ABCs of Parenting

 

Baldhill kids

A is for Affection, with hugs extra tight,

B is for Bedtime, same way every night.

C is for Consistency, a rule that’ll guide us through the thick,

D is for Discipline, best when intrinsic.

E is for Even, in portions of fours,

F is for Fun, even when doing chores.

G is for Games, bringing families together,

H is for Happy in all kinds of weather.

I is for Ice Cream, for dinner, or part of it,

J is for Justice, no matter who started it.

K is for Kangaroos (they live in Australia),

L is for Laughter, for with jokes they’ll regale ya.

M is for Meter, never my forte,

N is for Nature, at least an hour every day.

O is for Outside, where everything’s better,

P is for Playing, all day if you let her.

Q is for Questions, of which they are full,

R is for Reason, ineffective as a rule.

S is for Stories, the currency of kids,

T is for Trust: if rules are jars, these are lids.

U is for Under, remembering they’re younger,

V is for Vittles, every two hours when they hunger.

W is for Water, always better than Juice,

X is for I Don’t Know, but it has to rhyme with Juice.

Y is for Yarn: sweaters knit by my wife,

Z is for Zest, which fills kids with life.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EmailShare

Lifeschooling

This week, I am sharing a guest post I wrote for my wife’s homeschooling blog, Little Snail. I invite you to go there and read her insights about homeschooling and family life. 

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 preset

I wanted to write about Kyrie’s homeschooling from my perspective. It’s a pretty good one. My evenings and weekends with my family are the most important part of my life, and I see the evidence of her work in happy, healthy, curious children. I see it in the burnish of sun on their faces, and in the stories they can’t wait to tell me, simultaneously, as soon as I get out of the car. I see it in the projects they have laid out from the day, in the books across their laps (and stacked precariously on every surface), and in the baskets full of pinecones and flowers and eggshells and stones. I hear it in the questions they ask and the insights they unfurl at the dinner table. I know that whatever she is doing, she is doing right. I would not want their education to go any other way.

I work as a “parenting educator,” a title I will speak as well as type in quotes. The truth is that everything I know about parenting I learned from Kyrie: from her reading and her posts (hers is the only feed on my Instagram page); from the many links she shares with me; from the words she uses and the way she moves her body. The routines she has put in place I regard as sacred: I can only hope to help them run smoothly. In fact, I would be satisfied to work as a sort of machinist to her inventions; an acolyte; a bureaucrat of nurturing.

But I am much more fortunate than that. I have been in a unique position to see the evolution and the struggle of her schooling, in long conversations on the porch or in the car. I know that Kyrie has been building her curriculum from any and every material she can reach for (and many that are hidden, or obscured, or even broken). I have seen the strands of Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, John Holt, Orthodoxy, unschooling, subschooling, counterschooling and just plain schooling, as they braid and unspool into new configurations, new structures. I know her struggles to come at content from historical and natural and philosophical perspectives. I know enough, from my foray into high school teaching, to grasp how difficult it is to scaffold material and to differentiate by age, ability, and developmental level. I know that much of the last year she has been occupied with finding the right rhythms and that she has often felt it simply is not working.

Recently we talked about what lies beneath all of this painstaking planning and restructuring, and that has been the subject of her recent posts: it is the day-to-day movement of life in our family, and the opportunities presented to our girls in such seemingly nonpedagogical routines as going outside, playing in the river, trips to the library. It is in cooking, chores, music, Church, and play. I see that regardless of the content that hangs on this bough, the roots of their days go deep, and the branches yearn their way into space. I see that homeschooling is not a structure, nor an ideology, nor a machine. It is simply life.

And my goodness, it is work.

The “No”s Have It

 

“My name is ‘no’ 

My sign is ‘no’

My number is ‘no’

You need to let it go”

::Meghan Trainor

becerraphotography.com-230

You may have noticed that “no” is a go-to word for children, and that they pick it up pretty early on. Once they start as toddlers, they will use it for all it’s worth. This makes sense, according to Judy Arnall in her book Discipline Without Distress. She writes:

“A toddler’s favorite word is ‘no.’ It is a strong, powerful, in-control word. It sounds decisive, meaningful, and packs a punch.”

