Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NaBloPoMo: I Caved. I Pinned.

After declaring my resistance, I was overwhelmed by the friends who came out of the woodwork encouraging me to join pinterest... I caved to the peer pressure.  I think the clenching argument was that it is a visual form of bookmarks, so instead of ending up with hundreds of nondescript links to blog posts across the web, I can pin just the inspiring picture, and look directly at it instead of wondering, "what on earth is 'coolest thing I have ever seen'?"  Follow me there, follow me here, forgive me for falling of the NaBloPoMo wagon, and only posting occasionally (it's still way more frequently than ever before!).  Thanks for the encouragement friends, I look forward to following you all for loads of inspiration.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Another Time-Consuming Addiction?

I am sure you have all heard of Pinterest by now.  I requested an invitation a while back, but have stopped myself from joining against every fiber of my being.  I could spend HOURS at my computer a day, and it is not healthy.  I'm wondering if any of you are on it and how you find balance.  When I first discovered blogging it immediately overtook my time on the computer (as did facebook before blogs, as did instant messenger before facebook, etc...).

Now I am fighting off the urge to join the online community of people who love to look at cool stuff, and I would be looking at more cool stuff than I was doing.  UGH.  I am feeling pulled to join today, and I am forbidding myself to join until my house resembles a home and not a trash heap.  It may be a cop-out of a blog for today, but it is what is real on my heart right now!

Friday, November 11, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Real Work, Real Helpful

So back on the topic of being more deliberate teachers at school - which only builds the parenting toolbox - I recently had a beautiful experience subbing in my own son's Montessori primary classroom.  As I probably posted recently, we have been really struggling with armageddon getting ready for school in the mornings.  I'm not a morning person, my son is not a morning person, and we are both stubborn non-morning persons - how's that for three of the biggest understatements in history right there in one sentence!?  We would fight tooth and nail before school to get breakfast into that kids tummy, to get pajamas off of his screaming flailing body, to get clothes back onto that flailing screaming tear-drenched body, and to get that flailing screaming tear-drenched furious body into the car and buckled into the carseat to go to school - oh, and I didn't even mention that there was another baby to dress and feed and a DIRE need for coffee.  I was a mess... for far longer than I care to admit... and we were consistently arriving with the 15-30 minutes late crowd, which is a BIG NO NO for children in any school setting, but especially for children so sensitive to order and ritualistic about their daily routines, as my very young son is.  I had become that parent, with the child that is always late.  Oh, that I would have known this was ahead of me when I was smack-talking about how annoyed I was with constantly tardy 3-yr-olds when I was a new assistant!

The situation was pretty frustrating, did you pick up on that?  The last day that we had this kicking screaming royal rumble of a morning, I was scheduled to sub in my son's class and we were both 30 minutes late for school because of the clothing battle.  I sent him in sniffling and went to the PSO coffee social to get a grip of myself before I had to face a classroom of 25 of his peers (many of whom were my former students... I was his teacher's assistant for a year before Liam was born).  At the coffee social, I vented the problem to the PSO president, who has a very cool 10-year-old daughter, whom I've known since she was probably 5.  She told me she was very familiar with this struggle, and that there were times that she loaded her daughter into the car, clothes in a bag, and drove her to school - one time in her underwear! - and that the problem promptly ceased.  I was impressed.  Over the course of the day, I met no less than 4 other parents who shared similar stories - getting rid of pjs entirely, dressing the night before school, wearing pjs to school, etc.  So I left work that day with some resolve to turn this mess around.  I e-mailed his teacher, a dear friend, and asked for her suggestions, to which she said she gave her full support - that she and the assistant would follow through with consistency on the issue if he did, in fact, show up in pjs.  Get to the point, Renee, this is supposed to be about school communities!

A week or so later, I was called in to sub in his class again (after only mediocre attempts at getting to school clothed and on time... we dressed in the lobby a couple times, and were still leaving the house screaming).  I walked Dominic into the classroom and into the restroom/dressing area and handed him his clothes.  I went to go get a much-needed cup of coffee, and returned to him standing on the dressing bench looking over the half-wall at me... still in his pjs, I know, you aren't surprised.  I tried to give him space and ignore him, so he could dress himself, to no avail.  He finally started calling me from across the room, and I went over to him to see what he needed, only to be met with a "NO!  I NOT!  YOU DO IT!"  So I stood up and scanned the classroom, and I called upon a child who seemed a little distracted in his work (a child I know is an expert dresser, who once asked for a full dress suit as a gift for a birthday or something).  I invited him over and asked if he would be willing to help Dominic get dressed, and he was very willing.  So I asked him what needed to happen first and asked if he could just tell Dominic each step to getting dressed, and I slowly backed myself out of the dressing area... sneakily, so as not to be noticed.

Not a minute later my son emerged completely dressed, his pjs in a bag in his cubby, and his older friend was back to work at his table.  I continued with the morning, inviting children to simple lessons, and redirecting children from silliness or back to forgotten works (I really don't do anything elaborate when I am a sub, as I want to be extremely respectful of the teacher's plans for lesson giving, and respectful of the children who I have not observed enough to give lessons).  It came time for 10 am false fatigue, and the classroom seemed to fall apart into loud, seething, chaos.  There was work on every table and mat, but not a child to be found at that work... which, for you non-Montessorians, is totally normal and tends to happen 1.75 hours into each 3-hour work-cycle; the goal is to shrink the duration of false fatigue as it usually leads into the most concentrated time of work at the end of the work-cycle.  I walked around to the loudest groups and asked that they lower their voices so others could concentrate.  It is a hard thing to be comfortable about false fatigue, especially for me, and it was a surprisingly lucid day for me to look at the clock during the chaos and realize what was happening and let it run its course.  I invited a few strategic older children to offer help to younger children who had "lost their work," and like magic, the class started to settle into "bigger" work.

Everyone settled into some work, and I sat to observe a bit and help a child with the names of countries in Europe.  About 20 minutes before dismissal time a few children had finished working and started wandering around again, so I invited them to join me in reading about the parts of a leaf (shockingly interesting to children 3-6, if you happen to have rolled your eyes at that prospect!).  As more children started to join us, parents of children in the toddler community accross the hall gathered right outside of our classroom windows waiting for their children to be dismissed - among those parents, my mom who was picking up my youngest brother.  The room started to become a little chaotic again as children realized it was "group time," and my son was getting out a knobbed cylinder block.  He dropped the block right at the edge of the group, spilling all 10 cylinders, which he proceeded to toss in the air... while the parents of other children were looking in on this display, and while I was making a futile attempt to describe the "primary vein" and the "margin" of the leaf.  Maria Montessori, who often manifests as the Holy Spirit, happened to be flying over at this moment, and zapped me with a brilliant idea (these are few and far between, my friends).  I invited another of the older children (who was causing me some trouble during the book) to help Dominic pick up his work so he would be ready for dismissal.  The child was happy to oblige and I didn't see another cylinder fly through the air; quite the contrary, the cylinders were restored to the block and the block was returned to the shelf.  We continued the book, we sang a song, and we lined up for dismissal.

I later found out that my mom was pulling some kind of Olympic ice-skating commentator move in the hallway, pointing out to the other moms, "I wonder how this will turn out; that is my daughter reading a book about... leaves?... to the seething masses; that is her son throwing those cylinders, which I am pretty sure is not the appropriate use of that material; and I know that she is pretty specific about materials being used appropriately... let's see if she lands this triple salchow..."  I think I landed it, but it was a Hail Mary pass inviting a sometimes rowdy 5-year-old to manage my always-NOy-son!

