Friday, December 30, 2011

Sitters and Sleeping Children...and Less Pay

It's not often that I decide to take to this blog and write something I feel irritated about.  The last time I did so I got a bit of a scolding (which was well-deserved) by a reader and am fully anticipating the same for this post as well.  But I'm willing to woman up and take whatever responses I get.

In the last six months or so I've taken to doing occasional babysitting in my area using sites such as and  These sites help parents find (hopefully) responsible sitters who meet their criteria for different jobs, both long- and short-term.  If you haven't checked them out and are interested in either finding a sitter or doing some sitting, I highly recommend them.  I've had background checks done on both sites, courtesy of interested parents, and have met some nice families.

In my area of the country, babysitting goes for all prices, but generally for one job, a skilled sitter gets paid between $10-$15 dollars an hour.  A less experienced sitter might get paid between $5 and $10 an hour.  Of course, every parent is open to set the price at whatever s/he feels as being reasonable and affordable.  I've actually seen jobs as low as $3 an hour and nanny jobs even less than that.  Because I have over twenty years of experience and a master's degree in education, I generally charge roughly $10 an hour.  I let parents know that I'm usually negotiable with that price.  I have also volunteered to watch children for next to nothing when I have seen families who are truly struggling and I have a free day.  I don't want to get into justification of my price, but I paid $7 an hour to my sitters (college students) ten years ago when my children were young.  We couldn't afford it often and consequently didn't go out much.  We also lived in a different area of the country.

This morning I got an email in response to an ad I answered earlier in the week.  I had told this parent, as I have in the past, that my rate is $10 an hour but I can be a bit negotiable with that.  She said she had thought she was going to cancel her plans but then changed her mind.  Then came the part of the email that I've seen becoming more and more common:  "I've decided not to pay more than $8 an hour because my child will be sleeping and it's an easy job."

This excuse (and let's be honest, that's really what it is) is becoming more and more popular with parents.  I've actually seen parents who want to split the time and the price between waking and sleeping hours. Here's the reason that doesn't work.  Regardless of what your child is doing while a sitter is there, your sitter still has to be there and be responsible.  Whether a sitter is playing with your child or monitoring his or her sleep, they are still responsible for your child. Not half-responsible, FULLY responsible.  Your sitter still had to drive to your house (in our area sometimes fifteen to twenty miles) and commit to the care of your child.  If your child awakens, your sitter isn't going to say, "Sorry, kid, I'm on half time now."  If a, god forbid, fire or some other disaster were to happen, the sitter wouldn't leave your child, or do half a job because the child is now in bed.  My point is that it really doesn't matter whether the child is asleep or not; my job as a sitter doesn't end until you walk through that door.  I'm not allowed to run to 7-11, Redbox, my own house, or anything else.  I'm going to monitor your child just as I would my own young one to ensure their health and safety are protected.  Just because I'm not feeding your child or building a Lego tower doesn't mean I'm not working.  Lots of other jobs have "down times" where workers are required to be on site for emergencies but not necessarily doing the same thing they are doing during other periods, but they don't get paid less during those hours.

I'll be the first person to say that this economy is horrible, and it's difficult to make ends meet.  But if you can't afford to pay your sitter a respectable rate for a voluntary night out, then maybe it's time to pop some popcorn and stay in.

As for the parent who contacted me earlier today, I have chosen to turn down the job.  She lives more than ten miles from me and I do consider that when I set my rate and my willingness to negotiate it.  I'm sure she will find somebody who is willing to sit for $8 an hour.  I wish her and her son the best.  But in the meantime, I hope that parents everywhere will consider the implications of lowering pay for sleeping children.  It's an insulting idea, if nothing else, and a dangerous precedent to imply a sitter is only partially working while children sleep.  Personally, I always felt my children were particular vulnerable when they were sleeping.  Just because the form of the job changes doesn't mean it isn't still a job.

Pay a sitter what you can afford, but don't insult them by implying they're somehow working less when your child goes to sleep.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tried and True: Gathering for Rudolph

So I approached the other night with a healthy dose of holiday cheer, and it wasn't until a friend of mine sent me a message that I realized:  Rudolph was on!  It was nearly 8:30 p.m. and I had already missed the first half of it, but I quickly flipped the channel over and settled in to enjoy the Island of Misfit Toys.

"Are you serious?" my twelve-year old said, with just a touch of a snide tone.  "Rudolph, Mom?  I don't wanna watch this!"  She sunk down on the loveseat anyway, making herself comfortable.

Despite the fact I probably didn't need to respond, I said quickly, "Well, I'd like to watch it...look!  All those poor misfit toys!"  And we sat in silence for several minutes, watching the toys sing their sad song of being unloved.  Personally, I was reliving memories from being ten years old and watching Rudolph with my classmates as we waited to go on stage and sing a Christmas medley for our parents.

"Oh hey," my fourteen year old approached.  "Look!  It's Abominie...isn't that his name?  That big snow guy?"  He wandered through the room and over to do some laundry.

"The Abominable Snowman," I said, and my twelve-year old piped up, "Yeah!  Cornelius is gonna get him!"

And thus I was reminded of the magic of traditions.  Rudolph is such an American tradition that most children see him as a beloved sign of Christmas.  I was immediately taken back thirty years to reflect upon a time when I was a child, and my children—even though they're tween and teen—took great joy in reminiscing, even for a short while, in the pleasure of Rudolph.

For years I have wondered about families who really watched the twenty-five days of Christmas, but after our experience with Rudolph the other night, it reminded me that there are wonderful programs that we all feel warmly satisfied with in our souls.  Whether it's The Grinch, Rudolph, Frosty, or one of the many Santa Claus favorites, we all have a favorite we identify with and want to pass on to our children.

And that sharing is part of the spirit of Christmas, no doubt.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Saving Time and Money at the Mall

Ah, the great shopping mall at Christmas...the symbol of all that is so typically, well, American.  Everywhere you look are the signs of what so many of us consider to be the problem with the Christmas holiday, as well as the pressure cooker of keeping up with every other family.  Malls send us the mistaken message that all shoppers can afford hundreds of dollars in presents for their loved ones.  Walk by the Apple store in my local mall on any given day and one would think the average American has hundreds, if not thousands, in disposable pocket money.  The same mall is anchored with a Nordstrom's and a Dillard's, both high end stores.  So why in the world would this budgeting mama encourage a trip to the mall with a tween?

Because I remember very clearly what it was like to be a tween myself.  I remember vividly all the outfits presented to me at Christmas that were just slightly off, veering from cute to nerdy (sorry Mom!).  I remember all the exchanges my poor mother made after Christmas.  And I don't intend to spend my valuable shopping time after Christmas standing in the return lines.

My tween is almost thirteen.  She has definite ideas of what she likes and doesn't like, particularly when it comes to what she wears.  I have specific things I am looking to get her—a winter hat and gloves, and both can be found in a reasonably priced store hidden in a back corner of the mall.  We will do some window shopping to get some ideas of what she would like for Christmas other than gift cards (I hate giving gift cards).  We get to spend some time together looking at pretty things and getting some ideas of what the other wants for Christmas.  In addition, today is $5 movie day.  I have a rewards card with the movie theater, and the theater will also comp me the cost of my parking.  So I'll pay $10 for parking and a movie for two, plus get the credits on my rewards card, which may very well give us a free snack or drink.  Not a bad deal.

The trick with visiting a mall, I find, is to stay focused on the goal at hand, which is NOT to purchase anything today.  It's to get ideas of what my tween likes and wants.  Once I have those ideas, I can purchase the items from the semi-affordable store in the mall...OR I can purchase it somewhere less expensive.  Either way, my tween feels heard, we have a nice afternoon outing, and mom saves a few bucks.  Not bad for an otherwise boring Tuesday afternoon, huh?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Creative Christmas...or how to do christmas on a very strict budget

We moved to Virginia to be near my family approximately seventeen months ago.  In that amount of time I've had—and quit—three different jobs.  My husband has had one temporary job.  To say the job market is tight here is putting it mildly.  The last job I had caused me tremendous stress, which caused more trouble for my physically, to the point that I could not complete what I needed to in order to do well.  So I followed my gut and quit.

I'm not always the most reasonable person, as several people were quick to remind me.  On top of it, our cars, both of them, chose this week to break down.  One needs a replacement tire, and the other needs a couple thousand dollars worth of repairs.

Fortunately I'm a stasher.  I stash all sorts of stuff everywhere.  I have a "Disney account" that we'll be tapping into, and a retirement account from when I was in my early twenties that I never rolled over that I may have to use.  The most frustrating part is knowing we are just one phone call away from everything turning around.  So many of my friends across the country are in similar situations, doing whatever they can to make ends meet.

My first and biggest stressor, ironically, was thinking about how I was going to provide a fun and meaningful Christmas for my kids.  They're young teenagers now, and material goods are highly valued.  Gone are the days where a few puzzles and a dolly would make a grand Christmas.  These days it's video games, iPods, cell phones, and whatever other gadgety equipment they can get their hands on.  It's clear with our budget this year, there are not going to be a tremendous number of expensive gadgets gracing the tree.  But I am determined that my family will have a joyous Christmas no matter what.  So here's my plan.

