Thursday, December 30, 2010


I absolutely LOVE holiday breaks.  The promise of time with my kids, sleeping in, doing special things together, all get me excited.  My plans in my head go something like this:  we'll stay up later drinking cocoa and watching christmas flicks; we'll go see christmas lights multiple times; we'll hit the special christmas displays in the area; I'll take individual kids on Christmas shopping trips; we'll go to movies and shows and theater.  For some reason the fantasy doesn't sound as exhausting when I'm fantasizing about it as it does on the end of it!

My daughter and I had great plans today to visit a city about an hour from here and attend a special Christmas theme park extravaganza.  I woke at 10:30 and felt like I'd been hit by a MAC truck.  She woke even later, complaining of a headache and allover yuckiness.  Why, you ask?  I'm convinced we're sick of Christmas!

In my home, Thanksgiving is a very laid-back holiday.  We eat when we want and it is usually just the four of us.  Everybody helps to cook, and we've even been known to put it off a day if we all would rather do other things on Thanksgiving day.  We make a paper chain that includes the things we are thankful for and hang it up for the year.  And ta-dah!  Thanksgiving is done.

Christmas is another deal entirely.  It's a very big deal.  I grew up with tons of traditions, starting with Black Friday shopping and extending to toasting in the New Year at midnight.  In fact, there are so many things I want to squeeze into the time that I can't figure out how to do it.  And here we are, on December 30th, and everyone is still trying to recover from the last month of partying.

I've always been a huge fan of Thoreau's approach of simplify, simplify.  One of my good friends survived Hurricane Katrina but not without losing everything she owned.  However, she survived with her family, and they began the heavy task of rebuilding their lives.  Have you ever wondered, if you had to walk away from it all, could you do it?

My friend emerged from her losses stating that she learned an important lesson.  Everything she owned that she thought she couldn't live without--photos of her children, scrapbooks and albums and books and dishes and presents from her loved ones--she could live without it all.

I kind of view Christmas that way.  There are so many things going on during the season; so many parties and special events we want our families to take part in that we lose the peace that surrounds us.  You know, the peace that's supposed to connect us to God.  Paring down decorations, meals, parties, and events gives us more peace and more opportunity to commune with God and even ourselves and our loved ones.

Yes, I know, this post is about four weeks too late.  But it's not too late for next year, or for next holiday.  My New Year's resolutions will include slowing down and enjoying time with my family.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Gifts of Love

My daughter has been attending church regularly with my parents for the past several months.  Despite the fact that this church does not feel like a good fit for me, I have let her go and encouraged her involvement.  She has had some iffy experiences but overall has loved her time there.  More than that, she has made a good friend--the pastor's daughter.

The pastor and his wife are a wonderful couple with a rich history.  Both are originally from Korea but moved to the United States for various reasons.  He initially pursued a career in opera, and she supported him by managing his schedule and work before he entered the seminary.  They lived in New York City for nearly ten years before finding a different calling, one completely foreign to their families and cultures.

This couple has made a wonderful impression on our entire family.  I enjoy speaking with both of them every chance I get.  Moreover, they have a daughter a year older than mine, and both girls enjoy each other's company.  The pastor's daughter is extremely bright and musically gifted, much like both of her parents.  She is an amazingly talented pianist given her age as well as playing in the orchestra.  She is smart and has excellent behavior and seems to make great choices nearly all the time.

As you may have guessed, I can hope that this child's natural self will impact my somewhat-impulsive, loud, fully-embarce-the-world daughter.  But perhaps for now, it's exactly as it should be--both girls enjoying the others' company.

Today when my daughter came home from church, the first thing she told me was how her friend's mother, the pastor's wife, had made her a present.  She was wearing it.  It was a simple crocheted flower attached to a hairband, the kind of thing that most of us would have overlooked.  But not my daughter.  She had wrapped it into her hair as soon as she had opened it, and wore it the rest of the day.  The present from her friend and her mother--this homemade present--meant the world to her.

It doesn't take some sort of genius to figure out why.  Somebody put time and effort into making something for her.  Somebody told her, through actions, "I care about you and I want you to know I'm thinking about you at Christmas."

It's very easy to get caught up in the trimmings and trappings (thank you, Mr. Grinch) of Christmas.  So I challenge you to give your child--or anyone in your life--something simple and homemade.  Something that says, "I love you and I thought and cared about you enough to invest some time and energy into you."

I won't be surprised at all if my daughter's hair is adorned with a crocheted flower for several days.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Today is a memorable day for me.  It's the day that I officially bought my tween daughter her first "real" dressy tween outfit.

You see, tonight we have tickets to go see the Nutcracker.  My daughter has clothes appropriate for school and for warmer days for church, but nothing appropriate for this occasion, especially in December.  So we hit the mall this morning and learned several things.  First, she has completely outgrown any children's clothing.  Size sixteen dresses come up to her knees.  Second, she's very proud of her emerging "curves" but not so much of her thicker waist.  Third, she is stunningly beautiful and growing far quicker than I wish she was.

Is there any parent on the face of the earth who doesn't occasionally look at their child and wish they had the small baby or preschooler of yesteryear?  Even new parents marvel at how quickly their newborns grow into infants, developing mobility and senses of humor.  Every step our children take toward independence is amazing and magical to us.  We forget the struggles of colic and remember the snuggly baby.  We dismiss the tantrums of preschoolers and remember the excitement over this beautiful new world.

As I watched my precocious eleven-year old today, who stands as tall as me and is probably just as intelligent (even if lacking life experience), I missed the little girl who fit into the sweet children's dresses; the toddler who wore April Cornell and pigtails and sandals when we went to tea.  Tonight she'll be wearing a soft cashmere ivory sweater with a buckle in the front and a black sateen skirt with rosettes.  Her off black hose (her first pair) will match the black shoes decorated with rosettes as well.  And as much as I miss yesterday, I'm thrilled to see the young woman she's turning into.

I still have a little girl; one who likes to play Monopoly and decorate the christmas tree and hang out to watch The Grinch.  But I also have one that cleans up well and is a marvelous, magical mix of child and young adult.  And as worried and anxious as I get, I am enthralled by this ever-changing person in my house.

I'm sure you are with yours, too.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Three Gifts

I think it's probably clear from my last post that my family is Christian.  To be more specific, we are United Methodists and tend to be more progressive in our beliefs.  I say this not as a persuasive  argument but more of a disclaimer regarding my beliefs about the Christmas holiday.

Before I had children, Christmas was a great, self-indulgent holiday.  I really didn't see it that way at the time, but indeed, that's what I practiced.  I did the things that made me feel good--Christmas activities and festivities that made me happy.  Every once in awhile I'd throw something in for the poor and the needy, but that was because it made ME feel good.  It wasn't until I received my own Christmas baby that I began to understand Christmas in an entirely new way.

She arrived on Christmas Eve.  A tousled mess, she had been awarded to us by the court two months prior but had been living with a relative until we had enough space to provide her with a good home.  I remember looking at her sleeping face that first Christmas and being overwhelmed with love and good fortune.  This little child was ours to care for and to raise, at least for now.  Then the fear struck.  This little child was ours to care for and to raise, at least for now.

Perhaps because of our children's precarious situation, they have always been treated to a ridiculous overabundance of Christmas gifts by relatives.  Our children truly want for nothing during the holidays.  There has always been an element of this that has bothered me, but I was unsure of what to do about it.  I wanted my children to feel loved and to have the connections between their biological family.  I understood the need relatives felt to shower them with gifts.  But as a parent, there were many times that I felt like shouting, "Please!  Put an end to this madness!"

As I've grown as a mother, and become more aware of my own values of faith, I have often been reminded of the gifts for the Christ child.  Three rich gifts from the Wise Men--gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Three gifts that represented all the child was and would be.  But what of the gifts of others?  The worship, the song, the glory?  The blessedness of His birth? And as I watched my children rip open papers and discard gifts nearly as quickly, I realized we have lost our purpose here.

I can't regulate the gifts that are given by others, nor do I feel that is my role, other than to exercise reasonable safety and developmental limits.  But I certainly can regulate the gifts from myself and my husband.  And after watching my preschoolers inundated with hundreds of dollars of stuff, I realized that the most valuable things they could receive from me would never come in a box.

And thus I hit upon our trifecta. My children needed the following three things from me every Christmas:  they needed my time; they needed my spiritual guiadance, and they needed a tangible gift that represented the spirit of the season.  Thus my guide to gift giving each season was born.

Gift number one involves time together.  This is both during the season and ongoing throughout the year.  We do things as simple as watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" to going to see Christmas Lights.  This year, due in part to a fantastic pay-as-you-go plan, my kids will be receiving season passes to a local theme park.  More family time for us and as they grow older, that's incredibly valuable to me.  But there have been plenty of years that our family time has consisted of lying in the grass watching the stars, driving down to the lake to see the sunset, or taking the dog for a walk.

