purposeful parenting

To some extent, our kids will learn despite us.  They are constantly observing, experimenting, and generally soaking up information about the world around them.  But it certainly doesn’t hurt to be purposeful about encouraging their learning.

Beginning when my kids are old enough to interact and play, I help them learn the words to describe the world around them—the names of their toys and of household objects, ways of describing items (comparatively, numerically, or by attributes like color or shape).  It’s not that I strap my kids into a booster and show them flashcards until they’ve got their facts memorized; to some extent, it’s not even conscious teaching, but rather a natural way of interacting with little ones.

As they get older, my role has become a bit more active, more purposeful.  As my kids grow, I find myself intentionally helping them to develop in three areas: knowledge, skills, and values.

Numbered leaves

The numbered leaf pictures on my kitchen wall

I want my kids to love learning.  To that end, I try to encourage their curiosity and build on their interests.  When I noticed my kids counting the pictures on our kitchen wall, I labeled each picture with a number to help them recognize numerals.  When they ask a question, I answer as honestly and thoroughly as possible (while taking their age into account); if I don’t know the answer, I tell them so and take time to look it up.  I search online for books that will help them expand knowledge of a current obsession (trains or how plumbing works, for example) and then check to see if my local library system has any of the likely candidates I’ve found.  Most of the things I do cost no money, but they encourage my kids natural acquisition of knowledge and show them that I value their questions and interests.

I also want my kids to develop certain skills.  At a most basic level, I want them to be independent—to learn how to dress themselves and use the bathroom alone, how to pour a drink and use the tools they’ll encounter in daily living.  Some of those things are taught directly, through helping them get dressed (“Remember to pull the pants over your rear end or they’ll get stuck!”) and letting them cook with me.  Some of this is taught indirectly, through toys and activities that help them develop coordination and motor skills.

But parenting isn’t just about helping your kids learn their colors or encouraging them to use a fork, it’s also about passing on your values, things like respecting people and property, being considerate and helpful.  Those things are both harder and easier to teach.  In large part, kids learn values by watching those around them; you know, “Actions speak louder than words.”  The purposeful part here comes in considering how to model your values for your kids and ensuring that you do so regularly.  Every family will have its own set of core values and ways of demonstrating those values.

As part of my personal goal-setting (see my previous post), I’m in the process of making myself a list of weekly parenting goals beginning in September, after my Summer of Insanity is over.  I hope to increase my sense of fulfillment and encourage my kids’ learning through more purposeful parenting.

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the agony and ecstasy of family

Let me just start by saying that I love my family.  I like and respect my parents, and I get along well with my siblings and their spouses.  There’s only one problem: I was the only child who managed to remain near our parents (a glorious benefit).  My nearest sibling lives 10 hours away by car.  The others are 19 and 23 hours away in different directions.  We’re all in the country, just very spread out.

Combine the two elements, and you have a family that gets along well but has a nearly-impossible time getting together.  Since my siblings all stop in to see my parents periodically, I got lucky and saw everyone once a year or so, but the rest of my siblings were going years between sightings.  My parents decided to intervene to try to improve things: enter the family vacation, all grown up.

Extended family photo

Last year’s sweaty group photo in the aptly-named HOT Springs, Arkansas. We spent most of our time indoors. (Faces obscured to protect privacy. My family obscured just because we don’t look so great.)

The first time we got together as a family, there was only one grandchild, a portable two-month-old.  Originally we were thinking of gathering every three years.  That seemed too long, so we suggested every-other year…but we just couldn’t stay away that long.  This will be our fourth summer get-together in a row, and we have added more children each year; now we’re up to eight-and-a-half.  Obviously, we all look forward to these get-togethers all year long…but at the same time, we dread them.

When we get together, it’s pretty intense.  Because we have lots of small kids (the oldest is six), in order to spend any time together, we have to share housing—that way, the adults can hang out even when little ones are napping or asleep for the evening.  In the past, we have rented large vacation homes, and each family gets one bedroom.  Thus, the entire week of togetherness is spent with no alone time (rough for a family of mostly introverted folks) and some pretty poor sleep as overwhelmed kids wake often at night.

