Thursday, April 28, 2011

134 chores

I got up this morning and the dining room table was clean. The living room looked reasonably good, too. The open shelving in the kitchen has recently been wiped down, and the toilet is scrubbed. There are no wet towels on the carpet in the kids' room. What's going on?

Ten days ago I discovered that someone knocked my laptop onto the floor, cracking the cover and breaking part of the joint between the keyboard and the screen. I know it was one of my two youngest, but so far neither has 'fessed up. Less than 24 hours later, Little Guy and Snuggler decided to use the family camera. In the process of determining who would use it first they dropped it and broke the lens.

I was not a happy mama. When the worst of my storm passed, I knew two things:

1. My two youngest needed to learn the value of things (and that would take time), and
2. We did not have a camera.

I looked online, and discovered it would cost $268 to restore the household to camera-owning status. So I explained to my children that they were going to work off the cost, at the pay rate of one dollar per chore.

That's 134 chores per child.

Yeah.When the mean mommy awards are handed out, I'm gonna be a contender.

Or maybe not. At heart, this isn't about punishment. It's about indulgence. You see, someone once told me that indulgence is defined as 'whatever is more than your child's character can take." Indulgence isn't a matter of how-much-is-too-much in absolute terms, but how much is too much before a child slips into selfishness, bad habits, and poor behavior.

Some kids retain a spirit of gratitude when they're showered with gifts. Mine are pretty good at that. Some kids can own many things and take good care of all of them. This is where mine are weak. And the truth is that it's my fault.

My two youngest are poor stewards of their (and our) belongings because of my work habits and requirements. In the flurry of work/homeschool/shlep-to-activities I haven't stayed on top of the pick-it-up-and-put-it-away routine, which is step one in taking care of your belongings. If I can 'pay' for a block of work time by letting my younger ones make a mess, I've been willing to strike that deal.

But the laptop/camera incident made it clear that I'm not the only one who pays for this. My kids will pay, too, if they're allowed to grow up with a sense that it's someone else's job to absorb the cost of their carelessness. So I am scaling back their (our) freedom to the point where their enjoyment of playing with something equals the amount of effort they are willing and able to put in to make that play possible.

Trust me, getting my two youngest to do 134 chores each is a penance for all of us. It takes a ton of energy to muster my reluctant troops to do the additional chores they are now required to do each day. It takes a thought-through plan of effective consequences, and a heart of steel to deflect the numerous please and arguments. But I'm steeling myself.

So far they're on #14 each.

Wish me luck.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Black Ships under my feet

I got back from taking Big Guy to his residence last night to find the living room covered in Playmobil. Andrew had read more of Black Ships Before Troy to Little Guy, and my boy set up the battle camps and made ships out of black paper and acted out the story.

This made me happy. I mean, stepping on tiny swords in the dark is no fun, but play is a child's sixth sense, and I think it's what cements learning. Someone once asked me what history curriculum we use for the elementary school years, and I replied, "Costumes and props." I mean, if you're going to read Johnny Tremain you'd better own (or at least make) a tricorn hat. And if you're going to spend a whole year on American history, you need to spend a bit of money at Jas. Townshend & Sons on important things like candle-making supplies and tin cups.

In my experience, kids will play whatever it is they've last read. That is, if you give them time to play. Way back when Eldest and Big Guy were small we did a unit on Greek myths, and they happily taught an entire urban playground how to jump off the climbing equipment, flapping, crying, "Don't fly too near the sun!" (I'm sure that night there were some baffled parents who wondered how their children suddenly learned about Daedalus and Icarus.)

One of my favorite subversive homeschooling techniques is to collude with the moms of my kids' friends, so that the children all read the same book at the same time. A gaggle of girls who meet in the park and discover they've all read Little House On The Prairie needs no prompting on what to play. A group of first graders will play whatever Magic Tree House story someone remembers. And as long as the birthday parties are themed on The Lightning Thief instead of The Hunger Games, I'm good with it. (Hunger Games was good, but I wouldn't want to see my kids act it out!)

