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.