The Month In Review

Okay, so here's a recap of the "keep it simple" tips, that came up with my kids this past month:

1.  Give your kids information on a need to know basis.  This came in handy in preventing meltdowns during the week between school and camp.  Don't get me wrong, it is an important life lesson for kids to learn how to recover from disappointment.  Plans change and disappointment is part of life.  However, during an unstructured vacation week, tantrums need to be kept to a minimum for everyone's sanity.  Don't set the expectations beyond what's happening the very next day and you'll have wiggle room for the unexpected change of plans that are sure to come up.    Prevention is the simple strategy here.     

2.  Help your kids to focus on one activity at a time.  My son, Sam, in particular has a tendency to get overexcited when there is too much activity planned in one day.  He gets super excited and begins to have trouble containing his behavior.  I hate having to discipline him when I know the source of the undesirable behavior comes from his anticipation of all the fun he is going to have.  Therefore, planning just one thing for him to look forward to each day, keeps him focused on the prize.  If other things pop up throughout the day and he's up to it, then he gets a welcomed surprise. 

3.  Turn the ordinary into something special.  Why must we do the same thing, the same way, all the time?  Help your kids to use their imagination and mix things up for yourself, as well. You'll all have a new sense of energy when doing the most simplest of tasks.  I mentioned the movie picnic, previously, but I try to make things more exciting for the kids as often as I can.  For example Sam and Bari, have a race every night to see who can get into their pajamas the fastest.  They giggle the whole way through.  It's a simple way for me to spice it up, while avoiding any complaints about getting ready for bed.   

4.  Make separating from your kids work for both of you.  Taking time for yourself when you have kids is like going to the dentist.  You dread going because you know it will be painful (especially if your kids are high drama like mine).  At the same time, you know it's good for you and that you'll feel better after you go.  This is the time to bring out the new toy or allow them to do something you normally wouldn't let them.  Let your kids feel excited and proud of their independence when you are gone.  It's an opportunity for both of you to do something special that you can all look forward to. 

As usual, my kids have given me some great material this month.  For Sam, June was a period of transition.  He accepted the end of pre-school and adjusted to a new summer camp.  For Bari, this month she hit some developmental milestones.  She began those noticeable growing pains, as she approaches her "terrible two's."  Everyday, I have and will continue to strategies on how best to parent them, as simply as possible.  Hope you find these "keep it simple" tips useful too! 

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Coming Out Of The Snack Closet

Need a simple solution to get your kids to stop snacking excessively?  Change your meal times!  At Bari’s 18 month check up, my pediatrician warned me that this is the age kids can become fixated on snacks.  Too late, I thought.  Every time Bari enters the kitchen lately, I hear, “Na Na!” That’s her word for snack and she happily trots her way over to the pantry, or snack closet (as it’s referred to in our house).  Even Sam is snack happy I realized.  Just yesterday he tried to convince me to give him potato chips before dinner.  He said it could be his “appetizer.”  Every so often I’d try to rotate the snacks in the closet in an effort to address this problem and at least, get the kids to choose a healthy snack.    I replaced the junk with dried fruit, popcorn, granola bars, putting it all within their grasp.   Initially, this worked great.  Nutri -bars that had gone untouched for months were suddenly being consumed.   The thrill would wear off quickly, however.  More importantly, this wasn’t solving the problem.  Then, I took my pediatricians advice to just give the kids meals whenever they say they are hungry.  If they’re asking for a snack at 3:30, than give them dinner at 3:30, she suggested.  I honestly hadn’t thought of that.  But it sounded simple so it was worth a shot.  Here’s how it went. 

