Thursday, April 30, 2009

Great Expectations

I once knew the perfect mother. She was amazing.

She absolutely beamed the glory of motherhood. Her children clustered around her, happily playing and singing, simultaneously gleefully independent and decidedly attached.

Her children were balanced, joyful, and inquisitive, and they rarely fought or bickered because she had invested a great deal of time on conflict resolution. Each child, while having different needs and wants, felt that he or she was valued and nurtured, eliminating the need for strife and anger.

With her infants, she intuitively knew what each needed. She eschewed the lowly pacifier, knowing that an infant needs its mother, not a piece of plastic. She was the pacifier. She co-slept peacefully each night, with her infant nuzzling her in his sleep, nursing when hungry without waking her, as nature intended. She woke each morning refreshed, knowing that she was doing the best thing for her children, being as attached as possible outside the womb.

She cooked delicious meals every night from her own garden, and the kids ate only healthy food, virtually all organic, with nothing processed and very little sugar. She sewed her children's clothes, and they took nature walks every day. These children embodied the love of learning, eyes glistening with wonder at butterfly wings and spider webs.

She devoted time each day to playing with her children - crawling and whinnying on hands and knees; kneeling shoulder to shoulder building massive towers that would immediately be knocked down; sitting primly at the tea table, munching homemade vanilla wafers and sipping chocolate milk. She worked out a clever schedule that allowed her to exercise every morning, get the housework done, dedicate one-on-one time to each child, allow for group game time, and in the evening spend couple time with her husband.

She had infinite patience. Not because she was a particularly patient person (although she was more patient than most), but more because she had read all the books on raising children and knew the research. She knew that by being an attached mother, her children would grow to be well balanced, independent people, and she was simply the guide to that endpoint. They would grow that way naturally, as all children would if raised with respect and love.

Then something happened that changed all that.

She had her first baby.

You see, this mother was me, and she existed only my mind. Once my first child was born, reality took hold with a clenched fist and a hiss that whispered in my ear, "It was all a delusion! A delusion! Now we'll show you what parenting is really like! Bwaaaaahahaaaa!"

This first baby was not just any baby, but a high-needs baby like few mothers have ever seen. This child could have been the kid on the picture of Raising Your Spirited Child. He rated a 5+ on every scale in the book.

This was the child that you avoid at the playground, that you glance at over your shoulder when you're grocery shopping, and that you look at with pity and disdain, wondering what the hell that mother was doing to raise such a brat. (Yes, I said it.)

As an infant, his shrieks could be heard from miles around, especially when he was being walked around the neighborhood at 1:00 in the morning because that was the only thing that would console him. His anger was legendary when he wanted to suckle but kept getting milk, so the dreaded pacifier was instituted (thus pacifying the entire family, which resulted in a recurrent phrase being heard, "Oh God, where's the f-ing pacifier?!" and which in turn resulted in the family owning something like 30 pacifiers when that phase was done).

He would lose his voice from screaming - deep, gut-wrenching screams that would leave me in tears right along with him, wondering alternately "What am I doing wrong?" and "What the hell were those books talking about?"

So life started. My wonderful, chaotic, fabulous, real life that I wouldn't change for the world.

Attachment parenting saved my life and certainly my first child's life. Was it hard? Oh yes. Were there lots of times I thought it wasn't working? Absolutely. Were there times I wanted to throw in the towel and Ferberize everybody? Probably, but I was too tired to try anything new, and my kids wouldn't let me.

As I wrote in another post, my kids knew best. They knew what they needed and I just had to give them that. Thank goodness they demanded my time, my energy, and my presence. If I'd had easy babies, I might never have realized just how valuable - no, necessary - being attached is.

You want to know what one of the most surprising things was about having a baby, and then another, and then a third? How far apart my ideal image of myself was from my real self. That was a shocker. Yes, I'd seen my sister go through raising a challenging toddler, but I knew I'd do better. Heck, I even gave her advice (completely welcomed, I'm quite sure).

I simply wasn't prepared for my lack of patience, my first week of each of my babies' lives when I felt completely disconnected, my inability to accomplish the most simple thing sometimes, and my lack of interest in much of the little-kid play that they enjoyed so much. I did a lot of things right, though. I loved them like crazy, I was attached as could be, and I respected them deeply. When I failed them somehow, I always always said, "I'm sorry" and meant it. But I did a lot of things wrong. Really wrong.

I can now look on what I expected to be and bust a gut laughing. Obviously, none of us can possibly live up to the Great Expectations that we, and society, place on us. What we must realize is that our failings make us real to our children, and that's actually better than if we were perfect. Who would want a perfect parent? How could any child live up to that?

Will our kids remember that we weren't perfect? Nah, they wouldn't think we were even if we were. What they'll remember is that their mom is happy, connected, joyful, involved, and loving. And we all do that in myriad ways.

Oh, and that first kid? He truly is amazing, as are his siblings. He's loving, brilliant, funny, happy, well balanced, and laid back (most of the time anyway). Despite my imperfections.
This post is part of the Attachment Parenting Month blog carnival, hosted by Attachment Parenting International. Learn more about how you can stay “Attached at the Heart Through the Years” by visiting API Speaks, the blog of Attachment Parenting International.

Dickens at My House

"The very dogs were all asleep, and the flies, drunk with moist sugar in the grocer's shop, forgot their wings and briskness, and baked to death in dusty corners of the window."
--Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop 

Forget tinyurl! Bring in Dickensurl! This site will take a long, ugly url and replace it with a Dickens quote, much like tinyurl will replace a long url with a short one.

H sent me the above lovely quote from Dickens, saying that this was what came up when he plugged in my blog url. Seems somehow appropriate, although I'm not quite sure why or how.

Perhaps it's the universe speaking to me, trying to tell me something ... saying my home is like the grocer's shop. That would actually be appropriate, since goodness knows there are plenty of dead flies stuck in the dusty corners of our windows (along with a bunch of dirt too), and we have three old dogs (and one old cat) that lie around all day sleeping. The only thing that doesn't quite fit is the moist sugar, since anything having to do with sugar gets eaten pretty quickly around here. 

