Friday, June 25, 2010

How to Pick a Good One

After 18 months of parenthood, nearly three years of marriage, six years of partnership, nine years of friendship, and 11 years since our first (extremely awkward) meeting, I am pretty amazed by the way things have worked out! Based on our experience and a lifetime of Fr. Bill homilies, I have some thoughts about marriage:
Marry your best friend... and stay best friends!

Know that the person you love is a person, who will only change because of a conscious personal choice, not because you want him to change (Ryan, I wouldn't change a thing about you, and I am trying to make that choice to put my clothes in the hamper).

Put your dirty clothes in the hamper when you take them off. It is simple, and it will make Ryan... er, your husband or wife... very happy. And also clear your own dishes from the table.

Remember 1 Corinthians 13, and remember the parts that aren't quite as easy as "Love is patient, kind," etc. "We see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully as I am fully known." This rocked my world when I heard it at a wedding after I got married (it was not a reading at our wedding, but I have grown up with this passage, and will never forget Aunt Char reading it at that wedding). How clear does this passage get in reflecting back upon the wedding day and the entrance into the sacrament?! This is one of my favorite lines about marriage and one that is challenging if you are imperfect like I am.

Marry the person that will die for you. Marry the person that you would die for.

See humor in each other and in yourselves... and laugh about it together. Embrace the wrinkles you will have later in life because of the laughter!

Marry a good father or a good mother; see how the person treats his family and how his family treats each other. That family is going to be your family, and I could not be happier to have my family grow in such a wonderful way by marrying Ryan. He is also an amazing dad, and I saw that in him a long time ago!

Date each other after you get married.

Serve each other.

Turn off the damned television and talk to each other! And then maybe enjoy some tv time together.... or just leave it off.

Prepare for marriage with a sponsor couple. Skip the engaged encounter retreat, and find a sponsor couple. (Ok, I haven't been on the engaged encounter retreat, so maybe it is pretty cool.) I have worked with a sponsor couple in marriage preparation, and it was my favorite part of the weeks leading up to the wedding (more than trying on the dress, more than luncheons and parties, more than meeting with the caterer). Our sponsor couple meetings were a set date to talk about the rest of our lives with a couple who is living their life. We had a workbook (chuckle away) that raised interesting questions, we had amazing discussions, and we shared wonderful stories with people who know how it all works. It was intimate and refreshing, and it wasn't at all hokey or fluffy... it was real and it was about keeping it real.

Get a life... your own life... and let your spouse have his own life as well. We often go out together, but it is equally important to have a guys night or ladies night.

You have got to get one (or a few) of these! I cannot believe how my love increased when this guy came along.

I often reflect on the homily Father Bill offered at our wedding, and the readings we chose for our wedding mass. We chose Ephesians 5: 20-33; the one relating marriage to Christ and the Church. I am so glad to have a husband who makes that passage easy to live by; I remember thinking "you have got to be kidding me" when I heard the verse that says women should be subordinate to their husbands, but now it is a pretty simple task. He has to love me enough to die for me, and we have to live in mutual admiration and respect for each other. Check, double check! It is so easy to live that challenge with someone who loves you as much as you love him. Father Bill gave a beautiful reflection on Humility, saying "If you really want to love your husband, ask him, 'how can I be a better wife to you;' if you really want to love your wife ask her, 'how can I be a better husband to you,' chances are she will run to print a Word document." I could not feel stronger that this would solve so much of the marital strife we have in our society; it is so easy to focus on being wronged or being the winner, but it takes resolve to be humble... especially in those moments that I feel like I've been wronged.

