Birthday Presents

“What should I get my child for their birthday” is a commonly asked question in my mommy groups.  The answers are always stock – superheroes for boys, Shopkins (of late) for girls, the same books over and over.  It is only very infrequently that people ask what the child likes and answer based off of that.  I was talking to my husband about it this morning which is when I realized why it bothers me and why it relates here.

My parents always gave wonderful gifts.  They didn’t have to ask strangers what to get us, they just observed what we liked and bought based off that.  It’s the same thing we do with our kids.  We watch what they’re interested in and find gifts that fit in those categories.  Mischief gets art supplies, puzzles, games and twirly dresses and Mayhem gets coloring books and stuffed animals.  I wonder how much of the confusion about what to get kids comes from the lives that all too many are asked to live.

We send children to school for eight hours of cookie-cutter instruction a day.  They come home and do far too much homework of worksheets which look the same whether you’re in California or Kentucky.  The children are all supposed to be identical factory outputs – there isn’t too much room for creativity and self-expression in test-prep.  If we don’t know our kids, how do we know what they would like.  They do the same work as everyone else so they must like the same things as everyone else.

Children need the freedom to find out what they do and don’t like.  They need to explore and try on many different hats – see what fits and what is only an attempt to make something fit.  If we deprive kids of that exploration, then any gift will do.  Judy, Sally and Sarah can all get the same thing because they’re all supposed to be the same people.  They’re standardized kids as it were.  We’ve standardized everything else about childhood, why not include their personalities in that list.

This is what I’m trying to fight against with my kids.  There are some parts of their personalities that I think are just there for a test run and will be gone in a few months.  I don’t try and force them to keep it, but I don’t require that they get rid of it either.  Mischief has gone through times where she thought Frozen and dresses were ridiculous, and times (like now) when she loves them.  It isn’t my job to tell her that’s right or wrong, just to let her know it’s her choice.  The hope is if I give her the chance to choose her personality now, she will be more confident doing it when she’s older.  She isn’t required to give into the peer pressure of her parents as to her personality so she can learn tools to avoid peer pressure from teenagers.  I don’t know if that will work, but it’s a hope.

So, for now, she gives me gift ideas through how she interacts with the world around her.  I don’t trust a group of people who have never met her to pick a present to fulfill a gift-giving requirement.  I don’t think we could have avoided that if she were still in school and I was seeing what they taught her, but not who she is at her core.  That core person is who’s going to be with her for life, I don’t want her to make decisions based on what people on the internet tell her to like.  I want to know my child and see the uniqueness of her.  I want to do her present shopping by myself, not give gifts by committee.

Mindfulness

My kids throw tantrums.  Loud, embarrassing tantrums, especially Mayhem.  The kind that make everyone else in the store or on the street stop and stare at you.  I am not good at handling the tantrums – I tend to get frustrated very fast and get loud with them.  It becomes a fight to see who can be loudest in an effort to be heard.  I don’t like being anything but calm and loving with the kids, so this has been my biggest struggle as a mom.  The kids are certainly not the only ones who need an education, especially with Mischief home.

To help everyone be calmer, I decided to read up on how the kids process information and think.  My husband bought The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson for me.  Reading it I feel like I’ve met my children for the first time.  What I’ve learned is that I’m not speaking to them in a language that they could understand.  I tend to be very left-brained logical when I talk to them.  Unfortunately for me, they are emotional and right-brained when they’re mad.  My logic (“Yes, I did do that for you just yesterday and here are 5 examples of other times I’ve done the same thing”) is fighting against their emotion (“You never do anything for me!”) and we can’t communicate.  They couldn’t hear me because our brains weren’t connecting in those moments.

In the book, the authors discuss how a child in a right-brain moment needs a parent to utilize the same side of the brain in order to feel heard.  Only once that connection has been made can the logic and discipline happen.  I have been trying to have a conversation and teach lessons that they couldn’t learn.  It explains why I feel like I say the same thing over and over and it never gets absorbed.  I wasn’t parenting them as well as I could.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t boundaries and limits, but rather that they’re communicated in a way and at a time that the kids can hear.

Last night, Mayhem didn’t want to go to sleep.  She was tired, but screaming and fighting and yelling at the mere thought of getting into bed.  I used to tell her to just get in bed because she was obviously tired, and would get more and more frustrated, eventually having to leave the room to calm down.  Tonight, I said that I understood she wasn’t ready to get into bed, but would she like a hug and cuddle.  As soon as her head was against my shoulder, she told me she needed to sleep and could I lie down with her.  She needed the emotional connection, but didn’t know how to ask for it, so screaming was her reaction.