So of course tripping over Playmobil soldiers and wooden blocks (used to make Troy) and blue blankets (used to create the sea) and print-out triremes (though they should be biremes) is part of reading Black Ships Before Troy. It's proof that the story's been heard, and is worth re-telling.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Black ships before boys

Andrew began reading Black Ships Before Troy to Little Guy last night. It's Rosemary Sutcliff's re-telling of the Iliad, and Rosemary Sutcliff is wonderful. But it was Good Friday, and I half-wondered if this was the most appropriate thing to read.

This is the out-of-print edition we have. It has great illustrations

The story begins with Aphrodite promising Paris a wife as fair as she is, if only he tosses the golden apple to her instead of to Athene or Hera. Then Paris neglects Oenone, and sails to the palace of King Menelaus to see fair Helen.

As Andrew read of how Paris and Helen exchanged glances at each other, and walked together in the cool olive gardens, Little Guy began to look uneasy. He glanced at me, and then back at the book. And in his eyes I could see that he knew trouble was coming. And he didn't like it.

I was sitting nearby and said something like, "Don't worry, no one is sitting at my feet whispering sweet nothings as I spin my violet wool when Daddy is out hunting."

And my littlest one smiled, but I could see the shadow in his eyes. Do people really DO things like that? Why?

You don't have to tell a seven year old that stealing someone else's wife is wrong. Kids are the pool through which adult failures-to-behave ripple. They know. They see clearly what we, after watching so many shows where betrayal or greed or self-centeredness are mere plot elements, gloss over: real people get hurt.

Seeing the bewilderment wash over my child's face was a reminder: we can't allow ourselves to become inured to stories about desire so strong it launches a thousand ships. We should ponder those stories, shudder at them, consider what it means to give in to our ambitions, cravings, covetousness, snarkiness and other urges. We can acknowledge that lots of human beings do outrageously cruddy things without concluding it's not so bad if I act like that.

Yeah, it is that bad. Sorry.

And as I thought about this, and snuggled my boy as he went to sleep, I realized that Black Ships Before Troy wasn't such a bad book to read on Good Friday. For understanding how our sins play out in the lives of others is a first step toward understanding how Jesus got on that cross.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The problem with happy kids

This post somehow disappeared from the archive, so I'm reposting.

Last week I passed our local playground, which was swarming with preschoolers and their parents. With a jolt I thought I bet I don't know a single person in there! When your youngest is seven, daily outings to the park are no longer a daily requirement.

Nowadays when I'm out and about I no longer have a long stream of kids in my wake, and moms no longer automatically turn with pleading eyes asking for advice. For all they know I'm a crotchety middle-aged spinster, not a mother of five. That's okay.

But there is one piece of wisdom I always yearn to offer younger mothers, and it is this:

Making your children happy is not the goal of parenting.

I know this sounds heretical, but it's true. The goal of parenting is to make your children capable of finding joy and contentment in their lives, regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Consider the focus of a parent with each of the outlooks below:

I want a happy kid”“I want a kid capable of joy and peace”
I prevent disappointmentI teach ways to handle disappointment
I avoid kid meltdownsI teach my child self control
I protect him from all hurtsWe explore forgiveness, assertiveness, empathy, and how to rebound
I minimize argumentsI model problem-solving skills
I accommodate desiresWe focus on delayed gratification and the difference between need and desire
I want to make my child like meI want my child to be capable of commitment, sacrifice and love
I want to eliminate conflictI want him to handle conflict well

I could go on, but you get the picture. The I-just-want-to-have-a-happy-kid trap makes it easy to overlook helping our kids develop basic coping skills they are absolutely going to need. We don't mean to neglect these skills. But in a society that's geared to consumerism and instant gratification, I daresay it's probably necessary to focus intentionally on building them.

My two cents for the day. Your thoughts?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Busy minds

We did more of our standardized tests today, so when math was finally over (whew!) I let the kids do whatever they wanted to fill the time.