1.  Focus on the meaning of the Christmas season.  Talk about how we give to others and how it makes us feel, and how that Christmas spirit is especially alive right now.  I think when times are tough, it's even more important to talk with kids about the "true" meaning of Christmas, and how God's gifts to us are still alive today.
2.  Schedule fun and free (or low cost) family activities each week.  Some of the things we'll be doing include baking cookies for people who are shut in, taking walks around the neighborhood to see the decorations, driving through neighborhoods to enjoy the lights as we sip cocoa, and watching classic Christmas movies and cartoons.  Making easy ornaments will be on the list too!
3.  Find out what the kids want to do to celebrate Christmas.  My twelve year old told me last night that she wants to have an "unplugged" evening, where all electronics are off, and we just sit around, drink cider, and talk.  Ironically, things like this are often the memories we cherish.
4.  Set an affordable budget and STICK TO IT.  My budget is quite small but it will purchase a couple of things my kids really want.  I also have an entertainment budget, and I use coupons and specials to stretch it farther.  Since my kids are older, we can do free things on the weekend, when they're more expensive, and more costly things during the week, when the rates are cheaper.  I have made a hard and fast rule for several years now not to carry ANY credit charges through the season.  If I can't pay for it with cash, it doesn't get purchased.
5.  Talk with your kids and explain how this Christmas may be different and why.  My kids are old enough to understand our financial constraints.  Younger children may be satisfied with an explanation of "We're going to do some things a little different this Christmas!  It will be fun to try these new things!"

The most important thing to remember, in my opinion, is that our attitudes as adults will carry over to our children.  If we have positive attitudes that focus on the important aspects of the season, we will be rewarded with children who will also begin to develop positive attitudes and respect for what we see as being important.

Check back here regularly for our plans for the season!  And feel free to leave your own ideas in comments as to how you're making this Christmas a special one!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Supermoms and Priorities

Today is October 30th and I feel like "Mom of the Year".  That's actually a facetious joke between me and one of my friends.  Whenever one of us would screw up something, we'd claim to be "Mother of the Year".  Of course we frequently stole the title from one another.  You could be mother of the year if you, say, forgot your kid's field trip money, or didn't sign the permission slip, or lost it and yelled something less than pleasant (or nonsensical) at your child.  I have found that I win the Mother of the Year contest quite regularly, actually.  And today is one of those days.

It's the day before Halloween and I've done nothing (read: NOTHING) to prepare.  No carved pumpkins, no special Halloween spiced muffins or themed treats.  No decorations.  Haven't even checked my daughter's costume for final touches.  Worst of all, I don't know that I'm motivated to do it.

When my kids were younger and I was incredibly ambitious, I was determined to make every Halloween costume from scratch, and do it for under ten bucks apiece.  Yes, I did it and yes, it was stressful!  I finally gave in with my son, because he refused my creative solutions.  I simply gave him a budget and we got what he wanted.  On one occasion, I found the cutest witch costume at a consignment sale for my daughter—still in its original packaging—for three bucks.  It included the fancy hat, and boat feathers around the rim and on the dress.   With my daughter, though, we went super creative most years.  My favorite costume we made was a princess dress, created from a wedding dress we bought at Goodwill for four dollars.  The dress was a tiny size and a light, cottony type fabric.  We dyed it purple, made a cone hat and attached silvery sparkle fabric to hang down from the top.  The whole costume came in for under ten dollars, and I have to say she was the cutest princess I'd ever seen.

Recently I've been chatting with several of my friends about the burnout and exhaustion of motherhood.  I think every mother experiences it to some degree, based on the connection she has with her children.  Some parents are extremely connected while others aren't.  For those of us who are, the holidays mean additional work on top of everything we already do—getting kids ready for and off to school, helping with homework, cooking and cleaning, possibly working outside the home—and then adding costumes and candy and fancy meals and decorations and presents and parties to it all.  Is it any wonder so many moms feel exhausted and overwhelmed this time of year?

The part about the princess costume I don't usually tell people is the frustration I experienced in trying to get it the right length.  I've never learned to sew but had to find a way to get this dress up high enough.  The skirt was very full, and to make matters worse, I can't sew other than a simple backstitch.  I tried everything from stitch witch to safety pins to duct tape.  It would work for a short time and then would fall back down.  So my goodness, that child looked cute for the first hour.  Then I had to help her hold her dress up the rest of the time!

This year, my life has been nutty.  One day during the summer I stopped in a store called Tuesday Morning that carries closeouts.  There, hanging on the rack, was a beautiful costume of a "woodland fairy".  Whole costume, wings and dress included.  And the price?  A rocking ten bucks!  My budget met, I purchased the costume and announced to my daughter she would be the most beautiful woodland fairy ever.  And she liked it.

And you know what?  I'm okay with it.  I'm okay that I didn't put my own touches on it, because I have other things that are a higher priority right now.  My daughter hasn't complained at all, and tomorrow night when she dons her costume, I really do believe she'll be a beautiful woodland fairy.  And me?  I'm just hoping the kid will share her candy.

One year

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Preschool Teacher's (and College Educator's) Take on No Child Left Behind

Anyone who knows me knows how horrid I think standardized testing is.  In retrospect, I think my opinions on this kind of testing have become extreme as the type of testing has become more commonplace and more extreme.  Standardized testing requires all children to pass a test that is geared toward the majority population.  That means, first and foremost, children who are not of the majority are already at a disadvantage.  We're not talking Eubonics here, people; we're talking basic cultural variances.  For instance, when I lived in Oklahoma, if you wanted a soda you asked for a pop a lot of the time.  If my children were to take a standardized test and it had a picture of a soda can and asked them to circle the word describing the can, they could waste valuable time looking for the word "pop" instead of "soda".  What's the big deal?  Well, those few seconds add up, and make your New Yorker look smarter than my Oklahoman, even if that's not the case.

Today was an amazing day in my eyes, because three years into his presidency, President Obama has finally uttered the words every teacher in this country has longed to hear:  educational reform.  NCLB had good intentions; the goals of having every child ready for school by six was lofty but laudable.  Where NCLB fell on its proverbial ass, in my opinion, is in these three points:  1.  Recognizing that all children are NOT the same and some were left behind at birth; 2. providing appropriate wraparound services (medical, therapeutic, psychoeducational, family support) to ensure all children are fed and healthy and READY to enter a classroom; and 3. finding a scapegoat in this nation's teachers.

I have been a surrogate mom on a few occasions for students, and many years ago, for two children I cared for while their mother worked and dealt with a lot of problems she had.  Nothing is as difficult as trying to be somebody's parent when you aren't.  They know it and you know it, and what's worse, is they know that their own parent didn't care enough (or couldn't, for whatever reason) be there, and now they're stuck with you.  Usually, I try to keep things focused on fun and we do that.  But every once in awhile it's torturous.  But that's part of my job now.  Supporting my students in every way is part of my job.

Feeding them is as well.  I have had children come to school unclean and unfed.  I kept food in my desk for them.  Pride often kept them from asking in front of classmates, but they knew they could pull me aside.  Additionally, I often diagnose a child who is too sick to come to school.  Fevers, rashes, excessive mucous, swollen eyes, vomiting, or diarrhea are unacceptable symptoms to bring a child to school with.  And I always am looking for ways to educate parents.  So many parents are looking for a little bit of help with their kids but don't know where to turn.  The internet and the bookstore are almost frighteningly overwhelming.  So they turn to me, their child's teacher.

All of the failures of NCLB have fallen on teachers' shoulders, except when they haven't, and they've fallen through the cracks.  Those are the children who are really left behind.  The children that nobody even notices, except for test scores.  The goal then, is to get the child up to a passing score if possible.

Most schools provide extra food the week of testing.  Why?  Because we all do better if we've eaten.  There are parent volunteers.  Why?  Because it's helpful to have more hands to proctor tests and collect answer sheets.  I have known principals who have gone house to house to pick up sick or tardy or absent children to take standardized tests. Why?  So their test numbers are high enough.

Can you imagine if we practiced these things without a test being our motivator?

Perhaps if we can learn anything from NCLB, it's that it's commendable to have strong, lofty goals for our children—and our nation.  But those goals must be ones that we as a nation buy into, believe, and support wholeheartedly.  Money for education must start with the education of parents prior to a baby's birth.  Child development is NOT the same as academic rigor, and should be part of what parents learn about their babies.  Expectations should be clear, and needs should be met.  A child who is hungry simply cannot perform well on a test.  Neither can one who needs medical care, or even one who needs the care of a parent.

NCLB has possibilities, should we be able to turn it on its ear, re-evaluate it, and redistribute some allotments.  In addition, it makes sense for the nation's strongest educators of young children to be in charge of a project such as this, rather than political committees that vary state to state, producing tests of varying quality and leverage.  A national skill set should be established for each grade, and children should be held accountable to meeting those skills, with the guidance of their teachers.

It's my deepest hope that President Obama's words today were just the start of a dialogue, rather than a passing fancy.  I believe in our nation, and I believe in our nation's children.  And with the guidance of loving adults, these children can shine.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Honoring the Fallen

To my son-

This weekend was the anniversary of one of the darkest days in our nation's history:  September 11, 2001.  Because yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of that day, the entire weekend has been filled with news reports, movies, stories, and the like about September 11th and what it was like that day.

On Friday, you and I had a disagreement.  You were talking with the family excitedly about watching these shows.  You and your sister were looking forward to seeing such a powerful day in our nation's history, as you were a young four-year old when it happened.  I immediately snapped at you and told you I didn't want to discuss it.  I told you several times that I didn't want to see or hear anything about it, and had trouble hiding my tears from you.