Moral of the story:  children are much more likely to listen to other children and/or accept assistance from other children.  You may be one of only two adults in the room, but you likely have 10 or more eager helpers an earshot away.  Children are naturally more gentle with their peers when it comes to assisting in challenges - often, they have only recently overcome the same challenge, making the teaching opportunity particularly poignant for reinforcing new skills.  I've also come to notice that when a child helps another child, they only help the minimum amount (in the best possible way), allowing the child who needed the help to do as much of the work as possible, strengthening his feeling of competence.  When a small child can't quite operate the zipper on her coat, an older child will put the two sides of the zipper together and zip a couple teeth up, but then turn the zipping over to her younger friend, who very-much wants to be able to do it herself.  This act of helping other children empowers the older group of students to develop a sense of leadership and a deep joy in assisting others, at the same time the younger group is absorbing the generous and patient example of the older students, which will manifest again in a couple short years when they ARE the older group!  Montessori was so brilliant in her observations of children and the application of her observations to the creation of an educational pedagogy and practice that allows for the development of the whole child, an education that allows the child to participate in "real life" from the earliest stages.  I find it humorous when I hear people say things like "well, how do these Montessori kids do in the 'real world,'" because it seems so clear that they are doing "REAL work" all the time, while their traditional school counterparts are being reprimanded for "talking in class," even if they were just asking a friend to borrow a pencil.  How silly that question is, and how silly the thought that children should be doing anything other than real work!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Taking it to School, Solving Problems

So, some of these ideas are great when there is only one child to deal with... only one fight to mediate... no other hungry, crying mouths... etc.  I was asked how this applies to the classroom, and I'd like to share a couple observations of my experience directing the after-care program at the Montessori school.  I've been directing the program since August, I have never worked with elementary aged/ 2nd Plane of Development (6-12 yrs.) students before this year, this age group is SO DIFFERENT from the 1st Plane of Development (0-6 yrs.), and this is my first time in the lead role in a Montessori environment of any kind.  The perfect storm for disaster growth, right?  ...especially if you've met me and/or a child in the 2nd Plane!

I'm a person who reverts to a "do what I say when I say it," approach when stressed; it is definitely my biggest struggle, and it is one that I am CONSTANTLY working at and self-loathing over evaluating and reevaluating.  So this year I went into this after-care gig thinking, "these kids are going to be in charge of menu-planning and cooking, and cleaning up after themselves, and they're going to have constant access to art lessons in tons of different media, and they are going to freely explore in nature and study plants and work in the orchard, and engage in dramatic play and theatrical performances, and they'll practice their musical instruments, and read books, and so on and so on.  First fatal error:  thinking.  Ok, not really, but I have LENGTHY outlines of my goals for the "flow" of after-care and my "expectations" for the students, etc, and they did not match up to the way things actually came to pass (to put this into Old Testament terms for bad stuff happening all around, if I'm understanding that phrase accurately).  I've felt overwhelmed with conflicts that seem so trivial and simple, that I've wondered (silently in my head), "what the heck am I doing here?! what the heck area these kids doing?!"  I should have known that my outline would not have immediately materialized, and looking back, I am thankful to have planned out my "philosophy" for this endeavor to look back and see how we are progressing.

So, what has HELPED, is gradually handing more responsibility to the students, especially in the area of critical thinking.  At first, I was quick to give in to judge a situation when a child came to "tattle", and I was quick to use that judgement to issue a verdict and a sentence.  Then I was quick to realize that I was constantly hearing tattling and "getting kids in trouble," leading to more tattling and more "mischief" and unhappy kids.  So, my first step was to get the kids SOLVING PROBLEMS, which goes something like this (sometimes it works to talk this through with one child, but usually I work through it with all the involved parties):

  • "You sound angry that he took that stick out of that tree fort, what is going on?"
  • "Have you told the child who took that stick how you feel?"
  • "What words did you use?  Does it seem like he understood what you said?" (inevitably the words were, "STOP THAT NOW!"... not so much a feeling as a command...)
  • "What is it that you are needing right now?  Respect?  Space?  Cooperation?"
  • "Perhaps you could say to that kid, 'When you take that stick, I feel angry, because I need respect for my work and my space.'"
  • "What do you think that child might be needing?  Inclusion?  Friendship?  Respect?"
  • "Is there something you can do to solve this?  Is there a way you can help meet both of your needs?"  (the most popular response to these questions starting out was "I don't know" or "tell the teacher"... ugh... not what I had in mind)
  • When they're reluctant to offer a solution or say they don't know immediately, I ask them to take some time to think about it, and that I'm happy to wait while they think.  If they ask me for a solution, I follow my own advice and say "I really need some time to think about it, that's a tough one."  I do not start offering ideas until the children first come up with some ideas.
  • When they've offered some suggestions, which we talk through (would that really meet everyone's needs? how would that make the other child feel? etc), I might offer some ideas, but when we review the ideas with those questions, they usually come up with something else that will better meet everyone's needs.
  • After working through these steps with the children for a while, because Lord knows that took a LONG TIME at first, I've added the question, "Do you have an idea of how we could prevent this from happening in the future or could have prevented it today?"
  • We close these diplomatic mediations with a recap of what everyone is agreeing to in moving forward:  "OK, so you said you won't take any sticks away without asking, and you're interested in helping build the fort, and other child, you said you'll explain the fort design you are working on and give this child some ideas of things he can do to help build the fort.  Can we shake on this and move forward?  Let me know if you need any other help!"
So, this was ANNOYINGLY TIME CONSUMING at first because it seemed the children weren't really used to this type of adult "intervention," at least not in the more free-form after-care setting.  They would be called together to work through a problem, and immediately complain that it was taking too long, that they just didn't care anymore, "fine have it your way, I'm just going to do something different," and you can imagine the other forms of whining (which I completely understood, because I was thinking the same thing).  As we would come to a solution, I would point out, "wow, that only took 9 minutes (or whatever), I'm glad you're working together to solve this."  Now that this is established as the culture of our group, these mediations take less than 5 minutes, depending on the length of the "background story" leading into the discussion.  The amount of time it takes to get the children working at solving problems is actually AMAZINGLY REWARDING in time I do NOT have to spend saying, "Hey, you stop that right now, you're wrecking that fort, you're being mean, you need to come sit over here, you cannot play right now, etc."... amazingly rewarding... I much prefer kids playing joyfully to kids sitting in a "time-out" complaining at me... and of course that is not to say it is all joyful play, but there are certainly lots of opportunities for this BIG WORK of problem solving and critical thinking within our community and that working through those problems leads to deeper joy and stronger community bonds.  

This is also REAL WORK, and it is work that will serve them as long as they are living around and with other people.  In the film "Race to Nowhere," I remember a doctor who teaches at a medical school was talking about her concerns for the future of the medical field because so many of her students were so tied to the answer from the textbook, that she feared they would be unable to meet new diseases at the gate and confront them head-on with new innovative cures.  I do not have the answers to everything, and I would be doing a horrible disservice to these children if I were "training" them to ask someone else (even an adult) to do all of their thinking for them!  I want children who will run into a problem and think of every possible solution, who will try their solutions, and then try other solutions if their first attempts are not 100% successful.  I don't want them to say "well, Miss Renee isn't here to say who's wrong, so I have to keep being pushed around by kids taking my things or calling me names." NO!  I want them to have a toolbox full of ways to confront that kid that is going to offer them alcohol in high school, to suggest an alternative when their friends are squabbling over something, to dump that pushy boyfriend or girlfriend who just doesn't hear the word "no" clearly enough, to walk away when they simply cannot control the choices of another person.  

By allowing the children to develop their own moral responsibility and compass (and taking the almighty-judge title from myself), the children seem to be more lucid about the way their actions affect other children, and more thoughtful in solving the problems - the 2nd Plane of Development is a sensitive period for moral development, meaning this is the developmental window that these children are acutely interested in solving problems with the utmost care.  All we need to provide are the tools to do the work of solving real problems in their community (however small the community).  It is so exhilarating to see them dash off from a mediation to get to working together, rather than leaving the sentencing table with heads hung low or fists clenched in resentment.  Fun, challenging work.  I've been reading more in the past 3 months than I have in any other 3-month stretch (which probably doesn't reflect well on my former study habits...), and I am really enjoying your feedback and encouragement.  I have to point out, that a blog post is always a LOT longer than the way things actually go down... I really do less talking in these situations than these posts seem to suggest... almost like the posts have all the "stage directions" and "historical (philosophical) background" that show up in the playbill, but don't show up in the ballet, itself.

A closing thought:  now that they are able to work through those "he took that toy from me"/"she isn't being my friend" moments more independently (and those moments are happening less frequently), we're able to do more of those cool and fun ideas I had at the beginning of the year.  Moving forward, my next step is to get these kids functioning independently in their snack planning and preparation... always another hurdle to practice jumping!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Say Sorry!

