Archives for 2017

A Thousand Bedtimes

Happy Holidays! I wanted to revisit a post from three years ago in which I described an essential component of our bedtime routine. What surprised me about the post (other than the fact that three years have passed!) is how little has changed in our routine. I still recite the words below for the two youngest girls, with enough fidelity that they catch it immediately if I change a word. It is preceded by my “getting the bad dreams out” (usually through their fingers, though occasionally a potential nightmare is lodged in a toe or nostril); putting some good dreams in “just in case” (via kisses on the forehead) and a silly one in the ear. The words are followed by a round of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” For my ten year-old, for whom I first came up with it, I have to be sure to fit some variation of it in before I turn out the light.

Again, I encourage you to use any or all of this, or to come up with your own.

Sweet dreams!

***

If there is a secret to our parenting, it is bedtime.

There is a lot to say about the importance of calm, consistent bedtime routines, and it’s something I will return to in future posts. A lot of information out there, and I’ve found that most of it is along the same lines. There is a good primer on the Parents website, and another on babycentre, focusing on bedtime for toddlers. It’s British, and that’s okay.

Establishing these routines take time and experimentation. It takes a while to see what works, and as the needs of children change with age, and the seasons (and the light!), what worked in the past may not work now. What didn’t work before may work again later.

It is important in a routine to have signposts, things that signal to a child that it is time to get into the space of bedtime. I light candles in the bedroom (one for each of them because, you know, fairness) and, when they have put on their pajamas and brushed their teeth, they each choose a book to read aloud. When the reading is done, they blow out their candle and get into bed. I spend some time with each of them in turn, and I do this:

It’s a relaxation ritual that I have been using with my daughters every night for the last few months. I keep asking them if they are tired of it, if they want to try something different, but they insist on doing it exactly the same way each night. I think there’s something to be said for the comfort children find in repetition that we adults may not share or understand. Have your kids ever asked you to read the same book or tell the same story over and over?

This is how it goes, word for word. I don’t remember how I came up with it, exactly, but I have to give credit to an episode of Frasier in which a character is asked to put their angry thoughts in a balloon and watch it drift away. It’s a good recurring joke in the show, but I must have thought it might work for bedtime.

 

Now I want you to take everything that has bothered you throughout the day

(And only you know what those things are)

And I want you to put them inside a balloon.

It can be any kind of balloon you can imagine,

Any shape, any size, any color.

And when you’re ready, I want you to take that balloon outside

And let go of the string

And watch the balloon drift up, and up, and up,

Further and further into the sky,

Until it’s just a little dot

And then it’s gone

Leaving nothing but clear sky.

No more worries,

No more cares,

And you’re ready to rest.

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Boxed In

As my daughters run about the house dressed as denizens of the Star Wars galaxy (last mention I will make of Star Wars, I promise!), I am thinking about the run-up to the Holiday, which begins in earnest now that I am home for vacation. Granted, my lovely wife broke out the Christmas music I believe actually prior to Thanksgiving this year, which to me constitutes the crossing of a red line. But I was not bothered. In fact, I did not even complain when the melodies stuck themselves inside my head, and did not attempt to stop myself from humming them. What’s wrong with me? Dunno.

I was reminded at work today about the truism that, however impressive a gift may be to a child, it will never be as impressive as the box it came in. The parent in question told the story of having learned this at his child’s first birthday. For his second birthday, he got smart. Instead of spending money and brain power on toys, he invested in as many boxes as he could find. When his two year-old woke up that morning he discovered that the living room had been turned into a multilevel cardboard wonderland: box after box, laid end to end to form tunnels and bridges, platforms and overpasses.

Similarly, when I came home tonight I found the house transformed by Winter. While it rained and gusted outside, within all was white and crystalline: dozens upon dozens of cut-out paper snowflakes everywhere. Magical. And then the eight year-old, evidently done with snowflake engineering, moved on to drawing storm troopers as targets for her rubber band blaster (I lied about the Star Wars! Sorry). Then it got louder.

Still, the magic.