Gift number two:  spiritual guidance.  Why do we celebrate Christmas?  What was the purpose of Jesus? Why do we believe in God?  The questions have gotten harder as the children have gotten older, and have recently included giving one child the freedom to declare himself atheist (even though he goes to church).  But more than just spiritual guidance, this gift includes day to day discussions in morality and ethics and the challenges of life.  Christmas offers a wonderful time to talk about Christ's entering the world as a person, but it also offers the opportunity to talk about how Christmas spirit can last the whole year round.

And finally, gift number three:  materialistic presents.  Yes, we give gifts.  Our budget, like many, is tight this year.  But we will choose one reasonably priced gift for each child as well as some smaller priced items.  We will share lists with grandparents and loved ones, and our children will have more than they need.  And they will be thrilled on Christmas day.

One of the things I learned a few years ago, using this approach, was that my children were very satisfied with fewer gifts, knowing that they were going to be spending more "fun time" with the adults in their lives.  I came to understand that if I was attuned to what was important to them, then fewer gifts were quite often more than enough.

Christmas is an opportunity to remind us of our love and gratitude, and to share those qualities with the people in our lives.  It's also an opportunity to teach our children that love and gratitude and the spirit of giving can last throughout the year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Santa Baby

I have exactly one photo of my kids in Santa's lap.  I don't know if that makes me a Scrooge or just a cheapskate.  I kind of vote for the latter, because we went to see Santa every year...I just refused to pay the megabucks for the tiny photos they took.  Anyway, we have a beautiful photo of both kids when they were very young with Santa.  After viewing a multitude of photographs featuring children screaming and Santas appearing under the influence of everything from alcohol to the devil, I feel fortunate that our picture is pretty plain.  Two kids, looking relatively peaceful, on a friendly Santa's lap.

Santa is such a wonderful, mystical character we share with children at Christmas.  He's the embodiment of selfless giving, of sharing, of kindness, much as the Christ child.  Because of this, it always stirkes me as odd and nearly painful when I hear parents routinely use Santa as a threat to their children.  One of my friends told me recently that she and her spouse have turned this into a game when they're out in public, counting how many times they hear parents of young children using Santa as a threat.

"You better be good or Santa will return all your toys!"  The variations are endless and the old guy is watching all the time.  For those of you old enough to remember the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes (written by Bill Watterson) you may recall the strip where Calvin is singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and asks the question on everybody's minds:  "Santa Claus--kindly old elf or CIA spy?"

Parents routinely threaten coal in stockings, presents being returned, no visit at all.  Then there's the emotional baggage that comes with it too, as in how disappointed Santa would be if he could see what you were doing right now; how he's here for the "good boys and girls".  The measurement of morality is huge--"Are you good enough to receive a gift from Santa?"  Sometimes the question is even asked innocently, but I remember as a child pondering that question.  Had I been good all year?  Certainly not (and I challenge any of you to say that you have been even as adults!).  Did I deserve Santa's gifts and kindness?  I really didn't know.  Probably not, but he'd bring me something anyway.

Santa Claus is a wonderful idea that we frequently use to beat our children about the head and shoulders to enforce appropriate behavior.  Maybe a better question to ask is why do kids get so out of sorts over the holidays?  As a mom and a teacher, here's my observations:
*kids are off their routines
*bedtimes are erratic
*normal nutritional needs are disrupted (i.e. more sweets and treats)
*parents are more stressed
*there's a lot of anticipation of special events, which equals stress.  Stress doesn't have to be bad to be stress.  And stress causes reactions, particularly in children.

So what to do?  Sometimes it's impossible to keep things stable and on a routine.  But it's a good idea to balance exciting activities with regular ones, to give downtime in between activities, to try to keep activities developmentally appropriate (short, fun, and call it a day when the kids are done), and review the schedule at the beginning of the day, as well as your expectations, so your child knows what to expect.  For young children, reviewing rules right before an activity can be very helpful.

So if you celebrate Christmas and Santa Claus this year, help the old guy stay fun and keep his job to be one of joy, rather than one of punishment.  I promise he (and your kids) will thank you for it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I'm Still Here

Lately I haven't been posting and figured eventually that I would post on here some sort of rationalization for the reason why.  But the truth is, I really don't have one.  My rationalization is different from the truth--something I think we all stumble upon from time to time.  What we'd like to say to people and what reality really is are two completely separate stories.

The reality is that I'm not just a mother and a teacher, I'm a learner too, and I've been learning some life lessons.  Some have included wonderful opportunities--a new job, for one--and some have included new challenges.  Some have caused me to think about life and myself in new and different ways.  The great thing about this is it reminds me every day in the classroom how we challenge children to think in new and different ways, and how that imbalance--disequilibrium--can be confusing, scary, yet exhilirating and powerful.

This morning I watched a video of someone I greatly admire talking about career advice.  He told an audience of people that whatever it is you want to do with your life, whatever is your calling, you should be doing it every day.  You don't let life get in the way of your passion.  You live what you love, and you live it whether you are paid for it or not, because you love it.

Why has this stuck so heavily with me today?  For a couple of reasons.  First, when I was beginning this blog, I was a week or so in when I just felt lost.  I believed it wasn't useful and nobody would read it.  As if by magic, a few hours later I received a message from an ex-college student/ now friend talking about this blog and how much she loved it.  When I wrote her back and told her about my doubts, she told me firmly, "It's never stupid to do what you love to do."  Ah, the wisdom of my college students.  It's why I love to teach them.

The second reason I've thought about this all day has to do with where I feel I'm at personally.  I'm experiencing a rebirth of sorts, and it made me reflect about who I was and what I love to do.  I love to teach, yes.  I love being a mother also.  But I love to write.  And so that's who I am and what I should be doing.

How this will look and how it will affect this blog, I don't know.  Hopefully it will inspire and encourage more sharing on this blog and more everyday writing and appreciation of life.  Maybe it will cause me to reflect about things I haven't before.  Or maybe it's just a thought for the day, like they had in elementary school.  Do what you love, and do it every day, all the time.  It's the key to success.

And yeah, I'm still here.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

How to Make Everybody Happy

The other day, I was singing a song to a group of preschoolers and their parents.  It was a classic children's song recorded by a famous children's singer, and I was singing it because I needed to kill approximately eight minutes before these children moved to a different activity.  So I sang the song in my usual dramatic style, watching the children's pleased faces, and moved on through the evening.

The next day I was approached by another professional, who kindly (and gently!) informed me that at least one parent (and so far the count is up to two) took offense to a couple of the lyrics in the song I sang.

In retrospect, I can see the parents' points.  The song does use a couple of phrases that, while probably wouldn't make most of us flinch, might cause a flinch from a more protective parent or a parent who isn't familiar with me (these parents were not).  At first I laughed about my goofy first impression, then I went through a period of feeling incredibly guilty and remorseful, and I finally settled on seriously reviewing the songs I sing before I choose my repertoire for next time.

We all have different thresholds of what we deem acceptable, and by whom.  One of the most wonderful and loving mothers I've ever known, who was also one of my mentors, used to tell her kids, "I'm going to rip your legs off and beat you with the bloody ends!"  Her kids thought it was hysterical.  I thought it was hysterical.  Would I say it to anybody else's kids?  No way!  I wouldn't even say it to my own.

In working with people, we often come across the dilemma of how to make everyone happy.  How do you meet the needs of everyone you come across and still be yourself?  It's a hard balance, and I was reminded of that the other night.  Some children grow up watching anything and everything on television while others never watch any.  Most are familiar with drive-thrus but I've known children who have never been through one.  Most children in our society are encouraged to be independent, even at young ages, yet we have increasing numbers of children who are weaning and toilet training at three, four, and even five years of age.

It's easy to get caught up in the idea of somebody else being wrong, and that's why you can't make them happy.  I'd love to say the two parents who didn't like my beloved song were wrong, oversensitive, or even just looking for a reason not to like me.  But this kind of blame simplifies the issue and doesn't hold me accountable for searching for a solution to this problem.  Whether you encounter this issue as a teacher or as a parent, acknowledging another person's right to make decisions for his or her own child is critical.  It's an issue of respect.

I have a lot of strong opinions about children, teaching, and child-rearing, but I don't have all the answers.  Nor do I have the right to force my views upon others.  So out of respect for other viewpoints, I'll be limiting my repertoire of songs to better meet the needs of this particular audience, much as I would refrain from showing somebody else's child a movie if they don't watch television.

No, there's no way to make everybody happy.  We all know this.  But mutual respect and communication can go a long way toward helping the problem.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Messing Up

When I taught at a university laboratory preschool, I worked with a combination of adults who were studying early childhood education and a classroom full of young children.  It was a fantastic job--I got the best of both worlds in teaching children as well as working with adults in learning appropriate teaching strategies.  One of the things I learned early on is that most adults share a common fear--making a mistake, especially under a microscope.  So by my second or third year, I had figured out it was critical to reassure my adult students that mistakes were part of learning, and that they wouldn't get "in trouble" for mistakes while they were learning.  I am a strong believer in facilitation--that is, supporting people in their own learning and making suggestions for them to consider, rather than paving the path for them--and this strategy takes a lot of pressure off of learners regarding mistakes.  I would repeat my mantra, sometimes for an entire semester, until my students felt comfortable enough to discuss things that went wrong and how they could have changed their responses.  After all, hindsight is 20/20 for most of us.  And I always told them I would be more than happy to point out my mistakes on any given day, because goodness knows, I make them.