The morning went pretty routinely.  I set up a yogurt drink for Sam and grapes for Bari.  That’s their typical breakfast and snacking is usually not an issue at this time of day.  Then Sam was off to camp and Bari to her morning gymnastics class.  Home by 10:30am, Bari started in with the “Na-Na’s.”  Keeping her away from the snack closet, I simply whipped up the tuna fish I planned to give her later for lunch.  She ate some of it and I put the rest back in the refrigerator.  Before her nap, she finished the rest of the tuna.  It was great.  She actually finished a whole portion and no food was wasted.  Usually she has a snack at 10:30 and always leaves over at lunch.  Not this time.  When she woke from her nap, I offered her a sippy cup of milk and a banana.  Ok, I just couldn’t completely give up the snack thing.  Since a banana didn’t come from the “snack closet” I made an exception.   Also, she would soon be in the car for a while to pick up Sam from camp and I was trying to avoid a cranky situation.  At 3:45, we went to pick up Sam from camp.  As soon as Sam got in the car, he declared he was starving.  Simple enough—we went right out for pizza.  Sam devoured 2 slices and Bari held her own eating almost a full slice.  We were home before 5pm and dinner was already over.  I have to say, it made things easier for all of us.  I didn’t have keep deterring Bari from the snack closet while I cooked dinner or listen to Sam whine over when dinner would be ready, etc.   Instead, the kids came home played, took a bath, and then had frozen yogurt for their dessert.   It was simple and it worked. 

So the new normal is for Bari’s lunch to start around 10:30am and for us to eat dinner around 4:00.  We don’t always go out for dinner straight from camp, so I try to have something prepared that I can heat it up quickly for the kids as soon as we get home.  This way the whining is kept to a minimum and the temptation of the snack closet is reduced, as well.  I definitely feel like the kids are eating healthier because their appetite remains intact for the good stuff.  In addition, less food is being wasted.  So the key is don’t get hung up on what you think is appropriate time to eat a meal, nor should you use snacks to hold off your kids between meals.  Keep it simple, serve meals when they’re hungry, and stay out of the snack closet. 

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Fantasy Kidlit Road Trip, Midwestern/Southern Edition

Last week, I wrote about a fantasy road trip through the Western United States, visiting the sites of some of my favorite children’s and teen books. This installment takes me (and my,presumably, similarly entranced and uncomplaining family—hey, it’s my fantasy!) briefly through the South, then into the Midwest.

From New Mexico, it would be a couple of days’ drive to get to the Louisiana swamps that are the setting of the lovely, creepy novel Tennyson. On her website, author Lesley M. M. Blume discusses, and links to, several of the actual plantation houses she visited while researching the story. Unfortunately, Belle Grove, the real-life model for Aigredoux, the decaying mansion in the book, was demolished in the 1950’s. I’d like to see Nottoway, the haunted plantation house where Ms. Blume met the peacock who inspired one character in the book, though I have to say that based on its website it looks pretty spiffy and well-scrubbed compared to Aigredoux, where Tennyson has to sleep under mosquito netting because chunks of the ceiling keep falling off, and where there are rooms she’s not allowed to enter because they’ve been literally taken over by moss, bats, and other wildlife.

For a dose of chipper wholesomeness to offset the spooky Southern Gothic of Tennyson, I’d next head north to Mankato, Minnesota. Readers of the Betsy-Tacy series of children’s books might know this town better by its pen name, Deep Valley, but author Maud Hart Lovelace based the books on her own childhood in Mankato, and the dedicated volunteers at the Betsy-Tacy Society have spent the last decade restoring her childhood home, along with that of her best friend, Frances “Bick” Kenney, the model for Tacy. According to the Children’s Literature Network, you can also pick up a walking tour of Betsy-Tacy sites at the local library. Between the tour, and visiting both houses, and maybe helping out if I happened to come when the volunteers were doing restoration work, I might have to stay in Mankato for a few days.