And now a bit about the wedding: If you want someone phenomenal to say your wedding mass, may I recommend Father Bill? I had heard all kinds of stories that he "won't let the father of the bride escort the bride into the mass" or "he'll embarrass you in the homily," and all I can say to those claims is "HOGWASH!" He prepared us in the most amazing way I can imagine: he met with us, asked us challenging questions, set us up with a phenomenal sponsor couple, and gave us wonderful suggestions. The myth about not letting you walk down the aisle with your dad goes something like this, in Father Bill's words: "The gold standard is to walk into the wedding together, as a couple, because you are the ministers of the sacrament. (I had never thought of this before in my life) The silver standard is to walk into the wedding with both of your parents; they have shown you everything you know about marriage and we don't want to stuff mom into the pew to be lonely through the processions. (awesome, I love this!) The bronze standard is for the bride to walk in as the center of attention. It isn't a 'look at me' event; it is an us event." I'm pretty convinced by the gold standard, but because we both come from traditional families, we opted for the silver standard to honor our parents. There were never any negative feelings that we made that choice. As for the homily, I have never felt more edified and challenged in my life; it was personal, it was far-reaching, it was moving. The number one comment at the reception was, "AMAZING SERMON. And this risotto is delicious." THAT'S what I'm talkin' about! A healthy dose of truth at my wedding and about three quick bites of that tasty risotto

What makes marriage tick for you guys? Favorite date night ideas? Favorite date night ideas that do not involve leaving the sleeping toddler home alone? Any amazing pearls of wisdom from your own weddings or experiences together? Post it as a comment... on the blog... not on facebook...

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Disney Dilemma

After much thought and deliberation (and fear of being shot by Disney enthusiasts), I’ve decided to collect my thoughts on the child-product-mega-company and post my observations. Many of these were pointed out by my mom and followed by a hearty eye-roll in my younger years, but these themes have become more of an interest as I begin to raise my own son. Recently they've become the topics of many a facebook debate, so I thought that instead of invading someone's nonchalant wall post with a dissertation, that I would post it here.

I will preface my review of Disney by saying that I know this will not be something that we will be able to avoid in Dominic's childhood, and by saying that I watched and loved the entire Disney collection growing up. Until Dominic is 6 years old, I will do my parental best to keep him in an environment that is purposefully and actively driven, in order to meet the needs of his self-construction, which is largely completed in the first 6 years of life. My approach is not to destroy Disney or decline any invitation for my child to hang out with children who watch Disney, but rather (when he is older than 6, and a reasoning human being with a strong inclination to moral development) to have conversations about some of the disturbing themes that run through the collection, so he knows that our family values are quite different than the cartoon representations of the Disney collection and so he can develop his discerning eye for media (movies, literature, news, music, and all the rest).

My favorites were always Robin Hood, Sword in the Stone, and Cinderella. Ryan’s favorites were Beauty and the Beast, Robin Hood, and Sword in the Stone. We probably would have been great friends growing up, but we will just have to settle for great friends now. Hockety pockety wockety wack… I still wish I could sing that song and watch my dishes wash themselves! So on that positive note, here comes the beef. I will begin by reviewing overarching themes and move on to the subtle or subliminal themes of the collection.

Overarching themes:

Absence of Nuclear Family: I cannot think of a single Disney film that has an intact family, with a mother and father who raise the children (princesses or fish alike). Most of the films represent single parenthood, and corrupt or bumbling parents (see more subliminal issues below). This represents a strong message across the entire collection, and neither supports a sense of security in the family unit nor a worldview that I want my child to be worrying about in his early years. This is definitely a truth of our society that many children grow up with one parent or under the care of a different relative entirely, but in his early years I do not want him to worry “when will my dad disappear, or when will my mom be out of the picture.” From 0-6 years children are absorbing every external stimulus holistically (like a camera taking a picture), without any discrimination, and while this isn’t something that Disney overtly mentions at the beginning of each film, it is something underlying that is taken into the child’s mind.

Capitalism at its Finest/Basest: Disney is in the business of marketing, and as such, anything you can think of can have a logo slapped on the side of it and then be sold for a premium price because of its longstanding market dominance. It does not promote creativity or imagination, but rather sells a mass-produced substitute for those two values in our society. I know I will be opposed on this, but will go into further detail in my later discussion of the developmental stages and the role of creativity, imagination, and consumerism. Because every movie is “cute” and has a “happy ending” they have secured a huge market, and one that is geared primarily at children and still appeals to adults because of nostalgia for the movies and contentment that “it is good” based on superficial reasons (the sugar coating on the bitter pill, if you will).

