On Parenting

Why You NEED to Take a Day Off (Hint: It’s not about self-care)

I just spent the afternoon listening to the legendary author and feminist Gloria Steinem.  Among the topics she addressed was the issue of democratic heterosexual households.  She argued that society has convinced us there are “male” qualities and “female” qualities.  However, when we realize that the “qualities necessary to raise children – patience, nurturing, attention to detail, empathy” – are HUMAN qualities, we’ll have taken the first step towards a democratic household.

Why don’t many men readily display these qualities?  She argues that it’s because they haven’t been given the opportunity to raise children.  Which brings me to my story.

My husband and I have what you’d call traditional gender roles.  He works outside the home; I work within it.  When we’re together on the weekends, I’m still on the clock: making the food, holding the limits, and managing the logistics, as I do during the week.  This is both convenient and devaluing to my husband.

I recently decided to step away from my home for 12 hours every Sunday, leaving my husband 100% in charge of the home, the children, and the schedule.  I’m launching a couple of projects and wanted time to work on them, but I also knew that I needed to give my kids and husband space to build their own relationship.

Is my husband thrilled about it?  The jury’s still out.  Is my absence pushing him out of his comfort zone and allowing him to become more organized, patient, and empathetic?  Yes.  Is he rocking it in his own way?  Absolutely.

Switching roles one day a week is helping both of us cultivate qualities that have lain dormant for a long time – qualities that make us more human, more whole.  And this is slowly but surely leading to a more equal partnership.

The road to true equality is long, rocky, and treacherous.  The archaic claws of tradition and enculturation threaten to pull us back at every turn.  But I’m strengthened by the words of Gloria Steinem, who reminds us that “women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal inside it.”

Women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal inside it.

6 - 12, Favorite Books, Nature, On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning

The Entitlement Myth

A few weeks into his first-grade year, my formerly sweet and relatively cooperative son began acting sassy, cocky, and entitled.  Requests for help were met with groans and eye-rolls.  Limits were countered with sighs and “whatever“s.

We gave him the benefit of a doubt: Surely he was just imitating his older classmates’ rude behaviors.  Or maybe this was a misguided attempt at being more independent.  All my friends’ children were acting the same way, so it was probably a developmental phase.  Regardless of the reason, I dealt with entitled children all day long at work and  I wasn’t about to put up with the same behaviors from my son at home.

My husband and I gave Zachary a speech about behavioral expectations in our family.  He gave us a sigh and an eye-roll.  This was going to be harder than I thought…

A quick Google search on books about childhood entitlement led me to “The ‘Me, Me, Me’ Epidemic: A Step-By-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Children in an Over-Entitled World”.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book revolves around the principles of Positive Discipline, which I’ve used for years.

The first practical suggestion for countering entitlement is called “Mind, Body, and Soul Time” (MBST).  It requires each parent to set aside just ten minutes a day to “be fully present in mind, body, and soul and do whatever your child loves to do.”

Ten minutes a day sounded like a paltry amount of time until I started seeing the day from my son’s perspective.  From wake-up to bedtime, I was always busy with something – too busy to spend ten minutes one-on-one with him.

When he woke up, I was making breakfasts, packing lunch boxes, and getting everyone out the door on time.  Even though Zachary and I spent the day together at school, we were always surrounded by other children and adults.  Then at 5pm it was a mad rush to pick up his sister, drive home, get dinner made in 15 minutes, and sit down for ten minutes to eat as a family.  My husband would read the kids a book and tuck them in while I cleaned the kitchen, answered work emails, and planned the following day’s lessons.  Our life ran on a strict timetable and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find ten minutes to just be with him without sacrificing some essential task and sending the whole house of cards crashing down.

Three months after reading the book, we decided as a family to walk away from the madness of our lifestyle.  We shifted into the slow pace of unstructured homeschooling and discovered something we never had before: TIME.

Without the need to wake up at 6am, my son could go to bed later.  And without the need to hurriedly clean the kitchen and answer work emails, I could spend time with him.  And so, I started reading to him for an hour each night (his favorite thing to do).

Within a week, my husband pointed out, “Zachary is so much happier.”  It was true: my little boy began to laugh again.  Then, we noticed another change.  He became physically affectionate.  The child who had been pulling away from us began moving back into our lives.  He started folding his 4’4″, 70 lb. frame into our laps, requesting snuggles.  Or he’d jump into our arms and wrap his arms and legs around us in a full-body hug.