Little Guy and Snuggler spent a long time making a paper farm. (I love the mini-cow, but an a little leery of that large green critter...)

Then Little Guy chose to turn fruit into creatures. 

Then he spent a while doing some perspective drawing, using the every-child-should-own-this Mark Kistler's Draw Squad as his guide.

There were also some books read, some marble-run making, and an extended session on scooters in the schoolyard across the street. And I'm happy to report that I got an article written while all that was happening.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

It's not fair!

Yesterday after soccer I took the kids to warm up over hot chocolate. Little Guy was still snarling about losing 5-1; most of his sentences contained the phrase It's not fair!

I gotta say, if I could eliminate three phrases from the English language, It's not fair would be one of them. (Can you guess the other two?)

After a while of ignoring my son I held up my hand to stop the grumbling, and laid out a few basic categories for him to ponder. The way I see it, there are three types of unfair:
  1. Unfair things that need action. It's not fair that we get to eat every day, and others don't. Nor is it fair that we have decent schools, yet kids in poor neighborhoods get a lousy education. It's definitely unfair when someone hurts others and it goes uncorrected or unpunished. We need to do something about all these things.
  2. Unfair things that require a deep breath and a shrug. No, it's not fair the ref didn't see that hand ball, or that you didn't get a second popsicle and your sister did. Awful as that may be, your life won't be ruined because of these injustices (unless you choose to hang on to your anger). Besides, maybe in the next game the ref will miss your hand ball. And even if it doesn't all even out in the long run, if I'm still three popsicles behind when I'm 75, I still have a lot to be thankful for.
  3. Unfair things that aren't actually unfair. It's frustrating that your team's best player didn't show up. It's disappointing that your friend's mom forgot about today's play date today. It's aggravating that you left your water bottle on the counter and now you're thirsty. But there's no injustice in any of these things, and there are better words than unfair to describe them.
In general, Little Guy responds well to frameworks like this.I think most people do. It's helpful to have a decision tree that puts our feelings in perspective. The next time he starts in on It's not fair! I can ask:

  • Is it actually unfair, or are you feeling disappointed?
  • Is this something we should let pass, or something that requires action?
  • What kind of action shall we take?
  • Who should take the action? 
Wish me well...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Okay, so my kid's a poor sport

Spring soccer season is upon us. Last weekend we got sunburnt, this weekend we froze. Both weekends I was reminded that one of my children is challenged in the sportsmanship department. (Wince.)

You know the kid who cries when the other team makes a goal? That's mine. The one who scowls at other players? Who gets bent out of shape if a call goes the wrong way? Yeah-- same kid. He's mine, and although I would very much like to march him off the field or slink into a corner myself to hide, I put on my stout-hearted mama mask and say that when he's lost 100 games, he'll start to realize that he's not going to die if he loses this one.

In the meantime, each week on the way to the game we pre-empt some portion of the disaster-in-waiting by going over what  he can do if he starts to feel angry or frustrated. Breathe deeply. Focus on the game, not his feelings. Work his hardest, and talk himself down when he starts to get upset. Yadda yadda yadda; I should put it on an iPod and play it for him while he sleeps.

Ohhhhh, I catch myself thinking in frustration as my child stomps across the field, Why can't my kid just... And then I stop myself with the reminder that no thought that begins that way deserves to be completed. The only relevant aspect of why my kid can't handle competition is what it tells me about how to help him handle his feelings better.

So here's my question of the day: What do you do, or what do you say to yourself, to keep plowing ahead when the easiest (short-term) parenting strategy would be to give up? My bottom line is usually to remind myself, relentlessly, that my job as a mom isn't to feel comfy, but to help my child grow into a strong and healthy adult. But if there are other mantras out there, I want to hear them!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Testing... testing...

My homeschooled kids are doing some of their standardized testing today. That means it's quiet around here. (Insert sigh of bliss.)