Subliminal themes:

Parents as Tyrants and Parents as Buffoons: In many of the Disney movies, old and new, the parents are depicted as one of two extremes: evil tyrants or bumbling out-of-touch fools. Most of the classic princess story lines feature a helpless daughter at the mercy of a tyrannical mother (or step-mother, or the like). Whereas many of the “modern” story lines feature an overly powerful child and a parent that has no idea how to handle it (sounds eerily realistic, if you work with young children these days). I am thinking specifically of Cinderella and Snow White in the former case, and I’m referring to Beauty and the Beast, Pocohontas, Aladdin, Finding Nemo, Little Mermaid, Mulan in the latter case. While subliminal, these are prevalent themes in the collection, and themes that glorify disrespect and disobedience.

Disobedience and Disrespect Pay Off, and Have no Negative Consequences: Because of these Disney archetypes for authority figures, there is a massive theme of disrespect and disobedience to authority (coming from a Rage Against the Machine fan, I know this sounds totally off-the-wall). There was a string of movies in my elementary school days that resonated this theme: Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Mulan and Aladdin. More recently Finding Nemo is a flagrant example of the same. In the three former that I mention, a powerful daughter (or maybe “entitled” is a more fitting adjective) directly disobeys her father and ends up in a terrible amount of danger (the action of the movie, because otherwise this would never sell), and in the end she proves that her father was wrong and that all will be “happily ever after” despite her flagrant disobedience. In the latter, Nemo swims out in a direct defiance to the father’s limit (which is set as a safety precaution), and is essentially kidnapped in front of his father’s eyes (I realize he is a fish, but lets look at it for the underlying value). The father then goes on a wild adventure in search of his kidnapped son, enduring perils and of course seeing humor all along the way. The kidnapped and initially distraught Nemo, finds that being kidnapped isn’t so bad as he meets a tank full of store-bought fish that he convinces to escape to the ocean. Eventually, the father and son are reunited, and the father realizes that it wasn’t that big of a deal for his son to be kidnapped, and that really, a lot of good came of that kidnapping. And they live…. Everybody now… “HAPPILY EVER AFTER.” Apart from minor peril and fear, the child is always right, and the parent is just not quite hip enough to “get it.” Yikes.

Unrealistic Image of Love: In the princess story lines, there is a totally fantastic (as in, the adjective of the word fantasy, not a synonym to awesome or great) framework for love and relationship. This was something that Ryan brought up in discussing this topic. There is a theme of the first person you meet, who is always totally gorgeous and sings beautifully, will be the person you spend the rest of your life loving in that state of happily ever after. There is no conflict beyond that point (because the movie has ended), there is no repercussion of the broken home that one or both of the involved lovers is coming from, and this is something that everyone seems to oooh and ahhhh about. Maybe it is good to send a message that good can come to someone in a broken home, and certainly that is true although not indicative of research of children from broken homes. The fantasy view of love is something that leads to plenty of heartbreak during elementary and teen years of life when the girl who sits next to you is teasing you mercilessly or your first boyfriend dumps you out of the blue.

Money and Marriage Fantasy: In many of the films the hero and heroine find "love", get married, and live in royalty happily ever after. This emanates that if you marry into money, you will live happily ever after, and since you will be a king/queen/princess (whatever) there will be no hard work or hard times ahead. The message is almost anti-love and pro-marry-up. Maybe you love an artist or theology major, but let’s face it, that isn’t going to get you anywhere… go for the doctor (medical doctor, not doctor of philosophy)!

Sex Sells: At the other side of that fantasy image of the charming prince and beautiful princess, there is a more recent trend in Disney films that focuses on disguising adult humor as child-friendly content. The film that really resonates this is Shrek, although it is not a Disney film, it is definitely geared toward children. I remember seeing in middle or high school and coming out of it laughing so hard, and thinking, “what a great movie, it entertains the kids and it is hilarious for an older crowd because it is totally over the kids heads.” I am sure I rolled my eyes at my mom when she was aggravated by this sentiment, but I now know that nothing gets past children, not even that joke that is over their heads (in fact, I probably knew it then because I was a kid and I was very observant). I know there have been moments in Disney movies that I have had this thought, although never as overt as in the Mirimax film, Shrek, but I cannot recall a specific instance of it. Returning to the princess stories, there are several “favorites” who are animated as busty chicks in bikinis tops, showing cleavage, leg and midriff throughout the films, along with themes of seduction and sweeping in to steal the prince (Little Mermaid) or even the princess becoming a slave to a sorcerer or ‘bad guy’ because of her choices (Aladdin)… ick.