This year, two of the three families were planning on spending some time at my parents’ house, so we’re meeting here, allowing us to divide ourselves between two homes.   This is both lovely and horrible, all at the same time.  Lovely: My family will remain in our own home, in our own beds.  Horrible: The get-together will be happening at my parents’ house, but I will be at my house.  In addition, one or the other of my siblings will be here for almost the entire summer.  That’s a lot of disruption for little ones—and their parents—who like routine and predictability.

Our Summer of Insanity began with the first weeklong drive-through by my brother, his wife, and their kids last week.  Tonight my sister and her girls arrive in town for three weeks; her husband will follow this weekend.  My brother and his family will return two weeks from now and stay for three weeks (and then leave for a week and then be back for one more), and my other brother and his wife will fly in for a long weekend.

How is it that we can so look forward to an event—and also eagerly anticipate its conclusion?  I dearly wish my family lived closer so we could enjoy more day-to-day moments instead of trying to cram a year’s worth of togetherness into one week (or one summer).  I suppose I should just count myself fortunate that I have a family that I like and am able to see annually, since some do not even get that.

to preschool, or not to preschool?

When I was little, I didn’t go to preschool.  I thought this was normal: the little girl down the block didn’t go, either.  As an adult I have learned that, then and now, EVERYONE goes to preschool.  Our family and the one down the block were apparently anomalies.

Our oldest turned three last fall; thus, he would be eligible for a typical three-year-old preschool class this coming fall.  At the beginning of the calendar year, when all the local preschools were opening enrollment for the coming fall and advertising open houses (which, by the way, seems totally wrong—to have to sign up for preschool six months in advance for someone for whom six months is like a lifetime), ‘Love and I investigated.  So far, so good.

We visited the preschool that meets in our church.  It gets rave reviews from parents, and I’ve heard it favorably compared to other area preschools by more than one seemingly choosy mom.  Then it got complicated.  You see, I bothered to look at the curriculum outline provided at the open house.  It had a list of objectives, and it included items like the following (my responses in italics):

–          Learn to play nicely, taking turns and sharing.  Shouldn’t children already have a basic understanding of that if they’re preschool age?   I mean, I know they aren’t great at it, but isn’t this something that you’re supposed to be working on at home and on playdates?  I guess this one is fine and all, but it’s nothing earth-shattering.

–          Identify primary colors.  Surely they can’t mean primary colors, can they?  I mean, that’s only red, yellow, and blue.  No, no, they really do mean it—here in the four-year-old objectives it lists secondary color identification.  Seriously?  Our kids knew their primary colors by age two!  This is ridiculous.

–          Learn the alphabet.  Learn it?  That’s it?  Doesn’t every kid walk through the door already singing the alphabet song? 

–          Discuss seasons.  I don’t need to send the kids to school to discuss seasons.  I do that perfectly well at home. 

The whole list continued along those lines.  Now, I don’t think my kids are uncommonly brilliant or anything, so I’m surprised that items like these make it into a curriculum list.  Maybe I’m expecting too much of parents, figuring that they DO sing the alphabet song at home and talk about the world around them…but I’d like to think that’s pretty normal, basic parenting stuff.

One brief visit to the preschool revealed five little children seated at a table, quietly squeezing appropriate-sized drops of glue onto ever-larger dots; another stop at church found the whole preschool in pajamas, gathered to watch a Disney movie for the duration of their school day.

For this, I would pay about $150 per month.  If I wanted my child to “learn through fun,” I would have to pay an extra fee and send him for an additional day.

Shouldn’t all learning be done through play—fun—at this age?  Isn’t that what researchers have been telling folks?  I mean, I watch my son pour water in the tub, and he’s checking out how fast it flows through the different sized holes in the bottom of the cups, looking to see what happens if he pushes that hole-riddled cup into the tub water, what it does if he tips it sideways…  He’s learning all the time, and it’s accomplished through his own curious play and through the questions he thinks to ask me.

After being thus disappointed by a highly-regarded local preschool, I looked into a few more, only to be similarly let down.  Curricula included items that my kids have already soaked up, for the most part, and the formats just did not impress me–they were just like big kid school, only with pint-sized students.

First day of school

This is me on my first day of kindergarten. Little did I know the torture ahead of me…

I was a teacher.  I say this to clarify that I have nothing against school as an institution, necessarily, but…  For both my husband and me, school was not a pleasant place.  He was always a head taller than his classmates and was introverted to boot; I was a perfectionistic lover of learning with a large vocabulary.  Neither of us particularly fit in with our classmates.  Beyond that, it was boring—full of repetition, painfully slow lessons, and meaningless worksheets.