In 2007 I first heard the notion that we should not tell/force children to say sorry.  It was vaguely explained (or vaguely understood) that it is forcing a disingenuous response from the children - that they might not actually be sorry when we are telling them to say it and that they might become resentful or jaded when we force them to say things they do not mean.  I nodded my head and tried not to fall back on that deeply rooted reaction to transgressions.  "That hurts when you hit," I would say, or "we do NOT hit."  And off the hitter would scamper, leaving the hit child crying or angry and me frustrated that the hitter was "getting away with hitting."

At the lecture by Kathleen Duvall, she revisited this confusing concept, and it seemed much clearer the way she explained it (both philosophically and practically), and perhaps I was just a more open to hearing something different this time around.  She made the case that we have to consider our real goals for the children - do we want a pavlovian "sorry" response to crying?  do we want children to "use words" when they have a problem?  what words do we want them to use - have we modeled the words to them and do we continue to encourage the use of clear language?  do we want our children to care for people enough to work toward a solution to a problem?  There is so much to consider!  I certainly do not want my sons to feel helpless if their needs are not being met, or to spit out a response "because I said so" while they continue to stew with anger.  I also do not want my children to willy-nilly say "sorry" about everything:  "Excuse me, may I pass?" "Oh, sorry!,"  "Why did you wear that shirt?" "oh, sorry," we live in a culture of people who are sorry for everything and nothing all at once!  As parents, we feel that we are expected to tell our children to "say sorry" at the playground if they bump another child, or we have a guff if another parent does not tell her child to apologize to our child.

What, then, are we supposed to do?  Our goal is to have conscious and considerate children, so we have to model the way to be conscious and considerate and guide them in the way to care for others.  For example, my son pushes his baby brother and grabs all the toys away to a far corner of the room, leaving the baby crying and toy-less.  There are a few things to consider (in the instant... I know... more challenging parenting work!):
  1. Why did Dominic push the baby and take the toys?  Is there a need that is not being met - to have space to play, to have respect for the work he did to set up the train track?
  2. What need is Liam trying to meet as he encroaches on Dominic's play - relationship with his brother, inclusion in play?
  3. What is going on right now?  Liam is hurt (emotionally or physically) and Dominic is herding his toys into a coral away from the baby instead of playing with the toys or the baby.
  4. What needs to happen next?
    • to meet Liam's needs:  to feel included, preferably by his brother, to get some comfort for his hurt feelings
    • to meet Dominic's needs:  a way to play with security that his toys will not be destroyed by baby-zilla, to build a good relationship with his baby brother
Now that I've considered all that, my goal is to help Dominic to comfort his brother, "what does Liam need to feel better?  Can you pat his back?  Could you choose one toy to offer Liam?"  If Dominic is not ready for any of that, I will model the way to care for someone who is hurt "Liam, you look hurt/sad, I am going to rub your back.  Do you need someone to play with?  Let's roll this ball together, Dominic needs space to play with that other toy set."  Once Liam is no longer upset, I can talk to Dominic.  I want to validate and empathize with his feelings of frustration or anger, and model that there is a different way to address those feelings (instead of pushing):  "Were you so sad/angry/frustrated when Liam wrecked your train track?  You needed space to work, and he knocked down the bridge.  You wanted Liam to move away and give you space."  I'll also point out that Liam had different needs:  "Liam wanted to play with his big brother because he loves you and looks up to you, he needs to feel included.  Is there a way he can play with you/ is there a toy from this set that you could offer him so he feels included?"  If that is way too much, perhaps I'd just leave it at, "you really need some space to fix your toy right now," but more often than not, Dominic is very willing to care for his brother and even if he cannot share the toy, he is usually willing to find another toy for Liam to play with.

So instead of ignoring all of that stuff that was going on (feelings, needs, relationship, etc) by just saying, "you say you are sorry right now and give him that toy," or "you go to a time-out while your brother plays here," we addressed all of those needs and feelings and included all involved parties in reaching a solution.  If there was a real injury, Dominic could certainly go get some ice from the freezer, or a washcloth to wipe a scrape - children are so attuned to the needs and comfort of others when they are just given a chance!  With older children it is very helpful to give each a chance to talk, and elicit the feelings/needs from the children because they have some vocabulary and understanding of what is going on.  By giving each child a time to speak and listen to the other, the children gain experience in listening to others - once they each vent "what happened," they can be asked, "what is the solution? do you have any ideas?"  For older children, it is even worthwhile to ask questions like, "what could have prevented this problem?  what could we do differently in the future to care for each other's needs?"  Often with the older crowd there is a simple misunderstanding, that needs further communication instead of an absolute judgement/sentence from an adult.

Working with children at the elementary level this year, in an after-school setting, I've observed that a pretty "stock" answer to those questions is "I don't know," followed by the expectation that I will dole out a judgement of who is right, who is wrong, who has to stop doing xyz, and who gets to continue along, etc.  For a while I was exasperated talking these things through, until I started asking the children to take a moment to think, "because I don't have a solution to every problem, and I know they can work it out."  It amazes me the solutions they come up with and how nemeses can turn into friends after just a few minutes of working through an issue.  If I take these observations to the larger social arena, it isn't difficult to notice areas that people want and expect someone else to "fix" an issue while they completely shirk personal responsibility - the heads of major banks participate in risky lending practices, cost us billions in tax dollars, and then continue to have our support in our patronage of their businesses!  It is as though we are conditioned to accept a "sorry" without any real reparation.  We allow someone else to "handle it" instead of taking a proactive approach to our needs, and even worse, we assume that because someone utters the word "sorry" at the ring of a bell, that the truly mean what they are saying.  I'd be inclined to think that actions are far more meaningful than words, as Eliza Doolittle put it, "SHOW ME!"

Perhaps tomorrow I'll ponder the ways some of these strategies work in a classroom setting - in some ways it is more challenging, while in other ways it is much easier because of the assistance we get from the children.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Do What I Say vs. Be an Autonomous, Functional Human Being

This week I attended a PSO lecture at St. Catherine's Montessori by Kathleen Duvall, a Human Development Specialist and Montessorian.  I was nervous to attend the talk having read part of Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting, and feeling down on myself for being a "bad parent" (using far too many rewards and punishments in my day-to-day with the kids).  Kathleen asserts that the three basic needs of humans are 1. autonomy, 2. relationship, and 3. competence.  Considering these three human needs, she makes an argument against rewards and punishments because they do not adequately meet the needs of the child in becoming an autonomous and functional human being.  Rewards and punishments (according to Kohn and Duvall) put the child in a relationship of being controlled by the parent, and this is a popular outlook on the parent-child relationship in our culture, that children should do what adults say when adults say it, even if that outlook does not seem to produce the type or quality of children we intend to produce as parents!

There is a large body of research on the efficacy of rewards and punishments short-term and long-term, and based on my reading on the topic, rewards and punishments are only minimally effective short-term.  Long-term, the effects can be completely opposite of the initial intention in altering a child's behavior - if obedience is the goal, rebellion often follows; if the goal is "making good choices," children often lose their sensitivity to choosing anything because the "good" choice is always made by the parent, and so on.  Kohn asserts in his writing on the topic, that we might spank a child to alter a behavior in the moment (to go to bed, to sit quietly in a restaurant, etc), and when the "consequence" does not work (short or long term) we determine that what we need is... are you ready for this... more of exactly the same ineffective consequence.  It is also worthwhile to mention that Kohn considers rewards and praise to be equally ineffective (and even as damaging) as punishments, so when he says spanking, he would just as well say the same about a sticker or lollypop.

After some reflection and feeling very obstinate to even consider the possibility that I would think in such a pattern, I've started to think he might be on to something.  When Dominic does not respond well to a gentle direction at bed time, I increase the intensity of the demand direction by raising my voice; when he doesn't respond again, I make an angry face when I raise my voice; when he doesn't respond to the angry face and louder voice, I close him in his room crying (and continue using the angry face/loud voice combo each time he comes out of the room); when he comes out of his room crying and squirming that last time I might increase the intensity by spanking him, at which point he lays in his bed crying and crying until he finally falls asleep or until I come into his room to make amends (or make a peace offering of one more song or one more book, etc).  One punishment doesn't work, so I increase the punishment, and keep doing so until my son is helpless but to comply.  I almost feel like one of the Milgram Experiment subjects - administering shocks out of blind obedience to my culturally conditioned ideas of how to "deal with" children who are "defiant."