It may seem as though these are all themes that run rampant in the larger scope of the media; and it is no surprise to me that this is the case. If it sells during prime time soaps or comedies, it will probably sell in the next Disney “classic.” The last Disney movies I saw were Wall-E, Cars, and Finding Nemo, and anything other than those in recent years has been off my radar, so I cannot speak to any of those other recent films, but I am pretty confident that I’ve seen the whole collection up to Nemo.

Would you like your brownies with or without poop?

I will now share one of my mom’s favorite anecdotal benchmarks for measuring the merit of a movie (I think she got it from a speaker at a Steubenville Youth Conference, when she was a chaperone): A mother asks a child who returns from a movie, “How was it?” The child responds, “It was great, it was funny, it was interesting, but there was this one part that you wouldn’t like (graphic violence, sex, profanity, take your pick, you won’t have to think to hard if you think back to the last movie you watched).” The mom responds “Oh, well was it really that good, then?” picture the child rolling his/her eyes (I know I did every time I heard this story in high school after getting home from a movie). So at a later time the mom prepares a delicious batch of brownies, and the whole family gobbles them down (picture now the crumbs remaining in the pan as the last bites are finished). The mom asks, “How were the brownies?” Everyone responds “Delicious, great, marvelous, the best, fabulous brownies, you rock mom!” and she discloses, “Well, I followed my usual recipe, but I just added a tiny bit of dog poop to the batter. It wasn’t that much though, just a pinch.” (Have you vomited yet?) Obviously this was to make a point, and the family did not consume any feces.

Appropriateness of Themes for Children in Different Stages of Development:

First plane, the Absorbent Mind: zero-6 years old: During this stage, children are making their first orientations to reality, getting a grip on how things respond to their touch, the sounds in their environment, the emotions of the people around them, and the security and love they are getting from their parents. Rather than offering contact with reality (which is totally new and wonder-filled for children who’ve only been on the earth for a few months or years) the programs offer fantasy, which the young child takes in as reality. This is a stage of absorbent learning, meaning everything they come to contact leaves a replicated impression in the mind. Many argue that fantasy is a precursor or sign of imagination, but with closer examination, this Disney fantasy is a pre-bundled or manufactured “imagination,” such that, the story is this or that when you play with these toys or “imagine” about princesses, or here is the framework for playing fish… complete with character names and mannerisms, nothing unique or original (I see a lot of this working with 3-6 year olds). Fantasy play, in Montessori philosophy is considered a deviation from natural childhood tendencies, based on Dr. Montessori’s observation of children the world over (remember, she was developing this philosophy before there was television, and before the fascination with fantasy play swept the US as a beneficial thing for children). Don’t be alarmed, Montessori is interested in inventiveness and creativity in an almost religious capacity; in fact, she calls this stage a period of “self-construction” during which the child is creating herself through interaction with her environment—the greatest creative act of human life! The absorbent mind takes in all of the overarching themes and subliminal themes, bundles them as reality in neuro-pathways in the brain, and the more it takes in of this the stronger those synapses are etched in the mind of the child. This is also a time of orientation to the culture of the child’s upbringing, which seems to embrace the values Disney is selling as true and good. It seems clear that inner turmoil will arise from these overarching cultural values and the values that we strive to impress upon our children in our own homes.