A parent’s first impression—and this impression may last, if you’re not careful—is that the child is out to undermine your authority and defy you. You might feel a lack of respect. In fact, it’s rather the opposite (as we will get into below). It is important to remember that this is a natural and nearly universal behavior. Arnall goes on to say that when a toddler says “no”:

  • “They need to assert independence and they need to achieve a measure of control over their lives.
  • They need to begin separating when secure and cling when insecure.
  • They need to explore and discover.
  • They need to express their strong emotions.”

Essentially, “no” is standing in for a whole lot of words that the child doesn’t have yet. According to the author,

“When a toddler says ‘no!’ they mean:

  • I want to do it myself.
  • I don’t want you, but I want you. I am overwhelmed by conflicting feelings.
  • I don’t know what I’m feeling, but I’m feeling it right now!
  • I can’t share because I don’t understand the concept of ownership yet.
  • I want to have some control over what happens to me.”

It should be easy to guess where a child’s mastery of “no” comes from. Most likely they have felt its power coming from us, the parents. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of the excellent book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, explain:

“There will be many times as parents when we’ll have to thwart our children’s desires. Yet some children experience a blunt ‘No’ as a call to arms, a direct attack upon their autonomy. They mobilize all their energy to counterattack.”

Sounds suspiciously like the way we feel when we hear the word from our child’s mouth, doesn’t it? One way to manage their overreliance on the word “no,” then, is to try to lessen it in our own speech. Faber & Mazlish provide some alternatives to falling back on “No” as a way of managing behavior. They are listed below (examples in parentheses are mine):

  • Give information (instead of saying “No” when a child wants to keep playing at mealtime, say “We’re having dinner in five minutes”).
  • Accept feelings (“It’s hard to stop playing when you’re not ready”).
  • Describe the problem (“I’d like for you to keep playing. We have to be at your grandma’s house in an hour”).
  • When possible substitute a “Yes” for a “No” (“Yes, you can keep playing when we come back. I will give you special time for it”).
  • Give yourself time to think (“Let me think about that”).

“No” will always be a powerful word, and as parents we want to keep it that way. When there is an immediate safety concern, we will use it instinctually, and if we haven’t already said it a dozen times this afternoon it will be even more effective. Also, as the child gets older we want “No” to mean exactly what it says: that they want a behavior or situation to stop, right now.

Different Pages

iStock_000008328252XSmall

The Nurturing Fathers program is a parenting curriculum that runs parallel to Nurturing Parenting (about which I have written often). Its intended audience is men with children in their care—not only fathers, but uncles, grandfathers, teachers, mentors. It recognizes the importance to children of nurturing by adult males.

Sadly, many men in our society don’t realize the importance of this, and often don’t understand how to use their role to guide, love and nurture families. I am lucky that the place I work, at which I was for several years the only male employee, now has four. One of them is now in a therapeutic preschool classroom, and the benefits of a positive male role model can be clearly seen in reports from parents and from the look of joy on the children themselves when he greets them each day.

In addition, we are now able to facilitate a support group for fathers (Dads United was my generic but impressive sounding title). We work with men whose children may be home, or in foster care, or in the care of other family members. Some have adult children; some have been out of contact with them for years. We emphasize that all of them have the power of nurturance within them, and that their children need—and will thrive with—anything they can offer.

You are probably familiar with the “traditional” role of fathers in our society. We are most comfortable with, or at least most responsive to, the role of provider. We work, we bring money and resources back to the home. The work of nurturing—recognizing and expressing feelings, fostering relationships and communication, modeling acceptance and forgiveness, expressing love with words and safe touch—is relegated to the mother, grandmother, or female caregiver.

There is at least one good reason for this, and it is that those traits especially are more common to females. Let me qualify this: many of these things come at least as much from socialization and environment as from genetic disposition. As our Nurturing Parenting trainer is fond of saying, “The nature vs. nurture debate is over” (it’s about 30/70, in case you were wondering). Regardless, this territory is not commonly accepted as the province of males.

The fact is that there are many qualities of nurturing that are shared by males and females: things like expressing love, encouragement, listening, and setting limits. But males have their own particular ways of nurturing that can be forgotten, or even discounted, in our culture; even, unfortunately, in the realms of childhood education and parenting programs.

