A Pirate’s Life For Me

Another month, another birthday. Willa is turning eight today, and her obsession with all things piratical has only become stronger (bolstered, maybe, by her father’s daily encouragement). In fact, it could be said that her penchant for pirate lore is rivaled only by her love of kitties and her total disdain for the Royal British Navy. The rest of her family (crew?) has cast in their lots as well, and bought her a pirate cutlass, a pirate bandana, some pirate Playmobil, a genuine Jack Sparrow hat, and some grog mugs (grog being watered-down rum, of course, though her understanding of rum is something like lemonade that makes you dance).

What else does she know? She can turn to port, starboard, bow and stern. She knows what a foc’s’le is, and a bosun, and how to measure fathoms and leagues. She will never get scurvy. And someone (again, a male parent) may have told her about some of the many democratic aspects of pirate social organization and policy; as well as, of course, those pirate women. There were a few.

When my little pirate was two, her mother broke her ankle rather badly. During the period of convalescence it was very difficult to have the little one sleeping in her bed, because one cannot convince a two year-old to stay off a casted ankle. For the next several months, I slept in her toddler bed, with Willa nestled in the crook of my arm, her head on my chest, until she settled to sleep and could be (usually) lowered to the pillow. I watched most of Breaking Bad on my phone during that period, and read a lot of Kindle books. On one treacherous night I discovered Louis C.K. and tried, with reasonable success, to a.) keep quiet and b.) not shake her right off me in helpless mirth.

I wasn’t paying attention, I realize now (heck, I realized it then, just as I realize that I don’t pay my kids enough attention today). But shiver me timers, do I miss that little head on my chest.

She’s way too big now. Happy birthday, my love.

 

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The Worst Day (and Week) of the Year: The Switch to Daylight Savings Time

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther.

It’s coming…aargh! The worst day (and week) of the year: the switch to Daylight Savings Time.

This can be really hard on families with children and teens. Not to mention every other person.

Here are a few strategies that have helped me as an adult and a few ideas I’ve found online. Please share your own strategies.

Start now by moving bedtime a little bit earlier each night—if you have a lead time of five nights (Monday-Saturday) then 12 minutes earlier each night gets you to an hour.

Some people recommend simultaneously waking up earlier as well. I’d suggest NOT doing that or at least not doing that until closer to Sunday. My rationale is that it’s better to get as much sleep as you can in advance of the change. Many of us are already short on sleep. See waking up strategies below.

Practice healthy sleep habits:

Fresh air and exercise during the day

De-stressing/relaxing times during the day and/or evening

Dark room

Cool room

Shift meal schedule gradually as well (if possible) It isn’t just bedtime and morning that gets thrown out of whack by the time change. If you can’t move meals try to incorporate more snacks (healthy ones and maybe some high tryptophan foods for dinner and bedtime snacks). See this article from the National Sleep Foundation.

NO CAFFIENE!

One hour before you want to get to sleep: No screens. No full spectrum, LED or fluorescent lights. Use a yellow, amber or red bulb for reading (see the linked article on How Blue Light Affects Kids & Sleep). Red Christmas lights work well as nightlights. Googling “blue light blocking products” will get you to many sources of bulbs. Candlelight probably works as well, but please be careful!

Change your clock during the day on Saturday (if at all possible). I got this idea from crossing the Atlantic Ocean by ship. Going east, they changed the time at noon (since they had total control over the schedule, this was possible). I don’t know if part of it was psychological but it really helped. The change made dinner earlier so that also contributed.

Waking up. Just as light interferes with going to sleep, it helps us wake up. Gradually increasing the light in the morning will help you (and the kids) wake up. There are products “dawn simulators” that provide this (sorry to keep you Googling and spending money but it can be a good investment-some are less expensive than others so research options). Or you can do this manually for your children.

Make morning a pleasant time: snuggling, talking, reading with your child can make for a happier transition. Breakfast in bed anyone? Allow enough time for morning routines.

The real key to happy waking up is getting enough sleep the night before. Most of us don’t get enough sleep so this is a good time to focus on more sleep. Here are some more guidelines and resources.

See Sleepless in America by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. She also has a website with a free download of sleep suggestions.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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Decompressing the Home

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There are two kinds of parents (actually, there are at least three, but we are concerned here with those involved in the daily lives of their children). There are parents who work, and there are parents whose work is to parent. And this is, well, work.