Second Plane, the Age of Reason: 6-12 years old: Here is where fantasy and “imagination” in the modern sense become appropriate because of changes in the way the children are thinking and the different developmental sensitivities they have during this age range. Imagination at this stage is extremely important in understanding the greater functioning and interdependence of people within a society (that all the food at the grocery store has been grown by a farmer, then delivered by a driver, then set out by the grocer, purchased by the parent, and eaten at dinner… this takes a leap of imagination, because chances are, the kid hasn’t met the farmer or delivery guy or the grocer). Fixation on the pre-packaged imagination inhibits imagination in the sense of true creativity and independent thinking. This is the time of moral development, interest in justice and how it plays out in society (and movies), and these developments arise out of the reasoning mind of the child who begins to consolidate the impressions absorbed in the first six years of life… there is a reason First Communion in the Catholic Church takes place when children are 7 or 8 years old; they are reasoning and morally functioning humans. During this stage of sensitivity for moral development, the movies offer moral confusion and conflict with what they are learning in reality from parents, teachers, and even peers. Chances are, parents don’t encourage their children to run off without permission or to flagrantly disobey their requests and limits. Because of this conflict between reality and the films, children begin pushing limits to test their moral compass and their understanding of big moral questions, such as, “what is justice?” This is the stage of life when “that’s not fair,” becomes a staple in childhood vocabulary. Kids at this stage are entering a time of social collaboration and belonging, and the movies promote the development of fantasy-based ideas of love and relationship. “Why are the girls at school picking on me?” “They just like you.” Thinking: “That’s not how it is supposed to go! It doesn’t happen like that in the movies” (which have been absorbed as reality, if viewed before this stage of life). Because of a strong pack/herd mentality at this second stage and because of a higher regard for what friends are doing (peer pressure) there is an increase in consumerist lobbying (begging) for toys and paraphernalia to fit in or because “she has one!” or “his mom lets him have it!” These things are so prominent in my memory of growing up… “BUT MOMMY!!”

Third Plane, the Social Newborn: 12-18 years old: The physical changes of puberty kick off this stage along with emotional turmoil and self-consciousness; these are the “awkward years.” Any issues that went unresolved in the first plane come up again during this time, as they are parallel stages and the times in life with the most rapid physical growth and emotional development. Youths may feel disappointment in the reality of love and relationship or self-consciousness about how things really go compared to their expectations—there is depression at the rift between reality and the false reality absorbed much earlier in life. At the other extreme, because it is a stage of idealism, they will embrace the false “reality” that is presented in these “classic movies”—rejecting the way life in society actually works. At this age youths are also attracted to heroes and stories of struggle, because those themes mimic the internal struggle of the child—the princess defying the father becomes the role model. Youths begin to formulate conscious values at this stage, and will probably continue pushing limits and the expectation that “happily ever after” happens no matter your choices. Youths begin venturing into financial independence (though in our society, I think this happens later in life with each passing year, with children depending on their parents well into adulthood for housing and other provisions). That mindset of “no consequences” or positive reinforcement for the glorified poor choices in these movies can definitely cause a detrimental attachment to a non-reality… at a time that reality becomes a lot rougher in the “real world.” Is it any wonder that credit card companies target 18 year olds with free t-shirts and high credit limits in our American society?!

Fourth Plane: 18-24 years old: At this point the child/youth/young adult reaches biological maturity and trains for and enters society in a chosen vocation. This could be a difficult enterprise with an unrealistic sense of how the world works, and how choices are affected (especially with parental enabling of this false notion of reality, but I’ll save that rant for another post). People having children during this stage of life begin to look critically (hopefully) at the society and the role it will play in raising a family, and whether that is even something to consider in the culture of selfishness and false reality that is built up by this staple of our childhoods (I’m so grateful for my education and upbringing, that helps me to differentiate this media lie from reality). Additionally, young adults will begin to face these issues for their own children if they are having children. This stage parallels the second stage as a time of rational formation, moral concern, and finding a role as a member of society. To buy it, or not to buy it?

Call to Action; Taking a Proactive Role in our Children's Media Exposure:

We would never offer our children food with something we know is harmful or gross. In fact, when the doctor tells you that your child has a food allergy, there is no fence-walking about your child coming into contact with that food… no questions asked, no rationalization, we follow the doctor’s order without any hesitation. When it comes to what children are putting into their minds in the form of media, we are far more lax in our standards. Every time I mention the television standard for children, which comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics (no screen time under the age of two), the response is a resounding, “Well, I watched TV and turned out fine” or “Just a little won’t hurt them.” Because it isn’t the cause of a physical defect, we just write it off; there is little concern for the psychic (spiritual, emotional, pick the word you like best) development of the child, which is taking in all the subliminal dross of the content as well as forming a fixation to time spent doing absolutely nothing. I don’t know that parents even preview or think about what their children are watching the majority of the time, and once an image, or words, or undertone of disrespect goes by on the screen it is imprinted in the child’s mind. That, again, is some powerful marketing or a powerful social shift… the parents do not even question the merit of what they are giving their children, but know that it must be good because it has an upbeat soundtrack, cute characters, and a happy ending.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Montessori Mama!