According to Google Maps, my next destination, Madeline Island, Wisconsin, is only a six-hour drive and short ferry ride away—just enough time to listen once more to the gorgeous audio book recording of Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House, whose heroine, seven-year-old Omakayas, lives there in the mid 1800’s. During the year of The Birchbark House, Omakayas befriends a crow, endures the teasing of her little brother, Pinch, and survives the terrible illness that strikes her family after a visitor comes. In this interview at Kidsreads, Ms. Erdich talks about visiting Madeline Island for herself and researching its importance to the Ojibwa people. What she doesn’t discuss—and what Omakayas doesn’t know until the next book in the series, The Game of Silence—is that all the Ojibwa will be forced to leave Madeline Island very soon. The third book, The Porcupine Year, which I just finished and loved, brings Omakayas, now twelve years old, and her family to their new home, in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. I’d like to go there, too.

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Trick or Treat?

I once asked a friend of mine how she manages to have a full-time job, raise three kids, and still make it to the gym religiously. Her answer, “I’m completely selfish.”  Laughing at what I thought was a joke, she then further explained, “No seriously, I’m completely selfish.”  Then it hit me and I totally understood what she meant.   I have two children who give new meaning to the term “separation anxiety.”  Sam, my first, trained me to expect major drama.  He was the kid in pre-school who cried hysterically, every morning without fail.  My daughter, Bari, is no better.  At eighteen months, she is now in the habit of waking up in the middle of the night and frantically calling for me.  After I race into her room and hold her, she instantly falls back to sleep.  Instantly!  It’s as If she just needs the reassurance that I didn’t disappear while she was sleeping.    As a result, I’d begun to feel a knot form in my stomach every time I left my kids.  Knowing that I shouldn’t have to feel this way, I needed a simple plan that would reduce my anxiety.  One thing I knew for sure was that I absolutely needed time to myself.  It actually makes me a better mother.  Whether I spend time with my friends, go to the gym, or just take a shower, I always return to my kids feeling recharged.  I have a little more patience and a little extra bounce to my step.  I just needed to not feel so selfish about it. 

I’ve found that the best way to reduce all these negative feelings is to have a good exit strategy.  I do this by tricking my kids into looking forward to my absence.  Yes, tricking them!  It’s simple and effective.   I come up with a special activity for the kids that is dependent upon my not being there.  For example, Sam used to give my husband and me a hard time when we left him with the babysitter.  Always the drama king, Sam would beg us stay a few minutes longer with the saddest little frown you ever did see.  Naturally, our hearts would melt.  Determined to enjoy our night out, we’d leave him in that state but start the night off worrying how long it would take him to come around.  Then one week, I bought a couple of Power Ranger action figures that I knew Sam wanted.  I dropped them off at our babysitter’s house and told her my plan.  The next Saturday night, she gave Sam a special surprise.  You guessed it.   When he opened up the bag, he gave her the biggest grin ever.  She promised to bring the toys with her every time she came.  It became their ritual.  Their “thing” together.  Suddenly, our tearful goodbye changed to a quick “bye mommy!” Sam would grab her hand and go play Power Rangers in the living room.  Adam and I were able to start out our night with relief instead of worry.  Worked like a charm!    

The originator of this idea that time away from mom is an opportunity for kids to enjoy something special comes from my dad.  In honor of father’s day, I have to give credit where credit is due.  When I was a kid, every Thursday night my mom would leave us to play cards with her girlfriends.   As soon as she walked out the door, my dad would yell, “Bridge night!”  I still remember his smile and wink as he said it.  My brother, sister and I would jump up and down with excitement, knowing what was coming.  Our evening started out with a trip to the candy store, followed by a pajama party in my parent’s bed.  There were lots of snacks, tickling, and crazy bedtime stories.  To us, it was a fun night of bonding with our dad.  To my mom, it was an easy exit.  Simple.  Genius, really.  This memory has stuck with me, teaching me that with a little creativity, and of course, keeping it simple, time away from the kids doesn’t have to feel selfish.  Thanks Dad!

