Saturday, January 30, 2010

the joy of a bench at the mall

Earlier this week we went to the Strong Museum of Play with a friend of Frances' and her mom. For those of you not from Rochester, this play museum is amazing. It's the biggest one I've ever been to, for one thing, and it's clean and the exhibits are great and it just goes on and on. When we first moved here I got a membership and thought I would go over there all the time when I was at a loss for what to do with the kids. But I didn't. We were so sick that first winter and I was nervous about the kids getting germs (and, lets face it, it might as well be bacteria germinating on mold in a lab) plus it was a pain. It was a pain to chase Frances while Clark was strapped on me; a pain to nurse and also follow after her; a pain to help her play with the exhibits; a pain to get anyone to agree to leave without a complete meltdown. I always left with a headache.

So a friend invited us to go this week and I thought it would be fun and also I could see how things go now that both kids are on two feet and are more self-sufficient. Who knows--I might like it now. Turns out it's hard to get in the place without buying a membership because the price for an individual visit is so outrageous that you can't help but think: if I buy the membership now I'll only have to come three more times in the next year to make it worthwhile and of course I'll do that. Heck, maybe I'll even come once a week! What a bargin!

But I held off, wanting to see how things went before I decided.

It went fine. We shopped in the miniature grocery, starred in a cooking show complete with cameras and tvs, made pretend pizzas in the pizza parlor, rode the train (twice), built some cool stuff with legos, climbed up the magic beanstalk, ran, tumbled, jumped, had a snack, then we rode the carousel, and had a meltdown in the gift shop. I left with a headache.

Something about it disturbs me. My well meaning friend kept trying to convince me I should join, kept saying that I could come here all the time when the kids need wearing out, that I could even bring Clark when Frances is at school. I was considering it. My friend knows Clark and I sometimes go to the mall for fun (it too has a carousel) and she said, "you could come here instead of the mall!" That was when it crystalized for me--that I do not want to be a member, that I do not want to come here more than a couple of times a year. One of the things that bothers me about being there regularly is that it's not a part of regular life, has no function. It's so removed from the real world, created solely for the entertainment of children. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with entertainment. But must children have so much stimulation to be entertained? If the kid is perfectly happy jumping on and off a storefront stoop, does he need more? Is making the museum a regular part of one's week just an extension of that parenting pressure that tells us we need to always be stimulating our children, that they can't have a moment of downtime, that activity is better than boredom?

I think it's important for children to learn that the regular everyday world is interesting. The grocery, the post office, the fire house (A friend recently alerted me to the fact that you can go around back of the fire house and ring the doorbell, and they'll let you in to look at and climb on the fire trucks. Really!), the hardware store, the library. These are all part of the functioning world in which we live, and in that world there is plenty to look at, to explore.

Fact is, I like going to the mall. (one might argue that the mall is contrived and also has no real function in the world as well, but that's relative.) We go in the morning before the shops are open, when the mall walkers are in full force. We run, we jump, I sit and distribute snacks while Clark climbs on one bench and then another. Last time we were there we went to Sears for an air purifier filter and it turns out that the air purifiers are near the riding mowers. Holy cow did we have a good time with the riding mowers, on and off and on, turning the steering wheels--and I didn't have to worry about germs. I mean, if Clark is completely and fully entertained by a bench or a riding mower, why do I need to pay a small fortune to go to Strong Museum?

But it occurs to me that maybe Strong Museum is for the parents. It's hard to stay home with kids, especially if you've had a career, been used to 'accomplishing' things. It's boring. Sometimes the easiest way through the day is just to wear the kids out any way you can, else you're both at home hollering at each other. I wonder if these parents go to Strong every week so they won't have to think up something to do with the kids, so the children aren't constantly pestering mom at home while she tries to empty the dishwasher. I don't blame moms for this--you've got to get through the day. If Strong Museum is what works for you, then great.

But the museum doesn't work for me. All the stimulation in there overwhelms me, all the crazy energy exhausts me. I'm looking for simpler pleasures for myself and for my children. I'd like the keep the museum for a treat, a kind of special day just for them, two or three times a year. That's about all I can take of it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

some days are diamonds

I got a B+ today. I was rockin with a strong A and then I bombed one of the test sections which brought down my average. Trying to look at the whole. And trying to remember how extremely well I responded to all the challenges during the first part of the day. Sometimes I am an amazing mother.