As a mother, some days I feel like I've got this thing down pat.  There is no doubt that I have the best of intentions and that I love and adore my children.  Indeed, they are two of the most important people in my life, with their father and my parents coming in close seconds.  I take my role as a mother very seriously.  But sometimes I blow it.  And sometimes I blow it big.  I say things in a hurtful way, or I raise my voice, or my expectations are too high.  Sometimes I give consequences that leave even me wondering what I was thinking.

I know many of my readers have young children.  In some ways, those years seemed more challenging because there were so many social skills to teach, so many safety rules to review, so much close, attentive watching and entertainment that you go through.  But the rewards are different.  I would pick my kids up from preschool to smiles and dashes to me, as they yelled, "Mama! Mama!" as though Santa himself had just appeared.  There were the gentle hugs and kisses, the cups of the face and the ever-present, "I love you, Mama."  And the laughter.  The little giggles that had a way of erasing any irritation that had crept in throughout the day and making it all better.  And when you watch them sleep?  No matter how they were during the day, you know you've raised an angel.

I blew it last night with one of my kids.  I did something that was hurtful emotionally because I was trying to make a point (for the umpteenth time, and my kids are nothing if not stubborn).  I got a reaction, and a bad one.  And I'm not so sure I didn't deserve it.

Every semester that I taught, there would be at least one day that one of my students burst into tears over their mistakes in the classroom, over the responsibility she had heaped upon herself and the fear that she wouldn't be a good teacher because of her mistakes.  I'd bring out the tissues and talk about the millions of good things she did every day, and that everyone has a bad day once in awhile.  The important thing is to pick yourself up, create a plan for a new day, and keep going.

It's much the same for parents.  So I've thought about my plan.  I've thought about what I need to do to rectify my situation.  Is it perfect?  No.  But did a mistake suddenly erase the ten years I've spent trying my best to be a good parent?  I would hope not.

At the end of the day, people who work with children and live with children and care about those children feel immense responsibility to do the right thing.  We all make mistakes.  How could we learn if we didn't?  How would we evolve into even better parents and teachers?

Just a thought.  Thanks for reading, click the links, and share with your friends...and next time you make a mistake, own it and fix it, then let it go.  Everyone will feel better.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pilgrims and Indians (or Thanksgiving Thoughts, a little past due)

I am the parent of two Native American children.

For those of you who might have grown up in my era, with my type of textbooks, you probably believe like I did--that the Native Americans were friendly with their corn, saved the pilgrims that miserable first thanksgiving, and forged a wonderful bond of friendship.

Oh, how we lie!!!

Here are the facts:  Each Native American tribe represents a unique culture.  Across North America, there were at one point literally thousands of these tribes.  This means there were thousands of unique languages, foods, traditions, clothing, and belief systems.  Little by little, through a variety of governmental programs and policies, our nation has systematically destroyed all but a few of these unique cultures.

Most of us are at least minimally familiar with the Trail of Tears, the long walk forced upon thousands of Native Americans during the 1830s, following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  This act forced Native Americans to leave their own land in the southeastern part of the United States and walk half way across the country.  The majority of this walk occurred during the winter months.  Without adequate food, shelter, or clothing, death was common.

During the late nineteenth century, it was a common belief that Native Americans needed to be "civilized" by assimilating them into the culture of the majority (meaning caucasians).  Boarding schools aimed to "civilize" young Native American children became common, emphasizing a practice of removing Native American children from their families and placing them in these schools in an effort to force them to learn "white ways".  Children were discouraged from (and often abused for) using their native languages or practices.  Combined with multiple other governmental policies, it becomes easier to see how hundreds of unique cultures have been lost.

And lest we forget the wonderful "reservation" idea...does anyone else find it ironic that the one place the government dumped these people was, at the time, the driest, dustiest, most useless piece of land in the country?  There were several jokes circulating around Thanksgiving time about celebrating the holiday by walking into one's neighbor's home and announcing you've moved in and they need to move out.  My personal favorite was my husband's idea, in which I, being white, would yell "Manifest Destiny!" as he and my children began the long hike back to Oklahoma.  (In case you're unfamiliar, Manifest Destiny was a concept created by our government in the 19th century which basically announced we were entitled to take any and all lands from anyone, because we were chosen by God.  Apparently we were pretty special.)

Thanksgiving is an ambivalent time for me.  As a child, I remember participating in the traditional "Pilgrim and Indian" play at school and the feast.  I was pleased by how nice the Indians had been to us white folk.  It was really great they provided us with food to eat and we could be friends.  It wasn't until years later that I came to understand that these same tribes who had extended their hands in friendship were given blankets infected with smallpox (a disease new to Native Americans and devastatingly deadly), increasingly forced out of their homes and their land through deceptive treaties and just outright lies, and to this day are one of the single most underrepresented groups in the country when it comes to governmental policy.

So how do you raise a Native American child when you're a white parent at Thanksgiving?  You talk about reality.  You talk about morality and ethics.  You talk about the heart of the first thanksgiving, and the true nature of thankfulness and kindness.  You point out that the right thing to do is always right, even when other people do the wrong thing.  And you don't lie.  Ever.

We enjoy turkey like everyone else, and we have a lot to be thankful for.  Love and one another top the list.  But we don't participate in a rose-colored glasses look at the horrific treatment of a group of individuals that are easy to love one day of the year.

After all, my kids are Native American all year long.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Little Story About Immunizations...

Let me tell you a story.

First, I have to start off by giving props to all of my friends with babies and toddlers.  And goodness, there's a lot of them.  I keep up with a lot of people with the miracle of Facebook, and I love it.  Without it, I would miss out on seeing so many miracles every day.  Because I know so many people with little ones two and under, it seems that every few days I also hear a new mother lament about the pain her baby is going to go through in receiving a vaccination.  Most moms are genuinely concerned about the pain their baby will suffer, the discomfort and possible side effects of fever or muscle soreness.  And then there's the general mom-ness of not wanting your child to feel any pain.  Hey, most parents feel that way.  Who wants their kid to go around hurting...especially a tiny baby or a little toddler?

So here's my story:

Once upon a time there was a husband and wife who agreed to care for two children who had nowhere else to go.  The first child was a preschooler, and lived with them for a few months before the second one came.  The new parents were worried about doing everything right.  They took the oldest child to the doctor, to therapists, to preschool, and tried to offer him everything a small boy could need.

A couple of months passed and it was Christmas time.  The boy's sister arrived on Christmas Eve, a tiny toddler with a mop of curly hair and large doe eyes.  The boy was thrilled to see his sister again.  Both children were excited by the tree, receiving gifts and being with family.  Their new mom and dad had received their paperwork by now and everything seemed to be in order.  There was only one problem, the parents realized.  Their newest little child hadn't had any vaccinations since birth.  She had received one immunization--the one given immediately after birth--but none since then, and she was nearly two.

Two years behind in her immunizations.

This frightened the new parents tremendously.  Their precious child was going to be attending child care, playing on playgrounds, and being exposed to all sorts of germs and viruses.  They knew that the potential for catching one of these illnesses existed, and many of them could permanently damage or kill her.  So they formulated a plan.  Two days after Christmas, they would take the child to receive her first round of immunizations.

The mother somehow got nominated for this job.  (To this day I'm not sure how that happened, but that's how the story goes).  She took the little tot to the doctor's office and filled out the forms, giving the doctor copies of custody orders and the extremely blank-looking shot record.  Fortunately, the doctor's office was very kind to the new mother and assured her they would be as gentle as they could with the child, and combine as many immunizations as they could so there were fewer sticks.

The mother breathed a sigh of relief.  Fewer sticks.  That was good!  How many sticks, exactly, would the child need today?  After all, the mother had only known this child for three days.

The nurse smiled gently.  "We can do it in five today," she said.

Yes.  Five needles in a toddler in one session.

The mother held the child close and tried to comfort her.  The little girl cried with each poke.  It was heartbreaking for this new mother, whose child hardly knew her and didn't trust her.  Certainly, thought the mother, this experience wasn't building trust in their relationship.  The nurse used her kindest voice and gave fun bandaids to the child, and by the time the five shots were over, the child was sniffling.  So was the mother.  The mother carried her new toddler out to the car, buckled her in, and drove her home.  But she never forgot that day, and having to force her child to do something because it was in her best interest, even though in the short term it was painful.

I'm sure you've probably figured out that mother was me, and that child was my daughter.  I would never try to tell a parent they aren't entitled to worry about their child's immunizations.  But I learned early on that sucking it up and biting my upper lip in certain situations made a lot more sense than allowing me or my child to wallow in fear or pity.  There would be plenty of opportunities in the future--and ones that were far more painful--for wallowing.

I don't know if this helps or hurts for parents who are struggling with these moments.  I wish there had been a mom there when I first got my kids to tell me to let it go, that it wasn't worth worrying about.  To help me put it in perspective.  However, I'm still learning to do maybe it's a lesson that continues throughout life.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Bit of Laughter Each Day...

