A Dinner Conversation

I’ll admit it. There are some weeks I just don’t know what to write about. I thought I’d quiz some of my coworkers (especially the ones that have promised to write a guest post and are still procrastinating) about a topic. There was a lot of interest in aspects of teenagerdom about which I’m simply not qualified. But I thought I’d go with it, and when I got home I tried something that has proved fruitful in the past: I talked to my kids.

At dinner, I asked my older ones (nine and eleven) what they were most looking forward to when they were teenagers. The nine year-old was pretty decisive. “Not a thing.” She went on to explain that she would prefer not to be any older than she is right now.

My eldest daughter equivocated. Finally I made a suggestion: “Learning to drive?” It was something we had been talking about recently. She was unsure. “It just seems so complicated.” This set my wife and I on stories about our misadventures experimenting with independence. Here’s one of mine.

When I was thirteen I was able to bicycle all the way to an area shopping mall, in which there was a diner we had frequented as a family. I was proud to finally have the chance to dine alone, sitting at the table with my book (something I still enjoy whenever I can manage it). I walked out when I was finished, only to realize several hours later that I had forgotten to pay for my meal.

I was mortified. Seized by guilt, I was not able to tell my parents what happened. I barely slept that night. As soon as I thought it might be open for the lunch shift I sped my way to the diner, cash in my pocket, and made my way, panting and dripping sweat, to the counter. I breathlessly explained what had happened and offered to make immediate recompense.

The boy behind the counter, by the looks of it not much older than I was, was not impressed by my story. He did not immediately have me arrested; nor did he seem to know what to do about it. He left me at the counter and returned with a waitress, who said that she had been working yesterday but didn’t remember any criminal activity. They declined to take my money.

At this point my five year-old interjected that she had no concerns about adulthood because she would immediately find a husband, have many children and collect farm animals. The seven year-old looked forward to having the opportunity to dress like a pirate and not have to wait in line, as she would just threaten to run people through.

Surely there’s nothing to worry about. Right?

Kitchen Think

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I had one of those moments the other day. I had asked my eleven year-old to help prepare lunch, something involving the stove and the broiler, and was giving her instructions when I realized that I didn’t need to be telling her what to do. Not only was she perfectly capable of measuring the ingredients, watching the time, and reasonably avoid burning herself, she was already carrying out the instructions. My continuing to “help,” in fact, was only going to get in the way.

I stopped short. I felt pride, and a little bit of shock, and found myself pulling back from the moment–to what a journalist would call a higher elevation–and saw that the little girl I had been raising and guiding was now at least as competent a cook as I am. And I didn’t learn any of this until I was in my thirties.

While I was up there, above the kitchen at around 10,000 feet, I started thinking about how my role as a parent had been shifting and reconfiguring itself all along. Those tasks, those bits of information and those thought processes which used to require close supervision and physical proximity were now hers to explore, to push against and expand to the limits of her new older self. My gosh, I thought, she’s approaching adulthood before my eyes.

As I have come through my own journey as a parent raising four daughters, I have been through a similar process. With each new stage and new situation I come up against my limits and have to start again, a beginner on a new level. Some parents I know talk about having favorite ages, or conversely, struggling in particular ways with the developmental challenges of three, or seven, or twelve. I can’t say that I have a favorite age (or one that throws me for a loop). I like babies. I like toddlers. And so far, so good in the interim between that and teenagerdom.

I do look forward to being able to share more of my life and my self with my children as they become old enough to process it. To someday have adult conversations about how we got there, and what we took with us or left behind. Standing in the kitchen with my large-hearted, sensitive, stolid, quietly competent eldest daughter, I realized that teaching her to make a tuna melt was no longer enough. So what’s next? Will she tell me? Or do I need to spend some time here, at the edge of myself?

The Food Post

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If there’s anything to get one in mind of food in families, it’s Thanksgiving. Don’t worry: I’m not going to offer advice about how to present leftovers in endless combinations (though I bet the internet has something to say about that). In fact, the only thing I have to say about our Thanksgiving is that we had four (4) pies. So clearly we won.