Our children are doomed.  Not only were their parents misfits, but we are passing our craziness along.  We never did bother to hook up the antenna on our analog TV after moving nearly two years ago.  We live very frugally and don’t spend much money on toys or entertainment.  We read—a lot.  We go to church weekly.  We garden.  We despise the commercialization of childhood and avoid anything with Disney’s Princess or Cars—or any other TV-character-turned-product-pusher— when humanly possible.  Our poor, precious little dears are not going to fit in well with their classmates.

My dilemma, then, is twofold.  First, is there any point to sending a child to preschool?  Do they actually gain anything from the experience?  I doubt they’re going to gain much on the academic front, but will any social gains be big enough to justify the price tag?  (It’s not cheap—and on a tight budget, there’s going to have to be significant sacrifice to find enough money to pay for the experience.)

And second, do I really want to send my kids off to school any earlier than I really have to?  School is where you discover that you don’t fit, where you learn that it’s not okay to make mistakes.  School is where you worry about whether others like you or not, and where you are laughed at and ridiculed by those who don’t.  Do I really want to send my little ones to that doom any earlier than I need to?  Or is it okay to keep them home with me for another year or two, to send them to Story Hour at the library and to Sunday School at church and to have playdates for “socialization”?  Can I let them learn in their own way and encourage their curiosity and delight in discovery at home—or will I be depriving them of something greater?

I know if I do choose to skip preschool, I will be branding myself a misfit among local mommies.  I’ve already begun to get the questions—“Isn’t Peatie old enough for preschool yet?”  “You’re not sending him in the fall?  Certainly you’ll send him NEXT year though!”  Must I be a misfit again to protect my little ones for a bit longer?  Or will it only make things worse for them, too?  Oh, the many questions of motherhood!

kids: the ultimate password protectors

After the recent LinkedIn password fiasco, ‘Love and I found ourselves changing passwords to several accounts, having been a bit security-lazy (or perhaps being realistic about how many passwords we could actually remember).

Side note:  I’ll have you know that the only reason I even HAVE a LinkedIn account is because my father kept pestering me with invitations, so I finally gave up and set up an account.  Oddly enough, people actually want to link to me, though I really present no networking value.  Maybe it’s just an addiction.

Back to the topic at hand:  As we discussed our new password choices, my husband showed me an xkcd comic.  If you follow the reasoning of the cartoonist (who also does some fancy math), your password doesn’t have to include strings of unintelligible gibberish to be strong.  In fact, a few random words can be far more difficult to hack but also much easier to remember.

Who provides more semi-logical, utterly-memorable strings of words than a young child?  Mine are forever coming up with silly phrases that quickly become inside jokes, meaning nothing to anyone but them.

To share one of a multitude of examples: After reading a book that included a reference to the cleaned-up song “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pop on the Wall,” they began shouting, “Ninety-ninety diapers on the wall!” and giggling hysterically.  Now one of them will occasionally bust out that phrase on a boring car ride or while running around the park, and it will still elicit gales of laughter.  To anyone else “ninetyninetydiapers” has no meaning whatsoever.  To me, it is utterly memorable.

Better yet?  When your kid’s major mispronunciation of a bank or store name or an item you purchase (more than one syllable!) can become the basis for a password for that very location or purchase.  What could be easier?

See—you KNEW there were lots of hidden perks to having children, and I’ve just helped you find one.

five activities to avoid when mommy’s cranky

Happy messmakers

But they have so much fun when they make messes!

Some moms don’t mind a mess; others like to keep things spic-and-span.  Then there are the moms like me: I like a clean-ish house, but I don’t mind if my kids make a mess when playing.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and this rule is no exception.

On the days when I am feeling like a competent, capable mommy, one who has gotten a reasonable amount of sleep, one who has managed to accomplish enough to ward off the feeling of worthlessness, one who has had enough adult contact in recent days to maintain sanity—on those days, I can easily let my kids be kids.  “You dumped ALL the Duplos out when you were trying to find that one train piece?  Okay, we can clean them up.”  “You knocked your cup of milk over for the second time in half an hour?  Well, accidents do happen.”