And you could hardly call our kitchen a grocer's shop, since we're always scrounging for something to eat. Let's just say that cooking and grocery shopping aren't at the top of my priority list.

So maybe the quote doesn't fit after all, except for maybe the sleeping dogs ... and the dead flies ... and the dirty windows. Ah well, I guess dead flies are better than live ones.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

You Know You're Attached When ... (Part 2)

... thunder crashes directly over your heads, deafening your ears, and all your kids dash to your side and cling to you, not worried about being "cool" or looking "like a baby." They know that you accept them as they are, and they can be themselves without judgment. With you, they're safe - both physically and emotionally - from storms both external and internal.

And you welcome their warmth, for it makes you know you're where you need to be.

Kids taking cover during yesterday's spectacular storm

Monday, April 27, 2009

What I've Learned As a Parent ...

Let me bestow upon you some of the wisdom that I've acquired through the glorious, trouble-free, blissful years of my children's early childhood. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there may be more pearls of wisdom to come.

Lesson 1. I know nothing. Not, "I don't know as much as I thought I did," but I know nothing.

Lesson 2. Once I figure out something, it changes. What worked yesterday won't work today, especially if I bought a bunch of stuff to make that thing work.

Lesson 3. There is one thing I have figured out: that I won't know anything for sure. Ever.

Lesson 4. Once I think I'm beginning to get a handle on things, the next kid comes along and knocks that smugness right out of me, into the bleachers. Home run, baby!

Lesson 5. What worked for Kid 1 won't work for Kid 2. In fact, what worked like a charm for Kid 1 (especially if it was an expensive charm that took a lot of effort and knowledge) will be the exact opposite of what Kid 2 needs. Kid 2 will need yet another expensive, effort- and knowledge-intensive thingie, which is diametrically opposed to Kid 1's sensibilities and will probably have to be brought out in a room distant from Kid 1 to keep Kid 1 from screaming, which of course means that Kid 1 will be screaming anyway because I'm across the house doing something really cool with Kid 2.

Lesson 6. What worked for Kid 1 or Kid 2 won't work for Kid 3. In fact, Kid 3 needs something so different, so opposite of what Kid 1 and Kid 2 needed that I'm questioning the parentage of Kid 3, even though I saw him emerge bloodied from my body and I know that I didn't have sex with anyone other than my husband (after all, I was too damn tired and butt ugly to have sex with anyone, including my husband, but hey, he's my husband and the guy needs a break after putting up with an exhausted wife and two diametrically opposed kids screaming from opposite ends of the house).

Lesson 7. With all that, there'll never be a Kid 4.

Lesson 8. My kids know more than I do. Really. And they'll be the first to tell you. I also know that I need to listen to them, because they really do know what they need. When I just shut up long enough to actually hear them, they tell me exactly what they need. Every time. Through all the whining, and the sniping, and the bickering, and the laughing, and the hugging, and the joking, they tell me this: that they need to love and be loved, and that's all that matters.

Lesson 9. My kids have taught me everything I need to know. What matters, and what doesn't. What the meaning of life is, and what it isn't. Why we need to save the planet. How far the sound of a chocolate bar being unwrapped travels. Most important, what love is.

Lesson 10. Attachment parenting was the best thing I could ever have done, because - even though I may not know a thing and probably never will - I do know my kids and they know me. Keeping them close and holding them dear, even beyond early childhood and toward the teen years, has returned my sanity (you know, the sanity I lost when they were little and the sanity I would surely be losing again as I see teen years looming ahead). When I see my un-AP friends with their pre-teens fighting those battles of independence, losing their kids to the pressures of peers, and wondering who in the heck they share a house with ... well, I'm infinitely grateful that I had kids who forced me to be attached. Even if they do hang around all the time.

This post is part of the Attachment Parenting Month blog carnival, hosted by Attachment Parenting International. Learn more about how you can stay “Attached at the Heart Through the Years” by visiting API Speaks, the blog of Attachment Parenting International.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

You Know You're Attached When ... (Part 1)

... your twelve-year-old holds your hand when walking in and out among tourists at the Alamo - and doesn't think there's a thing unusual about that.

And neither do you.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Innocence Lost

Kids are part of my background noise. I'm surrounded by them just about every day. Kids of all ages, personalities, intelligence, ethnicities, religions, likes, dislikes, with every combination you can imagine. Since I have two boys, I get to see and know a lot of other boys in the 7- to 14-year-old range. I'm around them where they learn, play, relax, and just be themselves. And they talk to me.

I overhear them when they don't realize their voices carry, and I observe them when they're angry, hurt, happy, mischievous, tired, and every other possible emotion. 

These are boys who aren't in a traditional educational setting. They have the luxury of growing up without being bombarded by the commercialism and peer pressure of your typical school. For the most part, they've grown up with the freedom to learn who they are at their own pace. They've been able to develop emotionally and socially at the speed that's the most comfortable and natural to them.

These boys play with sticks, build with Legos, make forts, play hide and seek, chase each other, hit trees with sticks, swing on vines, dig holes, play cards, play chess, turn sticks into weapons (do you see a "stick" pattern here?), play video games, play RuneScape, tell fart jokes, wrestle, kick balls around, read books, make maps, and generally goof off.

What don't they do? Well, before the age of 12 or so they don't obsess about girls. Not one - not one - has used the word "hot" to describe a girl. Or "sexy." Not one of them is "girl crazy." My sons tell me that this is indeed true.

So why is it that on television and in movies just about all boys in this age range are focused to some extent on girls? And in some shows, they're not just focused, they're obsessed! (Have you seen the Suite Life of Zack and Cody? I won't dignify it with a link.)

In my world, when boys are allowed to grow and develop at their own pace, that interest in girls doesn't come until later - sometimes much later.

