Monday, January 31, 2011

A Retraction of Sorts

I’m in a new season of examining parenting philosophy. Both because I am back in those baby months with a child possessing deeply different characteristics than my older daughter, and because my older daughter is in a brand new phase of development with brand new abilities, talents, and challenges, drives, needs, propensities, tendencies. Four going on four and a half has been newly challenging. It’s not so much that she’s been impossible to deal with, or anything, it’s more that the depth and breadth of my parenting knowledge has been exhausted leaving my judgment about issues such as lying, bullying, screaming back at mom, being totally defiant, or just raging at ones sister, father or aforementioned mom, a bit lacking.

So being back at the crossroads of parenthood, I’ve gone back to the library to scrounge up any possibly useful information about this age. The first book I came across and began reading was Love and Logic.

Now let me just say, if I had just read the book, I would have taken from it what I liked, left what I didn’t agree with, ignored those suggestions that didn’t square with my parenting philosophies, and left it at that. However, because I linked it to my blog and recommended it by name, I feel I need to specifically mention a couple of aspects of the book that, after finishing it, thinking about it, stewing over it and ultimately doing on-line research about what other moms are saying, I’ve realized don’t line up with the positive discipline model of parenting I’ve always held as my guiding light as a mom.

Interestingly, many of the goals of Love and Logic are clearly aiming at the very essence of what positive discipline stands for (raising children who are responsible, respectful and resourceful). It’s the actual methods in Love and Logic that occasionally miss the mark of positive discipline, which is to discipline without ever shaming or humiliating.

As I read Love and Logic, a couple of the strategies made my heckles stand up. Well, we’re in a new league of parenting, I thought to myself and simply pushed through. But with some distance and time, I have decided that brining a child to school in his or her pajamas because they didn’t dress themselves after one request seems rather inflexible and I dare say, humiliating. Putting a young toddler in his room for spilling something without any explanation of why he is being held in his room while you go clean it up yourself, misses the ultimate goal of positive discipline entirely which is to incorporate kids in the process of fixing, and learning from, their mistakes.

Interestingly, one of the major tenants of Love and Logic is to “Share the Thinking” however the author also insists on “keeping your mouth shut and letting the consequences do the teaching.” From my experience, it is difficult to “share thinking” with Twila without actually talking to her about what has just happened, why it happened and why the consequences are what they are, what the book would call “lecturing.”

Additionally, as a friend of mine in California who taught in the public school system for twenty years pointed out, the practice of having children “pay for their errors” with toys or chores can send a very inappropriate message on multiple levels. For one thing, a child shouldn’t have to live in fear that their favorite toys or stuffed animals might be taken away from them for mistakes they make or for not carrying out orders they’ve been given. For another thing, sending the message that they can disobey as long as they fork over a toy doesn’t encourage accountability for their actions.

So as with any new parenting strategies, you have to vet the new information under the microscope of your own parenting direction. There is some very good information in Love and Logic and I know at least one mom who has had fantastic success with the new strategies and she feels it has brought her and her son closer, brought more harmony to her family. And some of the strategies have worked for us as well. As with any new information, it has to be sifted through and analyzed on an individual level. The New book I’m reading is Positive Discipline for Preschoolers by Jane Nelson ED.D. We loved Positive Discipline, the First Three Years. Not only did Jane Nelson author many of the texts I used in my college courses for classroom discipline, the Preschool book has almost entirely paved the parenting path Ryan and I on so, though I won’t recommend this book until I’ve finished reading it, I have a lot of confidence in the author.

More to come…

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Outer Space

The moon was full, and round, and bright as a spot light, on Thursday night as I drove to a meeting at church at seven thirty. Some new friends of ours are building a twenty three acre village in Rwanda that will house orphans of the recent genocide. They’ve been working on this project for a number of years and last week presented their project to the Mission Team at our church to petition them for support. Ryan and I had expressed interest in the project so they invited us to come to the meeting.

