Thursday, March 24, 2011


Lately I've been worrying about my summer job.  I don't know for sure if I will be teaching college courses this summer, nor do I know if I want to commit to a full time anything during the summer.  Every other summer has consisted of summer school program with kids that ended at the beginning of July, then flying out to visit family for the rest of the summer.  So this year is different, for sure.

Stress brings on a variety of different reactions, everything from a faster heart rate and higher blood pressure to emotional issues.  It's not unusual for adults to settle down after a stressful day in front of the television with a pint of Ben & Jerry's.  Other adults let it out with healthier outlets such as exercise or volunteerism.  These are the routes that we always hope our children will choose one day, and it's possible they will.  With a lot of great modeling and appropriate stress management education, kids may very well grow into well-balanced adults.

Most adults don't stop to consider the amount of stress their children are under.  I am actually one of those who does consider stress and its effects on my children, trying to find an appropriate balance for my kids.  Earlier this year, our daughter was enrolled in an after-school program that had sounded fantastic--it taught leadership skills, provided extra tutoring, and, we were told, the children participated in special activities such as bowling, movies, and pizza parties on days out of school.  The program ran from 3:00 until 5:45 twice a week.  Our daughter is very gregarious and enjoys this type of thing, and so we signed her up, having great confidence that it would be a terrific opportunity for her.

By the end of the semester, our daughter had fallen behind in her homework.  In addition, we were seeing her arrive at home later and later in the evening.  Because of budget cuts, one bus provides transportation for many extra school activities all around the city.  It was becoming common for my eleven-year old to arrive home at 7:30, making for a twelve-hour day twice a week for her.  She wasn't thrilled with the idea of quitting something she enjoyed, but understood the decision.  She still stays after school some days for tutoring, and she stays late on Wednesdays for a special chorus she's a member of. But overall, she's home earlier, has more time to complete homework, and her stress level is more manageable.

Stress can be caused by more than just a busy schedule.  Divorce, moving, fights with friends, changes in schedule, and school expectations can cause stress in children.  More frequently than ever, we see noticeable stress behaviors in very young children.  Young children may have trouble sleeping or sleep too much; they may have frequent accidents; they may pick fights or even show hyperactive behavior as a result of too much stress.

I am a firm believer in kids having an opportunity to be kids.  Everyone needs some unstructured time, and this is especially true for children.  A couple hours a day, every kid should have the opportunity to play freely.  Hanging out with friends, riding bikes, skating on skateboards all are ways that kids LEARN to de-stress as well as learn how to master skills and enjoy life.  One of the questions I ask myself about my children's schedules is, does it allow for some unstructured play?  If not, then we go back to the drawing board and figure out how to make that happen.  It's as necessary for their development, in my opinion, as school or any extracurricular activity that they could take, and my job as a mother is to make sure they get it.

Thanks for reading!  Pass it on and feel free to leave comments--do you provide free time, or are the other things you feel are more important?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Luck O' the Irish

Part irish here, thank you very much.

I grew up hating St. Patrick's Day.  For one, if you couldn't find your green shirt you knew the kids at school were gonna pinch until you bruised.  And if that wasn't bad enough, my parents were just irish enough to make sure we enjoyed classic irish fare once a year--corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes.

I wasn't a picky eater by any means.  In fact, to this day I like to consider myself as a pretty reasonably adventurous person when it comes to food.  I love to try all sorts of things from different cultures.  The potatoes were no problem, and cabbage was even okay.  It was the corned beef that got me every time. To this day, I hear "corned beef" and I think I throw up a little in my mouth.

So it intrigues me when I see what other families do for St. Pattie's Day for their kids.  Do they force them to eat horrid food?  Or do they go easier on the palate, like a Shepherds Pie and a cold one (water for the kiddies, a beer for the adults)?  Actually, I have creative friends and I'm envious.  If I had been half as creative as a young mother as they are, St. Patrick's day might have redeemed itself to me!

The most obvious way to make the day a little more fun is serving everything green.  Green eggs and ham for breakfast.  Green beans, green mashed potatoes, green milk to drink.  Mint chocolate chip ice cream (I think I would have found that corned beef more palatable if I knew it was going to be followed with dessert!).  And how about throwing in some Girl Scout thin mints?  Granted, they're not green, but they help to fund a good organization and everybody knows that mint is associated with green, right?

One of my friends has been corresponding with her child as though she were a leprechaun, encouraging him to ask questions for the "leprechaun" to answer.  He'll have hidden gold coins to find today, a great treasure hunt for a little one.