After the unfortunate episode (which is not very interesting and which I'm not going to go into but does involve a tiny bit of screaming on my part) Frances asked me where her feelings were so she could put her boo boo buddy on them. She held it on her belly and said it made her feel better. Later when Clark hit her she got it out again. Makes me smile.

Speaking of which, Clark is in a big hitting phase--holy cow. He hits or pushes her all the time. He doesn't hit me, fortunately, but I spend a lot of my day hearing, "CLARK HIT ME AGAIN!" The growling still works, by the way.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

on the downswing

My patience is as thin as a cheap shower curtain. I wish I knew why. Everything's been going so well; I've been calm and enjoying myself and generally upbeat. But now. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. These things come in cycles, come and go, my patience as well as their ability to frustrate. Clark is yelling "no" in earnest now, and some days for Frances nothing can go right. This morning, after many mishaps and agony on her part, we were getting in the car and she was still sort of crying. "Why are you crying?" I asked. "I'm having a bad day," she whimpered, which was the perfect thing to say, because there was no real reason for the drama but that. It slowed me, thankfully, and as I climbed in the driver's seat I said (only thinly veiling my exasperation), "What can I do for you, Frances?" She asked me to come over to her side of the car. I walked around and opened the sliding door and put my arms around her and she rested her head on me. "You don't have to go to school," I said. "You can stay and hang out with Clark and me if you want to. If you just don't feel like going, that's okay." It was interesting--she paused. Before that she said something in jealousy about how Clark got to play with me, and when I offered for her to stay too I think it freed her from feeling like she had no choice. She loves school, and after she paused she said she wanted to go to school, and then she seemed happy about the decision, about the situation, ready to start the car and her day. Before that she felt I was pushing her, making her (I was pushing her to get dressed...).

As I write this it occurs to me that perhaps some of the headbutting we do starts from little things I don't even realize, like getting dressed. Hm. I'm going to have to think on this. When I say, "It's time to ___ " I wonder if that alone sets her off a little. I wonder if I can rephrase things, approach it differently, somehow help her be a part of the decision process. I like that.

Already we use a sticker chart which has been very effective. She gets stickers for all kinds of things she does by herself, like getting on her jammies, or her clothes in the morning, or her shoes and coat without dallying when I ask, or cleaning up the toys. When she fills one row of stickers (only 6 in a row... she can do it in a day if she puts her mind to it) she gets a gigantic gumball--her choice of prizes. Then when she fills the whole sheet (7 rows total) she gets to go out for a special ice-cream outing. She isn't interested in picking out her clothes, a thing that many children use to explore their independence, I understand. I wonder if she's looking for it in other more abstract ways.

But I've got to think this through some more. Truth is, though the sticker chart is working, it's still manipulation. I still control the gumballs. Maybe there's a way for neither of us to be in control like that. Is there? She is only 3 after all. Is there a way for her to be in control too?

(this is prompting for your thoughts, by the way)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

crazy making

Well, the book has sent me into a spin. Dammit. And I can't stop eating cookies, but that's a separate issue. Maybe.

What happened is that I became disgruntled with Frances's preschool--specifically that the kids don't go outside if it's cold. (Do you remember where we live?) I'm serious. Their policy is that it has to be over 32 degrees and not precipitating. They can't go out when it's snowing? I don't want my child to be indoors six months of the year, which is what that would amount to. When I talked to the director about it she assured me that the kids go to the large muscle room and they do obstacle courses in the hallways and they run in the auditorium upstairs, that they get exercise. I trust that they do. They have plenty of room in the building, as it's one wing of a synagogue, but that's not my issue. I of course want Frances to be running and climbing, but I also want her outside. I believe fresh air is really important, and I believe children (and adults too...) benefit from interacting with the earth, the natural world. I know I know that it takes forever to get the kids bundled up but isn't that what preschool is about? Processes and routines? Yes, it's cold. But twenty minutes outside isn't going to do any kid harm.

I also have an issue with the art work the kids are producing, which all look suspiciously alike. I'd rather have Frances bring home ugly scribbles or free-form painting messes than snowmen made of doilies and orange noses cut out by the teacher.

Plus, they give the kids cookies for snack.