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The Force Awakens

(No spoilers below)

It’s past time to keep you updated on the ongoing saga of introducing my four daughters to pursuits from my childhood. I had felt some ambivalence about this, as is well documented. However, while some of my childhood obsessions–Tintin comics, Jonny Quest cartoons, prog rock–had met with, shall we say, spotty reception, my decision to show the Star Wars films (Ep. IV-VI, of course) set off a lil’ bit of a pop culture bomb in our house.

Observe: within three months of first viewing, the eight year-old was dressed as Princess Leia for Halloween. She is in possession of a lightsaber (which her sisters have protested Leia wouldn’t have, prompting a conversation about how she might have started training after Return of the Jedi: after all, she is Luke’s sister [spoiler! Just kidding. I hope]). She once sent me off to a day of work with the phrase “May the Force Be With You.” She’s got it bad. And the others are right there with her.

My wife, who, though she is of an age with me, was never exposed to the Star Wars phenomenon and is inoculated against geekiness in general, has been very patient with this (while making clear that any consequences of Star Wars-itis are on me alone). But what a benefit this has been, with its opportunities to talk about heroism, morality, the power of spiritual fortitude, the importance of speaking out against injustice. Plus, thanks to her Star Wars workbooks, my daughter’s enthusiasm for math has gone up considerably.

So, we’ve now got a Star Wars Christmas (without, mind you, the Star Wars Christmas Special) lined up. The Original Trilogy DVDs, a new upgraded Leia costume, a cloth Leia doll handmade by the 10 year-old, now that she’s finished her Hobbit collection. We’re cleared for lightspeed, right?

Then I went a parsec too far (unbeknownst to Han, a parsec is a measure of distance, not time). With the new movie The Last Jedi coming out soon, and my indignation over the prequels having finally settled enough to countenance the idea of a new trilogy, I decided to watch The Force Awakens. Which I had not yet seen. And with my children.

Was this a bad idea? Well, let me tell you about it. I had not screened it beforehand, which I heartily recommend for any film not made expressly for children (and frankly, many that are. Ask me sometime for my feelings about the Shrek franchise). And it is PG-13. I consulted the Parents’ Guide on Imdb, but this was not very helpful. And really, my six year-old might have gotten caught up in the mythology of the series as much as anyone–that’s her pretending to be a droid in the photo–but to her this is all just a mass of zooming and flashing and explosions. I should have approached it more carefully.

They…liked it. So did I, though I had some real problems with it that I won’t go into. We each emitted audible gasps and whoops at various points in the film (even me!).

However. For my eight year-old, who so loves the characters from the original trilogy, there is something that happens in the film–and I’m not going to give it away, as I can’t be the only one who hadn’t seen it yet–that is potentially upsetting.

Potentially very upsetting.

And it was. Very upsetting. As in bursting into tears at regular intervals.

So, I failed at parenting for all time.

I was afraid that everything had been ruined for my daughter, and that she would cast Star Wars aside as vehemently as she had Frozen (seriously, don’t even mention Frozen in her presence).

I gave it a few days, then we had a little talk. It was about the theory of multiple universes. In the particular universe portrayed in that film, the upsetting thing happened. In others, it didn’t. In others, Leia trained as a Jedi and carries a lightsaber. In still others, Lucas never made the prequels. That’s right. In those universes, Jar-Jar is fake news.

I think we’ll be able to watch those DVDs come Christmas.

 

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An Invitation

Psst. Hey. Ever thought of taking a parenting class?

Why would you do such a thing? For many who do, the answer is that someone has said you’ve gotta. That’s not necessarily a bad reason, as these things go, but I would like to make a case for just taking one anyway.