How do men nurture? We tend to be focused on doing rather than being: practicing skills, solving problems, performing and fixing. Putting things together and taking them apart. There is a focus on boundaries and structure, and also on notions of fairness, justice, and a sense of what the “rules” are. We tend to foster independence and risk-taking. Again, many of these traits come from the way we were raised as boys. But as even the most progressive, gender-neutral parents may learn to their surprise, little boys will be interested in trucks and tractors just as surely girls will discover their inner princess. Wherever these things come from, there they are. And to be clear, these are tendencies: all of us contain within us both masculine and feminine traits.

These male forms of nurturing are important to children, and should be recognized as such. I realized in the course of my recent training in Nurturing Fathers that I may have been too hasty in insisting that parents be on the “same page” about matters of parenting. The fact is, there are different pages. A father may have very different ideas about how to go about raising a child, from how to behave at the table or in public to how to deal with a crying child with a skinned knee. And they are valid, and valuable, when directed with intention toward the love and growth of a child.

After all, kids need more than one page. They need the whole book.

Bored Games

iStock_000016342292XSmall

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up, because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

Performing Parenting

shopping1

Do you ever find yourself performing as a parent? I know that I do. When we’re in a public place, among other parents and children (and especially other adults without children), there is a tendency to want to show them that we are doing the right thing; that we are not neglecting our duties; that we are on top of things.

There are a lot of reasons for this. We have four girls, and according to some yardsticks this is classified as a “large family.” Having a “large family” prompts such statements as “you must really have your hands full” and “you must be busy!” These can feel like judgments even when they aren’t (and sometimes they are). When another person is trying to walk down the aisle in the grocery store and see that we are taking up the entirety of the space, it’s easy to notice what we perceive to be a sigh of exasperation or a narrowing of eyes that suggests annoyance. We don’t want to inconvenience people with our big (even if often joyful) presence. And when our kids are having a hard time to boot, that feeling is increased exponentially. Really, we might think, why are we trying to shop for food right now? In public?

Or how about this: we’re at the library and there’s another family whose children are maybe not as well put together as ours just now. We might put on our best parent voices and say only the most positive, affirming things, thus reinforcing our superior skills and making a display of how good our children are. We did this, is the implication we are trying to get across. Or maybe we are the other family, whose children are struggling, and are probably hungry or tired or in any case just not wanting to be at the library right now. In the face of this pressure, we feel the need to show we are in control, so we begin to perform this for our audience. We chastise the kids for making noise, for not keeping still; maybe threaten a time out. The message is: We got this.

In all these cases, what’s happening is that we are not parenting authentically, but giving a performance: rather than meeting the needs of our children, we are accommodating the other people in the room. And this is not helpful.

What’s the solution? We have to hold our kids in priority over what we imagine will be thought or said by others. After all, we probably don’t know what other people are thinking anyway, and in any case they’re not coming home with us.

I often say that the toy aisle at Wal-Mart is a fabulous place for a toddler to have a tantrum. It’s roomy, it’s well lit, and the muzak is not that good anyway. Let the child do what he or she needs to do. In the end, they’re the only audience that matters.

You’re a Poet

becerraphotography.com-3

Kids like words. They use them all the time. They put them together in different combinations. Some are funny. Some are very serious, because they describe how they think and feel and see the world. Some are magic, because they make things happen (“what’s the magic word?” We know it, right?).

Thus kids like poetry. They may not know it, but they do. After all, poetry is made of up words that are funny and very serious and, most of all, magic. So why not read and say and write poetry with them?

Wait. You like poetry, right? Oh, did you have to learn poetry in school? Right. Sorry about that. I hope you like poetry. You like songs, anyway, right? That’s poetry. You like jokes and Quentin Tarantino movies. I know you do, because. Poetry.

According to Merriam-Webster, poetry is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Hmm. Not very poetic.

According to Emily Dickinson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s more like it. It sounds pretty alarming and painful, but imagine that it is painless, and there’s no mess, and then the sky can get in. There.

Where to start with kids? You have probably passed along those nursery rhymes that you learned inexplicably yourself, and which are also poetry. You may have played the game in which you and your child try to one-up each other with how much you love each other: “I love you to the moon and back.” “Well I love YOU to the end of the universe and back.” “Yeah? Well I love you infinity.” And so on. That’s poetry and also math! There’s math in poetry, but that’s okay.