So, how do you "handle" these "defiant" little beasts you carried in your womb for 9 months?! (the world may never know... just kidding) Kathleen's suggestions (consistent with Kohn's, and consistent with what has been working at our house lately) are as follows:

  1. Establish a consistent routine that works for your family (these are the things that will happen within xyz timeframe).  
  2. Make sure the child has plenty of information - it is dark outside, it is 8:00 now and bedtime is at 8:30 in 30 minutes, you need enough sleep tonight so you can feel healthy and ready for school in the morning, sleep helps your body to grow strong, etc.  
  3. Ask the child what needs to happen within the scope of the routine - shirt or pants first, book or tooth brushing next, one book and two songs or two books and one song, what prayer will we do tonight, etc.  Ask LOTS of questions, and try to avoid making demands (do this, do that).  "Oh, do you have a different idea (of what is next, of what to read, of which pjs to wear)?" is possibly my favorite concrete suggestion from the lecture!  
  4. Give children the space and time they need to do the next thing - they are still taking in and learning the way their world works, and because of this they need more time to process things that seem simple to an adult who has been on the planet 8 (or more) times longer than they have!
  5. If you feel it necessary to "praise" what they have accomplished DON'T PRAISE (rewards are just as damaging as punishments), offer a concrete observation to affirm the work your child is doing:  "You worked hard to get your arms into your pjs," "it took a lot of work to get all the blocks into the bucket," "you put your clothes in the hamper," "you made a lot of choices to get dressed for bed."  By giving feedback with clear and precise observations, children can reflect on what it is they have ACTUALLY done and they can focus on the accomplishment, itself.  When we bombard children with "good job" or "yay yay yay," we place the focus on our parental judgement of xyz action, and truly, how serious can we be when we say "good job," if we say it about everything from urinating to solving long division problems?  (GUILTY... I am looking at myself and NOT pointing a finger here, be not alarmed)  We want our children to do these things because they can/ they need to, not because they make mommy happy enough to dole out a "great job, kiddo!"

By involving children in the process with open questions rather than closed demands (what book will you get, will you put on the blue or red shirt, vs. put the shirt on now, go get the book now, brush your teeth, etc), they get a sense of that AUTONOMY that is one of their major needs.  They experience a RELATIONSHIP of respect and support that is modeled by the parents.  The child has a greater chance of feeling COMPETENT because he is working within a framework that gives many opportunities for success in tasks he knows how to do and tasks he is learning how to do - the child is an effective member of the family community and an active participant in the routine instead of being a passive subject to the routine and a mere passenger in the life of the family.

Children (up to age 6) take in everything they experience in the family wholly, and modeling respect, support, and love is the best way to ensure our children will grow to value and emanate those qualities in their own relationships down the road.  I've noticed myself at times shouting saying things like, "NO!  You do NOT say NO to Mommy! NO NO NITTY NO NO NO!" as I desperately grasp at the air to take back those words!  I want to have a child who THINKS independently, who CHOOSES to do the right thing, who is CONFIDENT to STAND UP to someone who is pushing him (or someone else) around!  Kathleen said something that rocked my world, "the first time your child says 'no,' is the birth of his will, and it is a moment to be celebrated."  The only way to think and choose and stand up for yourself is to have the WILL to do so, and the only way to develop that WILL is to have opportunities to MAKE CHOICES, to THINK, to STAND UP, and what a blessing that our children get to grow their autonomy and will in the security of our homes and with simple and (relatively) inconsequential decisions like which pjs to wear or what book to read.  In this context, the bedtime battle seems to be so minor in relation to the BIGGER issues I want my child to be ready to address as he grows up.  This parenting stuff is BIG WORK and SERIOUS WORK, and I am practicing every day to become a better parent to my children to prepare them for the world beyond the nest.

*I have to say that blogging every day for 30 days is SUPER ambitious for a long-winded thinker like myself.  I'm going to say that it is more likely for me to post every other day... but I will also attempt to be less long-winded, and more frequent in my posts...  Thanks for being such a cool reader... "good job?"

Friday, November 4, 2011

NaBloPoMo: The Bedtime Battle Outcome

To the tune of being deliberate with my parenting, I have to share a change that has happened over the past couple weeks.

I was DYING each night trying to get Dominic dressed and into bed in a reasonable time frame.  Then I was DYING again trying to get him moving and dressed for school in the morning.  Yelling, begging, offers for help, a spanking or two... desperate parenting attempts to get back to the way he was last year (peaceful getting to bed and peaceful getting ready for school).  It was not working and the situation was becoming dire (in my mind).

I put out a plea on facebook for suggestions.  I got a variety of answers on the topic as varied as letting him cry it out to spanking him to ignoring him to giving him more attention to setting a timer to waiting for him to be tired and on and on.  All of the responses were helpful in their own ways - just knowing that I am not the only mom struggling with this issue was HUGELY helpful.  Sometimes all I need is some solidarity to press on or reevaluate.  Some of the questions asked by other moms were very helpful as well:  is he getting enough alone time with parents in the evenings?  is he actually tired?  is there a routine in place?

So, having had it up to my ears with the melt-downs, I decided to step back a bit and observe (ha, should have done that in the first place... silly Montessorian).  What I noticed was that he was getting wound up right after dinner - running around, being a bit crazy, pulling out tons of toys without really focusing on any, etc.  I enacted a few changes after those observations.  First, I started initiating a little bit of quiet play and/or focused activity - building a puzzle outside of the board, cleaning up left-out toys in a systematic and cooperative way, rolling up the clean washcloths from the laundry bin, and also turning the majority of the lights off in the evenings.  This helped dramatically, and he was less reluctant to get dressed.  We also became more diligent about taking baths after dinner - if his clothes are already off, there is less of a fight to get undressed to put on PJs.  After the quiet play time in the evenings we've been reading a book or two from the library bag that hangs by the door.

At first he was still disinterested in going to bed after reading, and required a little more prodding and possibly some laying down time with myself or Ryan.  After a couple more days, though, he started to become more comfortable saying yes to going to his bed, and even more recently, he has told us that he is tired before walking himself to his room or asking us to carry him to bed!  We reinstated a sense of routine, we calmed the house for the time leading up to bed, we spend more time giving our full attention before bed with lots of cuddles and hugs and kisses, and the "battle" that had me in a total fury each evening has almost entirely ceased.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


So, I hear it is national blog post month (NaBloPoMo).  I trust that this is not a made-up-thing by Kristen over at Birthing Beautiful Ideas.  At any rate, a couple of my other favorite bloggers did some 31-day series(es?) in October and I was pretty impressed by the idea.

Jules, who blogs at Pancakes and French Fries, did 31 Days of William Morris, using the quote "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful," to bring some order to her home.  Edie over at Life in Grace did 31 Days to Rebuild Your House and Heart, to recap the past year(?) of rebuilding her home after a fire that destroyed all of her family's worldly possessions.  There were a few others, including Sandy at Reluctant Entertainer (who is having a giveaway of a KitchenAid food processor and a copy of her book today), and if I'm not mistaken the Nester started it, but I just couldn't commit to reading more than 2 series (in fact, I read them kind of novel-style over the past week... not great for productivity, but excellent for inspiration).

After reading the amazing stories of those two moms and the deliberate approach they took to "feathering their nests" over the past month, I am feeling moved to do SOMETHING at home over the next 30 days (well, 28, since it is already 9pm on Nov. 2).  I have as many ideas and inspiration as I have dirty dishes and stacks of paper in my house - and I guarantee you, that is a lot.  Because I work much better in a crunch, I'll treat this like a homework assignment for a class that I really like and we'll see what happens (I rarely did homework for the classes I didn't like).