This is the not reading, writing, ‘rithmatic part of what I intend to teach the kids, but it’s just as important.  They need to know how to have a functioning brain where all the parts (left/right, upper/lower) work together.  If I don’t do it myself, how can I expect them to, and how can I be a role-model for them.  I’m still fighting tantrums, but now it’s with the right tool.  Instead of battling emotion with logic, I’m subduing it with an emotional response.  They feel heard, I’m less frustrated, and I can hope that’s a lesson that all of us will learn and develop over the years.

Difficult Discussions

Mischief has another nickname – The Philosopher.  She’s always been insightful and empathetic beyond what I expect for her years and it’s reflected in what she says.  I was putting her to bed one night shortly after my grandmother died (Mischief was 3).  She looked at me and said,

“Mommy, I know you’re upset that your grandmother died but you could always borrow mine if you’re sad. It just how the world works mommy. People get old and die and they just don’t come back and we get sad. But we don’t want to change that part of the world mom. It’s just how things have to be. Things aren’t always easy, but we just have to deal with them. But sometimes they come back – they just look different when they come back and maybe you can meet them again. It’ll be ok.”

A month later, again at bedtime, she said, “Mommy, can you tell me a story tonight about your grandmother? I know you’re sad that she died and if you tell me about her you won’t forget her.”  Even now, over a year after my grandmother died, Mischief still talks about her.

I was thinking about this and realized that too often we shy away from discussing death with kids.  When she first started talking about my grandmother dying, I tried to change the topic a dozen times.  She’d want a story about my grandmother and I’d ask if I could tell her something fun that she would do with her grandmother.  Death is uncomfortable enough for adults to talk about and deal with.  When children want to have the conversation it’s almost paralyzing.  I don’t think that every child can talk about it somewhat coherently (Mayhem doesn’t seem to have the same philosophical nature as her sister), but I may very well be wrong about that.  That might be me selling kids short.

Kids seem to understand more of their world than we give them credit for (see my above statement).  Yes, she’s a kid and there are things that she doesn’t understand.  However, she’s observant and a sponge when it comes to life.  She’s a member of this family and can tell when someone’s upset and something’s bothering us.  Why do I think that the kids won’t have serious thoughts on serious things?

I think it’s less about kids not understanding death or not being able to think hard thoughts; it has more to do with adults (including me) not being comfortable talking about it.  Too often, conversations that make adults uncomfortable are shied away from because the kids are ‘too young and wouldn’t understand.’  It sounds better than ‘I don’t know what to say so I’m going to avoid this altogether.’  We, as grown-ups, don’t like to say to kids that we don’t know something or can’t talk about something.  We’d rather the kids be the reason for avoiding the talk than our own hang-ups.

I’m trying to change this with the kids.  I talk to them about death as much as they want (my other grandmother is 90 and in increasingly declining health, so it’s going to come up again sooner rather than later).  I try to have conversations that are difficult and treat their philosophy as something to be explored, not dismissed.  I don’t always hit the mark – there are times when I either expect more than they can give or don’t give them enough credit for their thoughts.  I’m working on it though, and love hearing what they have to say.

Concentration Lessons

First thing this morning Mischief came up to me excitedly.  “Mom, I found a puzzle that I want to do!”  The puzzle in question was 500-pieces of a  fairy sitting by a stream, significantly larger than what she’s used to.  I tried to direct her towards something else – drawing, a different puzzle that’s more her size (100 pieces or so), reading, anything else.  She insisted – it was going to be that puzzle or nothing.  “Mom, I just want to spend quality time making this puzzle with you.  Please give me this quality time.”  I don’t know where she heard that expression, but when your kids specifically asks for quality time you don’t say no.

She decided that I would look for all the orange pieces and she would put them together.  I started pulling pieces out and she tried to make matches.  It wasn’t easy for her, not many pieces fit together, but it was wonderful to watch.  She concentrated and focused on the task at hand – make a background.  For anyone who thinks that small kids don’t have an attention span, watch one who is doing something that they care deeply about, it will change your mind.  She put puzzle pieces together for an hour.  How many she found that matched (maybe 20) wasn’t the point for her, it was all about learning the process. 