Here’s why:

  1. You’re always going to learn something. Even if you already supposedly know it all. Because your perspective is yours and though it may be working 60-87% of the time (I don’t know anyone who claims to be an A parent), it will benefit you to step out of your point of view and into another one. Any other one, really. Heck, even if you’ve already taken an parenting class it will be different this time because things change. Your kids have changed; they have different needs now and different things are coming up. Things might be challenging now that weren’t even on your radar last time.
  2. Other people will be there. Probably people with whom you aren’t friends on Facebook. They most likely haven’t had you over for dinner (at least not yet). These people have a variety of backgrounds and experiences to offer you, and they will almost certainly learn something from you too. Plus, one of them might know how to fix your dishwasher. But seriously (that was serious too). Networking and community-building are two of the most valuable things that can come out of a parenting class.
  3. They’re everywhere. Just look at this very website. Starting in January, there is a veritable cornucopia (an overflowing horn thing!) of classes, offered in Corvallis, Albany and Lebanon, Sweet Home, Philomath and Scio. You can barely drive on the street without passing one. Also, there are the Collaborative Problem Solving workshops, described by people I know as life-changing. And, ahem, the place where I work  offers a full rack o’ classes in the Nurturing Parenting program, something I write about a lot. And I teach Nurturing Fathers, which is the only thing going just for dads, as far as I know, anywhere around. Though I would love to have some competition. Finally, I can’t speak for everyone else, but ours are free, and will feed you and take care of your kids to boot.

I don’t even know what you’re waiting for. See you next year!

 

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Game Theory

A funny thing happened on the way to Thanksgiving this year. We had been saving two games intended for our four girls for Christmas. However, the prospect of a long weekend with a lot of digestion prompted us to give them out early. For the younger set we had the whimsical card game Sleeping Queens, and for the eldest the strategic board game Dominion. We had anticipated some interest, but not the full-blown obsession, with both games, that ensued.

What struck me was not the (relatively) recent yen for formal games that has manifested in our house. Rather, it was the way they took to it with so little guidance from the grownups. They just figured it out. For those of you not nerdy enough to know it, Dominion is a game intended for ages 14 and up. And granted, I had to study the instruction booklet (a fat one) for a couple hours and take some notes before I figured out how to set it all up. But once we got going, all were in, even the eight year-old as she sprung her bandit on our unsuspecting parties and the six year-old as her witch bestowed curses on our now doomed estates.

Now, the point of this is not that they’re especially smart or anything (though of course they are, writes their dad). It’s that they’re all increasingly independent. It’s another one of those lines that have been crossed without anyone taking note of the crossing. First no more diapers, then reading, and now this! Strategizing, scheming, abstract thinking in full bloom.

It shows up in other areas as well. Doing chores without prompting. Cleaning and organizing of their own volition. Finding and replacing new rolls of toilet paper. Plans for making or acquiring Christmas gifts that are, from me anyway, completely secret. Once again, it’s apparent that they’re getting older. What next?

What if they decide to take over?

 

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A Beautiful Life

Illustration by Willa Mead

Long-time readers (I like to think that I have one) will remember when I raved about some of my favorite authors of children’s books.

Well, recently I came across this great appreciation in The Atlantic of Barbara Cooney, probably my favorite of all. Cooney, author of Miss Rumphius, Ox-Cart Man and other classics, has a singular style (her illustrations, always recognizable as her own, graced books by other authors such as Alice McLerran’s Roxaboxen) and a stolid refusal to “talk down to—or draw down to—children.”

Miss Rumphius (1982) has long been my go-to answer when someone asks about my favorite children’s book (I get asked! However, no one asks about my favorite book overall except my own kids; I just say Moby Dick because I have to have an answer. It’s good. You should read it). In the book, a young girl narrates the life of her great-(great?)-aunt Alice Rumphius. Alice, whose own grandfather had tasked her, around the turn of the 20th Century, with “making the world more beautiful,” lived a life that alternated between globetrotting exploration and bookish solitude.

What I love about the book is what separates it from, well, pretty much any other children’s book I can think of. Our heroine spends several pages in the middle of the story recovering from an injured back. This very realistic adult situation is shocking in a quiet way: that can happen, can’t it? And yet she continues, in spite of and around her new limitations, to live a beautiful life.

Though she clearly had friends and companions along the way (one, unmentioned but seen on a snowy mountainside, is a dude), Miss Rumphius remains unmarried and childless and apparently comfortable with the oddness that would have surrounded this situation for a women of her time. In fact, she goes on to be known as “that crazy old lady” due to her carefree pursuit of aesthetic expression (in the form of planting thousands and thousands of lupines across the countryside). At the end, our young narrator herself is given the task of making the world a more beautiful place. How will she do it?

