Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Gift

One by one, my toddler, Claire, handed a brown leaf to each person sitting in the park. She went down the row of benches, like she were royalty greeting her subjects. One by one, I watched as complete strangers took the leaf, as if she were giving them gold.

A moment exists when Claire greets a stranger that I worry how the person will react to her. Some people are busy, they don't like kids, they need their own space. I don't want Claire to feel rejected. It's my projection. People do reject her. She remains undeterred. Today, everyone took a leaf, so my worries were for naught. They often are.

Claire goes into every situation like it is new. She has no expectations of the other person, no preconceived notion of how her actions will be received. Today, she wanted to give out some leaves.

I want to be more like her. I wonder if I ever was. Was I always too shy to hand out leaves when I was little? Or did I become self-conscious somewhere along the way? I have a feeling it was the latter.

Watching Claire, I see the wisdom of reaching out to people. The group of strangers seemed insurmountably unapproachable to me at first, oblivious to their surroundings and lost in a smart phone or somewhere in thought.
child's hand

Yet, Claire broke through the haze with a simple gesture. When she did, it was like the weight of their own preoccupations had been lifted from them. They took her offering of simple beauty. They greeted her with a smile or a few words to match her generosity.

We don't take the opportunity to look each other in the eyes enough. Children do. We immediately become more present and alive. I saw each person look in Claire's eyes and be transformed.

Each leaf held so much; it symbolized more than the leaf itself. Each leaf was Claire's generous offering of simple beauty. It was her innocent belief that leaves are like gold, and that people would receive her gift. It was the willingness of people to go along with her on her flight of fancy about gold leaves. It was a revelation given to me by my daughter. But most of all, each leaf was a catalyst for connection between two people.

I want to be like more like my daughter. Don't you? Today, I'd like to try an experiment: I am handing you a leaf. You shall decide how you receive it.

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Photo Source: Lisa L Wiedmeier, WANA Commons, Flickr, this image has been altered, which does not suggests that the licenser endorses this blog, me or its use. License

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Moral of the Story

I haven't been able to put words to my feelings about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. A lump of confusion, helplessness and outrage has been stuck in my throat.

I can barely think about losing my child, let alone so senselessly and with so little remorse from the person responsible. I dread the day when I'll have to tell my daughter that the world can be cruel and unfair. Claire's too young to understand right now, but she will come to me for answers someday. In light of last week's verdict, I feel profoundly helpless about my ability to give her good ones. 

A strange circumstance brought these thoughts and feelings into focus for me the other day. Claire and I were singing along to Little Bunny Foo Foo on the IPod. The song's supposed to be fun. It's always been fun. Since I can remember, this morality tale has been merrily teaching kids that actions have consequences, that might does not make right, and that justice can be on the side of the little guy.

As we sang the song, it wasn't so fun anymore. The tale of Little Bunny Foo Foo didn't seem to match our world. Reality wasn't as cut and dry as the moral of the story would have us believe.

I started to wonder if Little Bunny Foo Foo needed to be rewritten in light of the Trayvon Martin verdict. How would the song go if Little Bunny Foo Foo lived in Florida? What if he had claimed "Stand Your Ground" to The Good Fairy? Would she have let Little Bunny Foo Foo go free? How many more field mice would be bopped on the head for the sport of Little Bunny Foo Foo? Singing with my daughter, questions filled my mind.

How do you teach children the difference between right and wrong in a world that sometimes seems so lacking of a moral compass?

Claire asked to hear the song again, like toddlers do. I obliged. I loved that song when I was little. I believed in its lessons. I still believe. Peace. Justice. Equality. They are universal lessons.

But I felt a bit of a sham sharing them with Claire that day. l couldn't help but think of Trayvon Martin's mom. Life's more complicated than Little Bunny Foo Foo.

I looked at my daughter singing, and I longed for the innocence of a child.

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Photo Source: Milos Milosevic, Flickr

Friday, July 19, 2013

What's a Kookaburra?

When George and I were dating, we spent a lot of time contemplating the meaningful topics of life. But "To Be or Not to Be?" has become a pre-baby question. These days, even the adult conversations begin with a juvenile concern:

Where did Donald Duck leave his pants?

Who's in the kitchen with Dinah?

How do you spell paw-paw?

What did the monkey do to the weasel to make him that mad?

Is Goofy a dog?

Would you rather eat green eggs and ham with a mouse or a goat?

Who exactly were Davie Crockett, John Henry and Paul Bunyon?

Why doesn't Cookie Monster have a nose?

What's the recipe for blackbirds baked in a pie?

Does Mickey Mouse wear gloves as a formality or is he always cold?

How did Raffi become our children's answer to The Beatles?

