Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sometimes you just have to have a good time

I feel as if I've been running a marathon for the last several weeks. Not literally of course. I am walking again after breaking my foot, but I am doing so very gingerly and my foot gets sore from the use. No, I've found that when I am able to function at high speed without problems, I feel like a supermom. But, any major bump in the road where Mommy can't do my usual stuff, then we are suddenly in survival mode. So, with foot in recovery, being the finance person for my MOPS group, homeschooling, and now dealing with one car in the shop and ferrying my husband to and from work so that I can use the only available car (thanks to Granny and Grandpa) for necessary errands, I've been pretty stressed out.

If you ever need a stress relief, open your mind to the wonderful restorative properties of the way children think. It seems like nearly every day something happens that gets me giggling. Monday I needed to go shopping to pick up computer paper (The Pillowfight Fairy goes through about a package a month) and some Zicam (my Husband has found it to do wonders for him in fighting off colds). The easiest place for me to go that has both of those items is our local Target store. I was in the mind set of get in, get the stuff, and get out. Have I ever mentioned that I don't like shopping? Well, I was still well stressed out and I had three kids in tow. The Happy Boy gets to ride in the cart facing Mommy in the convenient little kid seat. But, neither the Pillowfight Fairy nor the Adrenaline Junkie was feeling like walking that day, so I stuffed them in the main basket and told them to make room for each other. Silly me, I thought my agenda was on track. Then it happened. I don't remember who started it. I don't know where they got the idea unless it was from the Halloween decorations. But almost from the first moment I started pushing the cart through the store, the two girls decided to howl like wolves. Now, I'm not talking about a few timid howls. These girls have lungs (family of singers you know). They were howling like wolves with gusto. They howled as I made my way up and down the aisles. They howled as we passed other shoppers (who had a variety of reactions I might add). They howled past other Moms with whiny and fussy kids. They howled as we wound our way through the store. They howled for a good 15 minutes. Did I try to hush them? Good Heavens, no. I needed the laugh. In fact, I was having trouble maintaining enough composure to continue shopping. About 10 minutes into it Happy Boy started making squeals to show how much he was enjoying it. They made me smile. They made some of the store clerks laugh. And maybe they made another Mom or two go home thankful that her child was merely whiny while that Mom at the store had three kids howling like wolves. I finally distracted them into silence by heading by the toy aisles. We hadn't got Pillowfight Fairy anything for her birthday yet and I needed ideas. They didn't howl anymore after that and we finished the shopping trip and went home. But, it was just silly and it helped me get some perspective on life.

Today, there were a couple of other things that show the way kids think and how different it is from the way I think. Today, Pillowfight Fairy had a doctor's appointment and we ended up quite early at the clinic. As I was distracted by the girls hopping on shapes on the floor and meeting other kids (whereupon Adrenaline Junkie would announce "I'm a girl!"), the Happy Boy made his move. He found that if he twists this way and that to try to see what his sisters are doing, before long the straps on the stroller aren't so tight. This was a free umbrella stroller we picked up years ago. He somehow managed to pull the straps to their furthest extention and then crawl out of the stroller as he reached down to play with the footrest or wheels. At least that is my guess. I turned to check on him and he wasn't in the stroller where I left him and the fastener was still fastened. He was only about a yard away exploring in his new found freedom. He hadn't yet decided to make a break for it.

Later in the day, the Pillowfight Fairy and I had a disagreement. She had just read the book "If you give a mouse a cookie" for the first time today. In the story, one of the things the mouse does is draw a picture and then tape it to the refrigerator. Now, I fully realize that many people do put artwork from their kids on the refrigerator. If I did that, I would have to change the pictures every five minutes. The Pillowfight Fairy draws a lot of pictures and the refrigerator would not hold them all. As a compromise, she gets to tape them on our walls as long as they are high enough up that neither the cats nor her baby brother eats them. However, today she had to draw a mouse picture (which was quite good actually) and wanted to tape it to the refrigerator. It's just a small thing. It's just a harmless thing. Why can't I just let her do it? Because I know my daughter. She would consider the refrigerator the new favorite display spot and before you know it we can't find the door handles for all the paper taped to the door of this much used appliance. I explained that other people do put pictures on their refrigerators, but in our house we put them on the walls. That is our house rule about displaying our pictures. She had tantrum after tantrum after tantrum wanting to do it the way they did it in the book. Mommy held her ground. The Pillowfight Fairy is entering a very independent way of thinking. She likes to do things her way and when she can't she tries to find a solution that is acceptable to her ideas of what should be. In this case I had to praise her for her inventiveness and ability to stay within the rule Mommy gave her. She drew a refrigerator on another piece of paper (complete with door handles and refrigerator magnets). She taped this paper refrigerator to the wall and then taped her precious work of art to this paper refrigerator. All was peaceful again. If only the rest of our problems were solved so easily.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the latest fun. There was more if only I could have remembered it. We do try to write down some of the funny things, but there are so many of them that many are forgotten before they are written down.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I recently picked up some new books...