I sell the kids short too often, assuming that I need to come up with another activity over and over to keep their attention.  Maybe the reality is I come up with things for them to do that they don’t love or that they get the point of very quickly.  To paraphrase my husband, kids don’t have short attention spans.  They pay attention to something for as long as their brains can handle being focused only on it before needing a break.  The activity seems to be kept it in the back of their mind until the new they learned has settled and they’re ready for more.  Mischief’s brain could handle something she wanted to do for an hour before she needed time for that lesson to settle while she did something else.

That something else also was time consuming.  She wrote all the names of the Disney princesses on separate sheets of paper and stapled them together to make a book.  I helped her spell and she diligently printed the letters.  After she finished the first book, I was informed that we were going to make five because she’s five years old.  It felt tedious to me, but for her it was practice at both focusing on writing for a long period of time, and a way to incorporate something she loves into her day.  This was another hour spent on one thing.  I thought about asking if she wanted to break for snack at one point, it was when she normally eats after all.  However, I realized that I would be annoyed if I were doing something I cared about that deeply and someone kept interrupting me.  I decided to let her work.  She meticulously wrote and stapled until she had her books made.  There was so much pride in her eyes as she read them to me one by one.

This has been the benefit for me of homeschooling.  I’m learning more about my children’s abilities than I feel like they are from me.  I learned today to let them set their own pace and trust in their own abilities.  I could dictate everything we do all day, but as long as she picks something within the bounds of play-learning (i.e. not a day of TV), why stop her?  I need to trust that she will pay attention to the things that she gets some form of learning out of even if I can’t always see what that is.  I need to trust in her attention to details.  I need to be willing to be taught about concentration by my child.

My Mom

As it is International Women’s Day, I thought I’d write about the most amazing woman I have the pleasure of knowing, my mom.  While she was and is an extraordinary mom, that doesn’t come close to encompassing how incredible she is as a person.  My mom is one of the smartest, most compassionate, and most intuitive people I know.  She looks at a situation and can figure out what needs to be done to improve it.  She is always working towards everything and everyone being the best possible.  She refuses to accept injustice because she firmly believes that we, as a people, are better than that.

 

When I was dealing with school issues, she was at the front of the fight to get me a safe and high-quality education.  She realized before I did that safe was the far more important of the two.  I could supplement school with books at home, but there was no work around for my safety.  My parents (and my dad will get his own profile later as he is just as amazing) loved and love me and my sister through the best and worst moments of our lives.  In my darkest moments, my mom was there to cry with me.  In my best moments, she was there to celebrate with me.  I was shown what love – total, complete, and unconditional love – looks like.

 

She has that love not just for her daughters, but every student that ever had the pleasure to be in her classroom or school.  She never seemed to have 2 children, it has always been more like 80.  All of her students had her support and concern unconditionally.  Even when she wasn’t being loved back, she never gave up on their goodness and wonder.  Some people see middle school girls as a headache, she sees them as a gift.  She doesn’t see the frustration, but the potential inside each of them to make a difference.

 

When the opportunity arrived for her to help build a school from scratch, she saw not fear, but a chance to help girls bloom into their authentic selves.  I remember being scared for her, but if she felt that she never showed it to me.  After the school’s success, she never changed her focus from the students and making sure that they were in a safe environment where they could learn.  She would win awards and didn’t tell people about them, but if one of her students had a successful moment she would be the first one to share that.  Learning to her doesn’t only mean math and writing, although there is plenty of that.  She sees learning as a process of being introduced to one’s own self.  It doesn’t end during school, but that’s the ideal place for it to begin.

 

If I’m stuck on a problem or having a bad day with the girls’ education, I ask myself ‘what would mom do.’  That’s generally the best answer.  My husband calls me a paladin, but I learned it all from her.  She doesn’t see a tantruming 3-year-old as the tantrum (like I too often do), but as a small and vulnerable child trying to work out something that is too big for their understanding of emotions to handle.  As I said, she always sees the best in all of us. 

 

My goal is to be half the woman she is.  I figure that if I accomplish that, I’ll be twice the woman most people are.  I don’t expect to succeed.  I don’t think that I can be the person she is.  But, watching her it gives me hope.  Hope for people in general and hope for myself.  Hope that the world will become a nicer place for everyone.  Hope that my children will grow up in a better world.  That is the sign of a great person, they inspire something wonderful in others.  That’s her.  She inspires everyone who meets her.  I am blessed to be her daughter, and thankful every day to know her.