And how, reader, the implication goes, will you?

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The Wheel

In Nurturing Parenting, as I’ve mentioned, there is an emphasis on parents being able to recognize and meet our own needs so that we can do the same for our children. Hopefully by now this is a familiar concept (though I can attest that it doesn’t get any easier with repetition).

There’s more. In the class, we talk about the several areas in which we (as parents, humans, etc) have needs. They are categorized as follows:

Physical. Self explanatory, I would hope. Includes all the things you imagine keep you alive; things that feel good, ya da ya da.

Emotional. Knowing the feelings, feeling the feelings, expressing them in an appropriate and legal way.

Social. Interacting with people; making connections; communicating. I suck at this.

Intellectual. Learning things, developing skills. If reading books covered it, I would win this pie piece. Just don’t ask me how to change a tire.

All of the above tend to have a lot of buy-in with our parents. No disputing their importance or their practical value. But from there it gets a little tricky.

Creative. Some people wonder out loud why this is a category. The most common story is this (perhaps you’ve heard it. Perhaps you’ve said it!): “I can’t do any of that creative stuff.” Or, “I can’t even draw stick figures.” Or, “Trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing.” This is where I start whacking people with (rhetorical) rolled up newspapers.

First of all, none of that is true. It’s just that you don’t think it’s important enough to do it. Or to practice. Then, I point out all the ways in which you probably are meeting (or attempting to meet) your creative needs. What about that story you told at work about your last fishing trip? What about that casserole thing you made last Thursday?

Spiritual. Again, a lot of people have trouble with this one. Sometimes it’s for the same reason that stuff about a higher power in the Twelve-Step programs can bother folks. Look, the takeaway is that whatever higher power it is that you land on, it’s important that it’s not you. The same rule applies to meeting your needs. Your mom and your dad couldn’t do it for you, and you can’t do it by yourself. The spiritual need is the need to plug into something other than our ego. “I go to church” is the automatic answer, and probably that helps.

But what about going fishin’? I am being completely serious. Solitude works to meet this need. So does silence. Taking a walk, outside, without your cell phone, can check all the boxes. Easy peasy. Except it never is.

So it has to become important.

Crucially, this array of needs is not a hierarchy; some are not more important than others. Rather, it’s a wheel. It needs some inflation all around in order to turn properly.

Which of these needs are you meeting on a regular basis? Which need some work? Most importantly, which don’t you want to think about?

Start with those.

Take care!

 

 

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How Not to Disappear Completely

In the great film Winter’s Bone, a girl (played by a pre-Katniss Jennifer Lawrence), is desperately trying to pass on her knowledge of hunting, food preparation and other basic survival skills to her siblings. She is feeling the pressure because, having lost both of their parents, she suspects that her investigation into the disappearance of her criminal father may well get her killed.

I am mostly telling you about this movie because you really need to see it (seriously). But it also paints in bold dramatic terms an example of parentification, which can be defined as “the process through which children are assigned the role of an adult, taking on both emotional and functional responsibilities that typically are performed by the parent.”

A recent article in The Atlantic highlights in similarly stark terms the long term negative effects of parentification on children: “a form of emotional abuse or neglect where a child becomes the caregiver to their parent or sibling. Researchers are increasingly finding that in addition to upending a child’s development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars well into adulthood. Many […] experience severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Others report succumbing to eating disorders and substance abuse.”

Put simply, the experience of having to step into a caretaking role as a child can disrupt and even displace the normal course of development. In our culture we have terms for this: a child may have “grown up too fast.” We should therefore “let kids be kids.” Right?

But the situations described above are extreme. As with most things, there is a large middle ground from which we can still see the line no matter which side of it we’re on right now. Parentification happens when a child undertakes a role for which she is not yet ready, specifically taking on responsibility for another’s care or well-being.

Hold on there, cowboy. Isn’t there an appropriate time and place for kids to take on responsibility for others?