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And then, about a month in, we noticed it.  The entitlement, sass, and attitude had disappeared almost completely.  Requests for help were now met with an agreeable attitude; limits were either accepted or discussed rationally.  We even started hearing a phrase we’d never heard from him before: “How can I help?”

Sure, he has his moments, especially when he’s hungry or tired.  But overall, he’s a different child.

He’s a different child because I’m a different mother and we lead a different lifestyle.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that everyone should drop what they’re doing and homeschool.  But we need to stop justifying rudeness and entitlement as “normal” parts of growing up.  These behaviors are cries for help from little beings who are evolutionarily primed to connect.  So please, find those ten minutes, before it’s too late.

“The impulse to be good arises less from a child’s character than from the nature of a child’s relationships. If a child is ‘bad’, it’s the relationship we need to correct, not the child.” – Gordon Neufeld, “Hold On to Your Kids”

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On Parenting, Theory and Practice

Rediscovering Motherhood

An American friend and colleague who lives in Asia recently shared with me that her in-laws had moved out of her house.  They had been very involved in raising her children, so I asked if she missed having the help.  She texted back, “No.  I’m forced to be the mom and it’s what my kids want and what family is supposed to be.”

As I sat staring at her words on my screen, the last seven years of my life – my entire parenthood journey – flashed before my eyes.  I remembered how both times I had a baby I told myself that I’d stay home with them until they were three.  And how, by the time they were each 15 months old, I was desperate to find a job – any job – that would transport me away from the solitude, burden, and relentlessness of motherhood.

Though I enjoyed my teaching job, it was also a band-aid that covered up the rawness of parenting and kept its suffocating weight at bay for ten hours a day.  Yes, as a teacher I was still working with children.  But, they were other people’s children, not my own.  The responsibility for my students’ outcome didn’t rest solely on my shoulders.

Ironically, my hyper-focus on work ended up dragging me, kicking and screaming, back to stay-at-home motherhood.  The burden of a more-than-full-time job dictated the rhythm of my children’s days.  My night-owl son struggled mightily with 6am wake-ups, and spent the day being angry and uncooperative. My daughter cried daily at drop-off for two years, was constantly sick, and threw massive tantrums.  I fretted and lost sleep over other people’s children, all the while downplaying the struggles of my own.

Like an illness that forces you to slow down and reassess your life, their cries for help finally broke through to my mothering instinct – that part of me that for several years had lain curled up in a ball, shaking its head and refusing to fully engage.  Mercifully, conditions at work conspired to push me in a new direction, and finally one day I packed up my belongings, picked up my children, and drove away.

Homeschooling became my new project, and I threw all my energy into re-creating a mini-classroom at home.  But my children were only vaguely interested in the materials.  They played outdoors, built intricate LEGO creations, read lots of books, and reveled in their new freedom.  And while I fretted over incomplete lesson plans, a voice from my heart told me: “Leave them alone. They’re doing the work of childhood.  You go work on yourself.”

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Crap.  I’d been avoiding working on myself for years.  “Teacher” was a label that had allowed me to work on others.  But I was no longer a teacher; I was “just a mom”.  Being a mom meant I had to become reacquainted with the vulnerabilities of motherhood.   I had to examine my own shortcomings and anxieties, lest I inadvertently pass them on to my children.  I also had to identify and dissect my triggers, and remain present through the chaos.  I had to move past society’s cognitively dissonant perceptions of motherhood, and craft a definition that rang true to me.

Being vulnerable is exhausting.  It’s also some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.  Someone on my Facebook page wrote: “Homeschooling is a gift you will never regret giving to your children.”  And I’m starting to realize that, in addition to homeschooling being a gift to my children, rediscovering motherhood through homeschooling has been a gift to myself.  It’s a gift I never even knew I wanted, and one that I now can’t imagine living without.

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If you know someone who would enjoy reading this essay, please share it with them!

 

 

6 - 12, Cosmic Education, Theory and Practice

The Un-Checklist

If you’re a teacher or homeschooling parent who uses checklists to encourage a child’s organization and accountability, then you already know just how quickly checklists can turn into a battle of wills between adult and child.  You also probably sense that checklists hinder freedom of choice.  And you’ve surely noticed that checklists shift the focus of the child’s work away from self-development and flow, and towards task completion and industrial efficiency.