In theory we don't have to do this every year. We make it an annual event because it's far less effort than compiling a portfolio of work for each kid. Plus, I'm pragmatic: test-taking is a life skill needed for many years, and I don't want my children to flip out when they finally arrive at a standardized test that matters. I completely, utterly, totally don't care about the results of these annual tests. I already have a pretty good idea of where my kids are academically.

Hence these tests are mainly for the benefit of the school district. The powers that be want an objective measure that proves I'm not a total pedagogical screw-up. That's fair. I suspect they look at the test results exactly long enough to decide if they need to send me to the principal's office to enroll my kids in public school. If the answer is no, they check off that I've sent in my paperwork and close my file. I doubt anyone at the main office cares if my kids are in the 50th percentile or the 99th. They don't offer me merit pay based on performance.

Do I teach to the test? No. I pull together materials that are rich and engaging (or at least solid and to the point), and then a few weeks before we do our testing I double-check to make sure we didn't miss anything. Last week I had to explain to Little Guy what an antonym is. It took about 37 seconds, no worksheets required.Which is about my tolerance level for teaching to the test. I'd rather teach the kid.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

2E kids and learning disability resources

I went to Big Guy's 'Individual Education Plan' meeting yesterday. It was step one in finding him a high school for next year. His difficulties are significant enough that even the ever-stingy city admits he can't be taught in a public school, so it pays for a private school. After Big Guy's IEP packet is approved, the district will send it out to therapeutic schools, who review it and (hopefully) invite us for an interview. Those of you who pray can start to ask now for a good placement. The options are few.

Big Guy is a 2E (twice-exceptional) kid. He is exceptionally bright, and exceptionally limited. The combination of giftedness and disability is not all that unusual; being smart doesn't exempt you from mental illness, physical ailments, or learning disabilities. I know a teen with severe dyslexia who attends one of our city's elite high schools, and another very bright boy with an auditory processing disorder that wreaks havoc with his ability to learn. We have friends whose brilliant kids have eye-popping ADHD and daunting mood disorders. 

There's a tendency to assume that the gift balances out the disability. Not so. More often the disability disguises the gift, or simply frustrates the child so much that he starts to think he's stupid. Mel Levine's The Myth of Lazinessis a great introduction to how learning disabilities can limit any child's ability to produce output proportional to his intellectual level. Another helpful resource is The Mislabeled Child by Brock and Fernette Eide, which sifts through various signs and symptoms -- there's a a lot of overlap even for vastly different diagnoses -- to help you understand what kind of learning disability you might be dealing with.

And if you ever have to advocate for your child with a school, pop over to the Wrightslaw web site. They have a wealth of info about how to be effective, including a fantastic example of how to write a letter to administrators. It's useful stuff to know, even if you aren't facing a problem right now, and even if your child doesn't have a disability.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Parenting lessons learned the hard way

Big Guy came for a visit this weekend. It did not go smoothly. I could spin the story and say we had the opportunity to hone our conflict resolution skills, but that leaves you with a lot to read between the lines. It was pretty rough.

In general, my kids tend to get along well. This is partly a byproduct of homeschooling: if you're going to spend all day together, cooperation shoots way up the list of family priorities. My kids' relationships with each other are also a byproduct of my expectations: I expect them to help each other, to be role models for each other, to admit when they're partly to blame, and to figure out ways to resolve problems. Mostly they do that; sometimes they don't. 

This weekend Snuggler and Big Guy could not get along. There were hurt feelings, knee-jerk reactions, followed by over-reactions. After one lengthy "first you tell me what happened, then (to the other child) you'll get a turn" session I was reminded of one of the first revelations I had about parenting:

A lot of life is about learning to respond instead of react.

I'm not going to admit how many kids I had when I finally got that concept. Or perhaps I won't admit how many times I'd read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk before I started retaining the basic lesson: Stop. Listen. Deal with the feelings first.You can't communicate if your energy is being used up by reacting to the situation.

One of the next parenting revelations I had -- perhaps because of my failings with the first -- was this:

Apologize quickly and from the heart.