As for the kids, they all work. Whether they spend their days at school, learning at home, or involved in some sort of apprenticeship such as ship’s boy or cooper’s assistant, they have been “on” for a long time, and when the family is together at home, everyone is spent.

In her article 7 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Their “After School Restraint Collapse”, Andrea Nair writes, “It takes a great deal of energy, mental motivation, emotional containment, and physical restraint to keep ourselves at our best while at work, daycare, or school for other people.” She goes on,

“One of my children used to love going to public school, but pretty much every day was in tears when he got home. He didn’t have a clue why he was in tears, but I knew that he just needed to decompress after keeping it together all day. I steered away from friend playtime or scheduled activities right after school so that he could have time to regroup.”

Nair presents some very useful tips for helping kids to ease their way back into the home environment. In addition to such universal advice as “Feed Them,” she advocates giving them the space they need to readjust their energy. Sometimes this means leaving them well enough alone for a while. Reducing noise and other stimuli, even conversation (even to the point of avoiding that classic parent question, “How was your day?”) can be helpful. It is important to remember that they are feeling all the accumulated stress and fatigue that we are, but with one crucial difference: they don’t have the resources that we as adults, ideally, possess to deal with it.

My situation is typical for homeschooled families in that when I come home from work, I enter what has been essentially the workplace for the rest of my family; for the mother as well as the kids. I try to be conscientious about this, because while coming home may be a relief for me (especially if I have had the presence of mind to decompress from my workday on the way home), it may well be that no one else has had that chance.

My job, then, is to help transform the space into something less stressful. If there is a way that I can help with dinner, I can do that (more often than not, if dinner is already underway I can be more useful by staying out of the way). In that case I start on preparations for bedtime. This involves finding pajamas, closing curtains, turning on lights. I am usually the audience for whatever artwork or projects the kids have been working on that day. And when dinner is served, their mother is officially clocked out.

I will confess that I sometimes envision the scenario presented in shows like Leave It to Beaver, in which my job would be to read the paper in my recliner while the dog fetches my slippers. However, this is a new century, and anyway I don’t think the world really worked like that in those days either. Also, we don’t have a dog, and the cat does not fetch.

So really, I’ll take this.

 

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Screening the Screens

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about bedtimes and how to make them work. I hinted ominously about the importance of keeping electronic devices (“screens”) out of kids’ bedrooms. This week I want to talk more about those screens and what battles to pick around them.

 

I am not going to tell you that you shouldn’t let your children use a phone, laptop or tablet. It’s the 21st Century, they probably use these devices in school, you’re using them, I’m using them, and Grandpa is downloading old war movies on BitTorrent right now as we speak.
I am going to suggest setting firm limits around the use of these devices and I am going to SUGGEST, in all caps, two places where they should not be in your house: at the table during mealtimes, and in the kids’ room at night.
Last things first: keeping phones and other devices off the table allows mealtimes to be quality interactive time for your family. This is mostly up to us as parents, because they do what we model to them (I have to remind myself frequently not to do this). Sharing food with your family is a crucial time to stay connected—in the human relationship sense—and to keep up with what is happening in kids’ lives. Those screens are jealous of our eyeballs.
As for the bedroom, why should these devices be taken out at night?
Because of sleep. There is a strong correlation between sleep deprivation in kids and the presence of devices in their rooms. Dr. Leonard Sax, in his punitively titled The Collapse of Parenting (I recommend reading it, but prepare to feel guilty), presents a stark example:
“He’s staying up ’til 1 or 2 in the morning playing video games night after night. He’s sleep-deprived. And if you’re sleep-deprived you’re not gonna be able to pay attention and all the standard questionnaires, Conners Scales, etc. cannot distinguish whether you’re not paying attention because you’re sleep-deprived or because you truly have ADD.”
Sax suggests that much of our nation’s overmedication of children (and the rates here are way, way higher than anywhere else) could be a misdiagnosis of what is actually lack of sleep. And that, thank goodness, is easier to treat. If we know how to help. And now we do!
Regardless of how we use them, iPhones, tablets, laptops and old-fashioned TVs (remember them?) emit light that disrupts the tendency of kids to wind down. Dr. Claire McCarthy writes:
“Not only does it get in the way of sleep because kids are, well, watching it, but it gets in the way of sleep because the blue light from the screen tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime–and delays the release of the natural chemical melatonin that helps us fall asleep.”
But how we use these devices is important. Many adults have difficulty with addictive behavior around games, social media and other uses of our phones and computers. And children, especially under the age of 10 or 11, are much more susceptible. In the dystopianly titled Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids—and How to Break the Trance, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras raises the alarm:
“Video games, computers, cell phones and tablets are all ‘digital drugs’ in Kardaras’ estimation, and there is more and more evidence to back him up—recent studies have shown that electronics activate pleasure circuits in developing brains. The amount of dopamine in the brain doubles (food and sex have the same effect) while the amount of gray matter shrinks, compromising the frontal cortex (the decision-making center of the brain). This leads to delays in neurological development and verbal intelligence.”
The upshot is, no screens at bedtime, kiddos. Sorry. We’re the parent.
Being the parent, setting limits around our kids’ use, is the key. There is no reason that our children need to do anything on the internet outside of our supervision.
The hardest part, of course, is to model it. Put down the phone and pick up a book instead. Or a tennis racket. Or a watering can.
We can do it. We’re the parent.