Green construction paper can easily be cut into clovers, and if you have older kids like mine, try this activity.  My kids are quick to find fault with others (especially one another), so lay out a variety of pens and clovers for the family.  Encourage the kids (and adults!) to write kind things about one another on the clovers, and then stick them around the house.  If you're more adventurous, you can try sticking them in surprising places (always fun to find a clover six months later in a drawer!), but if you're more of a neat type person, create your own clover field where everyone's clovers are clustered together and hung. The whole family will enjoy reading the good things they've done for each other, and who knows?  That luck may stay for awhile!

If you have beautiful weather, consider going on a leprechaun hunt with your little one.  Take a walk and note all the green out with the leprechauns.  Could he be hiding behind a tree?  On the other side of a slide?  Who knows if you don't check?

Have your kids help prepare st. patty's day snacks like green apples, green applesauce, golden coins cut from summer squash with dip, or rainbow bananas (dip banana rounds into dry jello powder).  Or make up silly songs or rhymes about rainbows, coins, green, clover, or leprechauns.

Any or all of these ideas can spice up your day and take just a few minutes to turn an ordinary Thursday into something more special for the kids.  Enjoy and feel free to add your own ideas under comments!  Just do me a favor--unless you really love it, avoid the corned beef!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sickness and Trust

So what do you write about when you have no ideas?  Let's find out!

I'm sitting in bed with a sinus infection and a horrid earache waiting for my doctor's office to call me back.  I want something to help with the pain.  I'm a complete baby when it comes to pain.  When I was a kid, it was a VERY big deal to miss school.  In fact, it was such a big deal that when I said I was sick, my parents quite often didn't believe me or forced me to go to school anyway.  I was a latchkey kid; there were a million times I was left at home with the instructions to stay in bed ALL DAY (no TV allowed) and to call my dad if I started to throw up.

When our kids came to us, I had an incredibly rude awakening.  When my kids said they didn't feel good, my husband BELIEVED them.  They rested on the couch with sippy cups and blankets, watching television.  Beyond belief.  Incredibly, many times they were actually running a temp, or ended up vomiting, or gave some other indication that they really were sick and needed to go to the doctor.  My husband quickly taught me to trust my kids.  It wasn't until my son was twelve or so that he tried the old, "Get out of school by pretending to be sick."  Only happened a couple times.  My daughter hasn't really tried it.  In fact, she's such a go-getter that when she says she doesn't feel good, I'm practically on the phone with the doctor before she finishes her sentence.

The irony in all of this is that I learned not to trust my own body.  To this day I don't trust myself when I feel ill.  I still guess things like, "Am I sick enough to stay home?  Maybe I could make it through the morning.  Is my ear really THAT bad?  I know it hurts and I can't hear and I feel fluid moving around in there, but does that warrant a call to the doc?"  For the last couple of years I've been feeling run down for a lot of reasons, or so I thought--things going on in my life and with my kids and my job--until I finally went to a fabulous (anonymous) doctor who believed in a hard core approach.  I had horrific aching in my body and told him so.  Upon hearing this, he said, "Does this hurt?" and proceeded to punch me in the shoulder.  I quite literally screamed, "YES!"  His response was calm.  "Oh, you have fibromyalgia.  You'll need to see a rheumatologist."

And because not only did I not trust my own body but I also didn't trust doctors I thought were jerks, I suffered for two more years before finally getting in to see a rheumatologist, who was able to diagnose me within ten minutes with fibromyalgia.  How about a slap on the forehead to go with that punch on the shoulder?

Here's the point I'm getting at (amazing since I didn't have one in the first place!):  I want my kids to learn to trust their bodies.  If they feel run down, sleep.  If they feel hungry, eat.  If they feel sick, take medicine or go to the doctor.  Because of their previous histories, they do struggle with eating appropriately, but fortunately we were able to rid them (to the best of my knowledge) of their hoarding of food very early by making it available when they needed it.  Although my kids had an unusual start, I see parents regularly teaching their children to disregard their bodies' signals to make things easier on the parents.  Yes, it's naptime!  It doesn't matter if you're tired!  Just one more bite of dinner!  Clean your plate--there are starving children in Africa (that's an older one, and believe me, everyone from my generation just wanted to know how to pack their plate up and mail it to some hungry African child!).  We eat at these times.  We sleep at these times.  We work at these times.  If you're sick you stay in bed and sleep all day.