I got to do this yesterday, after things finally calmed down a bit with Big Guy and Snuggler. Dancer reacted to something I said, and I reacted back. And then we were in the thick of it, my latent adolescence rising to meet her nascent adolescence, head-on. 

Afterwards, while I was nursing my avoidable wounds and waiting for the fire inside me to die down and become cold, I reminded myself of a parenting revelation I only learned once Eldest became a 'tween:
I can improve the number of times I handle things well if I remember when to be silent.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Caught in the middle of someone else's assumptions

Ballet is full of movement and drama. At the moment, that's true for us in the studio as well as on stage: Dancer's school has imploded. Blech! The artistic director is heading one way and the owner and assistant director are heading another.

There are plot twists: the school was going to close for financial reasons (then it wasn't), the artistic director was told to leave (or he wasn't), he's lying/she's lying/everyone's twisting the truth. There are whispered conversations, a flurry of email, official and secret meetings.

I remind myself that most of this tempest is unimportant unless I choose to swim in the teapot. I can ignore the bickering over details, since it's pretty clear there was fault on both sides. I don't have to engage in speculation or gossip. All I need is to know enough to do my job, which is to find Dancer excellent training with strong (and stable) instructors. That could mean choosing side A, or side B, or going elsewhere.

So I listen to the main players, and sift through their strategically-spun stories, and balance what they say against what I know about their characters. And as I talk cautiously with others I'm reminded of a peculiar aspect of life: no matter how discreet and honest and trustworthy one is, people only trust you as much as they trust themselves. Those who tell tales assume that you will, too. Those who deceive assume it's the norm. Those who tell the truth but leave out a few highly pertinent details figure that everyone else does the same. It doesn't occur to them that you might just be trying to be... honest.

Which is all the more reason to be trustworthy, I think. Because if you're not out there as an example of how to live life that way, how will others even know that it's possible?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Imperfect perfection (again)

Motherlode has a post today about a research study on the 'perfect' family. Apparently someone did a survey about parental happiness, and the results showed that having two girls is the ideal. The rankings were based on factors like minimizing arguments, fostering communication, and helping around the house.
Psst! Researchers! You are asking the wrong questions. There is no such thing as the 'right' mix of sexes, or the 'right' number of kids to have. There is no such thing as the perfect family. Happiness has nothing to do with figuring out the proper formula for family structure. Happiness begins when we work with what we're given.

If we work really hard at accepting what and who we are given, and nurture cooperation between our children, and value problem-solving skills, and fine-tune our temper-taming tendencies, maybe some days, for a moment or two, we get a glimpse of perfection. And then life quickly resumes, in all its crazy, I'm-not-really-in-control way.

And this is good. Because on all those days when life isn't perfect, and your children aren't perfect, and you aren't perfect, you're still given the chance to grow in grace and thankfulness and wisdom and love.

Whether you have two girls or eight boys, it's what you do with the challenges of parenting that tilts your family life closer to or further from perfection. If you choose to look conflict as a challenge to  become a better and stronger person, you grow. If you look at family friction as an interference with who you already are, you shrink.

Silly researchers. I'd only be 2/5 of the mom I am today if I had only two girls instead of five raucous, interesting, challenging kids.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Teaching without teaching

I brought home The Master Spy Handbook from the library the other day, which Little Guy read in its entirety this afternoon. He was a child obssessed: he made a hidden-camera-in-a-bag, created his own disguise kit, decoded secret messages, and made invisible ink.

This was after a morning spent making glow-in-the-dark paint using zinc sulfide mixed in egg yolk. (Little Guy painted a zombie, which he thoughtfully left next to his dad's night stand, so that it absorbed the light and glowed when Andrew went to bed.) If I told you about the discussion we had while making the paint you'd think I knew something about bioluminescence and phosphorescence, but the truth is that I'm just very, very good at reading a few paragraphs ahead and acting as if I know what I'm talking about.