So why the disparity?

My own theory is that it's the basic human need to fit in with a tribe. For virtually all of human history, individuals without a tribe died. We needed our village to survive - whether it be to share child rearing, help bring down kill, or simply interact. Our need to be a part of something bigger is a drive that is so strong that we can't see past it.

It breaks my heart to see kids feel like they have to be something they're not in order to fit in. In most kids' "tribes," they need to be older than their brains and bodies are ready for. And it's not just the sexual stuff. Think of sports and academics. The son of a good friend of mine broke his back in gymnastics when he was 8. This wasn't due to an accident. This was a stress fracture - doing something that was beyond the limits of his body. That's pretty sad. But you know what the really sad thing was? The doctor said this wasn't unusual; it was becoming more and more common with kids that age who practice competitive gymnastics. 

What are we doing to our children?

What's wrong with letting them be kids? They get to be kids for such a short time.

Our children today are blasted from all sides by television shows, movies, and commercials where 10-year-old boys are girl crazy and where 10-year-old girls want to be "sexy." (Bratz, anyone?)

But mostly, they get it from their peers. How sad that "normal" is actually abnormal. 

One example sticks out in my mind. A couple of years ago S was in a play, The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet (S is in the yellow and orange dress in that link), that toured to a few elementary schools. After the performance, the cast was available for questions from the audience, namely the elementary students. One student piped up and asked a question of Juliet (in the pink dress), "Can I get your number?" This kid couldn't have been older than 11, and Juliet was about 16. Does anyone else think that's abnormal (though not unusual)?

Let me say that I am not one of those parents who wants to shelter their kids from "real life" (whatever that is). I am not a parent who wants to keep her kids in a cocoon. Just the opposite - I want my kids to be amply prepared for the world when they leave home. We talk about sex, about relationships, about any adult topic you can think of. Nothing is off limits, because I believe that education is power ... and freedom.

I simply want them to be comfortable with themselves and develop at their own pace. Not the pace that their friends, and even worse, marketers tell them to.

When I see a 12-year-old boy play hide-and-seek with a girl, or when a 10-year-old boy is interested in a girl because she has some cool Yu-Gi-Oh cards to trade, it warms my heart. The time for that first spark of interest will come, as it should. But in my world it will come when the kids are ready, not when the rest of the world tells them they are.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Shake it, baby, shake it!

Tonight, with the house quiet and the kids nestled in their beds, H and I sat in the office, he working on his laptop and me on the Mac, when he started laughing. I looked over saw that he was watching this SNL clip that he'd stumbled on while looking around hulu

We're about 20 seconds into it when in trots T. Of course, you know what the first thing he asks is.

T: "What's so funny?"

Me: "Oh, just a comedy show about guys playing video games." (H shoots me a smirk over T's shoulder. I try to keep just a simple grin on my face.)

T (now looking at the screen): "Man, those guys are really getting into it!"

I feel a WHOOSH!!! as a blast of not-getting-it careens over T's head and hits me in the face.

H: "Uh huh." (Barely containing himself and sending me pointed glances.)

T (laughing at the clip): "They're really shaking it!"

I'm just about dying laughing, when Alec Baldwin says, "Trust me, your mother's gonna be a natural."

T watches through the end of the clip, giggling about how "into it" these guys are.

T heads off to bed (again), glad to have shared a funny moment with his parents. You know, a real bonding moment. But also kinda scratching his head about why his folks thought that clip was that funny. Oh well, you know old people.

Me? I'm just glad that my almost 9-year-old is still innocent and this little episode won't even make a blip on his radar screen. 

I could write a long, detailed post about how our kids have lost their innocence, but I'm not feeling too serious. Maybe I'll make that post tomorrow.

Is it too late to play some Wii?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Life Lesson: Procrastination

Tomorrow we have our end-of-semester "Demo Day," which showcases the work that students did during our co-op. Some classes give presentations, others display projects the kids have created, and still others share food they've made.

One of S's favorite classes is "Kids in Business," and it's been great fun for her. The students created their business ideas, learned about marketing and target audiences, and developed advertising (infomercials) and flyers. Tomorrow they'll each have a booth to sell their wares.

S has been really excited about this culmination of creativity. She and one of her best friends have been brainstorming and scheming to make all sorts of projects. They're planning on making a big splash tomorrow.

The unfortunate thing is that, while all the brainstorming has been going on and her friends have been creating, S has been procrastinating. When I give her gentle reminders about deadlines or ask her when she's planning on working in some quality production time, she gets huffy and blows me off. 

I've been biting my lip, steeling myself for the perfect storm I see on the horizon.

Tonight it hit.

We arrive home at 9:30, after her last performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and she realizes that the departure time for Demo Day looms less than twelve hours away.

She has two other girls in her "business" who are depending on her, and she doesn't want to let them down. But now she realizes that there's pretty much no way to avoid that.

As a mom, I want to step in and make it all better. But once again, I have to value the process of failure. I'm a big believer in failure (something you'll see me write about a lot on this blog, I expect), because I've seen that success only follows on the heels of failure - sometimes quite spectacular.

S scrambled around, writing lists of what needed to happen in the next eleven and a half hours, and figuring out ways to maximize her efficiency, produce as much product as possible, and not look like a total deadbeat in the end.

While I find it hard to stand back and watch my child struggle through, I also am grateful for (yet another!) learning opportunity. I'm glad we're going through this now when she's 11, rather than when she's 18 and it's something that will affect her for the rest of her life.

She'll figure it out. She always does. And when she pulls out a success of sorts without Mom's intervention and solutions, she can claim it for her own.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Transitioning from Love of Learning to Academic Excellence

Imagine a person who marvels at the world, who oozes curiosity, who wakes each morning with a passion to learn what the world has to teach. She explores all that she touches and views the landscape with wide eyes. 

A child, obviously. That's certainly the first image that comes to thought. But what if that person is an adult?