Doesn't that sound lovely! New books! Have I ever mentioned that I like books. I particularly like sitting down and reading books that I find interesting. Most of the time however, I read books that are at best amusing children's books. On average they are children's books that I found amusing at one time before I read them hundreds of times (literally). At worst, they are terribly dull. Every now and then, I get to read something that interests me. I have many interests, however, and little time. So, my selections usually involve some area of my life that is of everyday importance. In this case, homeschooling our oldest daughter (and eventually the other kids). I had a chance the other day to spend a few minutes browsing at our local homeschool supply store (just at the edge of our neighborhood!). I decided to pick up the following volumes:

First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind, by Jessie Wise. This is a lesson book on teaching the language arts (minus spelling) to first and second graders. I've already looked through it a good bit and think it will be very useful when I want to start teaching the Pillowfight fairy grammar. I think it is a good blend of structured instruction and casual kid-friendly teaching. I think it will probably work for us.

Drawing with Children: a Creative Method for Adult Beginners, Too, by Mona Brookes. This is something that will require a bit more of a leisurely read. Ideally, I would need to do the lessons in the book myself, before trying to teach them to my kids. Since I have never really considered myself very artistic with drawing, it might be a bit of a challenge to rethink the way I do art. However, I like the ideas used in the book (such as everyone can improve from their current ability and people do learn to draw better with some actual instruction whether or not they show any aptitude). This book presents art instruction for kids as young as two and all the way up to adults. In encourages taking it slow, following the development of the artist. It is basically a book to teach the teacher how to teach drawing. Considering how much the Pillowfight Fairy loves art, I know we need to do some kind of art instruction to keep her advancing. Natural ability will get you only so far, training will help her take it as far as she can.

My opportunity to read these books is not just research into what is coming up for our homeschooling in the future. It is carving out time for Mommy to do something I choose. There are so many things that need to be done. I am behind in so much of the housework and paperwork. I hate clutter and all of the surfaces are piled up again. So, I am fighting the good fight against clutter. I am starting to slowly get those "behind" jobs caught up again. Yet, in the midst of it all, I need to do something for me, too. Sometimes that is an afternoon nap when I need it. Sometimes it's getting out my needlepoint project (which has been in progress for more than a year now). Sometimes it is getting to read a new book. I am learning to put a little something for me into the day. It helps me relax, improves my mood, and helps me cope with the never ending problems that keep coming up (the latest of which are a dying water heater and repairs on the minivan after a collision). I have hopes that I will get better at finding time for rejuvenating things in my life. Because we all know that the problems will keep coming no matter what we do. But, anything that we can do to help the burden seem lighter or to improve our own outlook is a worthwhile endeavor.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The constantly changing homeschool

We are back in the routine of homeschooling now that my foot is recovering and I can walk again. I am thankful that we can be so flexible when crises arise. But, even as we get back into the routine that we were familiar with, I am noticing that the need for change will arrive pretty soon.

The Pillowfight Fairy seems to be itching to do more and learn more, but it is hard to give her the attention needed to guide her through more learning without neglecting the other kids. Adding library trips once a week has been a boon. She loves to read and reread the library books. Then she makes artwork to accompany the story lines. She will retell her favorite stories to me (which qualifies as narration though it is done in a very casual way). She will play act the stories with her sister. Adrenaline Junkie will sometimes listen to a book if it catches her fancy or her sense of humor, but mostly she is satisfied with the books we have at home which she has heard hundreds of times. Since she has not learned to read yet, the memorized story is the one that she can read by herself. Happy Boy is not let near the library books. He is in full teething mode and would drip puddles on them. He is busy chewing on everything and exploring our main rooms. Anything that allows him to pull to a stand is a favorite place.

I have to keep an eye on the two youngest, since they are both very mobile and have a knack for getting into trouble. They also like to play together. They are very active and that is good for them. Two-year-olds and crawling infants need activity. But, the Pillowfight Fairy, although active in her own right, has left the hyperactive toddler stage. She does quite well, doing her schoolwork as long as there is either variety (to keep it interesting) or a hefty dose of her favorite subject (art).