No, the reason this came up is that at dinner tonight (a completely non-leftover related affair) our five year-old was displeased by what was on offer and was invited to wait in her room until we were done and I could help her get ready for bed. I later learned that she had changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, made her bed, tidied the floor and made a drawing, so she was clearly not malnourished.

I won’t say that this is a common occurrence. It’s not. But nor is it unheard of. I can think of a time in the recent past when three out of four children opted out of a meal because of objections to a dish, an ingredient or a method of preparation. And that’s fine. As we say, “There will be food again at the next meal.” Reliably and regularly. And we will attempt to make that meal as balanced and healthy as possible (with the exception of ice cream for dinner, which I haven’t written about for a few weeks). So if a child refuses offered food, it’s really a drop in the bucket.

Growing up, my nemesis was onions. I would not eat them in any capacity, for any reason (though strangely I always liked onion rings AS LONG as the breading did not come off). My mom, who did most of the cooking, didn’t put a lot of thought into accommodating my prohibition but was pretty good about warning me. As a result, I learned to deal with it as much as I was able and only very rarely gave up on the meal. My dad would marvel at my ability to find every trace of onion in a slice of supreme pizza; I would leave a neat pile on one side for future use in landscaping projects.

The frequency with which we deal with refusals of food is related to the sheer number of new foods we introduce to them. We don’t expect kale or beef liver or spaghetti squash to “take” the first time. Or even the first five. It may not happen ever. But given the variety our kids have seen on their plates over the years, the number of times they felt they had to throw in their napkin and walk away has been statistically quite small.

So, food allergies and sensory issues aside, the reason a child may “only eat chicken nuggets and pizza” or whatever is that this is what keeps ending up on their plate. Might I suggest taking a gamble that they will eventually try something new–if not now, then at the next meal?

 

All the Answers

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One thing that all parents share is that, no matter what we’re doing, there will be people who think what we’re doing is wrong. If we’re lucky, those people won’t bother to tell us about it. If they do, and we’re still lucky, those people won’t be members of our family. If they are, then we’re probably out of luck, but we hope to have the fortitude to ignore them. Or at least to take it in stride.

I sometimes go online to research the trending topics in parenting. This research consists of typing “parenting topics” into the search engine and hitting the return button. There are the inevitable lists of “hottest parenting controversies” and “parenting topics that draw the most heat” (actual headlines that I won’t bother to link to). I can place these topics into one of a few categories.

One category involves practices that simply go against the research about what is effective. An example, about which I’ve posted before, is the question “Should I spank my children?” If you’re asking, my answer will be “Not if you can do something else.” And there are a lot of other things to do, many of which can be found in this blog and elsewhere on the Parenting Success Network. I would encourage you to check it out.

Another category involves practices about which it is easy to find research, and strong expert opinions, that go either way. Examples of this are “Should I breastfeed after the age of two?” and “Should I cosleep with my children?” and “Should I find out the sex of my baby beforehand?” These are things which as parents we just kind of have to figure out for ourselves. We have done all three of these in our family: two of our kids continued to nurse into toddlerhood and two did not. Circumstances were different for each. Cosleeping worked for us, but we had to get used to not having a bed to ourselves. And we happened to learn the gender of each but it wasn’t something we sought out; it was just right there in the ultrasound. So, I can’t really tell you one is better than the other.

My favorite category includes controversies that I really couldn’t care about one way or the other. “Should big kids ride in strollers?” Really? Do they want to? Will they break it if they do? Do you want to push them around all day? Personally, I always preferred to keep the stroller empty to leave more room for groceries.

As a parent I am full of opinions. And as a “parenting expert,” a position in which I am actually paid money (I know, it’s wild), I find little need or opportunity to share them. I have never told a family I work with whether or not they should nurse or cosleep or carry a baby in a sling instead of a car carrier, even though they were adamant choices in my family and we would not have done it any other way. The fact is, parents have been raising children for many thousands of years (millions, if they’re not mammals) and those children have tended to mostly survive to have their own.

Is it fun to argue about these things? Only you can answer that. That’s why there is social media. In the meantime, I advise you to just do what works, and avoid what doesn’t.