Is that possible in today's world, with its standardized tests, its demand for a 4.0 GPA, its intolerance of independent thought in school, and its dogmatic assurance of what's necessary to succeed? 

Is there any way to maintain natural curiosity while still succeeding in today's world, and specifically in today's educational system?

One of the greatest gifts I can give my kids is the love of learning. I worry less about what they learn ... I want them to learn how to learn. If I can give them the ability to learn, they can learn anything.

So let's say that from early childhood I foster that love of learning (I'd call it "LOL" for short, but you might all end up laughing uncontrollably). They go through life merrily skipping along the lane, picking up bugs and turning over rocks, wading through ponds and finger painting (not at the same time), asking deep questions and being satisfied with open-ended answers, moving from experience to experience with wonderment, joy, and satisfaction. They grow, listening to the birds chirping (picture Snow White). They learn.

But I turn around one day and noticed that my kids are not only growing, they're growing fast. Suddenly, we seem to be running out of time. We look down at our watches, and three years have passed. G leaves for college in six years. How do we accomplish everything we need to in just six short years?

I panic and jump into "academic excellence" mode. Gone is the learning for learning's sake. Gone is the plan to learn how to learn and the focus is on what to learn. Gone is the leisurely time for walking and listening to the heartbeat of the trees. What's taken its place is the push to learn THIS, learn THAT. "You'll need this to learn that."

Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Back up. Is this what I want my kids to get out of their education? Decidedly not. So I take a breath and stop in my tracks. 

Let's look at this transition from love of learning to academic excellence. Do they need to be mutually exclusive? Do they need to be independent methods of education? Can you have academic excellence without a love of learning, and if you love to learn, is it possible not to develop at least some excellence in some academic field?

Clearly, we need to bow at the altar of the admissions gods if we want our kids to go to the colleges they choose. That means abiding by their demands for sacrifices and offering up the required bounty. But I maintain that we can honor their wishes without following the path of the traditional quest for academic excellence.

Our society is conditioned to believe that we must follow certain paths to reach specific destinations. If the destination is college, there's a typical well-traveled path that leads straight from high school to the doors of the university. We all know the road: standardized tests, AP classes, 4.0 GPA (anything less than an A is unworthy), extracurricular activities (which our kids happily fit in the wasted time between homework and waking), letters of recommendations from noteworthy professors (after all, your kid is interning in a genetics lab in his spare time, right?), volunteering (how would the sheets at the orphanage get washed without your kid's help?), and the bubbly, articulate, perfectly polished interview (Katie Couric, take notes).

In short, academic excellence. 

But that scenario--which is a pretty well-established, expected routine for college-bound students these days--is pretty unforgiving and often the antithesis of maintaining the love of learning.

My belief, which I've seen confirmed by more than a few real-life students' lives, is that the love of learning transitions beautifully to academic excellence, if given a chance. As children gain more and more knowledge about things that they're fascinated with, their curiosity naturally prompts them to widen their knowledge base, to seek out new information, to boldly go where no student has gone before. A kid who has been given free rein on learning what she wants to delve into can develop a vast mental network, with nodes connecting to all sorts of fields.

Take the elementary schooler who loves thunderstorms. Left to her own devices (and without having to bend will of the science teacher), that kid will quickly exhaust all the books written for children on the topic of thunderstorms. Naturally, she'll branch out, looking into other resources (videos, websites, etc.) for more information on thunderstorms, moving up to books for older readers, or researching related topics (tornados or hurricanes). The central node of her network has put out feelers and connected slightly different topics and somewhat more advanced discussions.

By the time that student gets to middle school, she may have developed a strong foundation for science, in addition to other tangential fields that related to her original interest. Perhaps her interest has morphed into other areas that were originally only marginally related to thunderstorms, say safety engineering, disaster relief, or civil engineering after reading about mass evacuations before hurricanes.

And by high school? She'll probably have a rock-solid science foundation, which will have to be supplemented only enough to fill the small holes. To round out her education, she may have to take some classes that wouldn't be her first choice, but if she's continued that love of learning throughout her life so far, she'll value the experience, even if she's not thrilled with the subject matter. And she'll recognize that those classes are necessary for her to reach her ultimate goal.

This is my perfect vision. We haven't gotten there yet, so we'll see how it plays out. I expect that my worries will get the best of me at some point and I'll cave in to the pressure of the "what you need to know" argument. I'll hold off as long as I can, and I hope my children's love of learning will prove that my worries were unfounded.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Parenting Parents

My father is dying.

You wouldn't know it to look at him, and a few months ago you wouldn't have known it to talk with him.

He's not dying a quick death by a fierce enemy. He's not dying a lingering death with an expected date of departure. He's suffering a slow withering, a cowardly eating away of his brain by a stealthy cheat. Over the last ten years we've watched as his "self" has softly, quietly stepped back, back, back, as if sneaking out of the frame of a photo while no one was looking.

These days we see his shell, the picture of who he was, but the man is all but gone.

But this post isn't about him or about how I'm dealing with his decline. This is about my mom and the relationship I have with her.

How do you parent a parent? My mom right now needs a mother to hold her and nurture her while her soulmate dies. Even while her mother was alive, she was never the nurturing sort, so my mom always talked with my sisters and me about things that were difficult or troubling. She needs a mom's lap to curl up in, a mother to stroke her hair while she cries ... and I can't be that for her.

I have to be the mom to my own kids with their trivial pursuits. "No, Mom, I can't come see you this weekend. We have S and T's last play, and we have a soccer game." That sounds so meaningless when she's watching her life love drain away little by little every day. And while it might sound meaningless and trivial, it's not. Those plays and soccer games are some of the most important things in our children's lives, and they need to experience them -  with their mom there. I can't put my life on hold for the years that will pass as my father shrinks.

My dirty little secret? Part of me doesn't want to deal with this. 