She really likes the curriculum we use for math. If I followed the instructions in the teacher's manual (which sound like they were written for a classroom setting), I would probably spend thirty minutes to an hour on this subject. Fortunately the Fairy picks up the concepts presented rather quickly and it only takes 10-15 minutes to finish her work.

She has been enjoying the Spelling work too. Though she sometimes complains about having to write lowercase letters (Capital letters are her favorite). Some people would pick their battles differently, but I insist that she use lowercase when that is what is presented. Most of writing is in lowercase and she only likes the Capital letters since they are easier. She has a lazy streak a mile wide and I can tell already that she needs to learn some basic lessons in discipline or she will always try to avoid "hard work." Once she is done complaining, she usually does a very good job. The spelling takes about 30 minutes to do two pages (both sides).

This is the core of her homeschooling at the moment. I'll have her read books, do drawing, painting, or listen to music as well. But we currently are not following much structure with those subjects. However, I noticed today that we are already more than halfway through the spelling workbook and it is only halfway through October. There are more books in the series that she could advance to, but the books are intended for a year for each level (about one lesson a week and we have been doing about four lessons a week). So, the question comes up, what do we do once she finishes the workbook. I am considering a language arts shift. At the end of the workbook, there is a simple dictionary containing approximately 350 words. I am thinking that I could shift the emphasis from spelling to vocabulary. She could do copy work (writing practice and spelling) of a set number of vocabulary words and using the words in a sentence. She would be actually making her own dictionary. It would also help formalize some of the word meanings in her mind. That would get us doing useful work within a structure without overburdening either of us.

Fortunately the math workbook will last longer. We are at lesson 60 out of 160. I have a little longer to decide whether to move up to the next book or do other types of math as a break until the appropriate transition time.

I have also been wanting to work in more memorization. Her memory verses for church are useful for this, but she only gets one every month. She has it memorized in three days. Other memory work that I thought would be appropriate would be poetry. There were some nice ones in the McGuffey reader that she finished this summer. But, although she likes them, they don't fire her imagination. She loves J.R.R. Tolkien's poetry and also the "Jaberwocky". That is what she likes to memorize. If I can find things that fire up her imagination, she will work hard at it without realizing that she is working hard.

The biggest problem facing our homeschooling at this time is Mommy's lack of energy. I have been trying to play catch up into the wee hours of the morning and then I'm tired and need afternoon naps. If I got enough rest, I might not have everything done that needs to be done, but I would be able to spend more time working with her one-on-one while the other kids take their naps. I can already see that this will be crucial next year. Next year's schedule will be much more full. It will include Spelling, Grammar, Reading, Memory work, Writing, History, Science, Religion, Art, and Music lessons. Good Grief I'm getting tired just thinking about it. Of course we wouldn't be doing all of these things every day, but everyday will probably have at least a good 4 hours work that will need pretty close supervision. I think that my best chance of getting us ready for next year is to start gradually adjusting our schedule to allow Mommy the rest she needs and gradually increasing the amount of work (or subjects) the Pillowfight Fairy will be doing. That way the transition will be less of a sudden shock.

With these ideas in mind, I think I will begin tonight by going to bed now.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Legend of the Pink Monkey: Tip #1

Did that post title catch your attention? Just don't think about that pink monkey right now I have something else I wanted to tell you. I've been thinking lately that I need to document our attempts at developing parenting tricks that work for our family so that, if they work, they might help someone else. The problem is that like all other parents, we are first timers. Yes, we have three kids now, but every parent is a first time parent because their kids are always doing something else for the first time and they need to learn how to deal with it. Stop thinking about that pink monkey.

So how does one go about documenting parenting tips when you are still trying to create them? I have no clue, but I'm going to try. Maybe with the combined resources of people throughout the internet, we might be able to perfect of few of these. That pink monkey is not staring at you. Stay focused. I thought that I would share my first idea with you and see what happens. This is not the most important tip or trick I think a parent needs. I am not ranking these ideas. I am just documenting them as they occur to me. The pink monkey is not playing peek-a-boo with you, ignore him.

What is this first grand idea? What could it be? You've already been introduced. It's that pink monkey that you are not supposed to be thinking about. Let me explain the legend of the pink monkey. Many years ago, a friend of mine was trying to illustrate how easy it is to distract people by giving them a vivid image that you then keep telling them not to think about. This friend is an attorney (go figure). In parenting, I am discovering the truism that kids (and big people too) get sucked into thinking about or doing things that they are told not to. I'm not talking about reverse psychology, though it is related. I'm talking about the phenomenon of hanging up a sign "wet paint, do not touch" and seeing that more people touch the object than if no sign were posted.

