here and now with attending to what they needed, not what I was worried about.

It's been over five years since then, and I'm still convinced I made the correct decision. What has been brought to my attention, over time, is that those of us "present tense" parents are in a minority of sorts. It seems to fly in the face of the more popular parenting practices and isn't considered savvy. Just as our current educational model, the Common Core Standards, picks a certain standard of education to be attained by the senior year of high school and is working backward to achieve that goal (throwing all we know about developmental levels of readiness in learning to the wind), I discover that we parents are sometimes following this very example. We worry so much about our children doing well later that we forget to let them enjoy the here and now.

We are good parents, and we are concerned about the big transitions our children must face. We worry that when the time comes, our children will be woefully unprepared. That they will be upset, or not know how to face the next challenge that comes up, be it that first weekend staying with Grandma or starting kindergarten. We warn our kids for weeks that 'pretty soon, no more binky' or 'in three more days, no more diapers. You'll be a big kid in underwear!' In our adult minds, we love a long heads-up before changes happen, and to an adult mind which understands Past, Present and Future, forewarning allows us to collect our ducks, get them in a row, and quack them into the upcoming situation, ha ha. For kids who don't even have all the names for their days of the week, though, too much warning can be simply confusing or anxiety-inducing.

Preparations: When Less is More

The kindergartener I cared for, too, was another good example of why too much transition time can be too much of a good thing. Everyone talked up this Big New Change of Kindergarten to her, and the fall-out was that we spent most of her summer at home. She began declining playdate invitations with friends, and even refused outings to  her favorite places like the park or the library. So much had been made of what was happening in September that by July she was more or less a quivering mass when she had to leave the house to go anywhere. The anxiety became so great that when September finally rolled around, starting school was traumatic for her. She'd invested so much emotional energy all summer into being focused on this unfamiliar new teacher and school-- and so much time had gone by before it actually would start--that the well-meant discussions which were supposed to help reassure her and prepare her for this transition ended up compounding her own sense of fear. The adults had been so concerned about preparing her for a smooth transition that she's sensed their own underlying fears that she might not accept this change easily and internalized it into her own fear for herself.

This sort of response, of quasi-agorophobia, is very common with many to-be kindergarteners, I've come to discover. They see a big change coming down the pike and retreat.

There's a fine balance between over-preparing children for change, and not preparing them enough. As a caregiver, I always spent at least one or two visits with a family to play with the children before coming on as their all-day nanny. I shadowed their caregivers for a day, just to see how things were done, to get a sense of the rhythms of their day and how things were. While we always had a transition time of a few months, just as preschools do, I knew we couldn't do the work of making it perfect ahead of time. It had to be done in the present, with the children, in the moment. These adjustments sometimes looked messy; sometimes we had hard days just getting used to each other in all the ways children and adults do. But there's no way to do it in advance, because kids are in the present, and what's required of them during times of change is just too abstract for them to understand until they are in that present space and doing it.

As a preschool teacher, I have noticed a trend over the past few years that I hadn't previously, when several parents I interviewed were looking for a program that would make their child "kindergarten ready"*. By this, they wanted a reassurance that I would teach their child to read and write and do many, many other things that kindergarteners learn to do in kindergarten. There's a mistaken belief that a child must be prepared to be in a large group of children, in an academic setting, so that kindergarten will somehow be a failsafe adventure for their children. Never mind that most of us in my age went to kindergarten with hardly any preschool experience, and that we might have just come from a smaller family home, and still excelled because we had teachers who taught us materials that were appropriate to our level of learning and development. I wonder if it's our overwhelming cultural message of "prepare, prepare, prepare so that our child can't help but succeed" is actually keeping parents distracted from the iniquities of schools who push children too young to know material that is too old for their natural inclinations and capacities for learning, and I think this has produced the overly-concerned "helicopter parenting" phenomenon of recent years.

Instead of pushing back at  legislators who craft these faulty educational standards and demanding a program of accelerated learning at the right stages and ages of our children's development, we push our children to perform to an increasingly-higher bar.

All of this seems crazymaking to me. There are better ways for our kids. This is one very real reason the homeschooling movement is taking off. Enough parents are saying "enough". They want their kids to learn, and they want them to have a childhood too.

Living, Here and Now

My sister Amanda gave me a great Present Tense tip once. She was planning a drive into Portland with her three boys, and was hoping to take them to OMSI.

"Are the boys excited?" I'd asked.

"Oh, I'm not telling them until we get there." she replied, and then told me why she decided to keep outings like these as surprises. Suppose a child got sick on the way there, or the boys were tired or feeling disagreeable, or she thought better of taking three grumpy wiggle-worms out to a crowded, stimulating public place? Better to keep it a surprise than for the children to have to spend the next day or two upset and disappointed. She's a great mom who doesn't need to make not going to OMSI the punishment for being tired.... kids get tired and disagreeable sometimes, and it's not always something within their control. Knowing that the trip into town would already be a stretch for the boys, she did a gracious thing as a parent and let them have their experience without the distractions of possible outings or obligations to 'be good'. She just let them be.