With my training fast approaching, school ending yesterday and a whole year off, I've been thinking about nothing but Montessori. The home environment should be a place for the child to explore and grow in every developmental area within a safe and nurturing environment. There should be opportunities for practical work, sensorial exploration, language development, growth of his mathematical mind, and most importantly development of independence and confidence. Here is what we are up to in our Montessori home environment:

Floor bed: Dominic has given up the fight against bedtime, and for months now has had a beautiful bedtime routine. He takes a bath, gets into his PJs, reads a book (with our help of course), and goes to sleep. We've cut bottles out of the equation, but he does get 1/2 cup of warm milk in a sippy cup on nights that he is struggling to go down (not so Montessori... can we call it "following the child?")

Eating: This has been a BATTLE at home. At the Smith's house, his NaNa can feed him just about anything, but he has become increasingly difficult at home. So I had a conversation with Ms. Jacinta the other day, heard all about her fabulous little Montessori wonder of a granddaughter, and I had an epiphany. We were eating all kinds of things, and offering him other stuff (because we've been kind of junky eaters lately). So today I put exactly what I was eating on his plate (making sure it was healthy, and even adding cooked carrots to my own diet), and he ate every bite (except the ones that missed his mouth and ended up on the floor). I also offered him a tiny toddler sized fork that looks just like regular adult flatware, and that was a huge deal for him... he LOVED it.
After the meal he cleared his dishes, with me carrying him to the sink, he scrubbed them with the brush while I held them in the sink, propping him on my knee, and he then put them into the dishwasher on his own. I then let him wipe his own tray with a towel (why were we not doing this sooner?!). OH and midway through the meal I offered him a juice glass (mini version of my glass) and showed him how to use two hands to lift it to drink, and he went to town. Gradually tipping it more as he was more comfortable. When he started to put his hands into the cup, I took it. I would quickly return it as he begged for it, and he continued just the right way. It was PRECIOUS! Again, why weren't we doing this sooner?

Playing: His room still has one low shelf unit with three levels of shelves. The bottom shelf has an assortment of musical percussion instruments and a natural snake pull-toy (from Plan Toys). The second shelf has a tray of balls, a set of nesting cups (which are about to be rotated out as he's lost interest), and three turtles who are propelled by the balls that make their shells and feet. The top shelf has his pounding bench, which he is now able to fully manipulate, flipping the pegs as he finishes hammering them, and placing them in the correct shaped cutout. There is a basket of books on the top shelf, which he regularly visits, bringing us one book to read, returning it to the basket, and bringing another... OVER AND OVER again. There is also a xylophone representing the diatonic scale of C. He LOVES to play the xylophone, and I was so glad to find one that had the true scale.

He also has a set of toddler sized broom, mop, dust mop, and dust pan, that he has enjoyed test-driving. There is a shelf of stuffed animals in the closet, and a family of elephants on his rug by his rocking chair. He enjoys picking up a stuffed animal and carrying it around, or snuggling it. Lately he's been practicing differentiating the elephant family, today carrying the mother elephant on his shoulders like Ryan carries him around.
Generally we help him to play with only one toy at a time, reminding him to clean up as he begins to move on to the next. There is a large supply of other toys on a high shelf in the closet, so we can rotate the toys as he loses interest or gains interest. Keeping the shelf organized, with each toy returning to the exact same spot every time has aided his development of an orientation to his space and his sense of order. He knows exactly where things belong, and can help when they are out of place.

Our favorite activity is definitely listening to music and dancing with him. He LOVES music, of any kind of music, and has really taken to dancing. He particularly enjoys funk and techno along with harder rock while he's with his dad.

Furniture: The floor bed is kind of the focal point of the room (the thing everyone wrinkles their nose at when they see his room). Next to his bed is a toddler sized upholstered rocking chair that I salvaged from the roadside and slip-covered (so it is totally machine washable now). His clothes and cloth diapers are in a dresser near his closet, and we will start offering him a couple choices a day when we get a little closet shelf to place those options on. The changing table has been out of his room for a few months now because he enjoys acrobatic diaper changes, and we've gone to the changing pad on the floor method, which works well. He has a small basket for a laundry hamper and delights in putting his dirty clothes in it. I still have my rocking chair in his room because we do occasionally rock with him, and we sometimes like to sit in a chair while we are with him in his room.

