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.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Faith and World Peace

Tonight started out as most Sunday nights around my house do--cooking dinner and setting the table for a family meal.  This was to be a birthday dinner for my son, and he helped plan the menu.  Hot dogs, hamburgers, roasted potatoes, baked beans, and a cookie cake for dessert.  Of course, no carb loading here!
My brother joined us and the kids piddled around the house, finishing chores before getting ready for bed as I tried to watch my favorite show, Law and Order Criminal Intent.  Of course, I couldn't HEAR it, because of the kids, but such is the life of a mother.

As the kids visited with my brother I flipped over to Celebrity Apprentice.  I was just about to watch Star Jones verbally attack Nene in front of Donald Trump and that fantastic toupee when it switched to the news.  A major story like this always makes my heart catch in my throat--has there been an attack on our president?  Some sort of major disaster?

Of course, if you're reading this, you know none of the above are true.  Osama Bin Laden, enemy number one of our country, has been killed and his body taken into American custody.  Supposedly his DNA has been matched as well, although the president didn't comment on that.  What he did say was how long they had worked for this, how hard they had worked for this, and how aware he was of the suffering of so many Americans due to this one man.

I have heard people say that it would have been better for him to be taken alive; however, I have no doubt that even if this had been possible he would have killed himself in custody--major martyrdom issues for his cause.  But I have a hard time imagining how a man who has eluded capture for the better part of ten years could effectively be captured alive.  I'm convinced he was well surrounded by guards and intelligence of his own.  We just got lucky.

I have listened to my friends speak about this and share a gamut of emotions from frustration at not seeing bin Laden face trial to celebrating his death.  As I stated to a friend, Obama bin Laden has been riding on the backs of good people across this world for long enough and it finally caught up to him.  If there is a hell, I'm sure he's burning in it.

So what does this have to do with an early childhood board?  I think it has to do with hope.  Hope that our children can grow up in a world that encourages more respect for other cultures.  Hope that peace is brought into our world, even if just a tiny bit, tonight.  As I reflected over life just a week ago on Easter Sunday, I became intensely aware of how difficult it can be to find peace within oneself, much less as you reach out among family, community, and country.  Life becomes much more complicated.  But as parents, when we tuck our children in at night, we pray for their peace and protection.  We pray for God to hold them close throughout the night when we aren't there.  We pray to keep away the monsters--the real monsters--that our children can only imagine but we know all too well.  And if we're idealistic, really idealistic, we pray for peace.  World peace.

We're all well aware of the joke involving beauty pageant contestants stating they want world peace.  Dressed to the nines, filling out every last inch of their skintight gowns, they wave at us and tell us their one wish would be world peace.  Most of us, knowing how complex and nearly impossible that wish is, laugh and snicker at their naivete.  World peace?  We live in a world with terrorists and human rights violations right on our own soil.  We have troops around the globe and young men and women dying in two ongoing wars.  We have given up many of our rights in favor of the supposed protection of something called the Patriot Act that has allowed our government to tap our phones, record our conversations, track our comings and goings, and even hold citizens for undefined periods of time if accused of certain crimes.  We have given these up, all in desperation to regain our safety.

Tonight as I kiss my children goodnight I'm well aware that I could wake up tomorrow to experience backlash to the death of the leader of al-Qaeda.  But I dare to dream that somehow between now and when my children are grown, they will learn lessons of respect, of kindness, of love that will help them to understand those that are different and appreciate those differences.  Tonight, as I kiss them goodnight,  I pray for their ability to follow the path Christ has laid out for them, to love thy neighbor as He has loved us.  And with that kiss, I dare to believe in the impossible, in that which we scoff at, dressed in too much hairspray and too fancy dresses.  I dare to believe in world peace for our children.

It may never happen, but the one thing I know for sure is that if we are convinced it won't happen, it never will.  It doesn't hurt to believe.