People sometimes ask how I manage to teach all my kids all the subjects they need. I don't. I mean really, I don't. I'm big on independent learning. The kids have lists (when I remember to write them up), and they plug their way through the basics of second or fourth or seventh grade.

I don't think of my job as a teacher, but as a learning facilitator: I gather quality materials, stockpile mountains of books, find great teachers or classes for the areas where my kids' passions don't map well to mine, and keep an eye on where we need to fill gaps or bump up a skill set.

I'm much better as a teacher on the go. The other night Little Guy and I split a hamburger in the local diner before Dancer's show. He wanted to bring along his Chemistry book (his choice, not my mandate), and between bites he very happily used a napkin and pen to calculate how many neutrons were in different atoms on the periodic table.

Important spy photo
We fell into a discussion of atomic bonds, because that's what one does with a 7-year old in a diner, no? Little Guy wanted to remember the different types, but was having a hard time remembering them. So I got him to figure out what other word he knew that sounded like covalent. He came up with cooperate, and that made sense because covalent bonds share electrons. And ionic sounded like I-I-I-I, which is the selfish way to be, and in ionic bonds one atom grabs the electrons to itself.

And that's the way I teach best. In diners. By discussion. With mnemonics. Asking questions. And by finding old handbags for my kids to cut holes in for secret spy cameras, so they can add surveillance to their vocabulary.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dancing through the weekend

This weekend I spent quite a bit of time in the ballet world, since it was Dancer's spring workshop/performance.

I went down to the studio and folded programs on Friday night, picking up bits of wisdom from other moms. Last night I watched the show. It was good. Today I worked backstage, hooking tutus and snipping errant threads and learning that it's possible to keep a leotard from sliding off the chest by putting a piece of double-sided tape between cloth and skin.

I worked in the dressing room with the oldest dancers, the ones who are about to go out into the ballet world. It was impressive: the kids were incredibly focused and organized. Their talk was casual, relaxed, centered on which piece went well and what mishap occurred, whose costume fell apart or what finally felt fabulous. Some of the girls change in front of the boys, and some (I was relieved to find) do not. They hang up their costumes, set up their fast changes, come to you with scissors if they need to be snipped out of their sewn-up bodices.

Across the hall was the dressing room for the 14 and 15 year olds. The kids in there were different: focused when they needed to be, but playing popular music and chattering about school between pieces. They were ready when they needed to be ready, teared up a bit if they made a big mistake, and were already adept at stage makeup. Like the oldest group, they knew how to hairspray pointe shoe ribbons to make them lie flat.

The next-younger group (where Dancer was) was stationed furthest from the stage, where they exploded with excitement and giggles, and played Mafia and card games to kill the time. They brought laptops on the pretense of doing homework, and went on Facebook instead. Most of them still worried a bit about whether they'd get their choreography right, if they'd land that piroutte beautifully or exit in the wrong part of the wing. On stage their faces alternated between being solemn and smiling; they are still in the process of mastering the perpetual, glorious ballet smile. They are lissome and coltish, emerging with grace from the ranks of little kids into the world of serious dancers.

Brava, Dancer. You are beautiful, hard-working, and incredible. You make me proud.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Out my window

Early in the morning the sun shines on the river, reflecting spring in the windows of a former monastery.

The view is there every day, though I don't always pause to think about it. But it is good when I take the time to look.

There's fog on the river, I note to myself on a rainy day -- and I am aware that I am not in that fog, nor am I the fog. (I may be in my own fog, but that is a different matter.)

The water's rough today, I think on another day -- and I know that I am not the only one with whitecaps in my life.

Ice is coming down from upstate, I observe -- and I remember that what I do and how I react to circumstances floats into the lives of others.

The water glistens, I note -- and I fill my lungs with the shimmering light, in the hope that it will move like oxygen in my blood to every extremity of my being.

It's good to look out a window, to see beyond ourselves. It doesn't always make life more beautiful, but it does help us become aware that life isn't limited to the corner of stuckness in which we're currently huddled.