I adore my mother and father. I can't imagine having better parents, for I don't believe they exist. They've been married for 55 years this May 8th, and they love each other more every passing year. So in my mom's most pressing time of need, I can't bring myself to be there fully. What does that say about me? I'm not sure I want to know the answer.

Part of it - probably a big part of it - is that I'm grieving too. I'm losing (already lost?) a parent whom I love dearly, and it's hard for me to look that in the face. When I'm with them, I see my dad's confusion, his disorientation; I can't escape it. One day he simply won't recognize me, and that day probably isn't too far off.

My question is, how can I be the person that my mom needs me to be, the mom that my kids need me to be, the wife that my husband needs me to be, and the person that I need me to be?

Simple answer ... I can't. Currently, mom to my kids and wife to my husband are winning out. 

Being a mom to my mom and a person I can be proud of are losing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The kids have had so much fun with this play. They're sorry to see it come to an end - only one more performance.

Here's T as Mr. Bucket (the shortest actor) and S as Grandma Josephine (red glasses).

Here's S as Violet after she turns into a blueberry.

T is the shortest oompa loompa and S is Violet (in pink in background).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Competition: From the Kids' Views

I have one child who's competitive and goal driven and two who focus on the doing rather than the getting there. Do I even need to say how much friction occurs when all three try to play a game?

I'm reminded of a vivid memory of my childhood. My family often played games together, but one of the games that we rarely played was Monopoly. We all thought it was a great game and enjoyed it when any particular game was long and involved. So why didn't we play very often? The simple reason is that my middle sister and I liked to play for the enjoyment of being together, and my mom and my older sister played to win (I almost wrote that they were cutthroat, but that would be judgmental, wouldn't it? hehe). My oldest sis would revel in bankrupting someone and booting them out of the game on her way to victory, while I would cry and beg her to show mercy. And I would make her crazy when I would lend money to my middle sis under the table so that we could all keep playing, while my mom would cry foul and demand that she pay up out of her own account, bankruptcy or no.

At the time, I could never understand how they could be so heartless, and they could never understand how we could be so
spineless. I see now that it was more a matter of who we were and what made us tick. To this day, my oldest sister has pictures on her walls of goals she's striving to reach, and she'll drive all night to reach a destination. And my middle sis has ongoing projects lying around to be tackled when the mood strikes, and she'll plan trips with side-stops along the way.

So which one of us was "right"? Obviously I was! Not really, of course. Either type of personality has its strong points, and - like in many things - most of us fall somewhere between the extremes. 

From G's perspective, competition "makes things interesting." Without the geography bee to work toward, he never would have learned the information he's learned and to the depth that he knows it - by his own admission. To him, a competition adds spice and intrigue. It's a challenge, a dare, a test of skills. It's adrenaline, fast-pumping action, and thinking fast on your feet.

S, however, much prefers contests to competitions. She enjoys spending time on a project with an eye to entering it into a contest, rather than a head-to-head competition. She'd rather take time and effort to create something with thought, whether it will be judged against others' work or just enjoyed by herself. To her, competition can be intimidating, nerve wracking, and stressful. 

Most of us don't want our kids to be subjected to the intense competitive environment prevalent in some other countries. The suicide rate in Japan - with its reputation as the "suicide capital of the world" - is way high, over 30,000 in 2007, as is random stabbings. Some say this is because of the highly competitive society (although clearly reasons behind suicide are multifaceted).

But we also don't want our kids to have no drive and no direction. 

I'm of the generation when trophies meant something. If you had a shelf full of trophies, you had actually earned them (I didn't have a one). While I secretly envied my friends with trophies, I also knew I didn't have the desire to go out and win one. 

These days any kid whose parents paid for a camp, a class, or membership to a team wins (gets) a trophy. And because just about every kid has a shelf full of trophies these days, the trophies that are actually awards are HUGE! I mean, good grief, G has over forty - FORTY - trophies or medals, and only a few of them were actual awards. That doesn't mean that he's some remarkable prodigy by any stretch of the imagination. What it actually means is that we ponied up the money to have him take a camp or participate in a tournament.

What's that saying, "When everybody's a winner, nobody's a winner"? Something like that?

It might seem like I'm making a strong case for competition. I'm not. What I'm saying instead is that competition has its place, and teamwork has its place, and there's a place for every person to shine. It doesn't have to be competition, but sometimes that's the best option.

Every person, every child has a gift and a talent. But competition is something that, like everything else in a child's life, must be decided in the best interest of the child. 

Info on Hot Science - Cool Talks Lecture Series

All of the lectures of the Hot Science - Cool Talks are stored in the archives on the Environmental Science Institute's website. Here's the link for Bob Duke's talk. 

If for some reason you can't make the talk in person but still want to see it live, they always do a webcast of the lecture. They will occasionally questions viewers submit online during the talk, but usually they don't get to them, as there are always ample questions from the in-person audience.

Duke's talk was the last one of the spring semester, and they don't have their fall schedule up yet. I'll post it when I receive it. (No idea when that will happen.)

I highly encourage everyone to attend when possible. They are much more interesting in person than on a small screen. All ages are welcome, but younger children may find them tedious, depending on the topic. (Since the talks are recorded, children who might be distracting should probably not attend--this includes my own sometimes. LOL)

API Founders: What a Privilege!

Today I had the privilege of meeting two remarkable women--API founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker. They are a couple of the most approachable, down-to-earth, and sharp people I've met in a long time--and they're influential to a huge number of parents these days. 

These two women are changing our society for the better ... one family at a time. Fifteen years ago they started Attachment Parenting International, and they've been responsible for helping huge numbers of parents follow their gut instincts and encourage their kids to be vital, valuable, meaningful, respected, contributing members of their families.

If you get the chance to get to BookPeople on Sunday, please make it a point to do so. They're having a book signing at 3:00 and will be talking about the 8 principles of attachment parenting. 