*None of them enrolled, by the way. The thought of a play-based preschool was counter to their academic goals for their children. I still don't know if this is because they had no trust in my as a teacher when I explained the value of play-based learning, or if they had so much anxiety regarding readiness and felt their children didn't need to play, they needed to learn.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Garage Sales, Growing Up, and Letting Go

I shouldn't be doing this. This. This writing thing. What should I be doing right now?

Three loads of laundry are calling "fold me"...
The hallway floor and rug--heck, all the floors scream silently "vacuum me, already!" They say nothing but give me dirty, dust-bunny glares...
The dishes sigh in the sink, waiting patiently. They are calmer than the rest, knowing through experience that they will be washed before dinnertime...
Bits of life, various and sundry,  all stretch out their imaginary arms like little children, calling "pick me up, put me away"...
Compost waiting on the counter longs to go out and play with the other decomposing cousins in their communal bin, the celery trimmings and colorful Swiss chard stems and long skinny carrot peelings, sweet apple cores...

And that's just the stuff on the inside. That's not even touching the garage sale coming up in two weeks and the big toy clean-out that's happening. 

Waking up this morning, the pile of work indoors which needs to be done seems not tremendous-- I think onerous is a better word. I had a hearty breakfast and shower while Kiddo created a crane with Lego blocks, interrupting me only to ask if I had a hook for it. Last weekend we found a plastic bag of probably Star Wars Legos, but we didn't tell him this. They are just Legos. We do not plan on buying him any kits; only loose ones, for a very long time. Kits are frustrating; they require mindless obedience to the plan to make the specific item on the box. I'm all for imagination. There will be plenty of opportunities for unswerving devotion to someone else's ideas--or maybe he'll be like me, thinking outside the box, taking all the ideas and mixing them up like some sort of crazy fruit salad which still tastes good with balanced flavors.  

With all this progress, though, comes change. After five years, the unit blocks I borrowed from a dear Auntie friend are going back, along with a few other sets of blocks. I will miss the unit blocks, but it's time to help Kiddo move up and beyond, and he will have some in his kindergarten classroom.  He is getting older and his construction is moving smaller, more intricate. This morning he also asked me for springs. Springs? Too busy packing lunch, I didn't ask him what he needed a spring for, but will later. 

Today offers richness and a sense of sadness, in a way. Today, we have fun plans for making pesto this afternoon. We will find a hook to finish Kiddo's crane and there's a bowl filled with water, paper-punched circles and curled bits of scotch tape-- it is waiting for food coloring and then to be placed in the freezer to be yet another ice sculpture. Fun. What's a little sad today, though, it the heart-tug of the absence of my mother. My crazy mother who cannot be with us for everyone's own good. I wonder, if she were well, would she just adore Kiddo? What would she think of our disheveled little house, the place I've lived longest in my life? Ten years here, and ten years of no contact, and so much has changed.  Even with the work that pulls at me, I am truly happy here, happier than any moment in the thirty years of my life before this life, this one that allows me to breathe without fear. 

There are times when I just want to tell her "I am so proud." Proud and sad. Proud to have made it this far despite everything I was up against,  sad at what it took to do so. Sad not to be able to share the richness, to have her over for dinner to eat that pesto on some pasta with Swiss Chard from the garden or to savor the golden raspberries, so prolific in the corner of the backyard. Some would say I could call this a triumph, victory over the old misery my life was. I don't think of it as winning, though, I think of it as starting anew, back at square one. 

When I was thirty, I learned for the first time what it was like to truly love. To be open and defenseless and to rely on someone else. Throwing my lot in with Joe's was enormous. I was nearly thirty when I learned empathy, and what it was to care for a person and relate to them without throwing your perspective or opinions or advice all over their situation. To just be quiet and sit with them, to listen and validate without fixing, to just be sad together. These are things babies learn through their parents, things kids learned growing up.  So when I say it's not a victory, I mean that really, truly. Who, as an adult, wants to go back to START? We don't even like doing it when we play a game, but that's what it takes sometimes. Going back to start and doing the hard stuff, but doing it right.

And I am lucky. I got my life back while I still have time to live it and enjoy it. Not every day is perfect, there is always the mundane, tedious stuff. And I miss my mom. I feel sad that I have a sister who has such a hard time talking to me, because we have only disaster in common. I miss my little brother, who is probably right in keeping distance, because I am sure it makes his life easier. But I don't miss the old life. I just wish I could share the one I have now.

I shouldn't be doing this, dumping out my heart today, but this is what one does when one is in mind to prepare for a garage sale...  you sort through the boxes, dump it out, examine it all, and keep what you need, what you love and what you can use. And you let the rest go. Whether it is sold, donated, or just ends up in the free box, it really doesn't matter. Take  your hands off of it and release it to its own fate....