As it happened, Ryan had to be out of town. Also as it happened, Twila came down with her fourth virus of this season the night before the meeting and she and I were up for the better part of the night trying to find creative ways for her to breathe through the severe congestion of her cold.

So after negotiating and arranging with my mom and my carless sister trying to arrange childcare, I was feeling less than enthusiastic about leaving the house right at, what would have otherwise been, all of our bed time. As I kissed the girls and my mom and sister goodbye, dressed in nice pants and a clean top, Jada strained towards me for one more hug. I lifted her carefully from her highchair and turned her outward to wash the pizza off her hands before giving her a hug.

As I washed her hands at the sink, her little feet found balance on the tops of my thighs. Little did I know her little feel were covered in rotten, mushy, banana from the seat of her high chair. I shouted for backup, glad that there were other adults available to hear my frustration. My mom took one look at the scene and couldn’t stifle a laugh, the humor of which I did not share just then. I snapped angrily, feeling the previous night’s poor sleep weigh heavily on my eyelids and patience.

Finally, I got to the car and began driving, thinking, not for the first time that day, how maybe this outing was not worth the effort. It was less than zero degrees outside as I crept along the highway in what appeared to be an unusually late rush-hour traffic jam. The radio did not satisfy my restless brain nearly as much as the quiet car. Tired as I was, just getting away from the girls and the noise of their questions and the demands of their needs after thirty six hours of being alone with them felt rejuvenating.

As I turned east, there, hanging heavily in the sky was the largest, brightest moon I had ever seen. The whole world was lit up by its silver glow. I was awestruck by how close to outer space I felt. There on the surface of the earth, I could almost feel the rotation, turning me helplessly towards the moon. It drew me in with an almost-physical pull. I felt like at any minute, the gravity holding me to the crust of the earth might give way to that giant, glowing surface’s pull and I, along with all the other cars creeping along the highway might be flung into space.

Finally I made it to the sight of our church which looked ghostly in the darkness, lit up by that relentless silver shine. I was overcome, as I walked in, by a wave of fear, regret, hesitance, embarrassment. What was I doing here again? What was my role in this? Was I actually welcome? Now that I stopped to think about it, I wasn’t sure why this had felt like such a vital obligation all day. I felt a great weight of hesitation flood me and as I searched empty offices for where they might be meeting, I secretly hoped that it would not be going on tonight.

Then there they were, sitting with the head of the missions department and they saw me through the window and waved me in with big smiles on their faces. The head of the department asked me in so many words what I was doing there and I did my best to explain how we had met Rick and Vivian and what our interest was in their work. And Rick kindly stepped in rescuing me and saying that it was our encouragement that inspired them to connect with the church about their project.

A few minutes later we were in the larger board room with the eight missionaries who are supported by the church. The group was unassuming in appearance and as diverse as one group could be. There was the stocky Haitian man getting ready to return to Haiti for the hundredth time in the last ten years since he began his work, educating and empowering Haitians living in remote villages. Next to him was a tall wiry Caucasian man with tufts of white hair cropping out from every side of his head. He was apparently fluent in three dialects of Chinese and had been to at least a dozen countries over the past year, meeting the basic needs of people in the lowest of stations and with the least power and wealth. Next to him a younger, round man with a shining bald head and bright blue eyes who had been to several of the poorest villages in sub-Saharan Africa in the last couple of months. There was also an elderly woman with two walking canes who dozed at the table as the various missionaries gave their recounts and summaries of the work they’d done in the last few months. I didn’t learn what her work included and the curiosity has been lingering ever since, because she looked somewhat less than able to care for herself let alone others.

The missionaries were dressed in jeans, old sweatshirts and beat-up looking tennis shoes. They are doing some of the hardest work I can imagine. I felt strangely exposed and inappropriate in my dress pants, my nice purse sitting next to me on the floor; strangely sheltered and myopic. Rick and Vivian were dressed nicely as they always are and I was grateful to not be the only person not wearing jeans.