"But Mom," you said earnestly, "we're supposed to honor them."

I remember snapping back something along the lines of honor not always having to do with television shows.  It was a poor excuse to get you off my back in the moment.  But now, I realize, you need to understand.  I owe it to you to understand, and not just what you see on television or hear from your friends or the radio.  You deserve to hear what that day was like, and the days after.

It was a beautiful, breezy day and I had dropped you and your sister off at childcare.  I was ready to teach my course, and had started when a few of my students wandered in late, and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  We all thought it was pilot error, and continued with class.  A few minutes later, another student arrived and said there were two that had crashed into the towers, and now they thought it was a hijacking.  We finished class and I went to the preschool as I always did.  The three of us—teachers and university facilitator—decided to close the center for the rest of the day, because nobody was sure what was going on.  All planes in North America had been grounded, but there were still two planes that hadn't been accounted for.  All of the adults at the preschool split the phone numbers to call.  I remember one of the parents, who was a professor on campus, saying, "Now you're not going to let a few little Iraqis scare you, are you?"  Honey, you will remember that most of your childhood our country spent in a war with Iraq.  This day—this terrible day—was used as a way for people to agree to attack a country that had nothing to do with the attack on us.

After we cancelled our classes, I went to pick up you and your sister.  I took you straight home, locked the door behind me, and kept you out of any rooms with the news.  You and your sister were sheltered from anything that might frighten you.  I refused to allow you to be exposed to the events going on around you.  We put on happy faces with you and made protecting you our top priority.

At school, I had one little girl who cried every day for two weeks.  Little boys built tall towers and crashed them with planes over and over again.  The same pictures played on the news, and child psychologists speculated that young children, like your sister and you, would believe the same thing was happening over and over again if you saw the coverage.  I will never forget how the news, for weeks, talked about how to protect yourself from bioagents in the air, such as nerve gas.  People were supposed to duct tape their doors and windows shut, and wear masks.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  When I had been eleven or so and learned of tensions between countries, I often worried about nuclear war.  It would keep me up some nights, terrified that somebody somewhere would blow us all up.  But I never imagined the pain and horror of terrorism.  It used to be that wars were fought out in the open; we knew our enemies and the war started when it was declared on a battlefield.  War is no longer civilized.  Terrorism is not only a physically overpowering fight but a psychologically overpowering one.

You told me the other day I need to honor those who fell on 9/11.  My answer to you is this:  I honor them in every footstep I take.  I honor them when I support our freedoms and when I fight against the fear that terrorism has left in our country.  I honor them when I stay politically active and vote on issues that are important.  I honor them when I guide children through moral and ethical land mines.  And I honored them when I kept you and your sister away from the horror of those days.

You are old enough now to make some of those judgment calls yourself.  It is important for you to know what happened that day.  It's important that you know that Osama Bin Laden, NOT Saddam Hussein, was responsible for 9/11.  It's important for you to know that political parties jumped on the fear that Americans felt to take away our liberties and to start a war that should have never happened.  But it's also important for you to know that in the days, weeks, months afterward Americans bonded together as never before.  Your sister wrote an essay yesterday in which she stated that we learned what a great country we were.  And that, my son, is the most important lesson we learned from 9/11:  that no matter what was taken from us, we could not be destroyed.  We WERE and ARE a great nation, and always will be.

And so I honor our country, and thus, I honor her fallen.

Much love always,

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What I Wish Teachers Understood

Recently published an article about what teachers wish parents understood.  As a teacher, I began reading the article with curiosity and a readiness to shout a battle cry of "Yeah!"  But within a few paragraphs I found my head shaking.  Something wasn't right here.  Principals giving up on kids because of parents?  Teachers who feel they're not taken seriously—or even more, feel they should be taken as seriously as a doctor or a lawyer?  Really?  And I found the mom in me rising up and silencing that teacher with a cry of "Really?  REALLY?"

I guess maybe I'm the only one who gets a second opinion from a doctor, or has a nagging doubt about the advice a lawyer has given me when it's over something incredibly serious. Like, you know, my KIDS.  I've been in the education and early childhood education field for twenty-four years now.  There are plenty of times that I have silently bitten my tongue or rolled my eyes outside of a parent's view.  But more and more I see teachers who are convinced that parents should bow down and accept their view of things, rather than the parents' instinct or knowledge.

I have taught long enough to know that the truth about any child's progress, whether in academia or in the social/emotional arena, usually falls somewhere between both opinions.  Teachers are trained to teach and to assess what children learn; unfortunately, the majority of that assessment  now falls into formal categories that are not what we consider "authentic".  For instance, when you're driving in the car and your child looks out the window and says, "Look Mom, it's my R" because he sees the sign for Residence Inn, that's authentic assessment—he's recognized something in its authentic context.  These assessments are much more accurate than the type we often give children in schools, where they sit down and the teacher presents them with a row of letters and asks them to point out the R.  Because of this, there are times when parents see their children's ability to do and understand things that teachers don't see.  On the flip side, teachers are teaching children all day, and they are trained to see things that we parents sometimes miss.  The best of both worlds happens when adults respect and listen to one another with the goal of improving learning for the child.

This brings me to the second irritation I had with this article.  Since when did it become okay to just give up on kids because you don't like their parents?  I've been in this field for nearly a quarter of a century and I can attest to the social changes that have gone on in how we treat children.  I personally think (and have written about) how we have swung to the far side of some weird form of what parents think is "positive discipline".  Too many parents don't understand what positive discipline is or was, and believe it is necessary to raise healthy children.  They also believe that any kind of limit setting will stifle creativity, harm self-esteem, and create neurotic children who will one day find themselves on a psychiatrist's couch crying how their mommy ruined their lives.  Bull.  Positive discipline has to do with maintaining a positive attitude, using positive phrasing, and using techniques that encourage positive behavior.  It does NOT, in any way, mean to never say no to a child.  Because of all of the confusion and misunderstanding so many people have had with this approach, I tend to recommend Love and Logic instead, because it is an easy, logical, and loving approach that can be applied at home as well as in the classroom.

Like every teacher, I have had parents that I did not mesh well with.  I have also had teachers that I as a parent did not get along with.  But at no point did I consider any of those struggles an excuse to give up on a child, mine or anyone else's.  My job as a teacher is to build a bond with EVERY family, whether I agree with them or not.  I can begin to help educate families when they trust me.  They trust me when I show respect for them and for their children.  To be clear, that doesn't mean I give the child everything they want.  But it does mean that I can respectfully set limits and explain those limits are for ALL children and why we have them.  It also means that a huge (and I mean HUGE) part of my job is to find the good things a child does.  Parents who take their children's side over a teachers do so for several reasons.  First is because past experience has taught them that teachers lie.  Maybe not even their children's teachers.  Maybe it was their first grade teacher, or their friend's teacher.  Who knows?  But there's a core lack of trust.  Second, these parents also are emotionally tied up into their children's lives.  To criticize the child is to criticize the parent, and if the parent has invested all s/he has into the child, you may just as well have slapped the parent across the face.

What do I wish teachers understood about my kids?  I wish they understood how hard my kids' start to life was.  I wish they knew how close we are as a family.  I wish they knew what an overprotective bear I am and why.  I wish they understood that my daughter's "bossiness" is actually a need to maintain order, due to the chaos of her early childhood.  I wish they understood more about my son's disorders.  Most of all, I wish they expressed an interest in my family, because honestly, there have been very, very few in ten years who have.

So CNN may have some good points, but as a teacher and a parent I have concerns about such an article.  What do you wish your child's teachers—or the parents of children in your class—knew about you?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

On Being a Mother

I'll never forget the moment when I first realized I was about to become a mother to not one, but two children.

I was sitting in a room full of social workers and attorneys, who had just asked other relatives to leave the room.  Once it was just the five or six of us (me plus three social workers and a guardian ad litum), I was told, "Look, you cannot take only one child.  These children must stay together.  Either you take them both, or they both go to foster care."

I was there by myself.  My husband was four hours away at work, and we were due to go before the judge in five minutes.  I dialed my cell phone frantically, trying to get my husband to discuss this recent development.  See, everyone had previously agreed that we would raise our son, and our daughter would be raised by another relative.  It wasn't' until this moment--five minutes before we saw Your Honor--that I realized my life was about to change for forever.

I never did get up with my husband before court.  Shakily, I agreed with all of the officials there that we would take custody of both children.  I was about to be a mother.

Most women have nine months to get used to the idea of their families expanding.  I had less than six weeks, from the time the children were removed from their biological mother until they were placed with us.  The practicality of the situation was difficult.  We had no beds, no clothing, no carseats.  No toys.  If you had been a fly on the wall in those first several weeks, you would have seen how anxious and worried I was in my ability to be a good mother.

Once, many years ago, somebody asked me what makes a good mother.  "Well," I replied, " a good mother is someone who nurtures her children, who loves them no matter what, who disciplines appropriately, who never yells but is understanding.  A good mother feeds her children healthy food, makes sure they don't watch too much tv, and gives them appropriate toys.  Good mothers also make sure homework is done, extracurricular activities are planned, and stays in touch with teachers and coaches.  Good mothers make sure there is a structure to the day and that children follow it."