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The Right Time for Bedtime

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As I’ve written before, if there is one essential secret to our parenting, it is bedtime.

When the kids go to bed, and how long they sleep, is the foundation for the way everything else works in our family. And I say this knowing just how many things there are to keep track of as a parent: discipline, sibling relations, nutrition, rules, chores, dealing with behavior, keeping up with the changes as they get older. We decided to focus on bedtime.

And it wasn’t easy. In our house we have four kids divided into pairs, two to a bedroom. The two youngest and the two oldest each have their own bedtime and their own set of routines. It has taken years and a lot of experimentation (and thus, a fair share of failures) to hammer out something that works from one night to the next, and from one week to another. And it works, for now. Fingers crossed and nose to the wind.

It was nice, then, to come across some outside confirmation that what we had come up with was recommended by, like, science. This post on the Simplemost blog includes a chart put together (by an elementary school, no less) to show the optimal bedtimes for children, cross-referenced by age and when they get up in the morning (we can have a say in when they go to bed; they wake up when they wake up). Before we pause for a round of high-fives, let’s see how we did:

Here goes. Given that all four kids get up nearly every day at 6:30, our five year-old should be going to bed at 7:15. The seven year-old, at 7:30. I say my goodnights and walk out at 7:45. Not too bad.

Now for the older pair. Our nine year-old’s target bedtime is 8:15 and the 11 year-old’s is 8:45. We split the difference at 8:30 (typically, the younger of the two has more trouble getting to sleep, claiming that just laying there is “boring,” while the eldest is ready to pack it in whenever).

Why do we do it this way? Because we can. We willingly give up a lot of the socializing we could be doing at night because of the benefits that arise from a consistent (and according to many, a strangely early) bedtime. I suppose we’re lucky that a lot of our kids’ friends are also homeschooled, so they don’t know just how weird it is that they don’t stay up until 10 or later. Or for that matter, why they don’t stay up later on weekends.

Just how beneficial this consistent sleep is for them—and how harmful the lack of it can be—is a subject for another post. In that post I will also discuss what is found in their bedrooms at night and what is not (spoiler: no screens).

What is not found in the chart, and something we’re still working on as adults, is when we should go to bed ourselves. I should probably be there right now.

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Spare Change

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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.

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The Breaks

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I’ve written a lot on this blog about the importance of routines, and of keeping things consistent and predictable for children. I do think that this is one of the most important things we can do for them, in order to keep them feeling safe and nurtured. It helps them to sleep, to focus, to transition from one place to another.

Recently I was asked, when is it okay to break from the routine? How do you know when it is more appropriate to switch things up, or to make exceptions to the rule? In other words, are there situations in which it is better to just let things go?

I have to admit that this is hard for me. Those routines, I think, are often at least as important for my well-being as for my kids. Or at least it feels that way to me. But I ran into a situation that made me question this. It was bedtime, and as usual I was in charge of moving everyone through the pajama-donning, the tooth-brushing and the story-reading into the sleep zone. But my five and seven year-old, who had spent the day immersed in the high energy of their Nana (my dear mother-in-law), were not having it. They could not calm down. My attempts to keep the energy calm and cozy were calcifying into a general sternness and lack of amusement.