You'd be surprised how long George and I can milk one of these topics for entertainment. Of course, some of these questions are completely unanswerable, particularly the last one about Raffi's confounding popularity. I did, however, google "Kookaburra" when George asked, "What the hell is a Kookaburra?" For the record, a Kookaburra is a bird from Australia. A fact to be filed under the category of "useless trivia".

We decided she's rather cute, though. We hear she's always up for a good laugh too.


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Photo Source: BenAveling, Wikipedia Commons

Monday, July 15, 2013

In the Scheme of Things

Sharing a post written when Claire was an infant:


I told George that our baby, Claire, was born carrying all her eggs inside her tiny body. He asked in amazement, “So you’re telling me she has our grandchildren inside her already?” I said, “Well, if she has children, yes."

Right now, it’s all beautiful potential.

Claire was a promise for me for a long time as well. Nine months in my belly, yet the possibility of her has been inside of me for my whole life. That must say something about the psychic bond between mother and child. For Claire and me, it’s been a particularly long journey. Forty-four years together, then George joined the mix and she became her own separate person. I like to believe that she was born wise, because she lived forty-four years as part of me before she started her own life.

It’s a wonder she or any of us are born at all. Remember when they used to give a prize to the thousandth customer to walk through the department store doors? It’s kind of like that. One lucky somebody gets to be the thousandth customer, but many, many more need to make up the nine hundred ninety-nine who go before.

And that’s just the half of it, literally. You get one shot to swim better than 300 million others or so.

Right from the start, the male and female impulse seem so contrary – on the feminine side, hanging out patiently and waiting for just the right moment to take the plunge, on the male, jumping from the gate and enduring the race. With each, there’s an indefinable measure of grace.

As I look at her sleeping, she is so substantially her, so uniquely Claire. The seeming randomness of it all makes me shiver.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Keeping the Peace: Advice from the Trenches of Elementary School

I smiled when my husband said, "Claire seems so tempestuous, lately."

"Why the smile?" he asked.

I tried to figure out how to say what I was thinking without offending him. Often, when I give my perspective or offer advice about his relationship with Claire, he hears it like I'm the know-it-all wife carping at a feckless husband.

"Do you really want to know?" I said.

"Yes," he countered.

"You and Claire fight a lot," I say with trepidation. "You guys get into power struggles. She doesn't want to do stuff that you want her to do, so she yells at you. You force her to do it anyway. She yells louder. You yell back."

"Got any advice?" he says. I've gotten him thinking, instead of defending himself. It's time to bend his ear...

"Sure." After all, I was an elementary education teacher before having Claire. I remind him that the advice I have to offer is based on years of professional experience.

I start with the philosophical, "I'm not talking about the run-of-the-mill tantrum, or when kids just
want what they want. All young children struggle with emotional regulation, impulse control and expressing their feelings. We need to teach them how to manage those things in life too. My advice is about helping you with the emotional dynamic of your relationship with Claire. It's about supporting her sense of agency in relation to your authority over her, and making sure she feels respected and seen by you."

Then, I outlined what I had learned in the trenches about the emotional dynamic between adult and child -- the down and dirty, the nitty-gritty of keeping the peace in the classroom. Now that I've shared this list with my husband, I've formalized it for all the blogging world to see*:

HELP! I NEED SOMEBODY: Capitalize on your child's desire to help you and to be needed. Sometimes, when Claire starts to struggle against me, I remind her that I need her help to get the task done. I remind her that putting on her shoes is not going to happen without her. On a good day, she will quickly turn from my foe to my ally. We have now become a team working towards a common good. I always make sure I thank her profusely afterwards for her essential contribution to getting the job done.

FAIR WARNING: Outline expectations of your child ahead of time. My husband is particularly bad about this one. For example, he will expect Claire to abandon the puzzle in which she is completely absorbed, in order to eat lunch. In his mind, he's made her food and it's time to eat. She likes to know what's coming. She can struggle with transitions. If you think about it, adults do too. Kids appreciate a heads-up about what's coming next on the agenda, just like us.

FEELINGS…NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS: We tend to forget that kids want the same thing that we want a lot of the time. They want their experience validated and to feel like we understand them. My interactions with Claire tend to be more peaceful, when I acknowledge her feelings and encourage her. "I know its hard to wait for breakfast to be ready. Sometimes, I don't like waiting either. You're doing a great job waiting". Not only am I trying to show my child that I see her, I am putting into words what she probably can't yet.

THE CARROT: I want Claire to learn how to pick up her toys, not generally something that she wants to do. When I dangle the park in front of her, she's more apt to acquiesce. I will say, "It's time to go to the park, but we have to pick up our toys before we go". Works like a charm every time. Of course, eventually I want her to pick up her toys on her own. She isn't there yet. The "carrot" strategy is what we would call "scaffolding" in the educational world. It's a support used in a new area of learning. When she's had enough practice, we will take the scaffold away and see how that goes.