My friend stared at me, nodding slightly, and then said, "Are you for real?"

It took me years to learn that yes, good mothers do a combination of those things, but sometimes we fall off the wagon or other priorities come first.  But overall, when you look at my children and my life, two people come ahead of everyone else, and I don't apologize for that.  There is nobody else in this world who will love, respect, and honor these children the way that I do.  That's because I'm a damn good mother.

I struggle with things like every parent.  My temper flares sometimes.  I don't check up on homework every night.  Some weeks we eat way too much junk.  And every once in awhile, I've been known to say something hurtful.  But I recognize the mistake and move on.

Being a mother is an amazing experience.  I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.  I can't imagine my life without my children in it.  They are amazing people who have taught me more lessons than anyone else.  As parents, we often get locked into the "authority figure" type role, when in reality, our children are as much our teachers as anyone else.  The love you feel for your children is alive in itself, palpable and real.

And the love never stops.  Once you're a mother, you stay one.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Starting at the beginning...A Very Good Place to Start

One of the things we know about discipline is that it doesn't just deal with correcting difficult or unsavory behavior.  Discipline is teaching children how to behave appropriately, which relies on an understanding of social norms and expectations.  Kids need to know what is expected of them and the expectations need to be clearly stated and reinforced consistently, especially when things are going well.  Many parents, out of frustration or lack of time, only focus on when the child makes a mistake, which turns powerful learning opportunities into punitive, shaming moments.  The trick is to catch your child when s/he is doing good, and encourage that behavior.  When  he picks up his toys without reminders, encouraging him by saying, "Wow!  You remembered to take care of your toys all by yourself!"  is a great encouraging statement for a preschooler.

I once had a parent tell me that now that his child was three, it was time to start disciplining him, and did I have any suggestions.  My thought--which of course I kept to myself--was, "Yeah, you should have started three years ago."  Because discipline isn't just about logic and consequences.  It's about relationships and trust.  Discipline starts at birth and continues until the day we draw our last breath.  When parents meet their child's needs in a timely manner, they are teaching trust and building a relationship, which leads the child to believe parents are trustworthy and can be depended on.  This is handy later on when a parent needs to correct a child's behavior.  The "I'm on your side" part of discipline--the rapport--has already been established.

I'm going to be spending this year working on a research project studying the power of relationships on children's behavior.  What happens when teachers build positive rapport with children who struggle with behavior?  Will that rapport assist the children in behaving better and achieving more in the classroom?  It's an interesting question.  Common sense leads my gut to say yes, it would.  But there isn't any research that says yes, it does.  So that's what we'll be working on this year--using specific strategies to help children build positive relationships with their teachers.

This type of study is beneficial for teachers as well.  If you're a parent, you are probably very familiar with the fact that there are days every once in awhile that you wish you could get a break.  Teachers feel the same way.  And when a relationship get set up to be a struggle, it's very hard to redefine it without serious introspection on the teacher's part and intervention on the chid's part.  Children need to be taught different ways to approach adults when their behavior puts people on edge.  Teachers need to be able to recognize when they're going to "that place" inside that makes it difficult to see the positives in a child.

Several years ago, I had a child who was a daily struggle.  He was unfocused and his trouble behaviors included everything as minor as running to as major as hitting or throwing materials.  I found myself beginning to grow frustrated and dreading the days he would be in class.  One day, as I found myself breaking up an argument for the umpteenth time, I looked at this three-year old and realized it was ME who was in a bad place with him.  He hadn't changed, and I hadn't taught him any better.  I needed to change my attitude to something more positive with him, and to find things to appreciate about him.

So here's what I found:  he was absolutely beautiful.  He was funny and genuine and had a total love of life.  When the french say joie de vivre, they were speaking of him.  He was also loving and he liked his peers.  He just needed some help in the areas of impulsivity and self-control.  So that's what we worked on, and I worked on focusing on the good things about this child, and I found my love for him quickly growing back, even more powerful than before.  One day he was playing at the sand table and I walked by.  He stopped and walked up to me.  "Misell?" he said in his little voice, and I knew he was about to tell on himself.  I knew he had done something he shouldn't have.  He held his arms up to me and I picked him up.  "Yes?" I responded hesitantly.  He looked at my face, and put a hand on each cheek.  "I wuv you...dat's all," he said, and in that moment, I remembered why I teach every child in my classroom.  "I love you too," I told him, then put him down to play.

Discipline is a complex arena that encompasses so many different things.  It's not something that any of us will do perfectly from day one.  It's a complex dance, like teaching, that relies on the responses of human beings.  And when you misstep, just like in dancing, you start over and try to do better the next time.  But make no mistake--the first time you hold your baby, touch your baby, smile at your baby, that's rapport.  And that, my friends, is the beginning elements of discipline.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Day 28-something--Big Rubber Bands

We came back from the beach today.  In the last couple of years I've noticed that as much as I love to go to the Outer Banks, I tend to sleep a lot and isolate myself from my family.  I've never been a huge beach person.  I remember being five and going to the beach; when we got home my mom made us strip in the backyard to hose all the sand off us.  I was absolutely horrified; I was convinced that all the neighbors were watching and seeing my naked butt in the backyard.

When I had kids, I took them to the ocean because I felt like every kid should at least see the ocean.  We lived halfway across the country at the time.  My kids loved the beach.  I have pictures of my little boy, walking down the beach at sunset, and my little girl rolling in the water and being covered with sand.  I remember those moments, when I was such a new mother; when I got so much pleasure from watching the absolute joy on their faces.  I'm so glad that I captured those moments with a camera.  We share collages of them between my mother and me.

That was ten years ago.  I remember specifically because we have the same week every year.  It was their first year visiting my family after we had gained custody.  I took my role as a mother incredibly serious and I cut myself about no slack.  If I made a mistake, as we all do, I beat myself into a pulp over it.  My children deserved better than me.  They deserved perfection.

It's been a long time since then, and I've learned a lot of lessons, not only about parenting, but about life. I awoke this morning to pack the cars and head home; we picked up Gabi on the way and we made it home in relatively good time.  But I've continued to ache all day.  It's pretty horrific and my foot is killing me--I have a significant bone spur in my heel.

So I'm sitting here feeling sorry for myself for a multitude of reasons, including wasting another vacation, and what comes on but the predictable bariatric surgery commercial.  A man and a woman who swear how their lives have changed due to stomach stapling; life is better than ever and so is their health.


Ten years ago I had a doctor tell me that without gastric bypass I would die in a few years.  Well, I'm still here, without the surgery, while many who have chosen to go under the knife have died.  Twenty years ago I had a doctor who put me on the legendary mix of "Phen-Fen", and after the news reported how the drug combo mix was lethal, my doctor told me obesity was more lethal.  Again, I am here and many people have suffered loss of life or had heart or lung damage due to the drug mix.  Somehow I've managed to survive despite all the wonder treatments out there.

But tonight, with my damn foot and my fibromyalgia and a bit of a possible cold (I'm getting hot and cold), I couldn't help but wonder when I saw that commercial how different my life might be if I did try surgery.

I've thought about lap band systems for awhile now.  I've even researched them on the internet.  The nice thing about a lap band is the procedure is easier than gastric bypass and the band can be adjusted.

The first time I went on a diet I was nine years old.  I probably was about fifteen pounds heavier than I should have been, which is noticeable on a nine-year old.  My mother was terrified I would have a weight problem and so she signed me up with her for Weight Watchers.  This was not the current point system--this was when foods were "legal" or "illegal".  I tried, bless my little heart, I did.  I ate WW sugarless chocolate cake that I made...oatmeal peanut butter bars...precut servings of some ice milk that resembled a frozen something or other.  But I never lost weight.  Every diet I've been on the story has been the same:  I don't lose weight.

I'm not stupid.  I know why I eat and I know I need to eat healthier and I need to eat less.  More than anything I need to exercise.  When I was a young child, I was molested by a family friend, and I used food to manage the stress I was under.  The irony of my story is that it's the same as millions of other stories.  What other drug would be available to a five year old?  And once you're eating out of comfort, the ironic circle of body hatred is complete.  You hate yourself for being abused, then you hate yourself for eating to shut it out.

In our world, we're bombarded with easy fixes for weight.  Gastric bypass, Biggest Loser, hours of exercise, supplements, drinks to substitute for meals...the list goes on and on.  So why did I write about this tonight?  Because I wonder what my life would be like if I didn't hurt.  If the physical pain left, would the psychological pain leave too?  Is the answer really as simple as a rubber band in my gut?

I've always believed that a healthy lifestyle is how a person should live, regardless of his or her size.  Making good choices is the key.  It's what I would tell my children and anyone else who asks me.  But I talk a good talk.  I need to walk it now.  Because the next vacation I take, I want to go to the pool.  And I want to ride the rides at the amusement park.  And I want to keep up with my kids.  And I don't want to think about all of the opportunities I've wasted in my mid life.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


I quite frequently refer to stories about my children.  I do this for a number of reasons, primarily because they're good examples of what I'm rambling about at the time, but also because I'm their mom and I happen to think they're relatively amazing.  But today I am going to indulge myself without feeling guilty.  It's my birthday and goshdarnit, I want to talk about one of my kids!

My husband and I have been taking turns with each of the kids this summer to give them a break from each other.  We've been living with my parents while we both look for steady employment.  My mother has a small home about an hour from here, so my husband takes one of the kids down for a few days while the other spends time with me.