Then there are the other days—the days when I have NOT gotten enough sleep, I have accomplished nothing, and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of another adult (except my husband in the evenings, but somehow that doesn’t help the days seem any shorter).  Those are the days that I am perhaps a tad bit less patient than is ideal.  (Somehow those are also the days on which my kids seem to require more patience than normal.)

One of the ways I’ve learned to improve my parenting on the not-so-patient days: avoid things that are likely to frustrate me.  Some things are difficult to avoid, like milk spills once you are past the sippy phase (though even that can be improved by providing only a half-cup of liquid at a time).  Others, however, can be easily avoided to minimize frustration for everyone.  The following is my short list of activities to avoid if you’d rather not have a mess on your hands:

Peatie attacks his Moon Dough with a spoon.

This was basically all Moon Dough was good for.

Moon Dough.  When I bought this, I thought it was just the non-drying alternative to PlayDoh.  (Remind me to share my homemade playdough story some time.)  Boy, was I wrong.  This product, while sold in a cute little crescent-shaped container with built in molds for the dough, is essentially fine sand that tries valiantly to stick together.  I found it nearly impossible to do anything except squish it with my hands or make shape-prints in it with a fork; it’s not a roll-yourself-a-snakey type of product.  Its lack of adhesion poses another problem, as illustrated by this picture of Peatie (who is actually reasonably neat, compared to little Goober—but she blinked for her photo).  After numerous episodes of Mommy-spends-as-much-time-trying-to-gather-the-sandy-crumbs-as-the-kids-spent-playing-with-the-blasted-stuff, I’ve decided to try shifting it off to some other unsuspecting parent.

Goober covered in chalk

Chalk makes Goobie a little crazy. She tends to get it not only on her hands, but also on her face and her clothes, as seen here.

Sidewalk Chalk.  If you’re like me, you probably never considered that this one could create much mess.  The kids scribble around on the patio a little, maybe color a tree, and we wash their hands when they’re done, right?  Right—unless you have a child like my Goobie.  I think the photo speaks for itself.

Cuties playing with pinto beans

This is a modest mess created during pseudo-sandbox play. I try to assure myself that the mess is helping them learn something.

Sand or any Sand Substitute.  My kids have had a longstanding fascination with pouring things.  When winter approached and I began desperately racking my brain for indoor activities, I heard about folks who were using rice or dried beans or lentils to make little indoor sand boxes.  “Perfect!” thought I. “The kids can pour and dump to their hearts’ content right in our own kitchen, and any little spills can be easily cleaned with a broom.”  It worked that way…to an extent.  First of all, if you have a toddler, you know that understanding capacity is a learned skill like any other.  This translated into lots of spills—and not all little ones.  Kids are also prone to making rather ill-advised choices on days when they are tired and cranky.  Thus, on the days when I was most hoping for distraction, what I got was a bean-flinging contest.

Goober painting

The paint coats her brush, her hands, her smock, her sweatshirt, her face, her hair…

Paint.  This should not be the least bit surprising to most parents of young children.  Give a child a damp art medium, and they’ll get it smeared all over.  It’s delightful fun on the days you don’t mind a mess (or if you’ve got them outside in swimsuits and can hose them off when they’re done), but not so great on those days when you’re feeling tetchy.  (I should also add that markers, being a damp medium, are similarly messy—but much harder to wash off skin.  Don’t get me started on markers; I’ve never liked them.)  If Mommy’s cranky, we stick with crayons.

Peatie makes a muddy mess

Small child + container of water + the great outdoors = big mess

Water.  The only time water play can be remotely clean is in the tub, but even then I find myself perpetually urging my children to splash a little less and for heaven’s sake pour the water IN the tub, not over the side!  The day my mother thought she’d let my kids play at doing the dishes was the day her Lazy Susan (fondly known as the round-and-round)  became mildly warped due to downstream flooding (it’s several feet away from her sink).  Outdoors…well, there’s dirt everywhere.  You do the math.

the mediocre housewife (part 3)

Having already lamented my mediocre cooking and cleaning, I now turn to the third major facet of housewifery: childcare.

My mothering has always been a bit of a sore spot for me, and I believe it’s for this reason: Somewhere along the line I adopted the misguided notion that a stay-at-home mom spends all her time engaging her children and enjoys every second of it.  You heard me—every moment a child is awake, a stay-at-home mom should be talking to them, playing with them, broadening their little horizons—and thrilling in every second of the often mind-numbingly-repetitive activities.