As Vivian began her presentation in her beautifully thick Rwandan accent, I was grateful to feel more purposeful in the meeting of missionaries where I alone sat, a plain old American mom, suddenly realizing for the first time that I had become that. I listened with rapt attention to Vivian tell about growing up in the care of various foster mothers in Rwanda until she was eight, about the abuse she endured under those foster parents and about the first inkling of the vision that she would one day create a home for children like her, for orphans in Rwanda. For the next twenty years she grew up in America but never forgot her dream.

When the 1994 genocide happened, the vision was given new life and new direction. Since then, she has started a foundation, managed to get the Rwandan government to donate twenty three acres of land to her project and begun construction on a small village with many homes for the children orphaned by the genocide and the subsequent AIDS epidemic, the result of sexual warfare. Their aim is to take children ages six to sixteen (another orphanage already functioning takes children from birth to age five) but they will also take younger siblings since they want to keep siblings together and, as Vivian explained, many “younger siblings” are actually the children of the children they are taking in. Child prostitution is an obvious consequence of children living on the street.

At this point in the presentation, I began to feel very silly in my suit pants and nice jacket. And though I know its egocentric to think that my outfit mattered in the context of the education I was receiving, it felt somehow like the very issue: the disconnect between a comfortable life here and the horrors that children live with elsewhere. How else could we go on about our day, eating, drinking, shopping, dressing, while children starve and suffer and are sold, unless we insulated ourselves from this reality by believing that certain things, like our outfits, matter.

That night as I lay in bed with Twila, who had forced herself to stay awake until I got home, we counted the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling. She was barely awake and I could feel her breath getting heavier and heavier and slower. I kept counting her stars quietly as I thought about the brightness of the moon that night. I thought about what I would do to keep my daughters from suffering in anyway. I thought about how many people in my life would care for and protect my children to keep them from living through the nightmare that the children of Rwanda are experiencing now. I wondered at how so many children don’t have those safety nets of family and friends to protect them. I thought of all the worries and anxieties that fuel my actions during the day; how I fret about the right parenting and disciplining strategies, how I sweat over the words I said or did not say, or did not say well. How I agonize over small decisions like what foods I feed my daughters and seemingly big ones like if and when I should go away over night.

How rarely it is that I stop to think about all that is good and safe and abundant about our lives as a family. So much is good. We have food. We have clothes. We have protection from the weather and from most dangers. And I felt a certain weight of guilt that I live in this privilege. And I felt a certainness that the best way to show gratitude for this random gift of being able to feed and keep safe my children is to keep close in mind the women, who seem as far from us as outer space, enduring the ultimate suffering, which is the inability to feed your baby when she’s hungry, give her clean water when she’s thirsty, and protect her from harm.

But with this guilt came also a lightness of gratitude. I thought, as I lay with Twila sleeping on my shoulder, of all that we have: the safety and protection of this house, our health and our ability to feed and clothe our children, the time I have to read parenting books and agonize over my decisions, the time to dress up and go to meetings, the family to babysit while I get out of the house, the glow-in-the-dark stars that give Twila something to look at when she can’t get to sleep, the dress up she uses as a portal into countless imaginary games, the nutritious foods we have access to, the un-nutritious food that Twila takes such delight in feeding to Jada, the peacefulness of our basic needs being met which breeds a drive to achieve more: to write and read, to build things and learn, while also teaching our children to reason and debate. And all this that I have, I thought as I looked at the plastic stars overhead, I am incredibly grateful for.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"What Do You Want for That Camera?"

We started a family music class a little while back. It’s the kind of class where mommies (and the occasional stray daddy) and their children dance and clap together, shake tambourines and maracas and ding triangles while singing along to silly songs and rhymes.

It’s the kind of music class that meets once a week for forty five minutes and costs exorbitant amounts of money. It must be a real money-maker Ryan and I often comment because the overhead of maracas and a CD player, and the rental of a small gym-supplies closet for forty five minutes, cannot be much.