Well, today is my birthday.  For the last several days, my daughter has mentioned, "It's almost your birthday, isn't it?"  Then in the last day or two, the questions have changed.  "Do you like blueberries?' she kept asking me.  "We're not going to use those blueberries in the refrigerator, are we?  Because I like them and I need to have some."  Right.  Because I haven't been your mom for over ten years and seen the faces you make at the very thought of consuming any kind of berry.

But I played along.  "Oh...uh, yeah...we can make sure there's some waiting for you," I told her last night when the inquisition began again.  "I won't use them."

An hour or so later, casually, she said, "I really like pancakes."  Then, "Do you like blueberry pancakes, Mom?"

In all reality, I actually do like blueberry pancakes but not enough to make them very often.  But again, I went with it.  "Oh, yeah.  They're good, aren't they?"

"Yeah," she agreed.

Later that evening she went to make some cupcakes and got upset.  There were no more eggs.  "How can I make cupcakes without eggs, Mom?  I can't make cupcakes now."

"Sure you can...just substitute applesauce."

In case you don't know, you can substitute applesauce in a pinch for eggs in a baked goods recipe.  Depending on the recipe, it may or may not work as well as an egg.  The cupcakes turned out fairly flat and kind of stuck to the wrapper.  But my daughter was pleased with the taste of them--and the fancy tips on the frosting can.  That was almost more fun than anything else.

So imagine my surprise when I awoke to the cheery singsongy twelve-year old voice of my daughter.  "Happy Birthday!" she sang.  "Breakfast in bed for you!:

I was immediately thrown back in time to a Mother's Day several years ago when both of my children made me breakfast.  I believe it was graham crackers, peanut butter raisins, and toast.  It was so cute that I couldn't stop smiling the whole time.

My daughter placed the tray on my lap very carefully, then pointed out each item she had made.  "Blueberry pancakes," she announced first, pointing to her creation.  "Hash browns, and bacon."
I thanked her but before I could invite her to share, she had skipped out of the room.

Everything was delicious.  I thought about how many times in a day this kid brightens my smile, how often she takes pride in doing thoughtful things for me.  I was in awe, particularly, at the patience she showed in making hash browns.  She had shredded those potatoes herself,

She wandered back a few minutes later to offer me seconds, which I politely declined.  I thought about this child's career goal as a restaurant owner and executive chef, and I could easily see that happening for her.  Not only because she can cook, but because she's very determined.Most people call that stubborn when they see it in a child, but that kind of character trait will pay off for her as an adult.  I'm extremely proud of her today.  Not only did she make me a delicious breakfast as a present, she used her talents to create something memorable. And that, to me, is beautiful.

A few hours later it occurred to me that we still didn't have any eggs, and I asked her, "How did you make pancakes without eggs?"

As though she were talking to a child, she said, "Applesauce, mom." Then she smirked at me.  "I would have made you fried eggs," she said teasingly, "but I didn't think you would want me to substitute applesauce for that."

Yeah, she's a smart kid, huh?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Parents treat your children well

At around 2:15 EST today, the mothers of this country let out an audible collective gasp.  Casey Anthony,   the young mother who loved a good party and whose 2 year old daughter disappeared for several months before her tiny body was found in the woods, dead, had been found not guilty.

Casey isn't that different from a lot of young single mothers.  In fact, right before this was announced, I had been writing about how difficult it is to get support as a young mother.  When I first became a mom, I was fourteen hundred miles away from my family, starting a new job in a new city with my new husband.  We had been married a little over a year when we gained custody of our children.  What I remember the most about those days and months early on was how desperately I wanted to do a good job and how hard it was to do it with no support system.  I had no friends and only my husband's family to rely on.  My children had special needs and needed therapy each week.  My husband worked nights, so the majority of the time I was the caregiver of two special needs children.

Talk about stress.  And there was no way to relieve it.  I do believe now if I had been a mother prior to gaining custody of our children, my life would have been easier, because I would have known I had the skills to be a good mother.  Children with emotional disorders are a difficult group to manage.  Many times, especially after being told by other people I was doing it wrong, I began to question what I believed to be right.  The good news is, the therapy paid off for all of us and we formed our own family with our own values and our own rules.  I still question some of my parenting decisions, but most of them I don't view as a life-or-death type of decision, the way I did back then.  I have two beautiful, healthy, intelligent children, and consider myself lucky.

Casey Anthony can't claim any of the risk factors that I faced.  She had support from her parents.  She had friends.  She hadn't moved or even had any major life changes.  All of the normalcy of her life is what makes this case that much more frightening for parents.  We're left, collectively wondering, why?

I have long wanted to have my own biological child.  Probably much like adopted children want to know about their birth families, I want to know what my biological child would be like.  Would she have my eyes?  My personality?  My feet?  I know it sounds funny, but we've always joked about how our daughter has her birth mother's feet--long and narrow.  When she was little, I used to measure her foot with my hand, to her delight.  I remember the day she outgrew my hand and how big she thought she was.  I wonder if my biological child would be smart and beautiful and all the things that most people wonder.  I've wondered that for fifteen years.  Tomorrow i will be 42, and it's unlikely that I will ever see that wish fulfilled.

But for whatever reason, God gave a child to Casey Anthony.  In this day and age, giving up your baby is an easy thing.  You can just drop the kid off at a "safe place"--a firestation, a hospital--and walk away, no questions asked.  And when I see a child like Caylee, lost forever, I can't help but wonder why.  Why Casey Anthony's arms were full of a baby she cared so little for, and another mother's arms are empty.  What a two-year old could do that would enrage a parent enough to kill her.  How even if Caylee's death was an accident, Casey could hide it from her own family for fifty one days.  Six and a half weeks.

I wonder how many parents watched the news reports yesterday and thought as I did:  "I would have gladly taken Caylee."  I don't have money to pay for every kid in the world.  But if it mean the difference between life and death, how many children would YOU turn away?

I don't have any answers.  Children can be frustrating sometimes.  Parents need support systems.  They need help from their family, friends, and neighbors.  It takes a village to support parents and children for healthy relationships.  In my case, I developed friendships, had help from a wonderful team of therapists, had a great preschool for the children who supported the children's development.   It took time, but I developed a strong support system--so strong that leaving it a year ago to move closer to my parents was one of the hardest things I've ever done.

I don't know that any of us will ever know what really happened that day.  Maybe Caylee drowned in the pool due to negligence.  Maybe she was killed by her mother.  But as a mother myself, I cannot imagine missing one of my children for 51 days, with no idea where s/he was, and I would imagine it's the same if you're a grandmother.

I am a huge proponent of taking precautionary measures instead of having to fix a problem after it happens.  As a nation, we need to figure out how to help parents understand the commitment they're making long before they are holding the baby in their arms.  Children are most likely to be victims of abuse or neglect in their first year of life.  This statistic just makes it that much more important.

We're all familiar with the old adage "You have to get a fishing license to go fishing, but you don't need a parenting license to be a parent."  True.  But I can't help wondering if Casey had attended parenting classes before Caylee was born, perhaps she would have been better equipped to manage her daughter.  Or maybe she would have made a different decision altogether.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Good Side of TV

Today is a blah kind of day.  My daughter and I are spending the week together without my husband and son, and neither of us are on top of the world today.  She's having allergy issues and I'm not feeling well either.  For people who don't suffer from sever allergies, it's a really horrible thing to deal with.  My daughter's allergies cause the typical watery eyes, runny nose, sore throat, and tiredness, but hers also cause moderate to severe eczema, itchiness all over the body, and even asthma symptoms.

So we're snuggled up in bed and watching television.  I'm really not crazy about daytime tv, but when I switched on MTV and saw Teen Mom was on, the decision was made.

If you've never watched Teen Mom, it follows the lives of four young women--Amber, Maci, Farrah, and Catelynn--who got pregnant at sixteen and are now raising their toddlers, with the exception of Catelynn.  Catelynn and her boyfriend Tyler gave their baby up for adoption.  Interestingly, they are also the only couple still together.

I first watched Teen Mom a few months ago, after hearing my daughter talk about it.  When my kids were young, I really supervised the television viewing.  As they've gotten older, I've given them more freedom.  The kids often talk about the shows they watch, and I do make an effort to peek in.  But when my then-eleven year old started talking about this show, I listened carefully.  My mom-radar started going off like crazy.  So I watched it.

Here's what I found:  this show is a realistic look at teen motherhood.  Some of the girls have given up their education.  One has had to move away from her family.  One of the girls and her boyfriend are dealing with a volatile domestic abuse situation, another young woman is sharing custody with her ex (who's hardly a role model for fatherhood), and two of the teens are still mourning the loss of their baby, even though they know it was the right decision to make.

Teen mom has become one of those shows around our house that we talk about.  My daughter has her own very strong opinions about the show; she has frequently commented on how terrible it is that Amber hits Gary, her boyfriend; she is trying to understand why Catelynn and Tyler would give their baby up for adoption.  My daugher's birth mother was unable to care for her, and my daughter is trying to liken the situations.  She's thinking about it.

It's not often that a show like this comes along, documenting the lives of these girls and everyone who affects them.  There's no sugar-coating the episodes.  Babies cry, people get sick, teenagers are ugly to each other, and there's a lot of friction between the girls' moms and the girls.  But there's also no excessive drama.  These girls love their babies as much as they can; they love other people; they're searching for themselves.  And all of that has brought my daughter to the conclusion that "having a baby is a fun thing, but you have to be able to take care of it."  Well said.