Of course, as kids get older structure is critical.  But I've watched some parents who instill either no structure or too much.  Either one keeps the child from learning their own limits.  Kids who have complete access to any food in the house whenever they want it may do what is logical to kids--go for the addictives, sugar, fat and salt.  Ones who are allowed to stay up until they drop don't learn how to regulate their bodies into comfortable sleep.  And kids whose parents either run them to the doctor for every sniffle or refuse to take them unless they're violently ill teach kids not to trust their bodies or their instincts.  No, kids don't need a doctor for mild allergies--the need an over the counter remedy suggested by a nurse or pediatrician familiar with the child.  Kids who are violently ill usually need to be at the hospital.  If you allow a child to vomit continuously with a high fever, you're running a slippery slope of dehydration.  That can lead to organ failure, permanent disability, and eventual death.

Allowing kids to learn to listen and honor their internal rhythms is key to being a balanced and healthy individual.  Modeling this behavior can be tricky for parents who didn't receive it as children themselves.  It often takes a reminder from a spouse (as in my case) or a friend to help remember what's in our children's best interests, especially if it's opposite from what we experienced as a child.

Just a rambling thought for the evening.  Thanks for reading and I love it when you pass the blog on to others...and comments are the best, whether you agree or not!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Today, as I taught my undergraduate class, we were discussing the topic of self-esteem as well as self-concept.  Self-concept is how we perceive ourselves; self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves. Most of us are very familiar with the concept of self-esteem and have heard it since childhood.  Ironically,most of us find it difficult to separate these ideas, and children find it impossible.  To try to separate our thoughts from our feelings about ourselves is a complicated matter.  The two intertwine deeply.  How we think about ourselves strongly impacts how we feel about ourselves.  For example, I perceive myself as an effective teacher; I also feel good about my teaching.  Because I perceive myself as an effective teacher,I'm more likely to engage in activities that will ensure I really AM an effective teacher, such as professional reading,writing, and other studies.

Children are much the same. Tasha believes that she's a fast runner.  She feels her feet go fast beneath her, feels the wind in her hair, and watches the scenery go by quickly.  Because of her perception, Tasha thinks she's a good runner, and therefore likes to run. Running is fun for her and she runs every day, often calling out to other children, "See how fast I run!"

Often,our self-concept and self-esteem is challenged by experiences or other people. When I was in second grade, I won the spelling bee and had great confidence in my spelling ability.  This was reinforced over years of excellent spelling grades. However,when I decided to pursue a graduate degree in teaching,I had to take the GRE (graduate record examination).  I remember reading the vocabulary lists with horror.  I didn't even know how to pronounce these words,much less know how to spell them.  Imagine my surprise when one of my friends who was several years behind me in school read through the lists with ease, explaining the definition of each one.  How did she build such an impressive vocabulary?  Reading, of course.  But what might surprise you is what she read--historical romance novels.  She apparently had a habit of keeping a dictionary next to her and looking up any word she read that she didn't understand (an excellent strategy, by the way).  I'm sure that as much as my self esteem suffered a much needed but mild adjustment that day, hers did too.  She was a heckuva lot smart than she gave herself credit for, at least in my eyes.

Many people try to build a child's self-esteem using empty praise (Oh, good job!  Way to go!  You rock!) or by praising actions that deserve no praise (Johnny pulled his pants up all by himself!  What a smart kindergartner!  Taylor kept all his milk in his carton while he drank it!  What a good first grader!).  Let's be real here--we all know that without fancy buttons or clips, most three year olds can pull up their pants and drink from a straw in a milk carton.  Giving kids praise over things they've already easily accomplished doesn't boost self-esteem; in fact, it can actually damage it by making the child realize the adult isn't really paying attention to what s/he can do.  Of course, there are obvious ways to lower a child's self-esteem.  Name-calling, disparaging remarks, undue criticism, even sharp looks can, when repeated,have a negative effect on a person's self esteem--child or adult.

For me, raising one child who has difficulty managing his emotions, my self esteem takes regular hits.  Kids like mine are excellent at figuring out where your most sensitive spots are, and he knows being a good mother is critical to me,so that's where he strikes.  We've all had bosses, spouses, friends, enemies, and yes,even children, who have attacked who we are in painful ways that stick with us.  But ask yourself this:  Objectively, is what that person says really accurate about you?  If it is, then congratulate yourself; you're a full fledged person who makes mistakes from time to time.  Look at what is said to you and think about how those actions or responses are serving you,and if you want to change them.  I'm an extremely sarcastic person, which doesn't bode well with mothering two young children.  In fact, it can be downright harmful.  However, if the person who has  criticized you doesn't seem to have an accurate point, let it go.  Everybody's allowed an opinion.  That doesn't mean that they're right.