Decorations: This area is a little bit lacking (still). I have added a series of black and white African animal photos above his shelf at his eye level. I also framed three 5x7 art-show postcards from a local artist that feature abstract paintings in different color families above his laundry hamper. He often takes them down for a closer look, which is totally safe because they are framed in cheap IKEA frames with plastic "glass fronts." He also has a lamp on his shelf that we use when he is winding down.

Toileting: recently he has shown an interest in his little toilet. It is a cheap one from IKEA, and he generally sits on it backward, but he does have an interest. He is also becoming proficient at signing and saying "poop" when he has one in his diaper... we're working on getting a little warning for that one! As long as he has an interest we will let him sit on his toilet in the restroom while we give him all of the "potty language" we will be using: pee, poop, toilet, clean, dry, diaper, etc. Our goal is not early potty training, but rather to help him communicate with us when he has that need and offer the little toilet as often as he is interested. He doesn't seem to have an aversion to wetness yet, despite being in cloth diapers for the past several months.

Outdoor exploration: Our back yard is an open area for exploration at this point. He plays with sticks and rocks he finds on the ground, often enjoys climbing over garden barriers and examining the trees. He also enjoys going to the park and climbing the play structures and swinging. Over the weekend we discovered that he enjoys swinging in a regular child swing (as opposed to the infant/toddler swings). The one at my parents' house is low enough to the ground that he could almost get into it on his own, and we stayed with him any time he was swinging.

Things to come: I will be adding to his room a small kitchen mat in a basket that he can use to delineate a workspace, as his toys become more complex, and as the number of peices increase.

In the area of decoration, I would like to have some family photos printed and hung at his level throughout the house and in the hallway. I want to sew some curtains for his window and a curtain for his closet. His room also needs a full length mirror (his length) and a table and chair for dressing and grooming and working. I just found out my neighbor is a woodworking hobbyist, so maybe he can help out in this arena... I think some homemade bread is in order!
Outside I would like to begin a garden with him, so he can harvest himself a little snack when he is outside and taste herbs. It would also be great for digging and watering. I will probably be buying a kiddie pool to keep back there for the summer (which lasts approximately 7 months in Houston). I want to paint the mini adirondack chair we have for him to relax. I would like to add an outdoor shelf to put some garden tools and watering can.
In the kitchen I would like to start some basic cooking with him. Maybe I'll pull in a low table so we can do projects down low (and I'm going to scout craigslist for a learning tower, to get him up to counter height). We'll try some breads and maybe some sauces or dips for veggies and crackers.
For art, I would like to invest in some high quality "block" crayons, since he is not ready for a pencil grip these allow him to hold on with his whole hand and are thick rectangular prisms that seem pretty difficult to break (I had a dream that they were super cheap at walmart, but that is indeed only a dream). I would also like to reconstitute some of my clay from the garage and pull out my wooden tools and ribs for him to play around with some ceramics... never to be glazed (unless i can find a friend with a kiln... Vindictive Pottery or Anne the Potter, maybe?) I would also like to purchase some art prints and frame some that I already have at his level around the house, probably on a rotating basis. As Maria would say "the best for the smallest among us!"
I'm also wanting to situate the communal areas to accommodate Dominic. Right now we have gates up blocking the living space off from the hallway because we don't want him to have open access to the kitchen and living room (lots of breakables and electronics... oh and gas stoves), but I would like to have a little nook for him in each of these spaces so he can feel more at home. This includes getting the learning tower and possibly investing in one of those expensive Svan high chairs so he can climb right up to the table (since he is quite the monkey). I also want to find some nice toddler chairs on the cheap (like the Michael Olaf option). Another idea is creating a playroom in our in-progress guest room.

So that is the current status... we will also be making some changes to welcome baby brother to the homestead... so we are guaranteed to be derailed from many of these projects and pick up others along the way. What are you guys up to on the homefront? Any tips for getting it more accessible for toddlers? Know where to find any of the "wishlist" items for cheap? Know how to insert photos in these dang posts? Help? I hope you are all well, and would love to hear what you are up to!