When my children were toddlers/ early preschoolers, they watched no more than thirty minutes a day of television, and they didn't really miss it.  But even then, I tried to give them the opportunity to choose between programs that would be entertaining or lead to interesting conversation.  Scooby Doo was a favorite and still is for millions of kids.  Why?  Because nobody can resist that cute, human sized dog!

If you have young kids or teach them, you will one day face conversations about the television.  It's important for adults to listen to the conversations, even if it's from Scooby Doo.  Television is an extra member in our families these days, and it's a savvy consumer who uses it as a teaching tool to help their children build good values in this world.

Often, parents fail to see the incredible usefulness of television.  Is there crap on TV?  Oh yeah!  But for every bit of crap television there's decent stuff too.  If you're willing to watch with your kid and talk with him or her about it, you'll get a bird's eye view into what and how your child thinks and reasons.  And that, in my opinion, is totally worth an hour of my time.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Purpose of Education

I was running errands today when I saw something that took me back many years ago and gave me pause to think.

I had gone to pick up my father and run him by the bank.  Afterward, he wanted a cheeseburger, as I suppose most 73-year olds do (or he does, anyway), so we picked up a burger for him and headed over to drop off paperwork for my son to attend camp.  The desk worker asked  me to wait to speak to the camp leader, so I took a seat.  Behind my seat was a window that looked into the nursery.

I love babies, probably more now than I ever have in my life.  In the last few years, it has become clear that I most likely will never have a biological child.  Both of my children were toddlers when they came to live with me, so I missed the whole baby time.  I'm fascinated by these little people, from their size to their smiles to their wiggly, squirmy little selves.  When I see my friends' children, I'm equally intrigued by how quickly they grow!  They start out so tiny and helpless, and before you know it they're crawling and giggling and even saying a word or two.

So I settled on my bench and watched the one infant in the swing by the window.  He wasn't particularly happy.  He was squirmy and began to fuss a bit, and a worker came over and straightened his blanket, then pushed the swing again.  Clearly unhappy that he was still in the swing, he began to protest louder, clenching his tiny hands into fists and waving his arms around.

I'm a forty-something woman with a master's degree in early childhood.  I don't have a baby so I'm never tired of watching them, nor am I annoyed when they don't sleep when they should.  I wanted desperately to go into the room and pick him up and comfort his cries, then find whatever it was he wanted to do.

The worker, however, is not a forty-something woman with no babies.  She picked up the blanket, then laid it back over the entire baby, covering his head to his feet, and tucked it in to the sides of the swing, making it harder for the baby to move.  Not only could he not move, he couldn't see either.  The worker then sat down next to him and began kicking the swing with her foot.  At that point I chose to look away.  I had seen enough, and I was desperately close to saying something not so nice to the powers that be.  Sensibility grabbed hold of me though--I needed my son to have this camp experience.  Because of his needs, he needs to be in a structured camp program, and let's face it--the few spots that were left probably wouldn't go to the big mouth mother complaining about the way an infant was rocked.

Many years ago, I had worked for this same organization.  I had privy to see some less than pleasant child care experiences, and the ones that stuck out most to me were in the infant room.  Babies often were left to fall asleep in their lunches, put in swings for hours at a time, left to entertain themselves.  Babies were left alone to "cry it out", even when there were more than enough hands available.  The multiple staff members would be sitting and eating as babies cried, alone, in their cribs.

For the majority of my professional career I've been a "pick up the baby" type of person.  I mean, the kid isn't going to roll over and pull a Stewie on you, asking if you could kindly come change his diaper.  Babies have one way to communicate their discomfort, hurt, or fear, and that's through crying.  So pick up the damn baby.  Thank you.  :-)

I'm not so rigid as to not recognize there are times that it isn't in the baby's best interest to be picked up.  Sometimes, parents need more sleep and babies are old enough to make it through the night.  Sometimes the baby is just a bit fussy and isn't really upset.  And sometimes you just can't get there--something else is more important at that moment.  But I always find myself cringing when I hear parents of young babies talking about "sleep training" and such.  Huh?  Are we in the infant military or something?  Is there some need for your baby to rise and shine at six a.m. and that can only be accomplished through sleep training?  I don't get it.  It seems like one of those things that as parents we make into mountains, when they're really molehills.

As for the situation with the baby and the worker--after giving it several hours to mull around in my head, I decided to call  and report it.  The young woman who talked with me was very pleasant and listened to my concern.  Will it change?  I don't know.  But maybe if the worker is educated about other ways to calm a baby, she'll do better.  Most of us, when educated about better ways, do better.  That was the purpose of my phone call--to encourage the organization to educate their caregivers about how to work with infants.  And who knows?  Maybe they will.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Quality Preschools

A friend of mine was lamenting her job just yesterday.  She's a preschool teacher and has found herself in a common situation--hired to teach in a preschool where the director seems to have a poor understanding of child development.  For educators, this is a nightmare.  If you're a teacher, you need enough room to teach and air to breathe.  When you've got other people breathing down your neck and they're not even espousing reasonable expectations, it's very difficult to feel like you can be an effective teacher.

So what's a parent to do?  In my opinion, parents don't have to have a degree in early childhood education, but they do need to understand the following:

1.  Teachers who hold a bachelor's degree in early childhood education are trained to teach children from birth through age eight, just as english teachers are trained in english and math teachers are trained in math. We have taken multiple classes that specialize in early childhood development and prepare us for the classroom.
2.  Teachers who are in preschools aren't there because they cannot get a job in public school.  They are there, almost always, because they have a passion for working with young children.
3.  Children sometimes behave differently at home and at school.
4.  Although your child's teacher may be excellent, it does not absolve a parent's responsibility for being involved in his or her child's development and education.

Often, parents don't really know what to look for in a quality preschool, and so they fall back on the expectations that they remember from their childhoods mixed with a bit of what they've heard from other parents or in the news.  Usually this comes across as expecting children to learn to listen to teachers, learn the alphabet and their numbers, and write their names.  None of these are actually the sign of a good preschool.

Quality preschools focus on developmentally appropriate practices.  These are practices in the classroom that meet the developmental needs of a child.  For instance, it is very common for two year olds to practice how to wash their hands appropriately.  Four year olds may be learning some basic patterns or letter sounds.  Infants are being nurtured and having their needs met in a timely manner.

Quality preschools have a warm, comforting feel about them.  Classrooms resemble the home environment and should have a "pleasant buzz of activity".  Children should be moving freely around the room during free choice time.  Teachers are pleasant, classroom rules are clear to each child, and the children helped make the rules.  The classroom is shared by all children as well as the teacher and is referred to as "ours", not "mine".  There is a balance of children being able to choose activities and activities being chosen by the teacher.  Children are respected by teachers and are encouraged to work out their problems with one another rather than being punished.  There should be a wide variety of activities to choose from, and children are appropriately supervised.

Some teachers may debate this, but I am a firm believer that the primary purpose of preschool experiences should be socialization.  When children have had practice working with other children prior to kindergarten, they tend to do better when entering school.  They understand how to wait for a turn, how to ask for help, and how to work with a partner.  These are all critical skills in our public schools today.  Even if you choose to pursue a more academic type setting for your preschooler, it is imperative that the children are given plenty of time each day to play together and make their own choices.

I also believe it is critical for parents to share the same values as the philosophy of their child's preschool.  If your child's preschool stresses academic structure but you're more of a play-to-learn type of parent, it won't be a good fit; neither will a child-centered preschool work for a parent whose expectations are worksheets and lots of papers.

Obviously, parents can't be in a preschool center every day, nor are most parents as knowledgeable about what good childcare looks like.  To assist, there are national organizations that provide accreditation for childcare centers.  Accreditation is an optional process but generally indicates a higher level of quality interactions and care.  In addition, each center (with the exception of centers run by churches) must be licensed by your state.  Licensing requirements vary state to state, but generally this information is available online, as well as recent licensing reports for all licensed centers.  Many states are going to a leveled licensing center, to give parents more information about the quality of a center; generally the higher the level that a center achieves, the higher quality it is.  If for whatever reason you are unable to find the information online, most states require centers to share licensing reports with parents.  You only need to ask your director, and s/he should be able to furnish you with the latest report.

So, you parents may be asking, what's MY job in all this?

First and foremost, your job is to communicate clearly with the staff about your child.  It's always better to give too much information than not enough.  Your mention that your child didn't sleep last night helps your child's teacher understand his or her behavior today.  Letting the teacher know you're potty training at home is critical--children are most successful when they are trained in all situations at the same time.  Even your loving mother-in-law's visit may throw your child off his or her regular routine.

Next, it is a parent's responsibility to supply what the provider asks for.  Most children have a supply list they need for preschool or childcare.  This usually includes a change of clothing.  This is incredibly handy not only for potty accidents, but also if your child gets too wet in the sensory table, spills juice by accident, or is covered in...something!  If you supply diapering supplies, check them regularly and ALWAYS send a couple more than you think your child will need.  Better safe than sorry!