I have a wonderfully orderly husband, and I am feeling an urge to become a bit more deliberate about the order in our home.  Also, I think I'll spend some time on being a more deliberate parent - taking some inspiration from Kristen at her gloriously thoughtful and genuine blog about life and babies and mothering and all manner of good stuff, as well as some of the books I've been reading lately (and, you know, all that Montessori stuff I have rattling around upstairs).  I already tackled the floor and hanging bar of the entryway closet and cleared out a ton of junk (without taking before pictures, woopsy), and tonight I'm going to finish the top shelf full of games and tiny baby winter-wear.  Look for pictures tomorrow along with another exhilarating post (oh, and maybe a clever title to this endeavor?... thoughts?... suggestions?)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What have I done?!

This morning as I drove home from the Starbucks drive-thru, I became overwrought with loathing for the number of times I've been to Starbucks in the past week.  Not really because I've totally relapsed on my horrible eating habits (curse those cake pops and my lack of will), but because I can count on one finger the number of times I've visited my favorite local coffee shop in the past few months - yeah, one finger.

Not only is the coffee more expensive and the treats mass-produced, but I don't know the people in that electronic ordering box, and they really don't care who I am beyond an arm passing them a handful of cash.  Fioza, on the other hand is a retreat-like experience every time I go.  The owner and the baristas (are they baristOs if they are male?) all know me and my ordering tendencies.  They know my children who did not even exist when I first started going to their marvelous establishment.  They play Pearl Jam, they play Uncle Bob (Dylan), they play reggae, they play soul, they play jazz.  They play "Daft Punk Radio," one of my all-time favorite Pandora stations, that I listened to at home long before I knew they were playing it.  I was loyal to them through the panna cotta discontinuation and the dessert "shots" discontinuation.  They ask about my family when I am there alone.  They ask about me when Ryan goes without me.  They look simultaneously shocked and encouraging when I order something other than a tapioca milk tea, sweetened - and I have never been disappointed when I stray from the usual.  They bring out an extra piece of toast for my kids when we order curry soup or panini - heck, they make the kids toast even when we aren't ordering food!

I feel like I am cool enough to be friends with the hip coffee shop guys, even though I am a mom of two who often forgets to grab a straw.  Even though I once dropped my drink in the parking lot immediately after buying it, for which I was told "shit happens," and handed a new drink free of charge and with a chuckle.  Even though I always have to run back in for "one more thing," sometimes two or three times.  Despite pestering these hip coffee dudes with millions of questions about what drink they think I might like, or questions like "what drink would be refreshing, decaf, non-coffee, not too sweet, iced, and not too girly for my husband?"  That minty hibiscus tea, although flamboyantly pink, was exactly what he wanted, by the way!


What is wrong with me that I forfeit the best coffee moments available for a long line at a drive-thru?!  In the mornings, the Starbucks drive-thru isn't even faster than going to Fioza and unloading my kids and loading them back into the car!  Friends, I admit to this because this has to stop right now.  I will not forego relationship for convenience - especially a convenience that may not even really be convenient.  If I am going to spend $6 on something that I could kind of make at home, I damned well better be hanging out with cool people and enjoying the experience when I do it!  I'm off to give myself dirty condescending looks in the mirror right now... as I finish my last Starbucks pumpkin spice latte... I'm probably going to flip myself the bird, too.  Starbucks, you are no longer my mistress.  Fioza, please take back your prodigal daughter.  I am ashamed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Reflections on Grandpa Gremillion

Grandpa’s life is a testament that the nature of life is truly comic, rather than tragic.  Visiting him the other day as he rested quietly and peacefully, I could not help but think of the scope and influence of his life.  He will be the subject of bedtime stories at my house for years to come, and I can only hope my children grow up with a fraction of his work-ethic, family value, humor, and faith.  Though immensely saddened by his passing, it is hard to ignore the peace that comes with knowing his life was full and far reaching.
Grandpa, Ryan, Dominic (6 weeks), and I in 2009
In a recent interest in the history of World War II, I was amazed to discover that he served in the Pacific theater.  When my dad asked what he remembered of the war, he told him he had landed on Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb was dropped.  When asked what that was like, he replied, “just like you can imagine.”  He never discussed the war with his family, and my dad only found out that small (but fascinating) detail after my Grandpa already had Alzheimer's.

I’m amazed to consider life with so many young children in the 50s, much-less life with so many children while building a company from the ground up.  His work ethic and determination to provide for his family are phenomenal in my eyes – though I am sure he would say he was just doing what he had to do.  I love hearing the stories of my dad getting a Shipley donut after rolling the Houston Post in the early morning with Grandpa, and I am reminded of this every time I bite into one of the world’s tastiest donuts.  He took a paper route to help make ends meet in the early days of the family business.  I remember having many a cup of coffee with Grandpa in the A&E break room while my dad or uncles wrapped up work to take him to lunch.  It is interesting to imagine the way Houston’s architectural landscape has changed since the start of A&E, and to think of the vast number of buildings he printed while they were still just drawings on a paper.  What started out as a blueprinting shop for architectural drawings, is now called A&E - The Graphics Complex, printing everything from business cards to billboards and it is still operated by his five sons.

As for the family, my cousin Patrick commented recently that a Gremillion family photo equals an ocean of people, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a dissenter from that truth!  As a child I vividly remember piling onto Grandpa’s chair, then onto sofas, and eventually moving the pictures outdoors to accommodate his ocean of grandchildren – every photo with at least one screaming baby or silly face.  These photos were always a matter of stacking as many kids on top of each other as possible while still seeing everyone’s face.  We would pile in to build a photographic monument to the man who started our enormous family – a monument, which if attempted today, might be visible from space. Next time we take a family photo, we ought to hire a landscape photographer or the Hubble space telescope.

His life was joyful and fruitful, which was apparent even in his last days.  He serves as a powerful witness to the blessing of family – he was well cared for in his illness and in his death.  Not only were his children with him daily, they are with each other daily, supporting and enjoying one another.  It is difficult to fathom a “culture of death” in a family like this.  Though he is no longer with us in this world, his influence is widespread, and will continue to spread through the legacy of his 8 children, 29 grandchildren, 6 great-grandchildren, and all of his other friends and relatives, whose lives he has touched deeply.  He took his last breath early in the morning of July 4, 2011 surrounded by his wife and 8 children.

In John chapter 6, Christ defends his presence in the Eucharist, stating, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.”  Grandpa showed his commitment to the Eucharist throughout his life – even helping to institute perpetual adoration at St. John Vianney and spending time in adoration during the early morning shifts.   My distaste for waking up before 8 am seems all the more frivolous in light of his devotion to time spent in adoration of the Eucharist.

On Sunday his youngest child read him the readings from Mass, which were beautifully fitting for his last day of life.  In the second reading, Paul wrote to the Romans, "for if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live," and at the end of the Gospel reading from Matthew, Christ says, "come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."  
Aunt Char and Grandpa at our wedding reception in 2007
When we finished the readings, my Aunt Char said "Those are for you, Daddy," and he made a sound of acknowledgment.  I will think of that moment every time I hear those verses in Handel's Messiah.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Human Tendencies: Order

As I stated in my previous post, I'm spending some time reflecting on the ways we as parents can better understand our children and better provide for their development by knowing their innate human tendencies.  These tendencies - exploration, orientation, order, communication, abstraction/imagination, exactness, repetition, self-perfection, self control, control of error, and purposeful activity/work - are observable in everything our children do.  Perhaps I will not notice every single tendency at work each time I watch my child, but I'll tell you, without reservation, that in watching our children we can always observe varied levels of subtlety of these basic internal drives.

Order enables us to put things into relationships, and in this sense, it is neither rigid nor compulsory.  Montessori observed a characteristic of children through the age of six called the "Absorbent Mind."  With this power, available only in those first six years, children take everything in fully and without discrimination (as a picture developed on film).  As children take in the external "order" of their worlds with their wholly absorbent and indiscriminate minds, they begin to develop their own internal orders based on their experience with the world around them.  Physical order leads to mental order.  External order is not limited to the arrangement of a space or tidiness, but also includes sequencing (a logical sequence preferable).  Order also relates to the child's communication, as each language has its own particular order - think of how silly the literal translation of Spanish to English can sound because of the internalized order of our language... "the shirt blue" instead of "the blue shirt."