When I was twenty-three, I had a part-time job teaching preschool in a classroom of two-and three-year olds.  I was one of the afternoon teachers, and the morning teachers were a dynamic mother/daughter team who worked extremely well together.  To this day, I'm still a bit jealous of how close those two were--I don't think I could work in such close proximity with my mother on a daily basis!  They team-taught a group of twenty little ones, and the amount I learned from them was tremendous.  I'm sure I'll write lots of posts about the knowledge they imparted to me--the mother, as an amazing mentor, and the daughter, eventually as one of my closest friends (truly a soul sister in this life to this day)--but today, I wanted to write about something they taught me that I carried with me throughout the rest of my career, and hopefully always will.


You see, before I had the experience of working with these two women, I had worked in several childcares.  Childcare can be a fun place, but it can also be scary.  If you've hunted for a childcare for your own child, or worked in one that wasn't terrific, you know what I'm talking about.  I have seen things go on in childcare that I don't want to get into right now but frightened me enough to choose the highest-rated care for my own children and do unannounced visits regularly.  But the main thing that hardly ever happened in most of the places I worked was seeing adults laugh.  Adults were stressed.  Adults were managing chaos and trying to get through the day.  Adults were worried about licensing visits, breaking up arguments, managing too many children, changing too many diapers.

And then I met these two women.

I don't remember the exact moment when I realized this situation was different.  I knew the mother was sizing me up.  The daughter seemed less interested in that, and more interested in planning, as well as in her little toddler in another room.  It wasn't until I had the opportunity to do some work in the classroom that I realized something was different here.  When one of the kids made a mistake, the adults looked at each other, laughed, and helped to clean it up.  When the kids said something funny, it was actually funny to everyone.  When somebody wasn't clear on what they were to do, everyone enjoyed a good laugh and directions got clarified.  Nobody was put down or annoyed.  Nobody was frustrated and irritated.  There was an attitude of laughter, of love of life.  I hadn't know working with children could be like that before.

Children do annoying things every day.  As a matter of fact, I've been told by my teenagers (and sometimes other adults) that I do annoying things as well--although I'm not as convinced, but whatever.  But children also do funny things, just like we do.  Two days ago my mother, my daughter, and I were cleaning out some of my grandmother's old kitchen items.  My grandmother passed away in 1999, so it was long overdue.  My eleven year old kept announcing that we needed to take these things to "Antiques Rodeo Show" and make some money.  When I truly couldn't contain my inner laughter any longer, I finally explained to her there was no rodeo; it was a ROAD show.  After I had a good laugh, as did my mom, my daughter grinned, shrugged her shoulders, and said, "Oh, whatever, Mom!"

Laughter makes me a good teacher.  If I can't laugh with my kids then what's the point?  How much fun would we be if we didn't make each other laugh?  Figuring out what's amusing to a three-year old is part of the fun in teaching them.  Certain things are universally hilarious--knowing you're smarter than your teacher, saying the word "butt", playing chase, are all funny when you're three.  When you're almost five, insane knock-knock jokes that make absolutely no sense are the bomb.  My job isn't to point out that the joke made no sense; it's to rejoice in the fact that these kids have a hilarious sense of humor and THINK they've mastered something that they haven't yet, but are on the road to doing.

Every parent has a bajillion stories of the hilarious things their kids have done.  My kids tended to do gross but funny things, so I won't share them here (in case someone has a weak stomach!).  But suffice it to say that once I got over the shock that a person could actually perform certain acts, they were insanely funny and very memorable.  And the fact I'm a teacher helps me be reminded that MY kids aren't the only ones with a weird sense of humor.

Laugh, laugh, laugh.  Life is good with it.

Thanks for reading, click the links (those pennies add up!) and leave your comments below.  If for some reason you can't leave a comment, please feel free to leave it on my facebook page (Michelle Brown) or at my email (  I love to read what you're thinking!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Monsters and Nighttime

Ah, sleep.

It's probably one of my favorite pasttimes.  Give me the opportunity to take a nice, pleasant nap and I'm on it.  I try to get the recommended eight hours each night.  Some nights I'm successful but some I'm not.  I've mentioned before that both of my children have histories of neglect from their biological home, and those fears don't go away at a certain age.  I still have a thirteen year old with sleep disturbances and an eleven year old who has frequent nightmares.  So alas, our situation is a wee bit different from most families with kids their ages.

I remember when I was a little girl, my bedroom was right across the hall from my parents'.  When I was about six, I had seen an episode of the Bionic Woman (yeah, I know I just dated myself) where she was chasing after Bigfoot.  In my six-year old mind, Bigfoot was very real.  In fact, he was so real that he showed up outside of my window, in the shadows, in the middle of that very night!  I booked it into my parents' room and ended up sleeping between them.  If they had turned me away I don't know what I would have done.  I was truly panicked and believed--in the way only a child can believe--that Bigfoot really was about to get me.

Today I was perusing the internet and came across this mini film:
It's only about five minutes long, but chronicles the nighttime fear of Davide, a preschooler, who is convinced there is a monster in his room.  His parents are responsive and Daddy continues to try to tuck him in bed and settle him down repeatedly.  But Davide continues to come back over and over again, with stories of how the monster has reappeared; how he has changed positions in the room; how he won't respond to what Davide tells him; and finally how he is a "sweet" monster.  It is then that Davide speaks the most truthful words of the whole film:  I don't like the dark.  I don't want my door shut.  And the implied:  being alone in the dark scares me.

A huge part of working with and parenting young children is beginning to learn and understand how they think.  Davide is a clever little boy.  He knows there's no monster, but he also  knows he has a sensitive Daddy who will respond if he thinks his little boy is scared.  Only once the jig is up does he come clean with the truth--Daddy, don't leave me alone in the dark.

Most of us have had experiences that have scared us in the dark at some point.  Even as an adult, I'm not crazy about things that go bump in the night.  Weird noises, houses settling, whatever--it always gives me an icky feeling in my gut.  As the wife of a man who often worked twelve-hour night shifts at a local hospital, I became used to spending the night alone, and later, with my children.  But there were still nights where something would frighten me, I would lose sleep...and it sucked.

Sometimes in an effort to raise strong, resilient children, we expect things from our kids that even we as adults have a hard time delivering.  Perhaps my own nighttime fears have made me more sensitive to the dreams of my daughter, or to the fear of sleeping that my son has.  My children are no longer little, but I have confidence that despite their nighttime fears, they WILL be able to sleep comfortably one day as least on most nights.

If you're a parent who is struggling with a child who struggles with sleep, remember this:  a LOT of parents are in your position.  It's hard and it's exhausting.  But listen for the message behind the words.  Usually it's a deep rooted fear of the dark, of being separated from the people you love and are with during the day.

And here's one final trick.  If you can't beat that imaginative thinking, join it.  I have a fantastic recipe for "monster spray" that is guaranteed to get rid of monsters of all kinds.  Mix up the following ingredients and help your child spray it in any place monsters or scary creatures may be hiding.  It has a 100% success rate--and yes, kids really believe this works.

1 spray bottle (you can decorate it with your child--sharpies and stickers work well)
food coloring (just a drop)

Mix it up and spray away, and watch those monsters stay at bay!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Who Do You Want To Be Today?

One of my former students who is now teaching was talking about a little boy in her class.  He announced to her today that he was no longer his former self.  Instead, he was Ironman.  And he stayed Ironman all day.

If you've worked with or lived with young children, you recognize this stage of development.  Imagination is at its peak and children often assume different roles.  In fact, that's the point of dramatic play--to try out different roles and see what it would be like to be a mommy, a baby, a daddy, a police officer, a firefighter, a librarian (okay, so not a lot of kids pick that one, but I'm sure somebody has).  One year when I was teaching, we had set up our dramatic play center as a house, complete with a bed.  The children proceeded to conduct a funeral, where one child had died (and had some lovely plastic carnations placed in her hands) as everyone else stood around and said nice things about her.

Dramatic play serves multiple purposes.  Not only does it allow children to try on roles, it also allows them to work through situations that they don't yet understand.  Events such as funerals can be confusing and even frightening to young children, but by reenacting the event, they gain control over what is going on and build their confidence, lessening their fear.  After the horrific events of 9/11, teachers across the nation saw a huge increase in this type of behavior.  Paintings done by young children often contained fiery colors or large burning buildings.  In my own classroom, some of my children built very tall towers and crashed them down with "planes" (other blocks).  They repeated these play themes for days and even weeks, until the fear was lessened and they felt some control over their world again.

Every year that I've taught, I've had at least one child who has come in at some point in the year announcing that he or she has changed his/her name.  I've met some interesting characters, including Batman, Robin Hood, Ironman, Diamond, and Thomas the Train.  In my early years of teaching, and in an effort of encouraging creativity, I would try to actively play along.  Our children wore name tags at school, and I actually created a new one for "Diamond" when she asked me to.  Diamond came to school for several weeks before she returned to her former self.  As I got older (and probably a bit more pragmatic) I would have times that many of my students would announce they had new names, and so I would tell them it was nice to hear that, but my old brain had trouble keeping up, so if I called them by their other name, I appreciated them understanding.  Usually they would grin at me and say, "okay."  After all, it's always fun to think you're way smarter than your teacher.  That doesn't stop for your whole life either, by the way, but that's another post.