While checklists can work beautifully for a pilot safety-checking an airplane or a hospital staff preparing for a surgery, they wreak havoc on a child’s innate ability to follow his interests in the quest for true mastery and understanding.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting children to develop organization skills and hold themselves accountable.  So, how can we reach these well-intentioned goals without the drawbacks associated with checklists?

In our house, my son and I had a conversation about the reasons for practicing each of the disciplines that are currently a part of his homeschooling journey.  I made a large watercolor circle for each subject and wrote our combined thoughts.

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Then, on one sheet of paper, I started a mind map with the six subjects he’s currently exploring written in the same colors as the individual watercolor circles.  We re-read the reasons for exploring each subject area, and I asked him to think of some interesting topics he might want to learn about.  I connected those interests to the relevant subject areas.  We talked about some topics that I wanted to share with him and I wrote those down as well.

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This became our learning map, and we turn to it daily throughout the month.  Some days I choose what to present and other days he takes the lead.  We add topics to the month’s map as he discovers new interests, and I direct his attention towards the areas of the map that we haven’t visited yet.  Next month, I’ll start a new map and together we’ll discuss what he’s explored to his satisfaction and what he’d like to transfer over, in addition to the new topics we’ll be adding.

I love seeing him stand in front of the learning map, taking in the depth and breadth of explorations and learning opportunities he’s had in just one month.  This map doesn’t begin to capture the richness of his homeschooling experience, with daily adventures in nature, countless opportunities for social interaction, and freedom to play and daydream.  But I think it sends a message that’s developmentally appropriate for his age: Learning is a journey across a vast and varied landscape.  You may spend more time exploring some lands than others, but every stop along the way will enrich you and change you forever.

On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning, Theory and Practice

The Good Struggle

This morning, let’s talk about compassion (identifying our common struggles) and empathy (letting others know they’re not alone).

Raise your hand if you want your child to show compassion and empathy for others.  OK, that’s pretty much everyone in the audience.  Put your hands down.

Now, raise your hand if you want your child to suffer.  Anyone?  Anyone?  *crickets*

Most of us agree that it’s painful to watch our child get hurt (physically or emotionally). So painful, in fact, that it triggers the Mama or Papa Bear in us and we come out swinging against the person or situation that is causing our child pain.

But, what if I told you that suffering is at the root of compassion and empathy?  

Really. Uncomfortable. Thought.

I get it.  So, let’s leave our children’s suffering aside for a moment, because I have a story to tell you about my own journey towards compassion.  Before I became a mom, I thought that parents who, in my lofty opinion, didn’t have their act together deserved zero compassion.  ZERO.

I had a long list of parenting choices I would never make (screens, junk food, yelling at my kids) and I had an even longer list of behaviors my children would never exhibit (because they were going to be Montessori children).  I looked down my nose at those “hot mess” moms and their unruly kids who broke my rules for a perfect life.

And so, of course, the gods sent me two beautiful, loud, demanding, free-spirited children to take me down a notch or fifty.  Now, after seven years of being dragged through the parenting rodeo, I’m a proud card-carrying member of the Hot-Mess Moms club.

Do I still judge other moms?  Yes.  For about two seconds.  But then a voice inside me says, “Psst.  Girlfriend… Take a look in the mirror!”  That’s the voice of compassion. (I thought the voice of compassion would sound like Pema Chodron.  Yeah, no.)  When I hear that voice, my resistance to accepting my own imperfect humanity and that of others melts away.

Now here’s the thing: My lack of compassion for other parents stemmed not from being a bad person, but from not having lived through the struggles of parenthood.

So how does all this tie back to our children?  Well, if we want them to feel compassion, we need to let them connect with the struggles of others by letting them struggle a little bit themselves.

And if we want them to learn how to show empathy, we need to connect empathically with them post-struggle.  Let’s put aside our “I told you so’s” and “You’re OK’s”… When we suffer, all we want to hear and know is “You’re not alone.”

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3 - 6, 6 - 12, Favorite Books, On Parenting, Siblings, Sleep, Social and Emotional Learning

BOTW: Good-Night Yoga

good night yogaOn a recent date night at a local bookstore (exciting, I know), my husband came across Good-Night Yoga: A Pose-By-Pose Bedtime Story.  Neither of us practice yoga, but we’d been trying to find activities we can do as a family in the evenings that will engage both a three-year-old and a seven-year-old AND that will help us transition peacefully into the bedtime routine.