Not only is each child born with a tendency for order, but also between the ages of six months and five years, children are in a sensitive period for the development of order.  Montessori observed that during periods of sensitivity, a person more fully, clearly, and perfectly acquires the object of sensitivity through an irresistible impulse for a selective activity.  So during this period, children are passionate about the ordering of the world around them, and they can be almost ritualistic in their love of the order of routine.  This love of order is deeply connected to the child's sense of security, comfort, and stability.  During this time of sensitivity it is important for children to find consistency in their environment, in their daily activity, in their routines, and (equally importantly) in the rules for their freedom and limitations (for what is and is not acceptable).

"So that's a heck of a lot of theory, Renee," you might be thinking, "and my child is in no way 'orderly'... you can come and observe it for yourself, you crazy philosopher!"  Rest assured, I hear where you are coming from, and now I do have some practical ideas for fostering this tendency for order.

Because they are drawing from the external environment to construct their internal order, the environment is one of the best starting points for helping our children toward a clear internal order.  Consider for a moment, that an extremely orderly/organized system to an adult, can appear to be a chaotic mess to a child.  For the most clear example of this, think about a toy box.  Imagine opening the lid and looking in - or take a moment and walk over to a toy box to actually look in.  What do you see?  Toys.  Yes, good start.  As an adult having toys all in one place is the accomplishment to end all accomplishments!  But now consider what your child's life consists of... (a heck of a lot of toys, right?).

Now humor me, and think about what your life consists of... (hair-care regiments, bills, work papers, kitchen utensils, laundry, gardening tools, CD collections, books, clothes, hobbies, that spare bedroom full of stuff, all of your kids toys).  Now, for the sake of this exercise, throw all of those things into a box... all of them... bills, hair products, pots and pans, formal wear, your iPad, that vase you got for your wedding,  gardening gear... all of it.  What do you see in the box?  It's ok, step out for some fresh air, dab the sweat from your forehead... this is just an exercise... perhaps a very uncomfortable one, depending on how orderly you are.  Now imagine what your child sees when they look into the toy box - chaos, their very distinct toys and activities (their livelihood) junked into a box.  I just had a flashback to my high school bedroom during that exercise!

I know, you're thinking, "But, Renee, it is so much easier to throw my kids toys into one box when I clean up at the end of the day or before our guests arrive at our house."  My response:  "You have to clean up after your kids?"  I jest.  My life involves some cleaning up after my kid (and I only have one that is mobile, so I can feel your eye lasers, mothers of more than one mobile child! I'll be joining you very soon).  When everything is in a jumble there is no inherent motivation for order - it all just gets heaped in and the bottom layer becomes visual noise for the higher layers and it can become impossible to see any one thing in the jumble.  So, now we're going to play WWMD (What would Montessori do?).

  1. Use open shelving within the children's reach.  Choose a simple shelf that can serve as a relatively neutral backdrop to your child's toys and activities.  (suggestions for that big box in a moment)
  2. Weed through your child's toys.  Is it appropriate for her age?  Is it in good repair?  Get rid of things that are neither, or put things away that will be used by another child down the road.  Another (personal) criteria that I use in weeding, is that anything that makes noise that I cannot stand is a goner... I supplement the need for music with real music and real musical instruments that do not enrage me with their nuisance... sometimes I just remove batteries if a toy serves another non-annoying function.  If you are not annoyed by your child's toys, keep them and do not tell anyone that I told you that you "have to" get rid of them - that's not how I roll... these are suggestions for order, not orders.
  3. Before you put any of the age-appropriate toys in-good-repair on the shelf, think about what your child actually plays with.  By "actually plays with," I mean spends time using as it is intended - not just picking it up and tossing it aside to get to the next thing.  This step will require a little observation, and is more of a process than a "do it, did it, done" type of step.  
  4. The younger the child, the fewer things should be accessible at any time (for 2 and 3-yr-olds, a good rule is no more than 3 items per shelf).  Begin putting the bare essential minimum of things that she loves and uses daily on the shelf (maybe the train set in its own special container, a puzzle, and a favorite truck).  Observe to see how this changes the way your child plays - my prediction is that your child will spend more focused time with the few activities she loves.
  5. Keep the excess toys in a place that you can get to them to rotate with the ones on the shelf.  As your child stops playing with one toy, remove it and offer something new.  Maybe use the former toy-box for this purpose in a closet or in a different room.
  6. Group similar things together (just like you separate your hair products from your kitchen utensils).  Baskets of similar things are a great way to offer a variety of things in an orderly way.  We have a basket full of percussion instruments on the living room shelf, a tray of cars on the kitchen shelf, and a tray with a few dinosaur cards on Dominic's bedroom shelf.  Don't overcrowd with too many of the same type of thing (one or two puzzles at a time).  If you have to stack it, simplify it, and use the rotation strategy.  A note about containers - if your child cannot see into it, she will likely ignore it altogether, so use shallow/open baskets and trays that easily reveal their contents.
  7. Have a specific place on the shelf for each thing - and STICK TO IT.  Because they are so sensitive to order, they may struggle to clean up if they do not know exactly where to return a toy or activity.  Your child will begin to internalize this order and might spontaneously clean up without you asking - or at least begin to restore order when prompted and assisted.  There is also inherent motivation for order when the shelves are sparse, clean, and simple.
  8. Keep observing and adapting to your child's needs and interests.
Using a system that is clear and simple will make your life easier (less stuff on the shelf = less stuff to make a mess that you have to clean up).  It will also provide an opportunity for your child to internalize an external system of order and help maintain the external order of his space.  This may take some time, because he has internalized the prior system for cleaning or not cleaning or for mistreating toys.  When my house begins to look like a toy explosion, I step back to reevaluate what is going on - is there a space for everything, does Dominic know that space, are we being consistent with our rules for cleaning up and using toys correctly, does he have an appropriate space to play with xyz toy?

If things are being misused or mistreated, remove them immediately as the offense is happening.  Explain or show the correct way to use the item and let the child know that it will return when she is ready to use it the right way (young children do not respond well to lectures, so use concise and clear language: "The blocks are for building.  You are throwing the blocks.  I am going to put the blocks in a safe place until you are ready to build with the blocks."  Then do exactly that - no giving in to pouting or tantrums - just assure your child that the toy will return, and try to direct the child to something else.)  Keep the toy put away for a few days, and when you are ready to try again, ask the child if he is interested to try xyz toy again; state or show the right way to use it when you bring it back out to the shelf.  Be consistent and remove it again if the same offense continues - for a very young child, a redirection may be effective instead of removing the blocks each time a block is thrown, for instance, "you are throwing blocks.  blocks are for building.  balls are for throwing.  where is a ball?"  Children feel secure knowing that you are saying things that you mean, and that you will help them when they need it.  It also reinforces their sense of order to experience consistency - even when it is consistency that leads to the toys being removed from the shelf.

At one point we removed all of Dominic's toys one evening before bed.  He was having a tantrum and refusing to put anything away (even with Ryan and I doing all of the cleaning - he would not pick up a single item), this was the culmination of several days of willy nilly cleaning up and lackadaisical reinforcement of our rule for cleaning up after ourselves.  We put the toys away on a high shelf in his closet, leaving his toy shelf bare except for his lamp.  The following day we returned one toy and reminded him to put it away as he finished.  The following day we added another toy, and continued reminding him of our rules.  Eventually all of his toys were returned to his shelf and he returned to the habit of putting each activity away as he finished it.  He was probably about 18 months old.  He was not miserable when he had limited toys, and quite the contrary, he was more successful with the skill we were trying to emphasize (cleaning up) because he was able to better focus on that task with fewer items to manage.  Often children struggle to meet our standards because we are giving them too much all at once and then we give up entirely, thinking that they just cannot do it, or that they are too young.

I'd like to remind my readers that my certification is for children 3-6 years old, and my studies beyond that age range are more heavily focused in the first three years of life.  While these young children are in a formative stage for order, children older than six have a higher propensity for clutter (is that the right word?), meaning they can more easily navigate more complex organizational systems by reading labels on boxes or understanding larger groupings.  A child of this age could also be extremely helpful in designing a system for keeping her toys orderly if asked good questions to lead her toward a system - what things do you need to get to often, what toys do you play with less frequently, etc.  For instance, an art box might be plenty organized for an elementary student - to find pastels, pencils, paints, glue, scissors, etc. in one container possibly further divided into baggies or smaller boxes.  This would be hugely disorderly for a child under six.  Likewise, rather than having one small lego activity on a shelf (which would be appropriate for a child under six), an older child would be better equipped to manage a large container of several distinct lego activities with the instruction booklets available to easily find the handful of pieces needed for this or that star wars vehicle construction project.