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Reading of the Books

Tonight, I am reading the children's books we checked out from the library. Kiddo only wanted to look for dinosaur books, but I sent him first to the open bins of picture books while I perused as well. "Go look at the books. Look at the pictures and if you are interested in the picture, let's get it." We've been focused primarily on prehistoric  reptiles for a while now, and I know he likes poetry and good stories,  so I try to encourage him to broaden his horizons. He chose Jan Ormerod's "Moonlight" because the cover shows a sleeping child with a dinosaur poster on the wall. After looking through the book, he came back and handed the book to me. "This is NOT a dinosaur book." he stated firmly, as though it were unacceptable purely for that reason. 

Kids. Ha.

I choose children's stories based on a few questions: can he relate to the story in some way, even if it is a stretch? Is the content going to be something he can slip into? How is the language? Does the writing respect the child's intellect and person? What is the illustration quality like? 

My husband and I were poets first, lovers second, and much later, spouses. We met in the realm of poetry. A certain quality of writing is important, respectful. It's not just some some weird standard-- by nature, we value good writing. This might sound a bit fanatical, but I don't want to serve my child literary junk foods. He can choose that himself, when he's learned to read.

To me, it's like building a wall of solid, good materials and then letting the child put their inane fan poster on it. The inane fan poster is temporary, the wall is permanent.

I read the books because there are some which look great, but are too deep in content. One story ," On Sand Island" by Jacqueline Briggs Martin is a collection of story-poems, wonderful in it's rich, descriptive language and warm illustrations. But the death of the main character's mother informs so many of the poems, I want to save this for when he's older. The rest, I find suitable in the best ways...

I read the books to know that the messages my child is getting or the situations in the stories do not inflame insecurities.  Sometimes the content of a story can raise insecurities regarding new situations or exacerbate existing fears. For example, if a child is entering kindergarten or a new school, books about potential conflict in these settings might only serve to raise anxieties, depending on the actions of the players and how the resolution is reached. Instead of trying to prepare children for new experiences through sometimes-daunting theoretic examples,  I'd prefer to let Kiddo live his life without a lot of preconceived notions and to work with him to help make sense and give context to new situations as they come. Little kids are on the job learners; and as I've said before, they do better  being allowed to experience new situations with an open mind and parental support.  Why expect them to cognitively understand an experience they haven't quite had yet? How can we truly know Paris until we've been there? How can a child have ease and peace about the unknown until they've come to know it in person?

I read the books to see my own values reflected in the stories. Any parent who doesn't choose books for their children this way is really missing out on an opportunity to shape and inform the children we love. 

I read Kiddo's library books because the well-chosen stories are one way of leaving my mark on him. Every parent hopes to do this in the good, little ways, be it a shared interest or an ideology or belief. I hope my son grows up to be a tolerant, literate, intelligent person. I believe that he will figure out his way  through life by working hard, by being willing to grow as a person, even in the hard ways or those which require personal discipline, and by being the nice person he usually is,. He helps us to feel good about ourselves by asking for our company and smiling at us and trying to help. He is a relatively kind person. He thinks a lot. I know, because he asks a lot of questions.

So I read the books because I love him. I'm still wanting to make the magic elixir of happiness for him. I can't mindlessly be his cheerleader, I need to let him have a good idea of what the world really is like, but right now I still have the time to show him examples of the wonder of nature, how marvelous it is when people (or characters) treat each other well, with love and respect.  There's plenty of time for real conflict-- heck, he experiences this at preschool and sometimes during playtimes with friends. He knows that the world can be a confusing place; that a friend's parents and his own might have different rules; that teachers can be strict and that there is a time and a place for most everything and some things need to wait. He is exploring the ideas around gun play, violent play, and knows there are rules in regard to those things. He knows that some people are loud, some seem not-s0-friendly, some parents are mean to their children... we see all of these things as we are out and about. 

I want to use books to help my son make sense of his world, and to show him examples of hope, love, honesty, virtue and compassion. Books which spark our curiosity are of such value, because they teach children to love seeking and learning, if we are willing to help them. 

We signed up for the Summer Reading program (contest?! hmphh!) at the library. I'm not sure how I feel about keeping track of reading or spending time reading with a motivational prize being dangled out there like a carrot. This is one of those decisions where I am following the advice of a few mentor moms, and I will see where it goes. I want reading to be a pleasure in and of itself, not a way to earn a plastic prize toy (or book, thank goodness...). But I think he'd also be pretty proud to earn the tee-shirt...

Books Which Passed Muster for a Tender-Hearted Five Year Old:

The River by Brigitte Sidjanski, illlustrated by Bernadette Watts.
The Friendship Wish by Elisa Kleven
Octopus Oyster Hermit Crab Snail: A Poem of the Sea by Sara Anderson
This is the Reef by Miriam Moss; illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway
Snippy and Snappy by Wanda Ga'g
Be Nice to Spiders by Margaret Bloy Graham
My Rows and Piles of Coins (excellent!) by Tololwa M Mollel; illustrated by EB Lewis
Plants that Never Bloom by Ruth Heller
 and for the Dino Boy, his picks were both books by Aliki: Fossils Tell of Long Ago and Digging Up Dinosaurs

Happy Reading!