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Things are Looking Up

In February of this year, President Obama made good on one of his campaign promises: he signed the American Recovery Act of 2009.The resulting law contains money to support states looking at shortfalls. It supports funding for several early childhood programs including Head Start and Early Head Start as well as a Child Care and Development Block Grant. There is more, a veritable largess in early education –What joy. And we thought it could never happen.

The aim of the new programs is to strengthen the coordination of early care and education, health, and family support programs. Some of it backs the cry for evidence of the merit of these programs and some supports the programs which have already been well documented as beneficial.

There are many people to thank; but one who rises above all the rest,from my own discipline -- psychology’s Ted Strickland. Dr. Strickland is now Governor Strickland of Ohio and former Congressman Strickland. In all these roles, Governor Strickland has a history of concern for the well-being of children and families. Two years ago, he established an Early Childhood Cabinet to create, and manage state policy concerning the well-being of children. They worked closely with the state’s child policy team, before the watchful eyes of their governor.

Not everything in the new president’s campaign proposals will sail through with the backing of other national leaders like Strickland; but a new hopefulness is evident in the halls of academia, as researchers rush to complete their own grant proposals before the deadlines. Armed with the new rules and regulations, Zero to Three put out the data base: “Policy Center’s Infant & Toddler Framework”. Go to the Zero to Three site to get the documents if you are intent on serving young children and families. Your inquiry will be treated with the respect due this vital cause. Three cheers for all who have made changes for the better possible. As for Ted Strickland, he has been faithful to the call to duty of an inspiring leader in 20th century psychology: George Albee, once president of the American Psychological Association who exhorted his members to “Give Psychology Away”. Since this may be my last blog on this site for some time, you should know that I have done my best to be true to that exhortation to “give psychology away” on line and in print, representing my profession and another consistent champion of children’s interests: Scholastic, Inc.

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Be anything you want to be, except that

Since confessing your membership in the bad mother club is all the rage, I guess I'll risk the wrath of the perfect parents by admitting my badness.  It's not a harmless and cute "I hide Nutty Bars in my closet" type of confession either.  Okay, I hide Nutty Bars in my closet, but this is more of a "I really and truly feel like a bad mother" kind of admission.  It's the kind of thing that good mothers don't think and those who do, won't admit.  I'm writing it anyway. 

It all starts when you hold your newborn and stare at them endlessly as you say all the right things.  You know they're the right things to say because you have just finished reading every parenting book ever published and you are now an expert.  On everything.  Remember when you soothingly told your baby that they could be anything they want to be?  You promised to make their dreams come true and be proud of whatever they decided to do?  When my daughter began high school and started mumbling about going to an art school after graduation, I found those words of support and encouragement hard to swallow.  I love that my daughter is artistic.  She is also athletic, bright and funny.  I am very proud of her dedication to art.  I just want her to have the education and skills to get a j-o-b. 

When I see my daughter's classmate and teacher honored on page 7 of our community paper for winning an American Vision medal and their trip to New York to accept it, I understand my daughter's dream to make that same walk across Carnegie Hall's stage.  I want that for her.  She deserves to have a happily ever after.  I just wish her dreams were a little safer.  I can't force a smile when she talks about applying to art schools.  I open my big fat mouth and tell her that I want her to go to a liberal arts college to have a more rounded education.  I suggest that when she starts exploring all the things that are out there, she may decide to change her major.  I say it, even though I know voicing those words will make her dig her heels in and become more determined to prove me wrong.  Secretly, I wish she would decide to study graphic design or advertising or anything less painful than trying to be an artist.  She is too amazing and talented to scrape by selling paintings at a starving artists' sale in the meeting room of the local Holiday Inn.  I don't want to be unsupportive.  I want to be over-protective.  No, I don't mean that.  Maybe I do mean that.  I know I am not supposed to think this way.  Good mothers encourage children to dream and reach for the stars.  Bad mothers interfere and tell children what to do.  I don't want to be a bad mother.  Maybe I can just be an okay mother.