The book hasn't been helping this--it makes the ridiculous and sweeping claim that, in the first 4 years of life, a person learns 50% of everything she'll ever learn. What kind of stupid unscientific unsupported statement is that? Yet it's made me crazy thinking how important this decision of preschool is. It's been enough to make me want to send her somewhere else next year.

What I want is a Waldorf school, or a Friends school, both of which I could have in Durham, NC. Alas, we are not in Durham. (This brings me to a thing I've been practicing... rather than mourn about what I can't have here, I simply acknowledge that--yes, if we were somewhere else we could have a Friends school or ski hill or downtown within walking distance--but we're not. That is the reality. Here has lots of benefits that I'm not going to list just now, and here is where we are. Rather than bemoan the situation, just see what the best options before me are.

Turns out there is a Waldorf school here, but it's brand new and run by one woman out of her home and there are only eight kids. Are any of those things a problem? For some reason I thought last year it was important to have F in a facility with infrastructure. I have no idea what benefit I thought that had. This school looks pretty amazing. But then I read up on the Waldorf philosophy and for the most part I'm all for it, but there are some things that just seem a little ridiculous. Like, from what I understand, they only paint with watercolors. Something about learning how the colors mix and the naturalness of the material or something. Just seems a little extreme. Anyway, I'll be going to the open house in a couple of weeks and can see for myself, and can see how Frances acts in that environment.

I just wanna stop the crazy whirlwind in my head. I think I'll stop reading for a while.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

clean mush=good mom

Did a new project: super successful. Usually with these projects, after a time, the kids lose interest and run their paint covered hands over their head, or wander off, or try to eat the materials. But this one! The directions tell you to use a big tub with a lid so "clean up is easy" and I didn't have any idea what that was about until I did it. What they mean is that the kids won't ever want to quit playing with this shit and when they get hungry or near naptime you finally have to pick up the tub and just carry it out of the room. Which is where the lid would come in handy.

So here's the project: it's called Clean Mush, and I did it in the water table. I got it from this book which I checked out from the library called First Art which also has all kinds of other great ideas.
You unroll three rolls of toilet paper (great fun on its own and takes up quite a bit of time) and put them in the water table. Add a bar of ivory soap you've previously grated with a cheese grater, plus 1/3 cup borax, and enough warm water to saturate it all. It takes more water than you'd think. Then you plunge your hands in and mush mush mush it. This part is enormous amounts of fun and you can do this for ages. Use scoops and spoons, plus little plastic thingys they can hide in the mush. Then! If you want to, add food coloring. I ignored the tiny bottle of green and used only red, blue, and yellow so we could mix the secondary colors ourselves. One reason this project is so great is that I had fun playing in the mush too. My hands were all pruney after.

After a while I squeezed the water out of some and put it on newspaper to mold like clay, but that wasn't so successful as Clark kept wanting to add wet unsqueezed mush from the table, which made quite a mess. Warning: the whole thing is rather messy. The little bits that splash onto the floor dry to a crust, and cleaning out the water table was not so easy either but it was definitely worth it. Bits of it got in Clark's hair too but at least it was soapy and clean, though he might still have blue food coloring on his nose. Today, the very day after we did this, Frances said, "You remember last week when we did that project with the toilet paper? Let's do that again." We will do it again, but not so soon.

Doing these projects makes me feel like the best mom in the world. I haven't thought too hard about why that is, because I don't care. I'm going with it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

we are not boomers

Yesterday I put towels down on the kitchen floor, brought the water table up from the basement, and filled it with snow. That was some good entertainment for a bit. I've been thinking ahead about these things, the kinds of things we can do when the kids get squirrelly and I feel the rumble inside, threatening upward. It's a heavy thing in my stomach made of impatience, frustration, and a hint of incompetence. But an art project of crayon rubbings on kitchen utensils will do wonders in keeping the monster down.

I've been reading again, a thing that can be both good and bad. It's good because I learn new ideas, I get inspired about what kind of parent I want to be; it's bad because it often makes me put enormous pressure on myself to be my version of the ideal mom. The one I'm reading now--Please Touch--I think will only be helpful, but not for the reason you think.