Even if you think AP is flakey and hippie dippie and Richard Ferber is your hero, even if the most preparation you did before you delivered was to buy a package of diapers and a new box of condoms, even if you were bottle feeding your baby Coke at 6 months, and even if the closest you wanted to get to wearing your baby was to lift him from the carseat to the stroller, you should go see these two remarkable women.
After all, it's never too late to bond to your children.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

API Leaders in Town Today!

API (Attachment Parenting International) leaders are in Austin today and they'll be signing their new book, Attached at the Heart: 8 Proven Parenting Principles for Raising Connected and Compassionate Children. The book signing is at BookPeople (my favorite bookstore) at 3:00 tomorrow, Sunday.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"A Vision of Students As Accomplished Learners"

Sorry to delay the competition topic yet another day, but I just had to post about the talk I went to tonight while it was still fresh in my mind.

The talk, "How We Learn, and How We Don't" was one of UT's Hot Science--Cool Talks Outreach Lectures, this one by Robert Duke, the Director of the Center for Music Learning at the University of Texas. He was definitely one of the best of the lecturers we've seen in this series so far. Simply brilliant.

I can't possibly speak to all of the information he talked about, as his lecture was crammed with golden nuggets (not the chicken kind). I was scribbling copious notes as he talked (trying my new technique of taking notes by leaving out the vowels, which really speeds up note taking ... but I digress).

He reinforced what I already firmly believed: that the traditional school system has it all wrong. The brain doesn't work the way that the educational system teaches. It doesn't record information on a tape, to be rewound and played back when we need to access a particular tidbit, or by inserting discrete facts into tidy folders. Instead, it organizes information by association; it's a pattern-seeking machine. 

But teachers don't teach to optimize learning--they can't, because they weren't trained to and aren't allowed to. They're taught to teach according to a schedule, but as the brain doesn't record sequentially, this isn't the best method. They're taught to teach certain facts, even if those facts don't interest them. In fact, one of the least important factors in a teacher's ability to teach, at least in the public school setting, is their knowledge of the subject matter. So we have teachers who aren't necessarily interested in what they're droning on about, who are presenting inform
ation in a method that conflicts with the ability of the brain to store information, and who may not even have that great of a knowledge base of the subject matter. Is it no wonder why our kids lag behind so many other nations in education? And why so many of them hate school? And loathe "learning"? (I use the term loosely here.)

If a subject matter is interesting, according to Duke, it will be remembered. So he has a little checklist for teachers to ask themselves about their teaching style (much like the "Are You Sexy?" checklists you might find in Cosmo, he says).

Are You Interesting?
  --Labels ("Name the parts of the flower.")
  --Recipes ("Follow the instructions for this 'experiment' and if don't get the desired results, you fail.")
  --Algorithms ("When dividing fractions, don't ask why ... flip the sucker and multiply.")
  --What ... ("What causes the compass needle to point north?")
  --Exploration ("Take apart this lightbulb and see where the wires go.")
  --Experimentation ("What's your hypothesis for this experiment? Try it and see what results you get.")
  --Exploration ("I don't know why that is. Why don't we see if we can find out?")
  --How and why ... ("How does this contraption work?")

Another little morsel that I clutched onto was this statement: "Learning is error correction." This meshed perfectly with a heated interlude during a quizzing session I had with 
G the week before his geography bee. It went something like this:

Me: "What's the name of the largest island in the Outer Hebrides?"
G: "Umm. I know this. Uh ... oh, gosh. I know this. GEEZ, I KNOW THIS!"
Me: "Isle of Lewis."
G: Bam, bam, bam (sound of fists hitting carpet) "I KNEW THAT! WHY COULDN'T I REMEMBER THAT?"
Me: "It's okay! Actually, I'm always a little glad when you don't know an answer."
Me: "What good would it do if we only went over stuff you already
 knew? That'd just be a waste of all our time. I'd rather find those holes that we can plug."
G: "Well, that's just stupid, Mom."

Okay, so maybe he sees it as stupid. (Did I mention that he's my competitive one?) But I can be vindicated by Duke's statement that learning is error correction. Yes! Of course, by Duke's definition of learning, G hadn't actually learned that little fact at that point.

According to Duke's definition, I didn't learn anything tonight at the talk. Once I put his ideas into action, I'll have learned, but not until then. Learning is "change in some way that allows us to do something we haven't been able to do before." So unless and until you actually do something with the knowledge--have a discussion, build a device, connect two previously disconnected ideas, create a piece of music--you haven't learned. Interesting.

Another juicy morsel was this: unless you're uncomfortable during learning, you're not learning. I guess that maybe, after all, G did learn something. I mean, for a while there, he was definitely uncomfortable. :) Heck, maybe I was learning too, since I wasn't exactly sitting in the lap of comfort either.

An aside here for mention of a milestone: We were sitting in the front row, center section, as we always do. S raised her hand to answer a simple math question regarding dividing fractions. I was SO proud of her! Not because she was right ... but because she answered a MATH question in public! You can't know what an accomplishment this is for her. We have spent this entire past year trying to overcome her phobia about math, which developed when she attended a part-time school last year. We had been learning math topics in a different order than the kids at the school, so when she didn't know some of the concepts (although she knew others), she had her self-confidence shaken to her bones. It's taken almost a full year for us to get her back to the point of feeling okay with math, and this was thrilling (for a mom, anyway) proof. 

All in all, the evening was a real delight.

More on Competition Tomorrow

You thought I was going to write more about competition, didn't you? That'll have to wait until tomorrow, because S and T had a drama performance tonight, and we're recovering from the highs (and lows) of that. 

All in all, it was a fine performance, and we were all thrilled. 

I have another post brewing in the back of my mind about the interesting interplay between siblings when they're in a cooperative production, especially when one--or the other--is in the limelight.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Competition: The Hope for the Future or the Scourge of a Generation?

Is competition good or bad?

Ask the coach of a Big 12 football team or an older-generation professor from a high-powered university, and you'd probably get a resounding "Good, obviously!" or maybe even "Essential!"