Mommy and kids splash in the kiddie pool

Some mommy activities are more enjoyable than others.

My reality is a bit different than this pseudo-ideal.  I have tried valiantly to focus entirely on my children during their every waking moment.  I postponed chores until naptime and put my life on hold to sit next to them while they played, not letting me touch a single toy because each and every one had been placed just so and should never be moved.  As any mom can tell you, this is insanity.

I began to realize the insanity when my oldest stopped napping.  For many months, he would spend at least an hour in his room every afternoon for what we smilingly called Quiet Time. (He was usually far from quiet.)  The farther he got from the days of napping, the more frequently he would open his door to call, “Is it Mommy Time yet?”

The frequent interruptions necessitated a change in schedule.  I grabbed an extra rag, picked up a pint-sized mop, and enlisted little Peatie’s help for the Chore of the Day.  He was thrilled.  After a half-hour of helping Mommy clean, he trotted off to his room for a shortened Quiet Time while Mommy desperately stole a few moments to herself before getting both kids up for the afternoon.

Then I added baby number three.  My carefully-plotted schedule went to shreds if Ender decided he wanted to eat when I was planning to clean the shower—or if he merely didn’t want to be put down all day.  Peatie grew more restless with his quiet time, and with Ender napping in the big crib in their soon-to-be-shared room, I couldn’t send Peatie there to be “quiet”.  Thus, my daily free time became nonexistent until bedtime.

All this has led me to the conclusion that it must be virtually impossible for a person to dedicate their full attention to their child for every moment of every day and still remain sane.  I feel guilty about this conclusion (I must not love my children enough!), but the more mothers I speak to, the more I realize that perhaps this is reality.

So what does a good mother look like?  I struggle with this daily.  How can I maintain my sanity and encourage my children to play independently while also providing them the attention they need?

the mommy fail

Peatie pedals down the bike path.

Peatie proudly pedals down the bike path on his clown-bike.

Last fall, ‘Love found a 12” bike at a yard sale down the block from us.  We thought we’d use it as a balance bike for Peatie; unfortunately, the pedals kept kitting his legs, and the instability made him nervous.  We stuck training wheels on the thing, and he pedaled around proudly this spring.

A tall boy, our three-year-old dwarfed the 12” bike when pedaling.  Since my mom had a 16” bike around from when she babysat years ago, we moved Peatie up to that one and offered the smaller bike to Goober.

Little Goobie, not-quite-two-and-a-half, has not yet mastered the art of pedaling.  (Somehow I have not managed to find much time to work on this skill with her lately, though I can’t think why.)  Since her big brother has a bike, Goobs was pleased as punch to have one to call her own—even if she couldn’t ride it.  She would perch on it and rock back and forth, trying to convince the bike to move, or she would attempt to push herself along with her feet, legs bumping the pedals as she went.  Once again I started thinking that a balance bike would be ideal—especially after talking to some moms who have them.  But they’re so expensive!

My solution?  Remove the pedals from the 12” bike we had.  A quick search online provided photographic help from folks who’d already completed this project, and in no time, the deed was done!

Goobie on her balance bike

Goobie delightedly scoots around the driveway on her new balance bike.

Now for the Mommy Fail.  Having removed the chain and pedals from the bike, I proudly presented it to my daughter, who excitedly mounted the bike…but could hardly move because she was on her tippy-toes.  Though she couldn’t verbalize it, I could tell from her frustration at being unable to move and from the look in her eyes as she walked away that she was sorely disappointed.  Worse yet, big brother Peatie tried it out and found that the 12” bike was the perfect size for him to use as a balance bike.  Poor Goobs.  Not only could she not ride her precious bike, but now her brother was using it again.  Mommy felt terrible.

So how did I manage to salvage this?  I spent some money.  I managed to find a 10” balance bike for $35-and-change from Walmart.  I tested it out, and little Goobie can just barely straddle it comfortably.  The money for the balance bike will come out of the birthday check I’ll get from my parents this week, but the look on my little girl’s face was completely worth it.  Mostly I use my birthday money to get stuff for the kids anyhow, since their joy brings me delight—a double-gift.