Anyway, back to the beginning of this got me thinking, if you could be anybody today, who would YOU be?  Why should children have the corner on getting to pretend and change who they are?  Can't we all do that to some extent?  Some people do it as their careers--actors, police officers, even teachers at times--but we all have the ability to explore role play.  So what if you're SuperFamily tonight and all fly to the dinner table?  Just avoid the kryptonite.  Be Batman with your kid and go build something in your basement.  When I was a little girl, I would pretend I was Wonder Woman and put on my bathing suit, red galoshes, and a cape and go play with my friends.  Not that I'm recommending anyone go scare their neighbors, but why not try something on that's a little different?  Promise, your kids will love it--and you might too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dress Pants and Expectations

I think I'm going to rename this "The Bitching Blog".

Actually, that title would be a bit unfair to myself, and certainly to everyone who reads and comments, because I do feel the majority of things I post on here are very relevant and fair without going too far overboard.  But right now I'm seeing red...or more accurately, black.

My daughter auditioned for what they call "select chorus" in her school.  It's basically a show choir--the children travel to different places and perform.  She was placed in chorus at the beginning of the year not by her choice, but by the school as one of her electives.

Last night, she came home from a school event at 6:30 and announced that she had made select chorus.  We were thrilled!  Then she announced that she needed black dress pants and black dress shoes by 8:30 this morning.

I sent her teacher an email and explained that we were unaware of this need until last night and I apologized for the inability to provide her with black pants.  After I sent the email, I checked out the chorus website at the school, and yep, there it was--dress uniform required.  It's been listed since September.  Go, me.

I received a terse email from her teacher this morning that began with no heading, no greeting, merely a "the dress uniform was outlined in the syllabus and is required.  She will not be able to participate if she does not have one."  To her credit, the teacher said she would look around and see if she had an extra.

For years I've been on the other side of the fence.  I've been the teacher with kids who show up with no diapers, no warm coat on cold days, no appropriate shoes or change of clothing or backpack.  When I taught public school, I considered myself lucky if my kids showed up in person, never mind bringing supplies.  I would feel that annoyance in my gut when I'd see little Timmy coming to school in a light windbreaker on a 30-degree day.  But hey, that's why we had an extra coat supply, and we used it.  It just wasn't worth getting upset about, because there was nothing you could DO about it.  I can't be at twenty kids' houses at seven a.m. and dress them, nor should I.  So they show up how they show up, and we work with it.

And now I'm on the other end of the fence, trying to manage two kids in middle school, each taking seven classes (or is it eight?  Even I don't know for sure).  Each class has a syllabus, and most of them asked for the syllabus to be signed and returned on the second day of school.  Despite my amazing psychic powers (as well as my jotting notes crazily with pen and paper), I did not catch every supply from fourteen (or sixteen?) different classes that my kids needed.  (Just so you don't think I suck, they do this weird A/B schedule where some classes meet every day and some every other day.  I just look at the grades.)

And I'm aggravated.

I want to meet my children's teachers halfway.  I want my kids to do well in school.  But at what point do we put so much expectation on parents that it's downright difficult to do?  I consider myself relatively smart and resourceful, but this one got right past me like a bird heading south for the winter.  And I can't help but wonder how difficult it would have been to just send a freaking note home at the end of last week.  Heck, I would have even settled for a mass email.

The fact of the matter is that everyone--parents, teachers, and kids--are pushed beyond maximum capacity these days.  Expectations fly high on every side of the fence.  And when expectations are so high and people disappoint, then for some reason human beings seem to feel they have the right to be downright short, or even rude.

So hey chorus lady, don't get your panties in a wad.  The kid will be there with her pants and shoes and shirt by December 7, the next date for a performance (thanks for letting me know that today, by the way, because I couldn't find it anywhere else).  And you'd get a lot farther with parents if you wrote with a little respect (saying hello, goodbye, or even signing your name) than acting as if I were a kid you'd love to send to in-school suspension--even if you feel like you would.

There now.  I said what I wanted to say, and we can all go back to our day.  Have a good one, and whatever you do, don't forget your dress pants.

Monday, November 15, 2010

School Sucks!!!

My heart is breaking a little.

One of the children I used to teach has announced to his parents that he now "hates school".  He's in kindergarten.

What, you ask, could possibly make a child hate kindergarten?  Isn't that the grade where you go and play with stuff?  You learn to make friends and learn the alphabet and eat fun snacks?  You get to play on the playground and only stay for part of the day?  Your teachers are nice and you get to use cool stuff like crayons and markers and scissors and glue all day?  That's how it was when I was in kindergarten.  In fact, one of my fondest memories is of my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Manix.  (I could be spelling her name wrong, but cut me some slack...I was only five and it was a long time ago!)  Anyway, she was the coolest person on the planet in my book.  I LOVED Mrs. Manix.  She had a Ronald McDonald doll, and when it was your special day, you got to go check the weather and dress old Ronald appropriately.  On MY day, it was raining, and I got to put on his raincoat.  Heh.  Score.

Anyway, when I heard recently that my sweet little friend--the same exuberant, creative, fun-loving child I had taught for multiple years--was now saying he hated school, my heart broke a little bit.  I think that happens to most adults when they finally hear the dreaded words from their children's mouths:  "I hate school."  We like to believe that if teachers are doing their jobs correctly, and parents are doing theirs, we can avoid that attitude.  And I believe, to some extent, we can.  My youngest child was ten before she ever mentioned not liking school, and hers stemmed from peer pressure.  When I asked her why she didn't like school, her answer was along the lines of, "Well, Tammy and Lisa and Margaret don't like it either.  And Mrs. Blue makes us do WORK!" (Oh horror!  And yes, the names have been changed to protect the innocent from my daughter's accusations ;-))  My son, however, was three weeks into his first public school experience when he began coming home from school in tears and begging not to go back.

Difference in resiliency?  Possibly.  Difference in personality?  Absolutely.  Difference in school experience?  You bet.  You see, my son's teacher spent the majority of the day with over twenty first graders sitting at seats, unable to do anything but write and answer her drills.  There were no group activities, no social activities, no hands-on learning.  Whereas my daughter had teachers who engaged her cognitively by using multiple types of learning strategies (games, group activities, independent activities, physical movement, etc.), my son had a teacher who utilized two strategies--independent work (completing worksheets) and drilling sounds and words.  You know, she said the word and he said it back.  She said the sound and he said it back.  On curriculum night, I was only there for forty-five minutes and I was ready to tear my own eyes out of my sockets and shove them in my ears to end it all.

Which brings me all back to my little friend who, in kindergarten, hates school.  How does that happen, again?  Sometimes I worry that the kind of teaching we do in preschool--emergent curriculum that encourages children's curiosity, questions, and thinking--sets them up for painful public school experiences.  It's difficult to go from an environment where your questions and creativity are not only seen as assets but encouraged to one where the expectation involves warming a seat for multiple hours.  It's hard to go from having a teacher who answers your challenges with, "That's a good idea...let's try that," to one who sees challenges as defiance.  And it's hard, as a parent, to move from a classroom that focuses on a home-like environment to a more sterile space with more children, fewer teachers, and less intimate communication.

I don't know how to solve the problem of helping little ones to like school.  Obviously it's a complex issue that involves a lot of dedication on many levels.  In my fantasy world, schools would be geared around children's needs instead of governmental agendas; teachers would be trained to understand children's perspectives and recognize that social and emotional development is as critical as cognitive development; classrooms would be supplied with everything they needed without elaborate fundraising schemes or bake sales; parents would partner with teachers willingly and easily to establish and reach goals for each child; and every child would come to public school ready to learn.  But regardless of whatever national or state laws or policies we pass, these things have not happened, and my little friend still has days he hates to go to school.

To him I say this:  sometimes we have to learn to work with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. That's a hard concept for a kindergartner, but it's practice for life.  And to every mom and dad out there facing the same situation, know you have a right to advocate for your child.  You have the right to insist your child be in a comfortable learning environment where needs are met.

Just know we're not all there yet.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

From a Teacher to a Parent

One of my traits as a person is that I try very hard to be honest but tactful.  Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.  The honesty part is usually pretty much there, but the tact...well, sometimes not so much.  My entry yesterday was an open letter from a parent to all teachers.  Well, what's good for the get it.  I'm going to try to be tactful but honest, as I tried to be yesterday.  So if you've ever wondered what a good teacher thinks about when it comes to working with children (including your child) and families (including yours), read ahead.  If not, stop right now and I'll see you soon.  :-)

Dear Parent,

Ours is an interesting relationship.  You have entrusted me to educate your child.  I have entrusted myself, as has the school system, to meet a variety of skills and milestones within a certain amount of time.  During the nine months your child is in my care, s/he will have approximately three hundred skills s/he will either develop or master.  Yes.  Three hundred.  That's close to two a day.