We’ve been reading and yoga-ing with this book a couple of evenings a week for the past month, and it’s become on of our favorite evening activities!  The kids love the illustrations and poses, and my husband and I love that it’s fun but not over-stimulating.  The kids have a great time watching their dad wobble through the balance poses, and I can see their body awareness improving with consistent practice.

If you’re looking for a family-friendly way to wind down after a busy day, then I encourage you to find a place on your bookshelf for Good-Night Yoga!

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Montessori Theory, On Parenting, Social and Emotional Learning, Theory and Practice

The Puzzle-Child

Over the years of working in Montessori classrooms I’ve met many children who are eager to attend lessons, engage in follow-up work, and share their new knowledge.  And then there are the occasional “puzzles” (as my son’s Primary guide once referred to him).  How do you know if you live or work with a puzzle-child?

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Puzzle-children are those for whom learning comes easily but who see most teaching as a hindrance to their own learning agenda. On a good day, they grumpily humor your agenda for a short while and then stealthily slink away to pursue their own interests.  But most days, your invitation will send them into fight/flight/freeze mode: they either become argumentative (fight), run away from you (flight), or shut down (freeze), refusing to speak or make eye contact.

I used to think puzzle-children felt intimidated by the work or lacked the desire to learn.  But these children aren’t insecure or apathetic – quite the contrary!  I started taking the time to connect with puzzle-children to understand why they rejected lessons, and the phrase they said again and again was: “I already know that.”  Upon gentle prodding, it became clear that indeed, they did understand the concepts I was trying to present.

Puzzle children don’t care about your ego. In fact, in a battle of egos, theirs will always win.  They don’t care about sitting politely through your carefully planned presentation or showing you what they know.  They don’t care about your album sequence, the state standards, or your lesson plan.  They know what they want to learn, and they know they can use you as a resource to overcome any gaps in knowledge that pop up as they pursue their own explorations.

And that right there is the key to engaging successfully with a puzzle-child.  You have to be like a floor lamp: present but unobtrusive, and willing to shed light on whatever topic the puzzle-child approaches you about.  The puzzle-child will often be found with his nose in a book; tinkering with random objects; or using Montessori materials in ways that might seem sacrilegious at first but that, upon closer inspection, constitute legitimate intellectual explorations.

Conversations are essential for connecting with the puzzle-child.  But you have to watch your tone of voice: puzzle-children detect the moment you switch to a “teacher” voice, and in that instant you’ve lost them.  They also detect when you’re trying to quiz them.  You’re better off assuming they’re already experts. Use precise terminology when chatting with them; rest assured they’ll pepper you with questions if they don’t know what you’re talking about!

Puzzle-children love stories and experiments, and they are cosmic thinkers (meaning they’re able to effortlessly make connections among seemingly unrelated topics).  They’re autodidacts who focus on a topic until they have filled their cup. And then, just as quickly as the interest blossomed, it seems to disappear (but rest assured that the knowledge remains).

For puzzle-children and their adults, the most difficult times are those when the puzzle-child is between interests.  They’re often restless and irritable, flitting from one activity to another.  This is an important time for puzzle-children, and one should not jump in to fill the void with busy work or adult teaching agendas.  For it is precisely the space and boredom of their aimless roaming that will help them find their next “big thing”.

Puzzle-children don’t need to be taught how to learn.  If anything, they need to be protected from well-meaning adults who want to impose their teaching methods at the expense of the puzzle-child’s creativity and resourcefulness.  It’s a blow to the adult’s ego not to be needed, especially when your entire identity rests on being a transmitter of knowledge.

For teachers and parents of puzzle-children, it’s time to change that identity and protect these powerful and eccentric learners.  Help the puzzle-child learn how to communicate their needs and let them know you’re there as a resource.  Prepare their environment with quality books and essential Montessori materials. Provide open-ended tinkering, building, crafting and drafting materials.  Go outside together and explore nature through their eyes.  Listen, observe, document, trust, and wait.  Be flexible, creative, and honest, and above all, be genuine.  Follow the child.

“Our care of the children should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

 

On Parenting

Full Bloom

When you’re pregnant, it’s as if you’re handed a seed of unknown origin. You put it in the soil, water it, and give it light. The first seed leaves emerge, and you feel so proud! As the first set of true leaves unfurl, you begin to imagine the possibilities. You’re sure your plant will be a hydrangea, because those are your favorite plants and surely nobody would give you a seed of a plant you don’t like!