Teaching children to let go of the ugly--the criticisms, the bullying, the meanness--is important but so difficult.  The best way to protect a child from these things is a strong, healthy, genuine sense of self concept and self esteem.  Praise your child for real accomplishments.  Note the good things they do.  You're building a healthy wall around your child that will work to keep the negatives out.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


I've heard it said that you explore topics that are most relevant to you.  A great example of this, for me, was when I finished my bachelor's degree in psychology.  I never really had any other interest in school at that time other than psychology.  I think I briefly considered music therapy but quickly brushed it aside for theorists and research and brain function.  Why was it so important to me, at twenty or twenty one, to understand psychology?  Because I was exploring myself--trying to figure out who I was and how my pieces fit together.  I didn't finish my bachelor's with any sort of wonderful GPA, but I did finish it with a much stronger understanding of who I was.

My search to become a teacher was much longer and more frightening, to me.  My mother had always said "Don't be a teacher!"  She had been forced into the career by her parents, and while she excelled at it, it didn't make her happy.  I'm quite sure she was a kind teacher, the type of teacher I would want my children to have.  But she didn't want either of her children to have to deal with the politics and red tape involved in teaching.  The last few weeks in our country--watching extreme budget cuts in education, seeing the extremely wealthy criticize educators for not wanting to sacrifice any of their salaries (which, by the way, are one fifth the amount or less of those criticizing), and recognizing the devastation lack of funding will cost our children, has reminded me of my mother's words.  Anger doesn't begin to cover my feelings regarding politics in our country today, and knowing that teachers will be blamed and penalized when test scores drop next year frustrates me even more.  Teachers will make up the loss from their own pocketbooks in many cases.  Why?  Because we don't go into teaching to get rich.  We go into teaching to make a difference for children.

When I finally made the decision to go into teaching instead of social work, I felt as though I had walked into my own skin.  As though God had called me home and would walk beside me to ensure my success.  And when I graduated successfully and received my first public school job, I was positive this was the right path for me.

And then, as the year progressed and I got a taste of reality--starving children, children without coats or socks, children with so much rage they would throw chairs or tables or even shoes, children with no books to read, no science materials, no math manipulatives--I questioned myself. Was I really meant to be a teacher?  God said yes.  And inside, I knew the truth was that I could do it.  But maybe my calling wasn't right here.  At least now right now.  I spent years stewing over leaving my first assignment.  When my principal--the same one who placed new tables in the lunchroom along with TV sets tuned to Scooby Doo at lunchtime instead of purchasing books and other materials--received a 25,000 award from a private organization, I seethed.  How, I asked God, is this fair?  Do you know how much I could do with 25,000?  I'd like to say God leaned down and said "Don't worry, Michelle...she's got it coming."  But he didn't.  Instead he continued to give me great coworkers to learn from, wonderful classes to teach, fantastic children and students to learn from.  And sure enough, ten years later, she got what was coming, through several news reports in the local paper reporting massive cheating on state tests.  And she was removed from her position.

My husband and I moved to Oklahoma the June after my first year at that school and shortly thereafter became the custodians of two children.  Had we been married just three months later we would not have qualified to care for the children.  I applied for one job that interested me and received it, at a pay rate higher than advertised.  In my mind, these "coincidences" are proof that God exists, that He answers prayers, and He guides us daily.

Children have an innate sense of wonder and curiosity of their world.  I believe this brings them closer to God. They see the miracles of life that adults have become oblivious to, the miracle of a flower in bloom or a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.  They watch the vegetable plants they have tended grow into full plants that will feed them.  They see trees with leaves and flowers and bark that we look past every day.  The gifts that God has placed all around us are present in our children.

Maybe you're not a believer in God, or you call God by a different name--Allah or even Higher Power.  As adults we face problems that seem insurmountable; our logic tells us it's impossible to cross the river or climb the mountain.  But if you watch carefully, a child will try.  Why?  Because he has faith in himself.  He hasn't yet experienced the limitations of humanity.

That faith in action, watching a child who tries yet again, is a blessing from God himself.  It's a reminder of our humanity and the possibilities this world has to offer.  As for the principal I referred to earlier?  A strong reminder that God has His own plan, and it doesn't necessarily mean it's the same as mine.  And looking back, as much as I am saddened by the ten years of children who were affected by this principal's choices, I am pleased with the outcome.  God is good, and I trust that whatever happened at that school after I left had to do with lessons that others needed too.