My day starts with my own family in getting them up and ready for their own school experience.  I arrive at school an hour before your child, to ensure that all the materials I have (many of which I have purchased with my own money) are ready for your child to learn.  My littlest one is at home today with strep throat and a high fever, and I'm worried about her, but I'm keeping a smile on my face and trying to check my personal concern at the door.  If I have a chance, I'll call her at lunchtime.

I do a sweep of the room, consult with other teachers, ensure our day is planned and ready and we are all on the same page to greet your child and make sure today is a great day.  The children arrive and we're delighted to see them.  After all, this is my chosen profession.  I enjoy every minute with your child.  However, sometimes I have to have difficult conversations with you.  One of your children threw up before entering the building, and I had to insist he go home today, even though you were sure he was fine.  It's a licensing rule I am not allowed to break, but I wasn't sure you understood that when you looked angrily at me and told your child that I didn't want him in school.  Nor was it easy when another child came into our peanut-free environment finishing off her breakfast--a peanut butter sandwich.  One of her classmates has such a severe peanut allergy that the spores alone, in the air, could kill her.  So I managed to get the peanut butter child to the sink pretty quickly and make sure she's washed really well while you left.

One of the more challenging aspects of my job is helping you understand that your child needs you to do certain things in certain ways.  For instance, saying goodbye.  If you leave him or her because it seems like a good time to sneak out, I'm left comforting your child's hysteria five minutes later when they realize that you tricked them.  When you don't take home their work, or pay attention to it, or talk about it, that is difficult too.  Your child feels like it doesn't matter.  If it doesn't matter to you, then why should it matter to them?

I really wish you would ask me questions, but in a kind and respectful way.  If you don't understand or agree with the curriculum, ask me!  I'd love to explain it to you and show you how your child is learning.  If you are unsure of certain policies in our classroom or our school, I may be able to help clear that up, or at least send you in the right direction.

Please remember that despite how easy it looks, I went to school for a long time to learn how to educate. I don't babysit.  I am a teacher.  My long term goal is always on expanding your child's knowledge base. I have taken years of courses, done multiple assignments, spent hours and hours in the field and a variety of classrooms to finally be able to spend time in my own.

I realize your child is precious to you, and he or she is to me, too, but in a different way.  When I bring issues to the table for you to hear, it is out of the best interest of your child.  It's because I want what is best for your child in this environment, and s/he may need some help.  I am NOT the parent--that is and always will be your role.  Instead, my role is that of your child's teacher--a role that will help expand his or her mind and prepare him or her for certain aspects of life.

I want to have great communication with you, but sometimes I'm slow to respond.  My child is sick, I have staff meetings, I have outside obligations that make it difficult to meet immediate demands.  Please be patient with me, and if I forget, remind me.  I promise I didn't forget on purpose.

Lastly, please know that when I talk with you about difficult subjects, it is because I care deeply for your child, not out of malicious intent.  Sometimes I may be wrong, like most people.  But I feel I ethically am responsible for informing you when things are not working.  Hopefully we can work together.

Your child's teacher.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

From A Parent to Teachers

When I first became a parent, I thought my situation was completely unique.  As I posted not too long ago, I am not a biological mother.  Instead, I am raising two children whom I did not give birth to, but had rough starts in life.  Knowing their histories made me some sort of fierce mama bear.  I will admit I have been extremely tough on the people who care for my children.  I have high expectations, but this is why:  my children had been through situations that nobody, even adults, should ever have to experience or be equipped for.  I swore as I held my tiny ones right after they landed with us that I would always, always protect them.  (If you're a parent, you know what I mean, and if you're an experienced parent, your snorting at the impossibility of that statement.

So, as I often like to do, I wanted to write an open letter to my teacher friends about parenthood.  I hope you'll read it and think about it when you're working not only with parents but with their children.

Dear Teacher,

Thank you for your investment in my child's education.  As an educator myself, I know the dedication you are planning to put forth throughout the school year to ensure that all the children learn what they need to learn to be successful next year.  I know you will spend a lot of your time planning, grading, counseling, and caring for the children in your class.  But there are some things I'd like to tell you about my perspective as a mom.

It was once said that "to have a child is to forever have your heart walking outside your body."  In my experience, no statement has ever rung truer about motherhood for me.  The hardest part of sending my children off to public school is that I am entrusting my babies to a system that I have very little control over and know very little about regarding its inner workings.  You see, you may be a wonderful person. But I don't know you.  I've never had a drink with you, you've never been to my house, we've never gone shopping or had lunch.  I trust you're not some kind of monster with a criminal record, but there's a vast continuum between "criminal record" and "loving, respectful adult".  My own experiences in school jaded me into understanding that some teachers, in some schools, can get away with anything.  When I was a child, I witnessed children being verbally and even physically abused on a regular basis.  I have spent the better portion of my career working to ensure that good teachers enter classrooms with the knowledge and support they need, so they can be loving and competent and respectful.  But I'm not naive enough to believe this means every teacher.

For six to seven hours a day, my child will be in your care.  That's literally more time than my child spends in MY care on an average weekday.  I have no way of telling what your day will be like, or how you talk with my child, or even if you respect my child.  I have one child who tells me very little, and another who tells me quite a bit, but through a limited perspective.  I hope and pray every day that they are learning what they need from you--not only intellectually but socially as well.  I hope you're treating them with respect and kindness.  I hope you practice empathy while holding them to appropriate standards.  Basically, I hope you're doing all the things I believe a skilled teacher should be doing with children.  But I really have very little way of knowing.

I appreciate notes home that let me know how they are doing and what they are learning.  I appreciate emails and phone calls, especially when they're not always talking about problems.  If my children are having problems, I want to support them in solving the problem.  Please understand that my support always lies with my children, not with you.  I believe your support should lie with my children also.  Our job in joining forces together is to make a better environment for all kids.  That's what I want.

Please don't approach me, no matter how well you think you know me, with a statement that is insulting to my child's personality.  I live with my children.  I know exactly--far more than you do--what their personalities are like, who they are, and what they struggle with.  I am an involved parent.  I read your letters, I spend time talking and hanging out with my kids.  Please don't insult me--or my children--by implying that I don't know how to parent, that my parenting is somewhat less than adequate, or that my child is a "bad kid".  When you use terms like "bossy", "controlling", "out of control", "impulsive", etc., you've insulted one of the most important people in my world.  You've also sent a message to me loud and clear--intended or not--that you don't like my child.  It bristles my back like no other and my mother instinct is to get my kid as far away from you as possible.  If you want my cooperation, you better be able to tell me YOUR plan of how we go about helping my kid get back on track.  I cannot control my child from two or five or ten miles away.  I will support any plan that encourages my child's success. That doesn't mean I will support any method you toss out.  And it also means that you better have a darn good understanding of my child, and that includes his or her strengths as well as the weakness that you mentioned.

Every parent has to entrust their child to strangers in a school system.  Just as I would imagine most people have, I have lived through experiences that were very painful to me.  But if you want to hurt me, go after my children.  Nothing hurts a parent more than seeing their child being hurt.  Teachers need to understand a parent's vulnerability.  You hold my beating heart in your hands seven hours a day, and I have no control over who you are or what you do.

You hold a special role in my child's life, one that they may never forget--I pray for positive reasons.  I respect your knowledge and your hard work, but I respect your ability to build a positive relationship with my child even more.  When you are able to accomplish that--when my child trusts you and is open to learning everything s/he can--I will be grateful to you for forever.  Our family will never forget you and your kindness and your dedication.

Yours truly,

***Thanks for reading!  Click on the links and pass the blog along.  Tomorrow--a letter from teachers to parents!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

All Types of Families

Lately, there's been a wonderful post from a mama blogger circulating the internet, talking about her four-year old son who wanted to be Daphne from Scooby-Doo for Halloween.  He did indeed go as Daphne, and the mom found the biggest challenges he faced came not from his peers, but from other mothers, who were everything from ignorant to flat out rude and insulting to her and her child.  The implication made repeatedly to her was that somehow, by allowing a four year old boy to dress up as a female cartoon character, she was creating a homosexual child.

I applaud this mother for accepting her child for exactly who he is--a four year old who enjoys dressing up.  When my son was four, he came out for school one day looking like he was a member of the Village People (and that is SO not an exaggeration).  I wish I had been comfortable enough to let him go exactly how he was.  There wasn't a single kid in his class who would have cared, but I was worried about what other adults would think of me.  When my daughter was around seven or eight, she went through a period of really enjoying putting together very unique outfits.  Granted, they weren't things I would necessarily wear, but I let it go.  I had learned the lesson with her older brother--it was perfectly okay for her to express herself through her clothing.  She didn't wear anything that was inappropriate.  Who cared if her clothing matched?

But I digress...I really didn't want to talk about how kids express themselves in different ways.  What I wanted to talk about was the kinds of families kids come from, and how different we all can be.  All kinds of families.  Twenty years ago, many of the children I worked with came from two-parent families, and some from divorced families.  Now I've worked with so many types of mixes of adults caring for children, it's impossible to name.  Grandparents who are parenting grandchildren, adopted children, single parents (both mothers and fathers), gay and lesbian parents, and other relatives raising young children from extended family members.