I sent them to say goodnight to their mom, who at this point, having had them for the day, was taking a well-deserved break. Her part in the bedtime routine has been scaled back considerably, consisting mostly of this last round of hugs and kisses. My two girls went to her and almost immediately I heard a round of giggling and whooping. She led them back into the bedroom in this state of tickling and joking and dancing around, and I was, needless to say, not amused. I have trouble with what I regard as excess jollity, whether in children or adults, that I just don’t have time to go into here, or really anywhere outside of therapy (though I do like to quote Mel Brooks from The Muppet Movie: “I detest the surfeit of provincial laughter”).

It quickly became evident, however, that this method of going with their rollicking energy, rather than attempting to put the brakes on it, was exactly what they needed. They were now able to transition into bedtime feeling understood and valued rather than badgered and thwarted. Point to Mom.

How do we know when it is appropriate to switch up the routines? When what we’re trying is clearly not working, especially if it usually does, it may be time to switch tack. Often it involves simply waiting and giving kids time to do what they feel they need to do. After all, when they are ready, they will be eager to return to those comforting, predictable rhythms.

And sometimes the impetus comes from the parents, for whom the usual expectations are just not working. For me, the iconic example is that summer evening (you know the one), in which ice cream for dinner really is the only answer.

Regardless of where the dissonance is coming from, it can be valuable to know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, and when to let it go. They’ll come around to the routines when they’re ready, and be glad to do so.

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On this Ship Together

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I intended this week to write about something that has been coming up a lot in my work with parents and, inevitably, in my own parenting. Namely, how to discipline children without getting our emotions involved. This is much easier to do when the children are not our own: as a parenting educator, I can see the behavior for what it is, and know that it is not connected to who the parent is.

With my own children it is not so easy. I have expectations for how our relationship is supposed to work; I expect them to trust me and to know that what I am asking them to do is the best thing for them. When they do not seem to understand this, it is impossible to keep myself, and our relationship, out of the equation. I feel that their difficulty in meeting my expectations is personal: that I am, or the child is, failing to honor the connection that we have. And that is when as a parent I start to “lose it.”

Here is an example. I have written before about my challenges in getting my six year-old to sleep through the night. I used to be able to comfort her and simply sit with her until she went back to sleep. Having a book to read on the reading app on my phone kept me busy. But then it stopped working. She would wake again in distress as soon as I tried to sneak out of her room. And my emotions would take over. I got frustrated, she reacted to this, and a drawn-out struggle ensued. Sleep would now be a long way away for either of us.

For a while, my solution was to move her to the other bed, next to her mother, and sleep in hers (it is…shorter than I am). Or, when all the struggling woke the four year-old sister, to move her to the adult bed and sleep in her (even shorter) one. As long as I was in the room, the six year-old could sleep and so could I, after a fashion. But this, I finally realized, was not solving anything.

So I had to set the boundary: adults needed to sleep in their bed, and children needed to sleep in theirs. Since I could not wait her out, I told her that I would tuck her in, give her many hugs and kisses, and sit with her for five minutes before going back to my room. This was the only logical solution, but after so long accommodating her by working around the problem, this was very difficult for her. For a few nights she would simply have to be sad in her bed after I said goodnight. There was much crying and calling out of my name. Though I am sure this was much harder for her, there was no way I was going to sleep next door until she settled. But I persevered. If she came back out of her room, I could tuck her in again and say goodnight, but I would be going back to my bed.

And so it went. It got easier, eventually, when she (and I) realized that this was going to be the expectation every time. She simply would not believe that five minutes had gone by until I started setting a timer (for some reason she believes my timer). And it got easier. Some nights are easier than others. But through consistent repetition of the plan, she is now able to put herself to sleep.

What happened? All of those struggles we were having with our relation to one another—namely, that she thought she was losing me and I thought she was staying awake to torture us both—were replaced by the expectation itself, and by our willingness to work together to make it happen. I agreed to be available when she woke in the night, and she agreed to go back to her bed because she knew what would happen. It is no longer about us.

Looking back, it is easy for me to see that this plan is the one I should have gone with in the first place. But my guilt and uncertainty (am I doing this right?), and her fear and anxiety (how would I react this time?) kept the struggle going. Having the expectation and sticking to it was the only solution.

How will it go tonight? I have no idea. But finally we both know what to do. We are on this ship together.

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About Time

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I’ve been thinking about time.