Here’s an easy way to make poetry: start with a formula. There are many ways to do this, and some of them have been used for hundreds of years. You can try a haiku. Haiku are Japanese nature poems, and there are a lot of rules that would apply to you if you were an ancient Japanese poet, and I don’t want to make any assumptions, but for our purposes it’s all about the meter.

It goes:

Five syllables

Seven syllables

Five syllables.

 

Without getting into what a syllable is, if you’re with your kids you can tap it out together.

 

Try one yourself.

 

Is this my new friend,

Nodding with its hornless head?

No, snail. It’s my toe!

 

Cat on the rampage

Flips backwards off the sofa:

“I meant to do that.”

 

We’re getting hungry

But it’s too hot for cooking

Ice cream for dinner

Summer School

Miriam kicking it

So, school is almost out. Summer is almost upon us. What are you going to do with your children now that they are home every day? Allow me to make a suggestion: start them in school.

Okay, let’s take a few deep breaths. I’ll take them with you. Ready? Now let me explain. What better time for your kids to learn than when they don’t have to go to school all day? If anything, all of the structure of their school day—all the moving from one place to another, all the sitting down and lining up and walking and standing and waiting, not to mention all of those other kids—has been in the way of their learning all along. Heck, even the teachers have been distracting them from their natural inclination to learn.

Don’t take it from me. Here’s what educator John Holt has to say about it, in his book Learning All The Time:

“I can sum up in five to seven words what I eventually learned as a teacher. The seven-word version is: Learning is not the product of teaching. The five-word version is: Teaching does not make learning. As I mentioned before, organized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what and only because we teach them. This is not true. It is very close to one hundred percent false.”

What makes children learn, then? Having opportunities to do so. Having the time, and space, and materials to gather information, observe their world, experiment, try out ideas, make things. And as a parent, you are the ideal person to provide these opportunities. Writes Holt:

“What adults can do for children is to make more and more of that world and the people in it accessible and transparent to them. The key word is access: to people, places, experiences, the places where we work, other places we go—cities, countries, streets, buildings. We can also make available tools, books, records, toys, and other resources. On the whole, kids are more interested in the things that adults really use than in the little things we buy especially for them. I mean, anyone who has seen little kids in the kitchen knows that they would rather play with the pots and pans than anything made by Fisher-Price or Lego or name whatever you will.”

So there you go: you can be the one to provide this access to learning. And Summer vacation is best time to do it. You can take them outside: on neighborhood walks, to the park, to the swimming pool, to the river, to the beach, to the city. And you can provide their textbooks and visual aids and tools: at the library, at the museum. In the backyard, in the kitchen. In the garage.

School’s out! Now finally they can get down to some learning.

Spare Change

corvallis_family_photographer-7

I hope that you enjoyed your holiday. It was a busy weekend for our family, having contained my eldest daughter’s birthday, my birthday, and my wedding anniversary (we were married on my birthday; it seemed like a good idea at the time, and though I go back and forth on the issue now, at least there’s no way I can forget the anniversary).

In our house, birthdays are pretty special. Sometimes too special. One of the rules of the birthday is that we get to choose what we want to eat for every meal. For whatever reason, this has worked out well in the past. This year, my daughter put a lot of thought into her selection and wrote them out for us to post on the refrigerator. It was a pretty reasonable list:

Breakfast: Hash browns, sausage and scrambled eggs

Lunch: Cream of mushroom soup with grilled cheese sandwiches

Dinner: Meatloaf and mashed potatoes

And of course: Vanilla cupcakes with buttercream frosting

Okay, my daughter made the cupcakes. She’s good at it. But her birthday fell on Thursday, so I was at work, and in the course of the day my wife mentioned that she had spent nearly the entire day in the kitchen, either prepping, preparing, or cleaning up after the birthday meals. I suggested that in the future, we revise the birthday rule to specify that they may choose one special meal.

We felt bad about this, and certainly did not want to impart guilt on the birthday girl, who had spent her birthday money from her grandparents on buying gifts for us. But the thing about creating a family tradition is that if it’s yours, you can change it.

This has come up in other areas as well. I have a crack bedtime routine for my little ones (aged 5 and 7) which has been working well for some time now (months, which I think you’ll agree is a long time for a routine to be working).