We have two methods of using the pink monkey concept.

1. The subtle method is to think ahead a little and give positive commands instead of knee-jerk commands. For instance: "Why don't you play peek-a-boo with the baby while I get your lunch ready" instead of "Stop telling me you're hungry, I'm working on it." The more you tell them to stop doing something the more they are thinking about that thing instead of what you would like for them to do. Giving them an idea of something good that they might like, helps them get out of their mental rut.

2. The blatant method is to pull out the pink monkey in person. Last Sunday we had a trying day and took the kids to a luncheon where they ate about an hour later than they usually do. They were in full complaining mode when we decided to start telling them to stop thinking about the pink monkey. Don't think about that pink monkey hanging from the tree. Don't think about that pink monkey with his little pink eyes blinking at you. Don't think about that pink monkey sticking out his little pink tongue at you. I think you get the idea. Without a lot of effort, we were transformed from miserable, whiny, and hungry to Mommy and Daddy are playing a funny game.

When I was a college librarian I found that when dealing with my student workers, I had to be careful about how I worded instructions to them. People don't like being told to do stuff to begin with and young adults can get a bit huffy since they are grown up now and you don't have to treat them like a child and tell them how to do everything. I found using the word "Remember" in place of "Don't forget" was very useful when wording instructions. It may seem simplistic, but telling a person to remember something is less authoritarian sounding and leaves the idea of remembering in their minds. Telling a person "Don't forget" is pretty much asking for them to forget it. "Forget" is the main verb in the sentence and it sticks in the brain. The "Don't" tacked on the front is setting them up to focus even further on the undesired outcome.

I am not a master of the pink monkey distraction techniques. In fact I've been struggling with how much I order my kids around in a negative way and don't get the results that I want. It does take a bit more brain effort on my part to think ahead and carefully word what I say to them. Lately, I've felt so swamped with life and catching up from the time I was out of commission from being in a cast that I'm doing good to stop and think what name I need to say let alone what I'm going to say to my child.

So, feel free to use the pink monkey to help you out. If you have any useful suggestions or variations that have worked for you, do share them.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Toys: the love-hate relationship

I think that it is a truism that all parents have a love-hate relationship with toys. We love them when they are fun and make our kids happy. We love when a kid will play with a toy for long periods of time allowing the parent to do something else than try to come up with another idea for a bored kid. However, parents also do not like picking up the toys or nagging their kids to pick up toys. Then there is the trauma of when to part ways with a toy. My theory is that a young child will never knowingly part with a toy even if they haven't played with it since they first got it. Lately, many different ideas about toys have been playing around in my brain, so I thought that I would share some of those thoughts and see if I can get ideas from others about how to manage the toys. This is where I am getting back to the original idea of my blog. Toys lend themselves to more chaos, and I am a person who tries to beat back the encroaching hordes (or hoards?).

To begin, I am a very pragmatic person. When we first had our first child, my husband was surprised when I kept buying toys for her. He thought that I would see that as extravagant. Actually, I saw toys at that time as my child's work. She needed toys to assist her in the various stages of development. She needed to learn various skills. If I thought an appropriate skill for her age was being neglected, I looked for a toy that would help build and develop that skill for her. Ah... the newbie I was. I felt so proud of myself for limiting myself. I didn't buy electronic toys or battery operated toys. I didn't buy toys with TV characters all over them. We had limited space at the time in our tiny apartment, so we kept the toys small and simple. We still have many of those toys and I consider many of them the basics that will be used with all of our kids (blocks, balls, mirrors, rattles, soft books, toy piano, baby safe music box, tiny stuffed animals). Looking back from my current perspective, however, I purchased things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn't catch our daughter's interest or were inconvenient (non-machine washable plush toys). I discovered that our daughter found chewing on my shoelaces to be so fascinating that she would sit at my foot (literally) and chew on my shoelaces and play with them for the better part of an hour. Yes, she would play with the other toys, too. But, they kept having to be changed out for something "new" because her interest would wane. Then, when she started to crawl and pull to a stand, mobility was all she cared about. She wanted to play with the real world (our furniture, books, my husband's harp, door knobs, grass, leaves, dirt). The toys were stand-ins for what we wouldn't let her get at. Fast forward to today and I still see play as my kids work to develop needed skills, but the toys are only temporary tools to aid this endeavor. We bought too many toys. We forgot the truism that the box and the ribbon is more fun than the gift. Kids desire to learn about their world and real life. They don't need to be handed artificial versions if there is a way to give them the real thing safely.