Play

My kids live a play-heavy life.  They make up dances and shows, build trains and play pretend.  Both of them have baby dolls that they carry around and are ‘raised’ by their respective parent-child.  I want them to be able to make up games and stories and play the way they want to.  As part of this, I’m fairly free-range when it comes to watching over them in the house.  The bathrooms stay locked, mainly so Mayhem can’t flood them (again), but they have free access to the upstairs.  It means that sometimes their rooms are totally and utterly destroyed and they mess up stuff in my room. However, it’s giving them time to figure out how and what they want to play.

Just yesterday, they went upstairs to play while I made dinner.  Twenty minutes after I sent them up, I went and checked on them.  (Yes, I let them play that long unsupervised.)  The had an entire story about a princess rescuing a dragon from a knight with Mischief as the princess and Mayhem as the knight.  The dragon was played by several different stuffed animals.  It’s not a game I would have come up with if I were directing what they were doing.

Adults, myself included, have decided to break play down into its parts to see its value as a learning tool.  We need it to mean something, to educate kids towards something.  College prep is always on the mind of grownups these days.  When I was ‘helping’ them play, I was too involved; their creativity was interrupted by my ideas.  Since I’m the parent, my suggestions are the ones they’re going to default to.  It was only when I stepped away that I saw just how wonderful and elaborate their play can be.

I take some heat for this.  We’ve had people ask if we even know what they’re doing.  (Not always, but I’m keeping an ear out.)  People have said to me that I don’t deserve to have kids if I’m not going to watch them all the time.  My question is why do I always need to know exactly what they’re doing in their child-safe room.  Yes, they’re going to get into mischief and there’s going to be some mayhem.  Two kids left to their own devices will create some havoc.  However, how are they supposed to play pretend and make things up with an adult voice always in the background dictating and supervising everything they do?

I’m reading Erika Christakis’ The Importance of Being Little and she talks about this.  On page 155, she says, “Once again, we see an adult encroachment of play habitat…The resulting message to a young child is that she can’t really enjoy life without big people always there to coach her through it.”  I won’t be around for every moment in their lives.  Even now, there are times where they have to figure things out on their own with kids their own age.  I can’t always step in and save the day.  My girls will have to create and think and problem-solve on their own.  I could monitor every moment.  I guess there would be fewer fights.  There would also be fewer giggles, less silliness, and a more structured environment to their free-time.  If it’s structured, is it really free?  There would be fewer lessons learned about dealing with someone else.  Handling social situations is one of the most important things that they learn from play.  Why take that away from them?

Homeschooling Begins

On day one of homeschooling, I laid out several centers for my daughter to play with.  There was a place for her to build, one of books for us to read together, markers, clay, and sorting bears.  I thought she was going to happily pick a place to play and love the setup.

“Mom?  I don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what?  Pick where you want to play, it’s up to you.”

“What do I do with all of this mom?  You have to tell me how to play with it all.  Give me directions.  I can’t start until you tell me what I’m supposed to do to get a sticker.  How do I get on green?” 

She sat there confused for ten minutes before she grabbed the sculpey.  “Is it ok if I just try and make something?”

She was tentative at first, not wanting to make a mistake.  I told her that there was just exploring that day, no mistakes to be had.  She would learn from what she did, good or bad.  As she worked with the material she became more and more confident that it would be ok.  By the time lunch rolled around, she was so lost in her work that she didn’t want to stop.

The first thing she made was a flower.  She had an entire story about it and why it doesn’t look like the rest of the flowers, but that makes it special.  When I told her we could cook it and make it hard, she got excited.  “Can I make more things to cook?”  I had creations going in and out of the oven all day.  My favorite sculpture of her is a snake that she made into a circle.  On it, she put four balls of different sizes.  She said that it was a racetrack and the different sizes were to show that the car was going fast.  The speed makes it look different from different places. 

By late afternoon, she looked up at me and said, “It makes me feel like me again.” 

“What does, honey?”

“Working with my art stuff and being creative.  I feel like me again.  So, let’s keep doing days like this.”

It hasn’t all been sunshine.  I don’t always feel like I know what I’m doing, and she keeps asking for Netflix only to be disappointed with an answer of no.  But, her creativity is starting to come out full force.  It’s like watching a flower that has been too long unable to grow start to come into full bloom.  She’s finding what she likes, and some things that she tries and doesn’t like so much.  However, it’s her decision not mine as to how she does and doesn’t want to learn and be taught.  I’m finding that I’m learning as much about her as she is.