Not much of an answer, is it?

Tending the Childhood Garden

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Most of us would appreciate having some rules for good parenting; some ironclad procedure to follow in order to give our children the best of what we have. New research in the burgeoning field of neuroscience is taking what we know about the brain, how it works and how it grows, and giving us some clues. But because it’s the brain we’re talking about, there are no simple answers. What has been emerging is some support for certain approaches over others. And often this research brings us back to older ways of thinking about children and what they need to grow, thrive and succeed.

Alison Gopnik, in her new book The Carpenter and the Gardener: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (say that three times fast) offers this very thing. Her central metaphor contrasts the model of the carpenter–the parent who attempts to construct their child through micromanaging and fine-tuning–with that of the gardener, who allows space and nourishment for a child to grow in the way it naturally wants to. Guess which one is more effective?

I have written about the metaphor of nurturing as cultivating the things we want to grow. We give our positive attention to the traits we want to encourage rather than focusing on the negative traits we would like to see less of. This is both a good and useful thing. However, there is more to it than that, and also less.

As Gopnik tells us, it is easier to allow children to do what they do best–learn–than try to will them into the shapes we want to see.  It sounds great, and quite a relief besides, to just move out of the way and let children grow. But that’s when we see that some approaches work better than others.

I encourage you to read the linked article, which provides a great summary of Gopnik’s research. And, of course, to read the book (I have it on hold at the library). Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Let children under 6 just…play. Academic preparation is just not effective for small children. It’s not a matter of getting them ready earlier, because that’s just not where they’re at. They learn through play. So give them ample opportunity to do so.
  • School age children are ready to learn. So give them things to learn: cooking, building, cleaning, making. Show them, watch them, offer ways to improve the skill.
  • Teenagers benefit from practical skills. Less homework, more real-world experiences. Teens used to enter the adult world through apprenticeships, and we can offer them internships, community service projects, and guided projects such as putting together a newspaper or, heck, starting a garden.

In each of these stages, children learn by doing. Our job as parents is to let them do, in a safe and nurturing environment. Sounds simple, right? Simple work is often the hardest. But really, the hard part for modern parents is just letting it happen.

The Boat Shaped Bookshelf

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The nine year-old has been asking for a bookshelf for Christmas. When I came across one at work–a wooden shelf in the shape of an upturned boat, which knowing her was literally the most perfect bookshelf that had ever existed–and got permission to take it home, there was no way I was going to be able to save it until then. So I set it up against the dining table so that she would find it in the morning.

She has the best reaction to gifts she really likes. I remember her fifth birthday, on which her older sister, aged seven, had bought her a miniature plastic Schleich unicorn that was very fancy, with rainbows blazing in its mane. The birthday girl silently took it out of its wrapping and, after a pause, ran into her room to introduce it to its new friends. After five or so minutes, she ran back to her sister, hugged her silently but firmly, and ran back into her room, where she stayed for some time.

I tried not to have an expectation for the bookshelf, but her reaction did not disappoint. She stopped in front of it and gazed at it silently. Within 15 minutes, she and her sister had set it up between their beds, under the window, having miraculously rearranged their entire room to accommodate its placement.

I had hoped that she would share it, and had been prepared to dictate to her that she would do so. My big parenting moment was that, taking her cue, I had remained silent. She decided on her own to offer one of its three shelves to the older girl, and to preserve the third for decorations, to be mutually selected (they chose a seasonal theme, as you can see).

Having faith in the grace of which my children are capable (at least when they are not engaged in an endless war of attrition over who was looking at whom the wrong way), is an act I can stand to do more of. These are the children, after all, who routinely use their birthday money to buy each other gifts or take us all out for frozen yogurt. It made me wonder how often my expectation that they would not be up to this affects their behavior. For once, I left the door open and kept my expectations to myself.

Now I have no idea what to get her for Christmas. But she says she just wants to spend time with her family. And, you know, to read.

 

The Family Taste

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A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children. In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.” Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into Enlish. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

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.

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. 

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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

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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.