Third, parents are responsible for reading the information that comes home with your child.  Yes, I know it's a pain in the butt.  But--and this is SUPER important for busy moms and dads--it helps to keep you in the loop as to what your child is doing.  If you ask your child, you will probably have this conversation:

You:  Honey, what did you do today in school?
Child:  Played.
You:  What did you play?
Child:  I dunno.
You:  Well, who did you play with?
Child: My friends.
You: What are their names?
Child:  I dunno.

That's given that your child doesn't answer the first question with "I don't know".  All those papers we teachers send home to you are for your benefit as well as mine.  We try to keep things clear and keep you up to date on what we're doing.

Finally, and I can't stress this one enough, parents are responsible for ongoing monitoring of their children's day-to-day care at the facility, and bringing concerns to the appropriate person.  You are NOT required to give notice before you stop by to see your child.  As a parent, I often swung by at lunch time to see my children, or even to just peek in on them.  If you have a child who will become upset if s/he sees you, don't plan on making your presence known.  Even if you hang by the front desk, you can generally tell if the center is a stressful place to be or a comfortable one.  Laughter and calm voices indicates a good place.  Screaming children and teachers does not.

So the bottom line of what to look for?

1.  A clean and well-maintained center with enough for children to do.
2.  Respectful, communicative staff;
3.  Values that you share and respect;
4.  Ideally, an accredited center.

In the last post that I wrote, I made some large generalizations and was rightfully called to the carpet for it.  Childcare is incredibly expensive.  Because of cost, many parents look for shortcuts to lower their childcare costs.  I am no more immune to this than anyone else.  When my children were in after school childcare, I was forced to evaluate the cost versus quality of their care.  I was not happy with what I was seeing when I picked my children up; nor was I happy with what I was paying.  Fortunately, I was able to juggle my hours a bit so that we could avoid the after school care altogether.  This post isn't supposed to be about saving a few bucks, but here's a bit of advice:  in all honesty, most of the time, you get what you pay for.  So if you find the caregiver who's charging fifty bucks a week and will keep your child 24 hours a day, you might need to be a little skeptical and watch closely.  My advice?  Consider developing a babysitting co-op, or hire one babysitter to watch two families' children and pay the sitter a bit more than usual.  If the average cost of a babysitter per week in your area is a hundred dollars, consider having a friend's children join yours, pay your babysitter $150, and you both still save $25 a week.

Thanks for reading!  Comments are always welcome, and pass the link on to your friends!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

And We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Post...

Okay, so I know that for those of you who regularly (or semi-regularly) read this blog I had promised to write about choosing quality childcare.  I still think this is an absolutely critical subject and will be happy to write about it, but not today.

It is currently 3:33 a.m. and I am having a bout of sleeplessness.  I am not employed currently, with it being summer and school out and all, so I have been looking for a good babysitting/nanny type thing to do to keep me busy and bring in a little extra money.  In fact, it was this search that made me start writing about the whole quality childcare issue, because I saw so many parents posting on babysitting sites about needing a sitter TONIGHT.  Huh?  I have always considered myself an overprotective mother so maybe it's my Mama Bear coming out of its cage, but who in their right mind hires a babysitter the DAY THAT YOU NEED ONE?  And you're hiring somebody off a babysitting board?  HUH?

But I digress.  There is another phenomenon out there that is just as shocking to me, and I'm willing to take the flack for it because I know this is incredibly un-PC to talk about.  But I find myself shocked and even a bit disgusted at the number of parents willing to leave their babies with a caregiver for ten or twelve hours a day.  Some of these infants are only two weeks old.  Some of these parents want to pay fifty or sixty dollars a week.  Let's see...ten hours a day times five days a week divided by fifty dollar an hour.  To care for your CHILD.

This isn't the time to be thrifty, folks.  I do understand there are some parents who absolutely must work to stay afloat.  But I also know there are some parents who willingly choose to have the larger house, the more expensive cars, the incredible vacations, because a two-parent income will allow them that, especially if they can get by paying a low wage for their childcare provider.  I also understand that some women would go nuts if they had to stay home all day, as would some men.  But if that's the case, is there a reason you can't hire a babysitter part time for a decent wage and work part time, or better yet...volunteer for your community???

Here are my issues with this situation:
1.  If you don't like babies, or children in general, why have them?  There are excellent birth control methods on the market, and there's this thing called adoption, too.  It may sound cold, but being a woman who is unable to conceive myself, I would have welcomed the opportunity to raise a healthy baby.
2.  How in the world do you expect to get to know a person who spends the majority of his or her time with you while s/he's sleeping?
3.  Since when did a big house signify excellence in parenting?  Has anyone seen The Real Housewives?  Come on, people.  Stuff is just stuff, and is no sort of measure of anything, except one's ability to acquire it.
4.  Speaking of Real Housewives and parents who just don't think they could handle being at home with their children, there are excellent parenting courses out there to help you manage your concerns and fears.
5.  When you look back on your life do you really think you'd regret having spent more time with your children?  Most people don't die saying, "I really wish I had finished that budgetary report in 2010."

Yes, in case you haven't figured it out I am a huge proponent for children being raised by, well, their parents.  Parents who choose to have another person raise their children have no room to complain about nannies imparting different values to children, nor do they have a leg to stand on when their child cries for the nanny.

You conceived them.  You wanted them.  Please have enough long-term thinking to realize you'remaking a lifetime commitment.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a wonderful saying.  Once you have gotten sober, get a plant.  If the plant is still alive in one year, get a pet.  If the pet is still alive in one year, get a significant other.  I don't know where children fall in that, but I would imagine it falls much after the significant other.

People die every day with regrets of not spending enough time with loved ones.  Don't be that person.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Choosing Quality Childcare

I've had this topic on my mind quite a bit lately.  I've been perusing some babysitting ads as well as ads for in-home childcares.  One of the things that has completely shocked me is the number of people who will post that they need a babysitter on the day they need one.  Apparently, they have imminent faith in the world and its people.  Call me a skeptic, but I've been around the block enough times to know that quality care--whether it's for full-time care or just a few hours--is not that easy to come by.

As a parent, I have a responsibility to leave my children with people who are capable of caring for them appropriately and have given no reason for a person to have doubts about their characters.  I often wonder if parents are aware of what makes a quality caregiver, what expectations they should have, and how much they need to pay.  The reality is that if you're paying for in-home childcare and your provider is charging very little, you're not getting a great deal--you're getting a trade off.  You are paying less money and in exchange your child is getting lower quality care.

Choosing quality childcare is not something that I can possibly sum up in one post, so I'll probably be working on this topic for awhile.  There are a lot of different issues that parents need to be aware of when choosing the right care for their child.  Studies have shown that the average American parent spends more time picking out a new car than he or she spends picking out childcare.  If posts on babysitting service sites are of any indication, those studies are right.

When I was a kid, we had a babysitter every Saturday night and she was always in her teens.  These days, I would be hesitant to leave my child with a teenager unless I knew the teenager was exceedingly responsible, my child was fairly predictable and responsible, I would only be gone for a short amount of time, and the teen's parents were home and lived nearby.  The world is different today than it was thirty or forty years ago.  Most states have extremely fuzzy laws surrounding the issue of how old a child needs to be before being left alone or in charge of younger children.  Generally, laws state that a child is considered old enough to watch other children in the home if they are responsible enough to ensure everyone's safety.  I think that's a really dangerous standard; it's basically leaving the decision up to the parents until something goes wrong.  Then all sorts of problems, including legal ones, can ensue.

For me, there were some absolutes in choosing a sitter:
*I had to know the person well.  Most of my children's sitters were previous students of mine, or other college-aged young women.  When I interviewed a person I wasn't familiar with to care for my child, I got references and checked them.  I also had every sitter come by and meet my children at my home.  This enabled the sitter to get a "lay of the land", so to speak, and for my children to feel a bit more comfortable around the sitter.

*The person had to be trained in Infant/Child CPR and basic First Aid.  This is something that has grown increasingly common, but parents don't always ask or check for updated training.  If I really liked a sitter, I could always give him or her time to obtain training.

*The person had to have some knowledge about children.  Whether it was education or experience, I wanted to know that whoever was with my children knew in general what to expect of kids their age.  This also helps to ensure the person knows how much they need to supervise in different situations.

*The person had to be an excellent communicator.  Call me a helicopter mom, but I do expect sitters to communicate how the evening went as a whole.  I like to know what my kids are doing, and if there were any concerns or problems.

Parents have certain responsibilities to a sitter as well, starting with-
*Clear communication.  Caregivers need to know your expectations, the children's schedule, any health issues the children may have, where and how you can be reached, and what time you should be home.  I always provided a written note that contained all the information above so the caregiver could refer to it whenever needed.

*Checking in.  I think it's a good idea to check in with all caregivers, regardless of the situation.  With sitters, I tried to call about halfway through the evening to see how things were going.  Be sensitive to your sitter as well; try not to call when she might be helping your children brush their teeth or get in bed.

*Pay a decent wage.  It's only babysitting, right?  To some extent, yes.  But if you're hiring a college student who has experience working with children, pay him or her the going rate or better in your area.  Eight years ago that was about $7 an hour in our neck of the woods.  Now it's about $10.  If you have a good sitter, treat him or her well.  Sometimes it's honestly hard to pay as much as you wish you could, so make an effort to appreciate him or her in other ways.  Return by the time you say you will, and pay for the time you agreed upon.  Make sure there is something decent for him or her to eat if s/he's there during mealtime.  Don't add extra duties like feeding the dog or cleaning the kitchen if you can avoid it.  And remember your sitter during the holidays, even if it's only with a tiny momento.