Of course! There are ways to know when they are ready. Though laws vary from place to place, generally speaking your child is ready to babysit his siblings around the age of 12. This is assuming that they have willingly, and successfully, practiced this with your proximity and/or partial supervision. Does the child know what to do in case of emergency? How to contact you if you’re not home? How to call emergency services? Who is a safe neighbor? Where are the band aids?

The key, I think, is that you and the child are both confident in their readiness to care for others. Be sure that you give clear parameters regarding where you are and for how long; what is expected of them and what is not. If this is a regular situation, or something that comes up repeatedly without warning, it is probably time to involve another adult (family or a trusted professional).

In the meantime, try not to disappear.

 

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Sick Days Revisited

We have managed to make it nearly two years without a major bout of illness: you know, the kind that circles the family like a brush fire, touching off some of us maybe more than once before it’s spent. My lovely wife claims it was the strictness of our vitamin regimen that did it.

Those vitamins had been notably absent this year, which is maybe partial but certainly not adequate explanation for Coldfest 2017, which currently has its tents and vendors set up in our house, evidently for an extended run.

I have written before about the generous and enlightened illness policy at my work, so I will just say that gosh do I appreciate it. Sick kids + sick parents = one big bubbling pot ‘0’ sickness. As for me, I had been staggering along for a couple of weeks already, going to work and pretending that my cough was actually someone else in the next room. Now, after having ruled out pneumonia and the alarming (but kind of awesomely Victorian-sounding) pleurisy, I understand that I just have a cold. Possibly the biggest, baddest beast of a cold I’ve ever hosted, but still. Nothing to be done.

A sick house still has to function, so even if the normal routines are disrupted we still have to function somehow. Meals mean that we prepare a lot of one thing and eat it all day. Laundry, vacuuming and other pretty important jobs happen when I’ve stored up enough energy from leaning against a wall and moaning (it’s the new sleep).

Having everyone at home all day, with no plans to go anywhere and no energy to do so, can be strangely liberating. “What are we doing today, Daddy?” “Let’s sit around in scarves and drink broth and watch movies.” “Again? Yaaay!”

We did get to watch Singin’ in the Rain for the first time, so it hasn’t been all bad. Who knew that it was, like, about something?

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Play By Play

Here is something that kids should be doing more of:

Playing.

At school they need to double down on:

Recess.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that they should be eating ice cream for all three meals. I’m not an anarchist. Just thinking about developing brains.

Let’s pull back a little bit. Or zoom in. Whatever. You’ve seen those little announcements on the packaging of toys that claim their product is helping children to advance their motor skills, memory, hand-eye coordination, and what have you? Well, there’s some truth to that, potentially, in the same way that Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast (really! Can be!).

Without examining the veracity of any particular products, it has to be admitted that they do help kids develop if kids play with them. But just as the finger that points to the moon is not the moon, it is not the toy that provides the learning but the act of playing itself. In that sense, a rock’s as good as a Leappad for our purposes (a bonus is that if you throw a rock, it won’t break!).

Recently I’ve noticed a phenomenon at our house that illustrates this perfectly. It’s the noticing that new, not the phenomenon. The older girls, ten and twelve, continue to play with our set of wooden blocks as much as, if not more than, the younger ones. They have continued to be available, rather than put aside for more “age-appropriate” (this usually means “more electronic”) toys. So, they’ve just kept playing with ’em.

And, I believe, they continue to hone their spatial recognition and gross and fine motor skills just as much now, at their own level, as they did all those years ago when they first figured out how to stack them (and of course, immediately knock them down again).

Crucially, I think, there has never been any sense that the blocks are something that they could outgrow; that some toys were just “for babies.” They’re just another tool at their disposal.

By the same token, since the picture books are still on full display for the six and eight-year olds, their older sisters continue to put them–new acquisitions and old favorites alike–in rotation along with their endless fantasy novels and 19th Century classics.

One of my (amazing) professors in the Education program at Western advocates for the use of picture books all the way through high school (and by extension college, given that she, you know, used them. In a college class). Once we get over the stigma of directing our attention to something that was made for younger people, their value and beauty are simply obvious.

 

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