The routine consists of the following:

  • Go to the bathroom
  • Changing into pajamas
  • Brushing teeth
  • Saying goodnight to mother and sisters (the second part of this degenerates into a tickling frenzy unless I supervise it)
  • Reading a story
  • Prayers
  • Go to the bathroom again (an insurance policy)
  • Get into bed and turn out the light
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Sing a song
  • Hugs and kisses and saying “Goodnight, I love you, see you in the morning” approximately 17 times

If this reads as a pretty long list, trust me, it is. The whole process takes about an hour. And this is not working for me, because I become convinced that I am going to be doing the bedtime routine for the rest of my life. It is not working for the children because there is a window of optimal tiredness (or W.o.O.T.) which, if missed, hits a reset button in their brains that renders all of the relaxation moot.

I have attempted to remove some of the steps. We can usually get the final “goodnights” down to three or four repetitions. But that’s about all I have managed. Nothing else, apparently, is negotiable.

So I have cast my mind back to my days as a theatre major: when the director points out at dress rehearsal that the show is running too long and we need to shave off 10 minutes, without removing anything. How is this possible?

It’s all in the transitions. If the events can flow from one to another with a minimum of gaps, it all goes okay. This week, anyway.

I know that the routine, like the birthday tradition, will change when it needs to. First I have to want it to change. Because, of course, the routines are at least as much about me as they are for my children.

Use Your Words

becerraphotography.com-230

“Use your words.” This has been a familiar refrain in my household. Maybe you can identify. We want our kids to articulate their feelings and their needs when they are able to do so. This often turns out to be more complicated than it seems.

First, the child has to be old enough to have the words. My daughters, through a combination of exposure to wordy adults and siblings and a steady dose of audiobooks (often read in an English accent), have a lot of words at their disposal and know how to use them. The assumption I often make as a parent, then, is that they are able to connect the words to their feelings: that they know what it is they are feeling, and can identify to themselves what they need. You know what they say about assumptions, right?

Most behavior in children is the expression of an unmet need. We know that when they are cranky, or suddenly burst into tears, or are uncooperative with our requests, or mean to their brother or sister, there is something they need that they either can’t put their finger on or don’t know how to tell us about.

  • The first step for parents is knowing that this is what is happening (and not, say, that they are being defiant or trying to manipulate or thwart us in some way).
  • The second step is helping the child to recognize this. In our therapeutic classrooms at the Relief Nursery, there is a lot of work put into helping kids distinguish their different emotions and what they look and sound like. If they can see them in others, they can better negotiate their tiny social milieu and know how to respond to kids and adults. If they can see them in themselves, they can develop a vocabulary for the changes in their own moods and emotions and, ultimately, to tell us about them.

A toddler can tell us he is angry by biting us in the ankle. This is a very effective way of communicating a feeling, but for obvious reasons it is not ideal. The goal is for him to be able to know that he is angry and to tell us in a safe and appropriate way: through facial expressions, through body language, and ultimately with words.

As with pretty much any skill, there is a learning curve, and there are steps that we can take to bring us to understanding. Here’s how it works most often in my family:

Four year-old: (taking swings at her sister.)

Parent: “You’re feeling angry right now. We need you to be safe. I’m going to help you move away from your sister.”

Four year-old: (crying loudly.)

Parent: “You sound sad. Do you need a hug?”

Four year-old: “YES!”

(Hugging ensues).

 

Or:

 

Seven year-old: (Sitting at table, making loud huffing sounds.)

Parent: “I can tell that you need something. Did you want to ask me for help?”

Seven year-old: “No one is getting me oatmeal.”

Parent: “You’re hungry and you would like some help. What does that sound like?”

Seven year-old: (Still clearly not amused) “Please can you serve me some oatmeal.”

(Eating ensues.)

 

Or:

 

Nine year-old: “I’m COLD.”

Parent: “You’re feeling cold. Is there something we can do to solve that problem?”

Nine year-old: “I can’t find any SOCKS.”

Parent: “You need help finding some socks to wear.”

Nine year-old: “They aren’t in my DRAWER.”

Parent: “You didn’t find them where you expected them to be, and you’re feeling frustrated. How can we solve this problem?”

Nine year-old: “But I’m COLD.”

Parent: “Have you looked in the clean laundry?”

(Dressing ensues.)