THE TIME IS NOW: Instead of saying, "I want you to eat breakfast" or asking, "Do you want to eat breakfast?", I say, "It's time to eat breakfast". Really, this tweak is a minor sleight of hand. I don't know why it works so well. But blaming your request on time instead of you takes away the personal element, and, hence, the power struggle. It was one of the first things someone told me as a new teacher. If you go into any class in any part of the country, you will probably see teachers employing this one.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING: When we make a request of a kid, we often assume that he needs to do it right away or we will lose face with him somehow. It's not necessarily true. Kids have a different concept of time, so if there's no urgency, let your little one do it on his own time. You can acknowledge what's going on, "I know you don't want to do this right now, but we need to do it soon". Then, set a timer to remind him that it needs to get done.

READY, SET, GO: Similar to the previous one, when there's no time constraint, ask your child to tell you when she is ready. She just wants to feel some control over her destiny, which is reasonable enough. This strategy works particularly well when your child is close to you with nothing better to do. When Claire doesn't want to have her diaper changed, I will take a step back from the diaper pad and say, "You let me know when you are ready". She gets bored, and it usually isn't long before she thinks it's her idea to have her clothes or diaper changed.

PRO-CHOICE: I think most people are aware of this one. When a child makes a choice, the decision becomes his, instead of something being done to him. It's important to remember to keep the choices simple, and limited to a small number though. Too much choice can be overwhelming for a child.

CHOOSE OR LOSE: When you are in a hurry, you can start by offering choice. If this strategy isn't working or is taking too long, you can say, "if you don't make a choice between x and y, I'm going to make a choice for you". Children don't generally like it when you take charge of the situation, but they seem to have an uncanny, intuitive understanding of the fairness and logic of their loss of choice and are more apt to accept it.

DANGER, WILL ROBINSON: Try keeping the "non-negotiables" limited to dangerous activities and things that you absolutely will not tolerate. Then, kids will take you seriously when you make a "no options" demand of them. It's like the boy who cried wolf. If you cry wolf too many times, they won't believe you when you really mean it.

EVERYTHING BUT THE KITCHEN SINK: What worked yesterday might not work today. You have to be flexible, try different things, try many things, switch it up. Something will usually stick.

ALL IS NOTHING: Sometimes nothing works.

HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY: So you've tried all of these things and nothing is working. You're late for a doctor's appointment and your child needs to get with the program. Be honest, but keep it brief, factual and calm. "We need to go to the doctor now. I have to put on your clothes. I know you don't like it. I know you're mad". Then, soothe the angry beast as best you can.

HUMAN NATURE: Cut yourself some slack. You won't be perfect. I'm not. After years of teaching, I still lose my shit. I'm tired, hungry, in a hurry, feeling grumpy. Whatever. Remember that kids will not lose their respect for you for being human. You can always talk about your conflict afterwords. You can always apologize. Remember it's not the battle, it's the war (not crazy about the "war" analogy, but it does work).

*Disclaimer: I started this blog with one rule. I was not going to offer advice. I didn't want to tell people stuff they already know. I didn't want to sound preachy. I am well aware that I don't have the answers.

But today I'm wearing my teacher hat, not my mom hat. As a mom, I still don't have the answers. I wouldn't dare tell you how to raise your child. As a teacher, I felt I may have a valuable perspective to offer.

I hope you think so too. If not, feel free to leave me a comment telling me I'm preachy or I've told you stuff you already know. 

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Photo Source: Dominic Alves, Flickr, this photo has been altered which does not suggest that the licenser endorses me, this blog or its content. License

Monday, July 1, 2013

Bees and Children

Claire and I watch as a bumblebee darts and hovers over feathery stalks of lavender. Legs plump with pockets of pollen, the bee's rotund orbed body seems impossibly, precariously airborne. "How are those delicate wings keeping it aloft?" I wonder.

The bee doesn't ask this question. She just flies.

My daughter doesn't ask this question either. In a sense, she flies too.

She and the bee fly, because that's what bees and children do. They act purely from their bee and child nature.


We adults, we know better. Self-awareness brings the ability to fathom the cavernous depths of the impossible, to buckle under the weight of self-doubt, to allow the fear of failure to keep us earthbound, to stop us from taking a leap into the unknown.

Bees and children remind us that our spirit can be otherwise. They remind us to remember taking flight, to remember that we were once children too...

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Photo Source: Eduardo Merille, Flickr. This photo has been adapted and does not suggest that the licenser endorses me, it's use or this blog. License
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