But Twila and Jada love it. Often those forty five minutes are the best forty five minutes of our whole week. So we are on our third session of this music class and Twila might be getting close to aging out. Often now, she is more interested in whispering to the other children who are boarder-line too old and occasionally sits out a song, crossing her arms over her chest or rolling onto her back, refusing to clap, sing or otherwise look engaged or like she is having fun.

Jada on the other hand is fascinated with the proceedings of adults singing, dancing and making silly noises with their mouths, and sits with rapped attention in my lap, not sure how to participate but clearly interested.

It might have bothered me that for the cost of the music class, which Twila begged me to sign her up for, she is choosing to lay on the floor instead of participate. Actually it does bother me. But I might have chosen to lecture Twila or make threats about dropping out of the class unless she sits up and shows some interest. The new parenting strategies I’m learning, however, forbid lecturing and threatening and instead encourage letting go of control whenever appropriate and letting natural consequences do the teaching.

And since the strategies have been working in so many areas of our life lately, I have decided to let Twila miss out on the fun whenever she is feeling too morose to get up and shake it with me. Now I just have extra fun, dancing and laughing until she decides it’s boring to mope and wants to be twirled and hugged.

It amazes me, the decisions Twila makes, when given the freedom and space to think through her choices. Nine times out of ten she makes exactly the decision I was hoping she would, and very often she chooses something even better and more helpful than I would have hoped for.

Instead of lecturing, I’ve been experimenting with “charging” Twila for misbehavior, for being rude or for making us late. A few days ago Twila had a major melt down about the outfit I picked for her after refusing to choose her own outfit five minutes before she had to be at school. With no clothes on (having rebelliously removed even her underwear and socks) she shouted back at me that she wasn’t going to get dressed.

Love and Logic suggested picking up your child and putting her in the car with clothes in a bag to put on at school. Somehow taking a bare naked four year old girl to school to get dressed in front of her peers didn’t seem loving, or logical, or even safe on a five degree morning in Minnesota.

So instead I used another L&L technique after we had wrestled our way into something of a half-compromise, half, threat-based agreement and were driving (fully clothed) to school ten minutes after the door had opened.

“Gosh,” I started, piquing Twila’s attention, “it looks like we’re going to be about fifteen minutes late.”

Her eyes were glued to me, wondering where I was going with this.

“That makes fifteen minutes of time I can’t spend getting work done. How are you going to pay me back for that time?”

“I don’t know, how?” She asked, genuinely curious.

“I don’t know,” I said, tossing the ball back in her court, “what do you think?”

“Well, I’ve got money in my Eagle Doctor Pork Chop.”

“Actually, I don’t think you do since you spent it all on Beauty and the Beast last week. Remember?”

She thought about this for a while and then asked, “Well how can I then?”

“Well, you could do some chores around the house, or pay me with some of your toys,” I suggested.

Suddenly, she was very excited. “Oh, okay, sure mom. I’ve got lots of toys you can have—wait! I have an idea. Let’s set up a store in my room after school and you can choose what toys you want!”

I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be having quite so much fun with this “consequence” but I agreed. She hugged me and dashed into class more happily than usual.

That evening, after dinner, Ryan and Twila and Jada and I sat on the floor of Twila’s room while Twila offered me a wide assortment of Magic Tree House books she’d finished and stuffed animals she doesn’t play with anymore, crafts she’s made at school and art on her walls, while enthusiastically explaining to Ryan about how she’d made us late to school but it’s okay now because she’s paying mom for the time she lost. She was so proud of being able to put things right, I thought for the first time Maybe this is exactly the point.

After a while I insisted she had more than paid me back, taking my treasures into my room to try and find space for them. When I came back, Ryan was letting Twila take pictures with our Nikon.

Suddenly, a light flashed on in Twila’s eye that wasn’t from the camera. “Hey mom, how much of my stuff do you want for this camera to be mine?”