Another thought that has been floating around in my brain lately is how we are inundated with messages that tell us that toys have to be bright and shiny and loud. They need to have lights and beeps and talk to your child. Somehow, if we buy the simpler toy, we are hurting our child's development. Our kids have to have the flashiest gadget that just came out or they will fall behind all the other kids. After all they need to be ready for preschool or they won't be able to be ready for kindergarten. Before you know it you are imagining your kid growing up to flip fast food burgers as a career while all the other kids go off to fabulous careers. Then of course they advertise directly to kids so that they will whine and complain that their lives won't be worth anything if they don't have whatever they are told that they should want. I still remember begging my Mom for a ballerina doll that danced on a special platform. I got it for either Christmas or my birthday and remember being completely disappointed that it not only didn't make me happy, but it wasn't as great as it was made out to be. The kids have no clue that they are being lied to about these things. We as adults have the perspective they lack, but we fall into the trap ourselves. The toy industry is in business to make a profit. Unfortunately, they use a parent's fear of being a bad parent to sell to them and use a kid's complete self-centeredness to sell to them. I've had some of these so called educational toys that are supposed to teach your kids. They don't teach much. Also, there have been studies which I keep seeing in the news that show that kids learn better from a person talking to them than any educational toy. So, where does this leave me in choosing toys for my kids? Don't follow the hype, it usually leads you to a dead end. I have to remember what my long-term goals are for my kids.

Another point that I would like to bring up is rather more mathematical. If every child has only two gift getting occasions a year (birthday and Christmas for us), then by the time they are ten, say, they have had twenty such occasions providing them with new things. Some of this is gotten rid of from time to time as they grow out of certain age appropriate items. But, what if there is a sibling or two. Why bother getting rid of those toys that will be appropriate for the next child. Yet, those children, too, experience gift getting occasions. In a family like ours where the oldest child is approximately 5 (birthday later this month) and the other two children follow pretty much every two years, the accumulation gets to be enormous. Yes, we do get rid of things, but it is a struggle to do so knowing that another kid can benefit from them. Some toys leave by way of destruction. They are simply loved to death and must be disposed of when no longer play appropriate. Some toys are neglected until Mommy can sneak them away and donate them if they are still in good condition. Others, cause trouble and have to be given time-outs. If they can't work out a good play relationship with the kids, they have to go. And every time a baby becomes mobile, I have to retrain the older kids about what the baby can play with and can't play with. It becomes my motivator to get them to pick things up: "Do you want your brother to eat/chew on that?" Then there is simply the issue of space. The older kids' toys (that are not safe for babies) have to be in their room, so that the baby doesn't get at them. There is only so much space available for that. I have also noticed that the more toys, the less they get played with. The kids simply can't see them. It is an issue of not being able to see the individual toys with so many all around them. As you can guess I have been struggling with these latest issues a lot and have been trying to winnow the pile.

When all is said and done, do my kids play with their toys. Yes. But, not usually how those toys were intended. Just yesterday I let my two year old play with some play dough (messy but simple and definitely a keeper). She started out by making a cake. Then she made some other type of food with it. About an hour later, she had found a toy spoon and squished play dough on the bowl part of the spoon. The spoon was a person and the play dough was the person's hair. She was having a nice little play time with her pretend person. Our daughters have wonderful imaginations and use the toys to work as props in their play. A toy is very rarely used as originally intended. Brooms become horses (despite the fact that we have a rocking horse). Shape sorters become airplane hangers. Books become stacking blocks (despite the fact that we have three different sets of stacking blocks not counting legos). Oddly shaped toys are perfect for an original creation of sculpture (sometimes kinetic). A cookie jar lid is a top. They have lots of fun and like to make their own toys from paper too (more props). But even then, there is something that will make them drop their play in a second in anticipation of more fun. What could it be? Going outside. They can either continue their play-acting outside with more natural props or just wander and explore. Sometimes we'll play games or ride on wheeled vehicles of various types, but mostly it is unstructured imagination time and exploring. But best of all... better than any toy... better than outside... Mom or Dad, Grandparents and other relatives and friends giving them attention and loving fun.

So, where does this leave me as I plan for upcoming birthdays and Christmas? How do I manage the toy shuffle as we move things around to be more baby friendly? How do I keep perspective on what my kids need to learn as they play? How much needs to be specific toys? How many props do they need? How much time can I let them have outside (especially when I am still limping and the backyard is still a construction zone)? How can we as parents make more time for our kids to be with us just for play-time? I know the questions. I have some ideas about the physical limitations of what toys we can own. I think that I need to work more on keeping the simple stuff, and eliminating the complicated, flashy, and redundant stuff. But the treasured possessions... that needs to be the relationships.