What systems do you guys find helpful?  Have you noticed any signs of your child's sense of order?  Is there anything particular that is totally boggling you?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Human Tendencies: Exploration

Maria Montessori observed over the course of her life's work that children in every culture and in every time exhibit basic human tendencies.  These tendencies are for exploration, orientation, order, communication, abstraction/immagination, exactness, repetition, self-perfection, self-control, control of error, work/purposeful activity, and movement.  If you take a moment (or 20 minutes) to observe a child it is impossible not to see one of these tendencies in action.  Perhaps you will say, "what?  Order?  Self-control? WORK?!  Renee, you've never met my child."  In this series I hope to give some insight into the most basic driving tendencies of childhood that help our children adapt to their time and place as well as ways to foster our children's development by utilizing these innate tendencies.

Exploration is a tendency our "helicopter" generation of parents is likely stifling.  Initially this tendency would have been necessary for survival - to explore the environment for food, to seek shelter, to find water. With basic needs met, the child can explore for the sake of exploration rather than for the sake of survival.

Exploration, of course, lends itself to discovery.  Within the house, discovery of the cookies on the highest shelf behind a wall of non-cookie items or discovery of the sharpie that was left within reach.  Outdoors, the range of discovery is boundless.  The cooler temperature of the shade trees, the insects that live under stones and boards, the movement of the wind in the trees, the changing of the seasons, the life cycle of plants in a garden, birds, sticks, pebbles, rain... boundless discoveries, I'm telling you.  I've never noticed any boredom in children who are allowed to freely explore outdoors!

Exploration is both deeply satisfying and deeply enriching.  With summer upon us, here are some considerations for allowing your child space to explore outdoors:

  • A safe area that can be "supervised" from a distance.  Other tendencies (self-perfection, exactness, control of error) will help your child to largely self-regulate in regards to his own safety.  I am not saying put the kid outside and go take a bubble bath with your martini - although that seemed to work fine for my grandmother's generation of parents!  Be close enough without being an interruption - become a part of the furniture, as Montessori might say.
  • A rich environment to explore.  A gated expanse of concrete would hardly offer much opportunity for exploration.  Consider elements that will appeal to all the senses.  
    • For the auditory sense, helicopters/planes, trains, the nearby high school band practices (for you fellow urbanites), birds, rustling leaves, wind chimes, running water, etc.
    • For the gustatory sense (taste), an herb garden with a variety of flavors to sample and fruiting trees and vines to get a simple snack.  Of course, you should present these to your child, so he is not eating poisonous leaves/berries/etc - show him the specific plants and how to identify them; it may be helpful to have a clearly delineated herb container/garden.
    • For the visual sense, varieties of trees and flowers, bird and butterfly habitat, flowing water, perhaps a fish pond or some backyard animals, a "bug box" to allow a closer look at insects, snakes, frogs, and lizards (as a temporary observational tool... not as a permanent "pet" habitat).  
    • For the olfactory sense (smell) flowers, herbs and compost.
    • For the tactile sense, a variety of textures of leaves, sticks, gravel, sand, soil, water, flowers, etc.  The opportunity to go barefoot enhances tactile awareness as well.
  • Finally, give the children a little space to just be - did I already mention that... it can use more than one mention.  Don't get fussy about getting "dirty" or playing with sticks or crawling under shrubs.
In a later post I will offer more bountiful ideas for "purposeful activity" or "work," but the tendency I'm focusing on is related more to a richness of surroundings and freedom to meander.

That said, purposeful activity is an excellent opportunity for observing this (and all of the) tendencies.  Consider a watercolor painting - the first attempt is almost certainly ends in a shredded, sopping wet, sheet of grey-brown paper.  As the child explores the activity, she may discover that subtle and light colors can be achieved with more water and less paint, or that rich bold colors often require far less water.  She might explore possibilities for brush stroke - fluid strokes or staccato taps of the brush to the paper.  She may discover that her yellow flower turned orange when she added a red center!  She may discover that her sopping wet painting from yesterday is now a permanent part of the wooden table she left it on to dry - or that she can only successfully lift a painting that has not become wet enough to soak through to the table - or that the paint runs when she lifts the painting immediately.  Other tendencies are certainly at work in this process - repetition of the activity, order of the steps for painting, control of error in realizing the outcome was more of a wet pulp than a painting, self-perfection in noticing (self-perceived) imperfections and working toward improvement on the next try, self-control in physically mastering the strokes and steps.  Some of these things will simply not come to fruition if the exploration is blocked.

Allowing a child to experience these things - some exciting, some frustrating, some beautiful, some dare-I-say ugly to the adult eye - is a far greater opportunity for learning and development than a parent-child lecture about "how to draw a flower" or grabbing the child's hand and directing it from the water jar to the paint cake to the paper to the water jar.  Would it be easier, cleaner, "prettier," on the first try for you to do it for your child?  Almost certainly.  Will the satisfaction and wonderment be that much greater when she discovers independently the technique that works best for her after multiple attempts and repeated striving?  Absolutely.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Little boys...

I can barely put my own hair into a pony tail.  I am often asked if we'll "try again for a girl," as though my family is incomplete without a daughter or as though Liam was just an attempt to have a daughter.  I won't set a child quota by any means, nor will I say that I would not be happy to have a little girl.  What I will say, is that I LOVE my little boys.  I love my little brothers (some of whom are quite big now).  I love their adventurous spirit, I love their fondness for sticks and pebbles, I love their funny faces, I love their joy in the noises of the human body, I love their fascination with hats made of rodent skins, I love their excitement to point out helicopters and excavators, I love that I could keep listing things that I love about them ad infinitum.

Here are some of my favorite little boy moments lately (in the past 6ish months).  Forgive my amateur point-n-shoot photography...  at least it isn't a massive text-only manifesto! (you can thank the writer's block)






Knowing what "Manger" means and arranging the nativity appropriately...


Reveling wearing a racoon-skin cap (the whole coon)...

Robot-ing (bobot, in toddler speak)...


Sleeping like big brother...



Playing with sticks...


Who knows!


Exploring (and making family portraits difficult and better at the same time)




Loving some more...
I love these little boys so much!

Saturday, April 30, 2011


While scanning through several drafts of posts that were neither finished nor published (nor revisited in many cases), I came across one that seemed fitting on the day of the ***** *******.  I'll be honest that I hadn't given it (the r**** w******) much thought until I was invited to watch it at a BFF's house.  We did a lot of fast-forwarding, and rewinding (marvelous hats!), and eye-rolling, and giggling, and chatting.  (She even wore her wedding gown, which is one of my all-time favorites, and I wore my wedding shoes and tiara with a bridesmaid dress and remembered why they are generally one-time-wears)

Back in January I recorded the following observation about wedding vows - the two sentences that I will never forget.  These were my thoughts:

"This has brought me to tears as my husband and I (3 years married, 11 years of friendship) are nearing the end of some serious financial and emotional hardship involving his suspension from work and my pregnancy with our second son (7 weeks old) as our toddler has just turned 2 years old.  On the Feast of the Holy Family we went to mass at a local hospital because we knew it would only take 30 minutes (the best option is the fast option after a rough night with both of our children).  Ryan had to leave the short mass almost immediately because our toddler started having a screaming tantrum, and I was standing alone rocking the newborn without any view of the sanctuary from behind a column in the hospital chapel.  It was not pleasant, and it was not what I expected of mass 'as a family.'

Before the homily, the priest called all the married couples to come up to the altar to renew their wedding vows.  I stood behind the column alone with my bobble-headed newborn as the short narrow aisle to the tiny chapel filled with married couples of all ages.  I was a little peeved that we would not be able to participate in this sentimental exercise.  I don't have many bible verses or poems memorized, I could count them on my fingers, but my vows are burned in my mind.  I remember before our wedding that my dad told us not to have the priest recite for us to repeat, but rather to just remember them.  He recited the vows that he has known and lived for the past 29 years to prove how simple and possible it is to remember such an important statement, and he is neither a nerd nor a romantic! (he's a golfer)

As the priest asked everyone to repeat after him, I recalled my vows silently behind that column, and it was a beautiful reminder of our commitment and of nostalgia for our wedding day.