Ryan and I began to hedge, explaining that we needed the camera to be ours. But undeterred, Twila began making wild offers like a seasoned flee marketer.

“I’ll give you ten Jack and Annie books, and this stuffed animal.”

“I’m going to need something bigger than that,” I laughed getting thoroughly pulled in by her enthusiasm, “how about your couch and this bear?”

“You can’t have that bear and not my couch but…you can have my bed! And this bear.”

“I can have your bed?” I laughed, “I need more stuffed animals too, I think.”

“Okay, okay, okay, mom, here’s the deal,” she insisted after twenty minutes of hard negotiations, “you can have these books, those bears, my bed and this flower pot,” she said rushing towards me with her pink flower pot, which held her new wedding flowers she had gotten for Christmas.

“Do I get the flowers too?” I asked.

“You can put real flowers in it,” she suggested pulling her silk bouquet and hiding it behind her back.

I was so totally charmed by her tenacity that at some point in the dickering, (I’m slightly embarrassed to say) I gave away our camera. And Apparently I am now the proud owner of some pre-read Magic Tree House books, an empty flower pot, a single bed and some stuffed animals that used to be mine.

We negotiated that the camera still lives on an up-high shelf (so Jada can’t get it) and that mom and Dad still get use of the camera when we need it.

But, just last night as Ryan was preparing to go out with Twila to skate; Twila unearthed a small, kids-camera that had been a gift to her when Jada was born. She hadn’t seen the camera in several months so she was obviously, ecstatic.

“Mom, she yelled, running in to show me her find, “I found my own camera! Now I don’t need yours, so you can buy it back!”

“Oh, wow!” I said.

Then, as she ran from the room, she shouted over her shoulder, “You just need five dollars!”

*Photos courtesy of Twila (the week she owned my camera).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stuck in the Proverbial Muddy Waters of Motherhood

It was the day after Jada’s first birthday and I decided to organize the kitchen drawers. Like many projects that have needed to be done for a long time, when I finally started this project, I thought to myself, why didn’t I do this a long time ago?

I wiped out the insides of my utensil drawers, removing random pens, matchbooks, corks, Fringe Festival pins from 2009, coupons that expired shortly after we moved in. I grouped recycled plastic bags together, wiped out measuring cups and shook toast crumbs into the garbage.

As I sorted through an unusually large stack of expired clothing, food, and appliance discount offers, I started thinking about the last eighteen months we’ve been in this house. It still feels like our “new” house but we’ve been here for a year and a half. As if this thought opened a portal in my mind, I began also thinking about the seven years we lived at our last house; how that seven years really only feels like a short time in looking back. Yet in that house we celebrated our engagement, greeted our first daughter and got pregnant with our second.

But the whole seven year period reads like a short chapter in my memory. The last eighteen months in this house seems like a flash. There are still many unpainted rooms in our house, lots of blank walls and closets that require deeper organization.

As I sorted through eighteen months of clutter in the kitchen drawers I was interrupted over and over by Jada’s fusses for attention, her hugs, her grinning face drawing me into a few minutes of peek-a-boo, by Twila’s questions and requests for help finding PBS on the television, help getting her yogurt open. And these requests and interruptions mark the last eighteen months here and represent what my life has consisted of here and explain why there are countless projects like organizing these drawers that haven’t gotten done.

And I think the goal, or anyway, my new goal as a mother is not to find a way to get these projects done faster, but to find grace and peace about not doing them, or not doing them fast.

I don’t know, and will maybe never know, if it’s me or the world at large and all the populous contained who feels the need to move through things fast, to get “stuff” done and move in to the next “thing.” Is this a facet of my American culture? Is it a basic human drive to accomplish? Is it a mom thing? Do we mom’s feel the pull to do because doing anything is so difficult?

Is it because it takes two hours to get ready and get out the door that I always feel like we should be getting “going?”