The book explains motherhood as the complete and total giving over of your own self, your own time and space and thoughts, a complete self-sacrifice, directly endorses this, but qualifies it by saying it's just for the first 3 years. She says, "you'll have time to yourself when you're old, probably more than you want, but they're little only for now." She says that not giving your children this total attention and sacrifice handicaps them as adults. (wow--way to pressure.) That babies given full and complete attention of their mothers grow up to be secure confident adults. I agree with her to some degree--children certainly need not only love but direct attention to feel secure--but she goes a little overboard, which is why I think this book might not turn me into a psychotic mess about my parenting.

It was published in 1986, parents solidly in the Boomer generation, children solidly in the Millennial generation. These are the kids I taught at Elon, the ones whose parents DID give all their attention, whose parents were consumed with playing Mozart in the womb, who wanted to do everything they could to maximize the child's intellectual potential, who micromanaged their time and hustled them from scouts to violin to soccer to dance. These are kids who believed they were the center of the world and yet knew how to do nothing by themselves. They were the kids for whom the country changed all policies about child safety, about movie ratings, about car seats and appropriateness of lyrics. (The country went a little nuts in its child-focus, partially in reaction to the collective neglect of the children of the 1970s; you know, the "latch-key kids".) These Millennial children, when they got to college, didn't know how to study because their parents had always helped them do their homework, or had at very least managed their time and told them when to do their homework. In my freshman classes there were so many of them who were completely overwhelmed by college, floating and lost, nearly unable to function at all.

So I can read this book with a bit of a cynical view. I think mostly her ideas are insightful. For example, she points out that telling a child under 2 'no' just makes him want to explore the forbidden object more. She insists that with most objects you can let them see and touch as long as you are right there. Meaning, the kid can hold the 9 inch sissors as long as he's on your lap and you are helping. You can show him how to open and close them, show him where they are sharp, let him see them up close, the theory being that after exploring them like this he will no longer have interest in them, since the child's goal is to learn about the world. Once he's learned what he can about the sissors, the interest will pass. Also, if you just say 'no', he believes he has to have adult permission to explore things and loses some of the desire to learn that characterizes childhood. Okay, interesting.

She also makes stupid sweeping claims like letting your kids wear clothes with Mickey Mouse on them will keep them from appreciating good art as they get older--as if the kid exists in a vacuum with you as the only influence--but I can let that go. At least her ridiculousness allows me to more efficiently sift the good from the useless.

And there's lots of good, the majority of which is about the attitude you take in child rearing. She thinks about child exploration as the child's work and thinks of good parenting as finding ways to allow the child to do her work--providing physical space to explore, tools like art supplies, and an attitude of wonder about the world around. I actually think my generation (that would be X) has done a better job of seeing the work of children as exploration, and that it comes from a place more natural and less cerebral to us.

But come on--we mothers are humans, you know. It's true that the kids will only be little once and it's true that we'll have more time later on (though that's easy to forget while you're in it) but sometimes there's only so much we can sacrifice ourselves without getting lost. In order to be able to be the kind of mom you want to be you have to know your edges and find ways to refill when the tank gets low. Sure, in an ideal world all mothers (any mother) could give her life up completely for the first three years of the child's, but we don't live in that world. People tire out. They run out of patience. They need space of their own in order to come back to the child with energy and then face the next round of impatience with grace. It's all well and good to look at how the ideal parent would parent, but then one has to look also at the reality of life and our human-ness, and acknowledge where we fall short. Only in seeing the blocks in the road can we find a way around. It does no good to pretend they aren't there and try to plow through; it just damages the car.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Frances is sometimes giving up her naps, but not always. I talked before on the blog about how we were napping together, but then a few weeks ago she stopped wanting to nap as I lay there beside her with my eyes shut. She wanted to poke at my closed eyes, or move my hair from one side of my face to the other, or grapple with the cat at the foot of the bed, or make her babies talk, or wiggle and squirm and generally make my napping difficult (it is all about my napping, not hers, after all). I got very annoyed. We had a bit of an emotional tussle and I finally told her that if she couldn't be still and quiet she had to go to her room and lie on her bed. She didn't want to lie on her bed, because it turns out she didn't want to nap. I don't know why it took me several times of this before I realized she was not going to and that this was okay. What I needed from her was not a nap but just some quiet time, for her to settle down and rest a bit, and for me to get a few minutes of horizontal eyes closed.