Shortly after the vow renewal a young boy (about 8 years old) came over and offered me his seat, which was a beautiful reminder that my family will get there.  The boys will grow up, and we will be able to go to mass together again without raising hell or hunting down the quickest mass in town.  There are still chivalrous men raising chivalrous boys in this world that seems to totally reject the values of respect and charity - women should ALWAYS take a seat offered by a boy to give the feedback that he is doing the right and manly thing and that women notice and appreciate the respect of men.  Even though I'm sometimes standing alone bouncing a squirmy baby, my other half is with me in spirit wrestling a disgruntled toddler."

The vows are in no way deceptive.  The vows are clear that there will be ups and downs.  There will be ease and there will be struggle.  There will be surf'n'turf and there will be rice'n'beans.  The choice is one that will last a lifetime of sunshine and storms.  The bond of marriage is for the blissful and care-free honeymoon and for the sleep-deprivation of early parenthood, the date-nights and the bill payments, the giggles and the sobs.

I, Renee, take you, Ryan, to be my husband.  I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health; I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.

Cheers, to the days that end with kazoo fanfares and raining petals!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Yard Funk...

Unstrap one side of your overalls and come on over now, y'hear?  Oh, and feel free to leave your shoes and your teeth at home for this one.

You are probably certain that someone has maliciously overtaken my blog, but you are wrong.  It is Redneck Yard Link-Up time over at The Borrowed Abode.  Would you believe me if I told you that these pictures are an improvement?

I'll begin with the not-terribly-horrifying "big picture."  Check out that peaceful hammock, while ignoring the diapers on the line!

And now I'll bring you along for the redneck tour...  got yer gingham crop top and braided pigtails ready?

Here is our sliding screen door, still taped up from Hurricane Ike (2008) and the foundation repair (2009)... it keeps the critters out and distracts you from the filthy screen!

Feast your eyes on this spectacular patch-job from our foundation repair... you'd never know that they dug a hole there wouldja?  Oh, except that the patches don't match and it has elevated parts of the patio 4-6 inches?

Hows about the veggie garden?  Sorry, St. Francis, I won't tag you in the pics, and maybe I'll finish cleaning up in the next few years.  (note the ant-infested half-bag of soil at the top left, two rolls of chicken wire, a roll of weed-blocking tarp, curling ribbon garden grid, piles of sticks to attract a bug-control-patrole of anoles, and patchy growth of crops due to squirrel "seed reassignment" and hapless digging. oh, and check out our only "functional" hose that is a soaker and requires being strategically coiled around the top of the garden to disburse the water... and which I have to hop the fence to turn on and off at the delightfully "weatherproofed" spigot)
...this delightfully "weatherproofed" spigot)

Did anyone else notice the TWO seen-better-days swing sets?  While we are thoroughly appreciative of the 1. donation of the "tree house" set, and 2. the labor it took to get it to our house by my marvelous in-laws, I don't think anyone would argue that it could use some... ahem... safety upgrades... and aesthetic enhancements.  Oh, and that's where we do most of our recycling... in case you were wondering... no, wait, that's the bin we jimmy-rigged with a garbage bag for Ryan to pull the weeds.
See that dangling partial rope?  The squirrels chewed it from the ground up to its current length... I don't foresee it helping any kids climb up the "rock wall" ladder.

Oh, that old thing?  It's our home-made porch swing frame (?) we inherited it from the previous owners, and we are thankful that Hurricane Ike rid the frame of the former PVC pipe and scrap-wood "porch swing" that used to hang from it... I love me some DIY previous owners!  I'm always a little bit offended when people ask me if I built that frame... seriously friends?  I had an art concentration in college!  Oh... now I get it.

What are those holding up?  Why, the invisible loquat tree that died last winter (2009-2010) that we chopped down this February(2011).
Oh wait, the loquat tree isn't invisible, it is in a heap by the shed and our cinder block pile...
... our stealthily possum-proofed shed, I might add! The former owners were very proud of that fact. Pay no mind to those two measly tile fragments...
Because, BEHOLD!  We have a collection of marble tile scraps!  Be still your redneck hearts!  They are carefully guarded by the curb-side-salvaged zebra who has patiently awaited a fresh coat of bright and bold spraypaint (I think we picked him up over a year ago... and by we, I mean I forced Ryan to stop and be embarrassed while I excitedly skipped to the curb and stealthily put this little fellow in my trunk).  Don't mind the filthy pollen-covered shirt... we're keeping it there incase it freezes again this summer Houston.
We also keep a collection of boards on hand in case a hurricane comes through again...

I'm guessing something used to hang from the Pecan tree?

It takes hard work and dedication (read laziness) to attain "bushes" this forest-like!  Oh look!  My lime green curling ribbon (in the sunny spot under the "bush")!

Here's the remainder of our third crop of weeds this year; I had to stop Ryan from destroying any more evidence of our weed garden: supposedly you can eat/use every part of a dandelion... weed salad anyone?  weed tea?  Get your minds out of the smoke shop.

Check out our lovely randomly painted bricks, they are ever-so coordinated with our nautical color scheme.  We (the previous owners) painted those to try to disguise our kiddie pool that has missed the truck on no less than 5 HEAVY TRASH PICK-UPS since last summer - I guess we'll be scrubbing it out and using it again this summer!  While the kiddie pool missed the pick up at our house, the colorful table missed the pick-up at someone else' because I snagged it and the broken leg to try to salvage it for my little band of babies.  Oh, and ignore that patio set that Ryan's been begging me to trash for no less than two years now (we have a matching one in the shed, too!!)  I bet you were too busy looking at our marble scrap collection to notice, though, weren't you?

Fence-post tree bench, anyone?  What better spot to store squirrel-proofed plant pots?!  With squirrel trees growing in them... some effective squirrel proofing job!

You're just in time for the biker rally for up-and-coming Hell's Satans members (Simpson's? anyone?)... it's a pretty hardcore baby bike gang that meets at our house regularly and parks its vehicles willy nilly.  Just last week I picked up that sweet vinyl ottoman, that I thought would be a cool footrest while lounging barefoot and toothless on the patio with my biker babies and an ice cold bud light (redneck points).
It doesn't get any more redneck than hay-stuffed trash-picked outdoor ottomans... well, maybe it does if you sit on it wearing jorts (jean-shorts... jorts).

Yap, I hooked up that thar antennuh to the chimney and ran some extra wire through the wall so we can plug the TV in right next to the fire place and right in front of the sliding door.  Not.  That's another unfortunate inheritance from the previous owners.  I dig the resourceful coiling of the excess wire and the fancy mismatched spot lights they hooked up for us, too! (this photo does not do the size of the antenna justice... it communicates with aliens in other galaxies...massive)

Oh, and the two-year-old likes to take our vacuum tubing everywhere (he clearly doesn't get that from my side of the gene pool!)... he clearly doesn't have enough toys either.  ...and it wouldn't be redneck without some bare unpainted toes!

And because you probably thought we were keeping some skeletons in our closet... here's our fabulous FRONT YARD!  Check out the yellow patches which are probably indicative of a chinch bug problem, the TWO funky light fixtures, the rubble garden that is left over from the great foundation repair of 2009.  That carefully pruned stick was an orchid tree before the freeze this winter, and you can see all of its baby orchid trees growing up around it.  This is the second year in a row that we've killed that poor little tree.

For the record, when I lay in the hammock I can only see the leaves up above or the cute kid I'm snuggling, which makes it temporarily easy to forget that I should be busting hump to get this yard in shape!  See what I mean? (ok, I haven't posted this for three days because my computer won't recognize my phone to upload this video... hop over to my facebook videos to see what I'm talking about... the kid in the tuxedo onesie, who definitely likes to party, smiling and cooing is what I am referring to... redneck points for tuxedo onesie?  I'll work on posting that video later).

I really hope this redneck yard post wins me a sweet prize to help fix this bidness up.  (end-of-sentence preposition!!  bonus redneck points!)

Redneck references brought to you by my Texan heritage.  Remember the Alamo, y'all.