Ask a Waldorf parent or a Montessori teacher, and the answer might be "Definitely bad." or even "Detrimental to mental health."

Obviously, it depends on who you ask, but it also depends--most importantly--on the kid. As in many things, what's perfect for one kid may be disastrous for another.

One kid might need an external goal to achieve anything worthwhile and may thrive on the excitement of head-to-head mental combat. That kid may need the thrill of the game, the impending deadline, the worthy opponent. That person may say there's no point learning anything unless there's a challenge at the end of the road. After all, that path that meanders through the woods in a loop, simply there to let you view the sights and put you back where you started, holds no interest. What's the point of that? To that kid, the destination is the prize, not the journey.

Another kid sees life as a process, not a series of goals. This child seeks out those meandering trails, wandering with wonder along the loop, pleased to see the sights before arriving back to the safety and comfort of home. Along the way, this child finds knowledge because it's there to be taken, not because of a challenge. If this kid knew that at the end of the trail lay a worthy opponent, ready to duke it out mentally, he would never set foot on the path. He would be intimidated, or he would be confused as to the purpose of the competition, or he might just hate to lose. For this kid, the journey is the prize, not the destination.

What are the dangers if you force the goal-oriented kid into a learning environment that focuses on "everybody is equal"?  Well, the most obvious, of course, is boredom. Apathy. Loss of the love of learning. If everyone gets a trophy at the end, what's the point of doing my best? If my efforts aren't recognized, why try? What's the goal? Here's a big one: loss of a sense of identity. How can I show the world who I am, if I'm seen to be just like everyone else?

What are the pitfalls if you force the process kid into a learning environment that focuses on competition? Clearly, a loss of self-confidence if the child is forced into a competition and fails. More than one child has given up something he loves because he lost in a test of ability, even if that test didn't accurately measure that ability. At the extreme, a child can refuse to learn. ("What's the point? I'll lose.") For a certain personality, competition--especially in a non-nurturing environment--can crush a child's spirit. What if the child has gifts in some area (say, a creative area, like art or music) but is forced to compete in purely academic competitions? The results can be far-reaching, as in killing even the creativity and thus the gifts.

So what's the answer? To compete or not to compete? Once again, it all comes down to knowing our kids--knowing their personalities, their strengths, their weaknesses, those areas that need to be developed, those areas that are strong and need to be expressed--and respecting them as people, and finding the right fit for them. It's a monumental task. 

And what if you have kids with different personalities? How do you teach the goal-oriented kid that "winning isn't everything" and how do you show the process kid that "victory is sweet"? Should you?

That's a topic for tomorrow. Check back, and I'll tell you all about what my kids--both competitive and non-competitive--have to say about competition.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Zen of Laundry

Don't get me wrong, I hate laundry. Well, not exactly hate it, but definitely dislike it. I wouldn't mind it now and then, but it's a task that never ends

So imagine my surprise when this weekend I found myself actually enjoying the repetitive action of hanging wet clothes, load after load. I recently switched to hanging clothes simply to save money, but I've realized that I enjoy the time outside on a beautiful day like we had Sunday afternoon. That and the fact that no one else wants to help, so it's a few minutes of snatched solitude.

Me: "Hey, you want to help me with the laundry?"
Kid (nonchalantly, although looking like he'd rather eat dirt) : "Nah."
Me: "Oh darn." (Secretly thrilled because I can spend a few minutes without someone asking me where their shoes are, asking me to fix a paint blaster, asking me what we have to eat for lunch, asking me to help with a computer problem, asking me to untie a knot, asking me to ... well, you get the idea.) 

How pathetic is it that I view hanging wet underwear as my little spa retreat?

So here I was, with three loads of laundry to hang, one after the other, on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. Usually when I do solitary manual labor, I listen to a book on my iPod. But that day, I guess because I didn't think I'd be outside for long, I had only the sounds of the birds, the wind, and the water in our pool (and of course the ambient traffic and neighborhood noises). My mind slowly slid into a solitary space, drifting, floating, musing about nothing much at all.

Functional meditation. That's what it ended up being. Meditation with a purpose. Is that an oxymoron?

What did I end up day-dreaming about? Mostly trivial, piddly stuff. But there were some almost profound thoughts and certainly a lot of appreciation for the life I have. It's so easy for me (and it seems for so many around me) to get caught up in the minutiae of the day, thinking of how tasty that grass looks just over the fence, while behind me stretches a vast rolling grassland of lush green, all for the crunching.

I guess of lot of what I appreciate about my life sounds pretty cliched, but cliches become cliches because there's truth in them. I had neighbors who had cancer on both sides of the family, with their siblings--and even dog--dying of various cancers, their mothers having battled breast cancer, and their child fighting a continued war against cancer. My cousin found the love of her life, got married and was ecstatic, and then the spouse decided five months into it that there were too many demons hiding under the bed and asked for a divorce.  Another of my cousins--three years older than me--died suddenly, minutes after the rest of us rang in the New Year. These tragedies happen around us every day, but I complain that there are legos strewn across the floor or the kids are laughing too loud. 

In the sunlight, with the birds chirping around me, the sound of water in our pool rushing softly over my senses, I was washed with a feeling of gratitude that persists. I hung up the last of the hole-y socks and stained t-shirts and walked inside and hugged my kids. I nestled my face in their hair, and they hugged me back--real, honest-to-goodness hugs from the soul--and I knew that I wouldn't trade my life--my cluttered, chaotic, lego-strewn, breakfast-dishes-still-on-the-table, 95-decibel life--for anyone else's anywhere. That's laundry zen for ya'.

I think I'll go do a load of whites.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Thrills Never Stop

If you're like me, you completely ignore the stuff in the sidebars of websites. But if you're interested in following my blog, look over to the left sidebar, and you'll find a "Follow this blog" box. Just sign up there, and you'll never miss a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat minute of my thrilling blog! 