In a book featuring daily meditations for the Advent season, I came across this passage:

“The greatest gift I ever received,” said a successful young attorney, “was a gift I got one Christmas when my dad gave me a small box. Inside was a note saying, “Son, this year I will give you 365 hours, one hour every day after dinner. It’s yours. We’ll talk about what you want to talk about; we’ll go where you want to go, play what you want to play. It will be your time.”

In addition to wishing that I had come up with this myself, I was reminded of that phrase we always hear as parents, usually from older folks, about our children: “They grow up so fast.” It’s a cliché, of course, something that is said so often it threatens to lose its meaning. But like so many clichés, it is repeated because it’s true. We often hear it as a plea, its message being, “Pay attention to them. Give them time now, learn to be in the present moment with them, before it’s too late.”

This is a particularly hard lesson for me to keep in mind when parenting is difficult. My six year-old, who was once a champion sleeper (and, I have to keep reminding myself, surely will be again), has been waking in the night and struggling to rest without the company of an adult. So when sitting with her and waiting for her to drop off again proved arduous and ultimately unsuccessful—she almost always catches me on the way out—I had to choose between putting her in my bed, next to her mother, and sleeping on her toddler bed surrounded by stuffed cats, and moving her four year-old sister when she inevitably woke from the noise and sleeping in her (much shorter) one. I do not find this amusing, and neither do my knees.

What my daughter needs, though, in the middle of the night, is time with me. When nights are particularly hard and I am particularly tired, this is the last thing I want to give her. The message I am sending her is that I do not have the time. “Daddy needs to sleep too,” is what I keep saying because she does not seem to get it. “We all need to sleep in a bed.” She is not convinced by this logic, nor will she be comforted. And all I can think is that I need this time to pass and for her to become seven (and thus, developmentally, more likely to soothe herself back to sleep).

By refusing to be in the present with her, I am withholding the gift of time.

Being reminded of the value of this time, I think that the many wonderful and precious qualities of my daughter at this age, right now, will be changing as well: her wide-ranging imagination; her endless questions and charming observations; heck, the fact that she wants to have her dad around, just to be there.

My time may be a gift to her, but just as important is the time she is offering me.

She grows up so fast.

I need to pay attention.

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Out of the Ordinary

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I’ve written a lot on this blog about the importance of routines. We try to make the events of the day—meals and snack times, transitions, chores, bedtimes—as regular and predictable as possible. The more things kids can rely on, the more secure they will feel when things happen that are out of the ordinary. After all, the best way to tell if routines are working is when something happens to disrupt them.

A lot of things are different this week. My wife is away at a weeklong homeschooling conference. The four girls are with my mother-in-law in Newport for a few days; I will be home with them for the rest of the week. This is kind of a big deal for all of us. I am especially a stickler about bedtimes, if only because it’s such a cornerstone of our home life and because we have put so much time and effort into finding a way to do it that works most of the time (though I’m sure there are some control issues at play in there as well).

We sent along a rough schedule of a typical day’s events and hoped that the spirit of it, if not the letter, would be followed. Here are some excerpts:

  • Morning activity: We usually stay close to home during this time, go for walks or do arts and crafts. They will need a morning snack.
  • Afternoon activity: This is usually our going out time. They will need a snack!

As you can see, there is emphasis on regular feeding. At home we have breakfast, then a morning “tea” (sometimes known, hobbit-style, as “second breakfast”), lunch, afternoon “tea” and dinner. That’s food being offered just about every 2-3 hours, with quick snacks in between if needed. I am pretty sure that if my mother-in-law varies the rhythm of the day—with periods of activity followed by periods of rest—then any other problems can be solved by throwing food at them.

They are going to have fun. They will take trips to the beach, the lighthouse and the aquarium. They will go to the park and the toy store (they enjoy hanging out in toy stores, and don’t expect to walk out with anything. If I knew how this was accomplished, believe me, I would tell you). They will sleep as well as they will sleep, and I understand that I have no control over this. I never do. Working on letting it go.

What I do know is that when I bring them back home, they will have had several days of new and unfamiliar rhythms, and they will be…off. And though there are some things we will need to get done, including swim lessons and grocery shopping, we will be spending the next few days just trying to get back into those familiar routines. I expect anything, up to and including tantrums, large-scale meltdowns, and general low-level crankiness. What they need is a slow and gentle shifting of gears. Luckily we will have some time to do that.

Also, snacks. Lots of snacks.

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