If I were actually given time and space and quiet to accomplish things would I perhaps wander aimlessly around with writer’s block and a lack of motivation to accomplish anything? Maybe it’s the challenge of finding time to finish things that keeps me productive. So maybe this condition of motherhood and chaos is not without its benefits.

I’ve been reading a really challenging parenting book the last few weeks called Love and Logic and it’s been challenging me to help my children (namely Twila) to learn from her mistakes, to share the thinking with me and to show her that I can handle disciplinary issues “without breaking a sweat.” This is important, they say, because it conveys to a child that she is good, manageable and normal. When we parents freak out, yell, pound our fists, make angry faces, basically lose our minds, it shows our kids that we can’t handle them and they, therefore, must be pretty bad.

Then there’s all these scary scenarios of the toddler with no locus of self-control who grows up to be the delinquent teenager and all the readers are thinking oh I don’t want that to be my kid! And so it’s been good and challenging and if nothing else, it is making me keenly aware when I start to lose my mind, of Twila’s body language.

It’s the most fascinating thing. When I get angry, or start to take deep breaths like I am trying to control my anger, Twila’s whole physicality changes. She furrows her brow, clenches her fists, drops her head, and watches my face with rapt attention, waiting to see if we are going to do battle. This is what brain-experts call going into a primitive fight or flight response. The hypothalamus is stimulated in such a way through stress or fear that it causes a child (or any human) to drop into a self-protective mode. In this mode, no learning can take place because the more enlightened regions of the brain responsible for creativity and reasoning, shut down and survival mode takes over.

So they say, this is why children who are “in trouble” often don’t respond maturely to punishments, consequences, etc. They are more apt to shout, cry, stomp, run away, hit or yell something hurtful, than to say, “oh wow mom, you’re right, that wasn’t a good choice, can I help you clean the apple sauce off my little sister?”

It’s a difficult book because I can see its right and because the better, recommended methods of disciplining are really, really, hard. For me.

To not get angry when I’ve asked Twila to get her shoes on and come to the door, fifteen times, is difficult for me.

Such was the climate of the car yesterday when I was driving Twila to school (with no jacket and no backpack). And though it has been a good twenty degrees warmer in Minnesota than it was a week or so ago, I was feeling pretty embarrassed about the fact that I was going to be walking a jacket-less child into school. Then I realized we had forgotten Twila’s classroom tennis shoes. Then Twila woke up Jada who was sleeping in her car seat. Then she said something snide.

I screeched the car to a halt on the winding road near our house. I whirled around, eyes flashing, teeth gritted. The coherent part of what I said conveyed that Twila would be without her video player for the rest of the day (ah the consequences for the twenty-first century child). As soon as I made eye-contact with her, her eyes widened, then squinted, her mouth frowned and her whole face scrunched into a scowl.

“Well, that’s fine, it’s okay with me; its perfect actually, because I wasn’t going to watch my video player today,” she retorted instantly regaining her composure.

I turned around and kept driving in silence, mortified by what had just taken place. This was exactly the kind of exchange I was trying to avoid by reading this book yet our interaction had taken an even more unsettling turn. Twila was learning how to harden herself to me. She was learning how to show me that my rather temperamental and subjective wielding of authority and power couldn’t hurt her.

And what was I trying to teach if the fact that I hadn’t hurt her felt like a loss? The whole thing felt gross and I had no idea how to back delicately out of it yet there was no way to proceed gracefully. So I awkwardly left things as they were: stuck in the proverbial muddy waters of motherhood.

I don’t know how this story ties into the grace and peace I’m trying to gain about chores and projects and accomplishments except that I am praying constantly for grace and peace as I confront and am confronted by an endless array of parenting challenges and life challenges even as those two categories grow ever more entangled and undistinguishable.

And sometimes there are rays of light, the glimmer of peace on the battlefield of life; and sometimes I just trudge on causing as little harm as possible and looking for the next beam of clarity.