So those are the basic expectations for both sides.  Quality care is not going to present itself without a bit of time and effort on parents' parts.  Know what you're looking for and what you should be doing to make it happen.  Your kids will thank you (one day...promise!).

Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Being A Mother

I didn't become a mother in the traditional way.  I became a mom through somebody else's tragedy, through  two children's trauma.  I became a mother because a judge deemed it to be in the best interest of two children.

When my son was still very young and referred to me by my first name, I explained it to him this way:  that he would always have his momma, but I was there to do the "momma job" until his mother was able to do it.

That was ten years ago.

Being a mother isn't as natural as books make it out to be.  Even literature I read about children who have come from traumatic circumstances end up being happy and well-adjusted.  The truth is that this mothering thing is something that a lot of us grow into.  In my case, one day I had no children, and the next day I had two.  And the happy ending part?  I don't know about that.  All I know is that we try and rejoice in the good times and learn from our mistakes.

These children didn't come with clothes or toys, and they definitely didn't come with directions.  Directions for kids who have been through trauma would have been particularly helpful, but no--there were none.  For some reason I expected myself, being an educated woman who had worked with children for years, to know what to do.  I was shocked and embarrassed that I didn't.

But as with most things, I followed my instinct and, in combinations with a decent support system and experts who did know what they were doing, I grew into a mother.

My definition of a mother is probably a little different than yours, but here it is.

A mother is someone who loves you no matter what you do or say.  Even when you've said the worst things possible or even hit her, she still comes back to love you.

A mother listens to the same story over and over, because she knows you need to tell it to understand how it could possibly happen.

A mother knows that you will never understand how that story could have possibly happened, because there is no rhyme or reason to why some people do what they do to children.

A mother goes to your soccer games and screams for your team even when you tell her she's embarrassing you.

A mother plays with your stuffed toys with you, makes up songs about you, and sings them every night before bed.

A mother tells you you're perfect and believes it.

A mother is capable of the gentlest hugs and kisses, and the fiercest fights to defend her children.

A mother insists you clean your room, brush your teeth, and that you know how to wash clothes and cook simple meals so you don't stink or starve when you head off to college in about eight years.

A mother is aware of the precious time that is ticking off the clock before she has to share you with the world.

A mother cries when you get a perfect attendance award, and laughs when you tell the worst knock knock joke she's ever heard.

A mother listens to your dreams and believes they can come true.

A mother accepts that one day she won't be the most important woman in your life anymore, and graciously takes her seat toward the back of your bus.

Happy mother's day to every person out there who is doing a momma's job.  You may not have the title of  mother, but you're definitely filling her shoes.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mothers and Children

Some of my best blog ideas come from Facebook.  I have wonderful friends that I keep up with regularly courtesy of the amazing technology we all share these days.  One of my friends posted, in honor of mother's day, how she felt the need to give her children a present for how they have impacted her life.  My first reaction was, "My kids get way too many presents as it is!"  But as I thought about the sentiment, I had several things run through my mind.

First, my children happened upon me accidentally, and I upon them.  Born to another woman, my husband's relative, none of us could have ever imagined that our stars would one day collide.  My husband and I had a long term relationship for a few years before he moved to be closer to me and we eventually married.  We both wanted a child, and I had very firm ideas about how that plan was going to go.  I was going to marry at twenty-five, have one child--preferably a girl--at thirty, and continue in my happy little life, raising my daughter and spoiling her rotten.  She would occasionally challenge me, but because she would be so reasonable, a quick time-out (clearing my throat) would take care of that.  She would always love me and wrap her chubby little arms around my neck.  We would be the best of friends, and she would be beautiful and successful and amazing.  

I've never quite given up on this fantasy, despite the fact that I am in my early forties and would be a high risk pregnancy.  As I've grown older, there are aspects of mothering that I feel I missed out on--particularly pregnancy and having an infant around.  But I also know myself well enough to know that having an infant now would be incredibly hard.  And I have two other children who need me.

We tend to think, as parents, that as children grow older they need us less.  This has not been my experience.  Although my son, at fourteen, has formed his own friendships and even dates occasionally, he still needs the approval and love of his mom.  My daughter is twelve and still asks for us to spend a day together, just the two of us, from time to time.  I'm not naive enough to believe she will always put me first (in fact, there have already been several times she's chosen hanging with friends over doing something special with me), but when it comes down to it, I know that my love and acceptance is critical to her self-esteem.  And I think she's pretty awesome.  Both of my kids are wonderful people, and I love them with my whole heart.

When I first became a mom, I had very little time to prepare.  There wasn't any nine month gestational period.  There were no baby showers, no extended family to help so I could catch up on sleep or run errands.  But somehow we made it work.

I can honestly say that my kids have been two of my greatest teachers in life.  I have learned more from my experiences with them than through any other experience I've ever had.  I've learned that I have limits I didn't know I had, and that I have the capacity to give far more than I thought I did.  And I've learned that I can love in a way I never imagined or thought possible.

My facebook friend was adopted as an infant, and it's ironic that I find myself in the position her parents were in, and she in the position my children are.  I'm sure she gave up any doubts long ago about her parents' love and adoration, but I would like to say this to her, and to all people who grew up in less than traditional households:  Almost all parents love their children unconditionally.  I did not welcome these children into my life because I thought I was some sort of incredible mother.  I took care of two children who needed love, caring, and nurturing at that moment.  True mothers aren't defined by their ability to give birth, buy presents, or sharing genetic links.  True motherhood is defined by the willingness to put another person's needs in front of your own, to meet the needs of another person's over your own, to risk heartbreak for the chance of giving a child happiness.  Every child deserves those experiences, and when a mother is able to give those to her child, her rewards are multiplied a thousand times over.

My children are loved, as are my facebook friend's children.  We both are blessed by these ever-changing young people, and neither of us would have it any other way.  Mothering is a gift in itself, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have these two children who bless my world in so many ways.  And to my friend--I know her parents felt the same.  It was in the way they looked at her, the way they tried their best to parent her, the way they loved her.  Lucky, we are, to be children.  And lucky, so lucky, to be mothers.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Appreciate Your Teachers

It always struck me as ironic that Teacher Appreciation Week usually fell on the last week of preschool when I taught at the lab school.  It's been my experience that most parents don't even know it's teacher appreciation week or else are so busy that they fail to take the time to let teachers know they really are appreciated.

Last night I got a wonderful surprise.  This has been a year of ups and downs for me both personally and professionally, and I have been challenged to do and try new things and let some old things go.  But one of my former students publicly thanked me on facebook for the work I did with her.

I take my job very seriously, whether I'm teaching a two-year old or a thirty-two year old.  The goals may  be different as is the curriculum, but my responsibilities remain the same:  to teach the student the required curriculum to the best of my ability.  A teacher's job doesn't end at the end of class.  That's when a teacher's job is just beginning.  After the student has left, a teacher is reflecting on the interactions in class, pondering how to better challenge her students, thinking of ways to make the curriculum more interesting and most of all, more meaningful.  Planning for the next class takes as much or more time than the actual class itself.

It's always kind of given me a giggle that my degree is a Master's degree of Science in Early Childhood Education.  Science, huh?  There are a lot of logical and analytical properties that go into teaching--being able to observe and examine which strategies work best and utilize them to bring out the best in each student.  Being able to manage time, communicate clearly, and understand one's subject matter all lend themselves to the science behind teaching.

But as every teacher knows, true teaching is an art, an ability to get inside of another person's thinking and coax out the best in him or her; to make the subject matter meaningful in different ways to different people, and to exercise the art of encouraging the learner to create their own constructs of the subject matter.  Like any good artist, teachers must be willing to take the time to allow students to develop in their thinking and grow their own ideas.  The art of teaching is much like watching a great painting being constructed before you.  The student learns the basic lines and patterns, then begins to fill in the blanks with their interpretations of information they are responding to.  And if done correctly, no two pieces of artwork are the same.  Neither are any two teachers.  Although they are all working with the same brushes and paints and lines and dots; they are creating their own ideas and belief systems.  Great teachers understand the need for this constructive process and provide students with not only the tools but the belief that they can indeed construct something valuable.

I have had many teachers who have helped me construct my ideas about teaching and learning.  Some of those teachers were highly gifted and some never understood that teaching is a dance between the teacher and the learner.  Regardless, they all impacted me in different ways.  As I have grown in my understanding of what teaching and learning is, my definition of teachers has grown as well.  I no longer define the term "teacher" in its strictest form.  No, instead my teachers are the individuals I come across every day who encourage me to think more deeply or ponder questions more thoroughly.  They are my colleagues, my students, my friends, my family.  They are the gas station attendant, the homeless man on the corner, the salesperson at the store.  For each situation I find myself in, I find an opportunity to learn.

At the end of every semester I make a point of thanking my students, because I believe they teach me as much or more than I could ever teach them.  As has been said many times, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."  This belief has never failed me.

So take time today to thank a teacher.  It could be your child's teacher, or it could be the grocery store clerk who joked with you when you felt to serious and reminded you that life should be a little more joyous.  It could be your spouse who loves you and has taught you to love, or the homeless woman who reminds you to be a bit more generous of heart and earnings.  They are all our teachers, and deserve our thanks.