Ha. Ha.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Joys of Older Kids

I enjoy every stage of my kids' lives even more than the one that came before. I loved the baby stage, with their warm, fuzzy smells and their soft coos, but it was hard, hard, hard. I remember that time with a mixture of rapture and revulsion. I was rarely clear-headed since I was so sleep deprived, and my kids were all closely spaced, so I was insane for a good number of years. Along with the glowing cherubic faces are harsh memories of piles of diapers (we had all three in cloth for a long period), horrendously painful breasts, and days where my biggest success was being able to pee in peace at least once.

Then we moved on to the toddler and preschool years. I loved that stage even more. The kids were mobile and starting to become self-sufficient. I mean, they could actually talk! And walk! How great was that? My days of lugging a kid in each arm, with one screaming from across the room were over! But I still had to wipe butts and dig boogers out of noses, so it wasn't all cherries and sunshine.

Then school age. How delightful, the joys of watching my children happily swinging their lunchboxes as they trotted off to school. They began to attend birthday parties and had real playdates (not fake playdates, which were actually mom playdates). But with that came birthday parties (definitely a love-hate relationship I have with those), homework, and having to play CandyLand and Chutes and Ladders until I wanted to puke. Still, I loved that stage even more. I was beginning to see my children develop their personalities.

Now, with my youngest in elementary and my oldest in middle school, life is brilliant. I've always tried to talk to my children as equals, but now they can actually respond to me as equals! I don't have to explain the meanings of jokes as often, and they can get their own breakfast (or lunch or dinner), and they can discuss the situation in Somalia or the stock market crisis and know what they're talking about. I'm seeing the beginnings of the adults they'll end up being, and it's a beautiful thing. 

And ya' know what one of the best things is? I'm not playing CandyLand anymore. Tonight my oldest, youngest, and I huddled around the computer and played physics games. We laughed and cheered and clapped. 

Behind their backs, I looked at my boys with delight and wonder, and I marveled at how I ever got to this point.

Yup, I can't wait to see what the next stage brings.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Now Sounds of Laughter ...

I marvel at the resilience of children. What started this morning as an emotional, in-depth, tear-filled, heart-felt discussion on how each of them can have their needs met has morphed into a raucous, laughing free-for-all, with bits of singing thrown in for good measure.

So this tells me that all those endless hours (days? years?) of conversation, mediation, and "let's work out the problem for the best of all" were worth it. As much as we all grumble during those conversations because we know it's good for us in the long run (much like kale), we all secretly enjoy them too--for the simple fact that life is better on the other side.

Were I a parent who "laid down the law" or "put my foot down," life would be much harder in the long run. My goal is to give my kids the tools for living life to the fullest, not simply make rules for them to follow. (Granted, that would definitely be easier for me in the short run, but I cringe at the effects over the long haul.)

While we all find confrontation as we go about our lives--whether it's in school, in our careers, or in our relationships--my kids (I sincerely hope) will be equipped with the tools to not only work out those confrontations but also prosper from them. 

After all, I can't be there for them when they're adults. I would be shirking my job as a parent were I to let them suffer through confrontation without learning from it. So, while it would be easier (and quieter and peaceful-er) for me to say, "Hug your brother/sister and go to your room!!!" it wouldn't help us any in the long run.

And since I'm basically lazy, I want long-term solutions, not short-term fixes. Giving my kids negotiation tools and encouraging them to empathize with each other are ways of ensuring my ability to be lazy. :)

Meeting Your Kids' Needs

How do you mesh the needs of a prepubescent 11yo girl (S), a highly physical 12.5yo boy (G), and an imaginative 8yo boy (T)? We just had yet another of our "talks," which we've all tired of over the years. That's not to say that they're not valuable, or that they're not needed or even wanted. It's just that we've talked things over SO many times that often it's the same ol' BTDT thing.

When S is feeling hormonal, she bites anyone's head off if they get in her space. The problem is, no one knows when that will happen! So the boys walk around her on eggshells, and if T asks her to play, he never knows if he's going to find a willing partner or a end up with a disembodied head. Our solution was that S's room would be her sanctuary. If she's in her room, anyone who approaches does so at their own risk. 

To that end, I made her a sign she can put on her door when she's feeling, let's say, uncommunicative.

We always come away from these talks feeling more connected, so in the long run we all find them worthwhile. Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish they could have these talks without a mediator!

Welcome to my blog!

So here I am, finally trudging gleefully into the 21st century. It seems I'm the last person to have a blog.

Does the world need another blog? Probably not. Does the world need another blog--from me? Certainly not. Will anyone care? Hmm, don't know about that, but probably not much. But what the heck. 

I have lots of opinions, and sometimes people even ask me about them. And, for whatever reason, they actually ask my advice about stuff! Go figure. Secretly, I feel like I did when I'd wear my mom's shoes and play "dress up" ... just faking it until someone finds out I really don't know what the heck I'm talking about. 

So I have lots of opinions, mostly about raising kids with respect, helping to create adults who are responsible and enjoyable, and basically just getting along in life from day to day. I also have lots of ideas about education and how we can best help our kids become life-long learners.

And adolescence. Sheesh, I wish I didn't have to know so much about kids coming into puberty. Our kids are 12.5, 11, and almost 9, so we're right in the middle of tween-ness and prepuberty hormones. I figure my son and my daughter will hit puberty right at the time I go into menopause. My youngest son and my husband should quietly disappear for a year. I guess I'll leave clean laundry on the doorstep for them to pick up once a week. 

I also have lots of ideas on how I wish my life were not! Not so cluttered, not so disorganized, not so frantic, not so chaotic, not so hectic, not so argumentative. But I'm thankful every day for what I do have: love, togetherness, energy, excitement, intrigue, danger lurking around every corner ... well, not really that last thing.

All in all, we have a chaotic, loving, loud, fun, ever-changing, cluttered, and yes, eclectic life. Would I change it? Not for the world!

Welcome to my blog!
Proud mom to G, S, and T and loving wife to H