I'm a pretty honest person, and I've struggled with the idea of blogging about this ever since I started this blog.  I believe in honesty but I also believe in a family's (especially a child's) right to privacy.  However, I know myself well enough to know that my views and my writing are strongly affected by my own personal experiences.  And those experiences include raising two children who are not biologically my own.

In the interests of privacy for my children, I will not disclose their names, nor how they came to live with us or specifics of some of the struggles they still have to this day.  Suffice it to say that my experience has led me to be a strong proponent of early intervention and education, parent education, and stability and bonding.

Being the mother in a nontraditional family is usually pretty much how I would imagine being a mother in any other family usually is.  I love my kids, talk with them, play with them, teach and discipline them. I feed them and enforce bedtime, homework, showers, and all that stuff.  There are a lot of extras that go into our situation--which I won't get into--but those extras go to meet needs that stem from early neglect.

One of the things that I think is most challenging for families that are nontraditional is feeling accepted by the rest of the world.  Many of the parents I have spoken with who have nontraditional families worry about their children fitting in and being accepted by other kids.  As an educator, my biggest fear is that my children won't be accepted by adults; that adults in their lives will form preconceived notions about my children's abilities and personalities because of their histories.  We have never made their histories a secret; in our situation it would have done no good anyway since one of them remembers bits and pieces of life before.  We choose to disclose certain amounts of information on a need to know basis.  That includes the children--it is up to them when and if they choose to disclose information about their lives.

I find that often when my children--or other people's children--experience prejudice, it comes out of ignorance rather than malevolence.  Teachers who ask for baby pictures to add to a scrapbook don't think of the fact that not every child has one.  Neither of mine do.  At the end of last school year, my daughter's school included a page of all of the graduating fifth-graders when they were babies.  Parents were encouraged to submit photos.  Although I have seen exactly one photo of my daughter at approximately age seven months, I do not possess any of her prior to nearly her second birthday.  It hurt me, as a parent, to feel that exclusion, and I'm sure it hurt her as she watched her classmates' photos displayed proudly by loving parents.  School projects about families can cause a lot of anxiety for children in nontraditional families--do I have to tell my classmates about how I'm different than they are?  And the questions people ask are sometimes well-meaning but highly inappropriate.  When my daughter was three, she and I had gone to a function with a friend.  As my daughter was standing next to my friend, another well-meaning woman looked at my child delightedly and said to my friend, "She's so beautiful!  Where did you get her?"  (Yes, my daughter is a different race than both me and my friend.)  Situations like these are ones I worry about for my children.  Everyone wants to be accepted, and shouldn't have to hide who they are.

So if your neighbor's kid wants to don a Daphne costume, good for him.  If your cousin and her female partner are raising a child together, more power to them.  If you know the grandmother down the street has full-time care of two little ones, go for it, Grandma.  And if you see some white woman with two beautiful children of a different race with her, it might be me.  And yeah, they're my kids...and no, I didn't buy them at Walmart on Black Friday.

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Crying Babies and Comfort, Part Two

If you've been following this blog, you know I wrote a post about picking up crying babies the other day.  Actually, what I said was, "Always pick up a crying baby."  One of my good friends, who is the mother of twin toddlers, wrote an excellent response to that post.  She questioned my use of the term "always" and if it was a black and white issue.  She and her husband had struggled several months ago to make a decision regarding whether they could continue to always pick up both of their babies every time they cried, particularly at night.  The mom met her children's needs all day long but she and her husband were running on fumes every night.  They needed sleep, and sleep would enable them to continue to be the best parents they could during the daytime.  So, after much debate, they decided to let the babies sleep through the night.  You can read how she accomplished this within a couple of days, and pretty painlessly, in the comments section of Wednesday, November 3rd's post.

I chose to write about this today because my friend was right.  The use of terms like "always" in discussions such as this one push ideas into black and white terms, and there are very few situations I can think of that the answers are as simple as "always" or "never".  My friend's comment gave me the opportunity to think about and clarify my previous post and point of view.  I did respond to her comment, which you can also read (it follows her comment), and I will probably repeat some of it here, so if you already read it, bear with me.

"Crying it out" doesn't exist only at bedtime.  I think a lot of parents get focused on the idea of crying it out at bedtime.  Honestly, I'm not a big fan.  But I'm also not the parent of newborn twins, or of a colicky baby, or working a full time job and coming home to care for a newborn.  I can understand how some parents need to make decisions that best benefit their whole family, and it may not always be what "experts" or even people who know a lot about early childhood believe or think or know or speculate.  As a parent, you have to make a lot of decisions based on your own personal situation, and what works best for your family.

I have worked in the field of early childhood for well over twenty years.  In that time, I have seen infants left to fall asleep on themselves in high chairs after eating.  I have heard babies cry helplessly for hours waiting for someone--anyone--to come by and touch them.  I have watched adults turn their backs on crying babies, believing they are somehow teaching an infant to develop independence or self-control.  I have seen and read about research that discusses the importance of touch and comfort regarding neurological development, and I have seen and worked with children of varying ages who have not had the foundation of touch and nurture.  It is from these experiences (and many more like them) that I was drawing my conclusions from the other day.

Last night, my eleven-year old woke me from a sound sleep.  She had had a nightmare and was terrified.  I comforted her for several minutes, just holding her frightened little self, before asking if she was ready to go back to bed.  You see, my child has recurring nightmares and has for many years.  She had a difficult start in life before she came to live with us.  I cannot imagine, as her mother, sending her to bed without comfort after one of those nightmares.  Her nightmares are real to her, and scary.  I'm the adult who's supposed to comfort her.  Turning her away in an effort to make her more independent, soothe herself, or whatever--to me, that's pointless.  In those darkest moments, when our children are fearful and needy, those are the moments when we are called upon the most.  We are truly our children's protectors, their knights in shining armor.  It is our job to make this world a little less scary while we still can, and assuring them that yes, someone who loves and cares for them will be there.  That's the basis of trust.

Assisting your child in sleeping by him or herself throughout the night so you can function is a totally different issue than turning your back on a terrified baby repeatedly, much as insisting my eleven-year old return to her bed is a different issue than refusing her comfort after a bad dream.  Children do not develop neurological deficits or problems with trust bonding when the majority of what they experience are healthy, loving interactions.  However, the possibility to harm a baby--or even an older child--exists when needs are ignored.

So perhaps I misspoke in saying to "always pick up a crying baby".  Perhaps, as another of my friends pointed out, the phrase, "grow a brain--snuggle a baby" would be more apt.  Either way, if you take your responsibility seriously as a parent and educate yourself, you're doing the best you can.  And that's all anyone can ever ask from you.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Secrets Nobody Talks About

Today's blog is going to be directed to my many friends who are new parents.  If you're not a parent yet, this is probably a helpful read, although you may not agree or understand it yet.  That's okay.  File it away in that compartment of your brain entitled "may someday be useful".  If you are a parent, you may or may not have had this experience.  I can only speak for myself.

My dearest friends,

Congratulations on your beautiful arrival.  You have been anticipating this moment for awhile now, and when you look at your baby you see all your hopes and dreams wrapped up into one tiny bundle of joy.  Babies are beautiful and should be cherished, as you well know.  You've likely been told all about how wonderful motherhood (or fatherhood) is, how it will be the most rewarding thing you'll ever do, how you will love your baby in a way you could not comprehend loving another person before.  All of that is true.

But there's a lot to parenthood that most people don't talk about, and it's those shadows that linger in the background that I believe lead to some of the more painful aspects of parenting--self-doubt, fear, depression, worry, even abuse.  The parts that nobody tells you about.  Some of these things you'll anticipate--the exhaustion, the constant need of another person being tied to you all day and night.  But the wear on a person can be enormous.  Until you've actually gone for what seems like days with very little sleep, until you've had another person dependent upon you for everything, there is no amount of description that can accurately portray how exhausting parenthood can be.

Nobody tells new parents how hard of an adjustment it is to give up your social life, your typical relationship with your spouse, your sex life, your regular eating and sleeping schedules.  Nobody prepares you for how a simple fifteen-minute trip to the store will now take an hour. How the life you knew before, with spontaneous decisions and meeting friends for lunch or drinks will disappear. Nor do most people talk about the helplessness new parents often feel when they have fed, changed, rocked, and sung to their baby, only to have the child continue to scream loudly for what seems to be hours on end.  In other words, nobody tells you the real side of parenting.

I know that some parents embrace every challenge head-on with no (or few) problems, and I applaud them.  But for most, parenting--especially initially--is hard.  It's overwhelming and scary at times.  You wonder if you did everything right, or even anything right.  You question if your baby would be crying if you knew more.  You wonder what kind of parent you'll be in the long run and if you'll really, truly be able to meet your baby's needs.  If this path you've chosen--to give another life--was really a path meant for you at all.

The reality is that some of those fears will never go away.  They will morph into different fears and worries over time, about meeting your child's needs and wondering if your parenting skills are what is best in the moment.  But many of the fears and worries and even the depression new parents feel in the beginning greatly lessens or even disappears with time.  Life will become a new normal, and you will reap all the rewards you've heard about.