 Silver Key Award
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Reading over Summer Break

Every year the "summer slide" hovers like a dark cloud over our kids' summer vacation. Don't get me wrong, my kids love to read so we don't necessarily need to push reading, or at least we don't think we do! We figure if we provide the books the rest will take care of itself. Hah!

Our summer goes something like this... We start the summer with ambitious plans for a balance of old-fashioned relaxation, quality time with their grandparents and essential creative time in arts camp. Wait, did I mention the sailing class, piano lessons and ballet class? Before you know it, August 20th is upon us and they have barely had time to read two books. 

We all sit there scratching our heads and wondering where the time went. I guess it's a classic case of over-scheduling. What's a parent to do?

Well, it does not hurt to introduce a summer reading routine. We pick out a book for the week and try to read at least a chapter a day. Since my kids are entering second and fifth grade this makes sense for us. My daughter has even decided to keep a journal of her summer reads. I let my son follow his interests... dragons facts, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Adventures of Tintin... whatever keeps him reading.

Looking for ways to keep your kids on track this summer? Check out Summer Reading Challenge for some fun activities that will keep your kids tuned in to reading this summer! The Summer Reading Challenge can help kids to find books they want to read, play games, connect with other kids who want to talk about their favorite books.

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Hovering is Out

Parental hovering is out; and so is micromanaging… Really? That’s news to me!

I don’t agree with Lisa Belkin, Parenting writer for the New York Times, who reports that where parenting is concerned, the times they are a’changin. Actually, she’s a little more cautious than that—saying they “may be changing”. As evidence, she cites, for example, the publication of a book, “The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids”, wrapped in a cover illustration of “Mum and Dad lounging with martinis while their well-trained toddler sits on the floor mixing up the next batch”. Belkin interprets the scene as advice to parents to “just chill”.

Then there is the economic factor. Parents don’t have as much money as they once did to support violin lessons, tutors in both test taking and subject matter, little league in a fall, winter, and spring sport and private coaching, as well as specialty camps…

Ms. Belkin attributes the change to not only the slipping economy, but also a new tempo, or what Carl Honore calls “slow parenting”. No need to rush from the French tutor to the baseball lesson and math tutor…

Since none of us has any hard data about these trends, but rather just impressions, I need not apologize for my impression to the contrary. I’m sure there are some parents who simply must cut back on the cost of all this polishing of kids and their medals. But I don’t see any slowdown of the intense hovering on the part of many parents. I can even go out on a shaky limb and suggest that there is usually one child, often the first born, in each family who is hovered over the most. There is an immoveable conviction on the part of the parents that this child will fall by the wayside unless he practices, studies, engages with tutors and coaches, and never never “wastes time” with non-academic or impromptu neighborhood sports. Any number of regrettable consequences are possible. This child does not own the responsibility for his own performance since his mother is his eternal gatekeeper. He need not work hard because a tutor is coming later to put the material at his finger tips before the test. He also begins to believe the myth of his own innate inadequacies which free him of the responsibility to work hard. But maybe, just maybe if “authorities” like Lisa Belkin continue to tell us that such a state of affairs is now OLD, at last we can relax a bit and allow our kids to do the same.

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When Grammy Comes to Visit

We are smack in the middle of a visit from Grammy, my wonderful mother who comes from several states away to enjoy her only two grandchildren, bestowing on them such wonderful gifts as snakes that grow to 100 times their size in the bathtub and their very own rolls of double-sided tape!  She also bestows on them the most wonderful gift of all--the gift of time.  She will take them to the playground for three whole hours, never saying "We have to go home now to check those pesky pepper plants and water those thirsty chickens!"  She pushes my youngest on the swing for half an hour, never glancing even once at the tomato plants still in pots that need to be put in the ground.  She lets them eat marshmallows.  More than one.  Obviously, my children adore her and we love having her visit.