So now I do what a zillion moms all over the earth do--I have her play quietly in her room for Quiet Time. I don't know why this seemed so radical a solution to me. I've set up a lego doll house on a small table and against one wall of the room she's organized a virtual doll dorm, all the babies lined up in their beds. She's got her lacing cards in there and some magnetic paper doll style things made of wood instead of paper and she can play with whatever she likes as long as she stays in her room. Some days she plays the whole time and doesn't sleep. Other days she plays a while and then climbs up on her bed and takes a long nap. Yesterday when I went to peek I found her asleep inside her laundry hamper turned over on its side on the floor, only her feet sticking out.

The other issue has been bedtime. Oh my goodness does she delay and delay, offering deals and pleading and sometimes refusing outright. When she does get in bed finally, we can expect to see her downstairs several times after. I count on time after bed to be able to straighten up the house and do the dishes and hang out with Mitch and clear my brain with knitting and bad tv while he works. Mitch asked his sister-in-law (who often has brilliant but simple solutions to our kid problems) what we should do about Frances' not wanting to go to sleep and she said, "let her stay up later. Or get her up earlier." Well.

Oh the logic that defies me. At first her solution seemed comical in its obviousness, and I thought it didn't help at all. But when I thought about it, it seemed clear this is all connected to her nap. I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me before. She'd already been telling me she didn't want to nap any more.

The result is that I've given up trying to control her sleep, and I let her control it instead. I feel completely relieved that I no longer have to take responsibility for it, and she feels freed from sleep captivity. She plays in her room for quiet time and decides if she's tired enough to sleep. If she does sleep, we let her stay up later at bedtime (because there's no point at all in putting her down earlier...) though she has to spend the last bit of that time playing quietly so the adults can get their adult work done. If she doesn't nap we put her to bed earlier because if we don't she melts into a whining crying puddle. And since I've started this, I'd say she ends up napping 4 of 5 days.

This is a rather long post for what seems to most obvious of problems and solutions. The reason I'm writing about it is that it hasn't struck me as obvious at all. Instead, to me it feels radical. It's really challenged the way I think about my parenting, the role I pay as parent, what is in my control and what isn't (what should be and what shouldn't). It's been a big thing in her life too I think--made her think differently about the control she has over her own world. The result is that our power struggles have diminished a lot. Thank goodness.

Friday, January 1, 2010

art for the new year

It went pretty well, all considered. We made stained glass stars for the new year to hang in the window by grating crayons into separate cups (I used a cheese grater and red, yellow, and lime green crayons) and then sprinkled the crayon on wax paper. Then I sandwich the crayon shavings with another piece of wax paper (actually, I used a big sheet of wax paper folded in half and had them sprinkle on one side, then folded it over) and ironed them. For the ironing I used the lowest setting and put the wax paper between newsprint because I feared it would bleed a bit, which it did. They cooled pretty quickly and I drew stars on them and had the kids cut the shapes, which didn't work out so well so I ended up cutting them. They loved it though. A couple of things I learned: there should only be a little bit of crayon shavings on each piece of wax paper because otherwise it will squish out the sides and besides it bleeds together too much. Less is more. Also, the red sort of overwhelmed the two other colors so I will think through my colors a bit more next time, and maybe add white crayon too. But don't they look lovely?

The other project we did was with cornstarch... I added enough water to make a cornstarch goop, then added food coloring. We used watercolor paper and drizzled the cornstarch stuff over the paper with baby spoons. I thought Clark would have more fun squishing the stuff in his hands but it turns out he didn't want it on his hands at all. I had a tub of soapy water for them to clean their hands off which was great and turned out to be as much of an activity as the projects themselves. They loved just swishing their hands around in the tub. I took a picture of the cornstarch paintings but had to throw the paintings out afterwards because when the cornstarch hardens it flakes off and makes a big mess. But it was fun at the time, and the process is what it's all about now anyway, right?

THEN Frances wanted to paint and I thought that since I had them in smocks already (old t-shirts of mine), why not? So I got out the paints and brushes and when they'd smeared the paint all around I showed Frances how to make a mono-print off her painting just by laying another sheet on top. She really liked that.

It was fun though clean up was kind of labor intensive, but worth it. Besides, it's clear to me now what kinds of things to do to make it less so. Now I have a whole list of things to get for future projects. I want to try this with rubber cement and watercolors, and also this glue batik project. Yay!