If you're a new parent who's struggling, find someone to talk with.  Develop a support system.  There is no shame in needing to lean on other people.  Raising children is one of the hardest jobs on the planet if you do it well.  It's one of the easiest if you don't.  Recognize that those fears and worries that nag you in the back recesses of your mind are normal.  If you are struggling with depression or overwhelming anxiety, find a professional to talk to.  See your doctor.

Parenthood is a blessing, it's true.  But I've been a parent for ten years and very few days do I go to bed and think, "piece of cake!".  I do, however, go to bed and think, "Thank God for my family."

Much love,

Thanks for reading!  Click on the links and leave your comments below...and feel free to share with your friends!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Always Pick Up A Crying Baby

One of my absolute favorite shows on television is Law and Order: Criminal Intent.  I could launch into a variety of reasons this is so, but I won't, because that's really not why you're reading this blog, is it?  Instead, I wanted to talk about an episode a couple years ago that I found a bit bizarre.  This woman wanted her child to attend an extremely prestigious NYC preschool, so her solution to the problem of getting her child in was to kill off the parents of the other children.  Nice, huh?  Anyway, as Detectives Goren and Eames corner her in the children's nap room at the preschool, she tells them, "Never wake a sleeping baby."  Then she pulls out a gun and all drama ensues.

Anyway, one of my former students recently had a baby and had mentioned feeling completely relieved upon reading that you can't spoil a baby by picking it up.  For some reason I started thinking about my mantra, "always pick up a crying baby" and it reminded me of crazy lady's "never wake a sleeping baby".  Okay.  I never said this blog would always make sense, but it was fun to me.

I have huge issues with the idea of letting a baby "cry it out".  What in the world are they crying out, exactly?  Energy?  Frustration?  Fear?  Infants have very few ways to communicate, and crying is one of them.  When a baby cries, s/he is trying to tell the adult could be something identifiable and easily fixable (I'm wet, I'm cold, I'm hungry) or something not so easily recognizable (I miss you, I'm scared, I'm just damn uncomfortable today!).

When I taught, I often asked my students to imagine that they had a piece of duct tape over their mouths and needed to tell me that they had to leave for an emergency.  How would they do that?  There were no ways to write; no tools to use.  Only their emotional ability to convey an important message.  Of course, the logical thing to do would be to fuss or cry to gain attention.  The point here is that none of them were fussing or crying at random, or in an effort to manipulate me.  They were desperate to get meaning across.

The long-held belief that "babies cry to manipulate" is a crock.  The ability to manipulate another person is something that an infant isn't cognitively able to do yet.  WE, as adults, may label it manipulation when we see that the baby is happy and comforted when we pick him up but begins to cry when we put him back down.  That's not manipulation, folks.  That's your baby telling you, "Hey, dude, I really, really love you."

There are even more important reasons that babies cry and adults need to respond.  Emotionally, trust is built between the baby and the caregiver.  The baby learns to trust that the same reaction will happen, and s/he can count on the adult to care for him or her.  Neurologically, when infants are held, comforted, eye contact is made, and there is a nurturing bond being built, the baby's brain literally lights up like a switchboard.  All sorts of things are connecting that enable that baby to develop cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically.  Babies who are severely denied these experiences, involving touch and response, may develop conditions ranging from failure to thrive (a condition where the child fails to grow as expected) to reactive attachment disorder (a disorder where a child fails to develop the emotional and social skills necessary to bond with others).

So many well-meaning parents ignore their crying babies in an effort to teach them to "self-soothe".  Self-soothing--the ability for a baby to calm itself--is important, but it's not optimally learned by adults ignoring a child's cries.  Children who are ignored and eventually settle are learning to self-soothe, but at what cost?  The cost of realizing nobody will comfort them?  Self-soothing is best taught through modeling and close contact and comfort.  As infants begin to develop blanket preferences, suckling preferences, even particular positions they prefer to sleep in, they are learning to soothe themselves--to do what feels good to calm down.

No baby should ever completely learn to self-soothe.  If so, parents wouldn't be necessary for any more than dropping some food by and checking for a pulse.  So pick up your baby and don't feel guilty about it.  Trust me, those days are shortly numbered and before you know it, your infant is going to be singing a different tune...usually one that starts with "I do it!".

Democracy for All

Well, I hope everyone got out and voted and did their civic duty yesterday.  As anyone who follows this blog knows, I did not.  I'm still feeling icky about it, but the worst part is knowing that however the polls turned out, I get to live with a result I abstained from, whether by accident or by choice.  Yay me.  (That was sarcastic, by the way.)

Anyway, I wanted to talk about democracy and young children.  It's interesting to ponder how we pass political, cultural, and societal messages on to our children, even at very young ages.  Sometimes we do this in really appropriate ways, such as voting over a class pet's name or the restaurant we want to go to eat at for dinner.  Other times, not so much.  I've known people who have let their preschool children weigh in on whether they move to other states, whether they attend school, and the ever-tricky proposition of letting children decide the consequence for another child's behavior.  Yikes, times three.

Young children don't have the world experience or perspective to be able to make such decisions.  There's a reason the voting age is eighteen years and not eighteen months.  Although I think an argument could be made (and fairly succesfully) for sixteen-year olds to vote, obviously there are limits to what young children can understand.

When you participate in a democratic--or even a republic--process, there is an implication that you have done your research and are well-educated in your choices.  Part of what we do when we give children the opportunity to choose things, whether it's outfits or the veggie at dinner, is helping them to learn how to make educated choices.  Not only are choices critical for kids to learn because they will be making them for the rest of their lives, but they're an integral part of the political and social process of our country.  Don't like what's going on this four years?  Vote for change.

Every culture and society has its own unique value system.  In our country we value independence and democracy quite highly, and it's reflected in all we do.  Individual choice is something we treasure over group thinking and pressure.  Children in and from other cultures have different early experiences that will later feed into how they choose to live their lives, and what their culture deems as appropriate.

As you ponder how you're building a "democratic" citizen, keep in mind what kids are able to do.  They're able to choose outfits and cereals, to choose their toys and their friends.  They're not able to choose where to live, where or when to go to school, or major decisions for family or classrooms.  By giving children a voice at home and in the classroom, they learn that they do have power and that power can result in many different things.  And THAT lesson is at the root of democracy.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Voting with Kids

I have failed my country today.  I am not voting.

I moved over the summer and between getting settled, enrolling kids in school, looking for a job, starting a small business, and the millions of other things that occur, I just didn't register to vote in my new precinct.  It's not something I'm proud of.  In fact, I'm pretty damned ashamed of it.

I have taught my children since a very young age that part of the responsibility of living in a democratic/republic society is voting.  Every year.  Regardless of the issues.  Not only voting, but learning about the candidates and the laws and being educated when you go into the polls.  Every year for the last nine years, I have been accompanied by at least one child to the polling booth.  Who comes with me varies according to schedule and interest, but I'm a huge believer in modeling.  I want my children to see me modeling the kind of behavior I hope they will one day practice themselves.  My children have participated in conversations about political parties, laws, and even watched as I filled out ballots and have been able to insert the ballots into the machine.  Our children--that is, my husband's and mine--are well aware of our political and social views and why we believe the way we do.  This information didn't come about by random conversations overheard between mom and dad.  It has been a growing process over many years of answering questions, opening dialogue, and explaining our belief systems to our children.

I don't live in other people's homes, so I'm not really sure what goes on with other people.  I wonder sometimes if other parents talk with their children about politics and the election process.  My daughter has recently been learning about the branches of government and how each one functions.  However, she's already very well aware of how the election system works.  The ideas of representatives, the electoral college, even the president vetoing certain bills is not new to her.  Don't get me wrong. She still has the typical questions:  "If we're a democracy, why do we use an electoral college?  Why do our votes get grouped together?  Why don't we use a popular vote?  Isn't that more accurate?"  Good questions for an eleven-year old.  But she's well on her way to understanding her role in this complex process that we call government.

I think education about government, and our role in it, is a lot like educating kids about sex.  I know some people never educate their kids about sex, and others wait until a certain age.  With my kids, we answered questions as they had them, gave them the proper terms to use, and expanded their information as they seemed to have more questions.  Taking my kids to the polls is not always easy.  There have been a few times where the line has been long, where they have witnessed other adults talking viciously about candidates my children knew I was voting for, and even the natural kid desire to fill in the ballot him or herself.  But it's a process, and I'm proud that my kids are familiar with it.  I never stepped into a polling place until I was eighteen years old.

I want my children to understand that voting is not only a right but a responsibility.  Democracy is not something that comes naturally or easily in a country of millions.  I want my own children to understand the responsibilities that every citizen owes our country in order to make it function well.

I'm waiting for one of them to ask me about elections today.  So far one is out of town with his dad and the other is still asleep, so I'm safe for the time being.  And my faux pax will be corrected long before the next election comes along, that's for sure.  But a basic understanding of democracy--as well as its rights and responsibilities--is due to every child.  I see it as a very small way to pay back the thousands of men and women who have fought diligently for this country, to maintain my right to sleep in my bed, to eat what I want, and to even write this blog.

So if you can, go vote.  And take your kids with you.  It's very cool to them, and gives you a great chance to talk about how our country works.