The only problem kids do tend to get a bit wild when she is here.  My mother puts it graciously, saying simply, "They do seem to have a lot of energy!  And, my, the things they can do on that playground!"  When I ask her if they seem to be more active than me, my sister or my brother were, she does not even pause for a fraction of a millisecond before saying, "Yes!"  Though, she does smile when she says it.  They are very active girls.  I attribute it to the fact that we live on a farm, therefore they have gained a lot of physical independence doing things like climbing over fences and onto sheds while we have our backs turned trying to rake the barn.  But my girls do take their activity level up several notches when Grammy is here.  They are excited and they love her, so it is a compliment really.

But still, it is exhausting!  I cannot relax for even a second.  If I turn my head to turn off the tea kettle, I will turn back around to find one of the girls walking along the back of the couch as though it were a tightrope while Grammy looks nervously on, justifiably afraid they will fall on her head.   If I run out to the car, I will return to find them standing on the windowsills showing her how they can leap onto the floor without touching the couch or coffee table.  And if I leave to put in the animals at night, the girls will almost certainly use that time to show Grammy how they can descend the stairs together on top of a boogie board (and, yes, they do hit their heads together when they hit the bottom).

By the time 7:30pm rolls around, Grammy is yawning and can barely drag herself upstairs to  bed.  And this is a woman who routinely walks 5 miles for fun and carries large rocks around her yard for hours in the heat for the sake of good landscaping.  Grammy always mentions casually how well she sleeps while she is here.

We have 5 more days to go.  I hope my poor mother does not collapse in a heap before then.  The one time she watched them for a whole week for us while we went on our belated honeymoon, she needed an additional full week off of work to recover from the experience!

I guess the lesson here is:  never underestimate the power of what two preschoolers can do it you.  Especially if they are mine.

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Fantasy Kidlit Road Trip, Western Edition

When I read this post about planning a Read Across America road trip, I thought, “what a great idea!” We’re not travelling far this summer, but if we had the freedom to rev up the camper van and travel all across the continent, these are some places I’d want to visit, places that first came alive to me through children’s books:

First, I’d drive down the West Coast to San Francisco and get out of the van in Chinatown, site of Laurence Yep’s Child of the Owl. The neighborhood—and the city—have changed a lot since the 1960’s, when the book is set (and the 1970’s, when I first read it), but the sense of place in this book is so vivid and real that when I first visited in person, I felt like I’d been here already, with Casey and her Paw-Paw. I might visit San Francisco first to get some orientation to Chinatown's sights and history.

Then I’d take the ferry out to Alcatraz Island, where Moose Flanagan reluctantly moves with his family at the start of Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts. Of course, since the prison is long closed, there aren’t any more prison guards—or their kids—living on the island, which is now maintained by the National Park Service, but I could still take a tour of the prison and get a sense of the mystique that Moose trades on when he brags to his classmates about living in the same place as the legendary Al Capone.

Next stop? Yuma, Arizona, where decades ago a group of children created the imaginary town of Roxaboxen out of some stones, old boxes, discarded dishes, and their collective imaginations. So powerfully did author Alice McLerran and illustrator Barbara Cooney capture this magical place that I have been hankering for more than fifteen years now to see it in person. For decades after the children in this story grew up and left, the site was an abandoned lot, but nine years ago the city of Yuma opened Roxaboxen Park, which sounds like a wonderful place and very much in the spirit of its past.

One state over, on the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, is a historic landmark of a very different kind: the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested, and inspiration for the title of The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages. The titular field of green glass that the Dewey and Suze view near the end of the book, created when the bomb was set off in 1945, isn’t there any more; the glass, now called trinitite, was highly radioactive. I’d still want to see the site, though, and take a tour of the Los Alamos Historical Museum, which documents the past of a town that, during the most famous part of its history, existed in utter secrecy.

After that, I’d be ready for a break before heading for the Midwest. But that’s a story for another blog post.

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