But then, much to your surprise, your hydrangea begins to look more and more like a tomato plant. Oh no, tomatoes were never part of your plan! You can choose to be frustrated by your tomato plant; move it into one pot and then another and another, feed it chemical fertilizers, stake it, place it among other hydrangeas in a partly shady area, and pinch off its flowers, all in hopes that it will somehow turn into a hydrangea.

Or, you can observe it. You can notice its delicate yellow flowers, the tiny hairs on its stems, its jagged leaves. You can marvel at the first tiny green tomatoes, and leave it undisturbed where it gets the best sunlight. You can feed it the best organic soil, learn what time of day it likes to be watered, and surround it with other companion plants that attract helpful insects. And you can rejoice when your little tomato plant puts forth luscious, juicy, red fruit. Just as it was meant to do all along.

We don’t get to choose the seed, but we do get to choose how we tend it. What does your seed need in order to blossom? Observe it. It knows.

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Montessori Theory

Help and Salvation

When Dr. Montessori spoke of “following the child”, I often wonder if she was talking about following their development or following their example…

In the elementary community of thirty 6-12 year-olds where I spend my days, four boys ages 9 to 11 decided to set a new world record for the longest crochet chain.  They launched daily crocheting sessions while taking turns reading aloud from “The Odyssey”.  After a week, they decided to measure their progress.  The strategy they came up with was to measure the width of our soccer field, then lay out the chain back and forth across the field and multiply the width by the number of spans of crochet chain. chain

Inspired by this project, a group of boys ages 7 and 8 decided that they, too, wanted to crochet a massive chain.  They set to work, and after three days they showed their progress to the older boys.  James, the oldest of the bunch, nodded his approval and offered two words of encouragement: “Not bad”.  The younger boys beamed.

The next day, two members of the younger group came to tell me they were ready to measure their chain.  As I asked them to explain their measurement plan, another member of their team showed up with four yardsticks under one arm, a tape measure in one hand and a fistful of rulers in the other.  They set off for the soccer field, giddy with excitement.

After a while, they came back looking bewildered.  “That was a lot harder than we thought,” one of them confessed.  An hour later, one of the 8-year-olds came to me and said, “We’ve thought about a different way of measuring our chain.  We’re going to do it like James’s team.”

As they said this, 11-year-old James walked by and overheard him.  He stopped and said, “The width of the field is 20 feet.  Maybe that can help you.  Good luck.”  Then he walked away.

In our ruthlessly competitive American culture, one would expect the older boys to be resentful of the younger ones for copying their idea. They could’ve guarded their measurement strategy and data as proprietary information.  After all, we’re talking about setting a world record!  Yet the older boys not only offered words of encouragement, but also gave advice to ensure the younger boys’ success.

As Montessori adults, we’re called to model the collaborative behaviors we want future generations to embody.  And yet, in the words of AMI-USA President Gretchen Hall, we often fall prey to the pettiness of “a culture of ‘them’ vs ‘us’, [where] we…measure others on how ‘Montessori’ they are and we [use] the term ‘Montesomething’ to discredit and devalue others… We boast that our pedagogy lays the foundation for social cohesion, yet we have failed to achieve cohesion in our own community.”

The children know that collaboration is the key to society’s survival, for when we share knowledge, we all win. My students remind me daily that they are our true guides, leading us back towards the essence and truth of human nature.  We have only to follow.

“If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for children are the makers of men.” – Maria Montessori

On Parenting, Uncategorized

One Day

For more than 12 months, Zachary threw stuff when he was tired, or angry, or couldn’t find the words to communicate how he felt or what he wanted.  Toys, food, china and silverware; it all flew across the house.  And then one day, it stopped.  Limits helped.  Consistency helped.  But what was the magic bullet?  Time.

I practiced elimination communication with Zachary.  By the time he was one, he was diaper-free all day.  By two, he was diaper-free at night.  Then, when he was 3 1/2, his sister was born  and he had an insensitive teacher, and it all went into the crapper. (Figuratively, of course, because actually NOTHING was making it into the crapper.)  He had the mother of all toileting regressions.  For almost a year we struggled, first with wetting and then with soiling.  And then one day, it stopped.  Limits helped. Consistency helped.  But what was the magic bullet?  Time.

For a long time, Zachary has been singularly uninterested in being helpful around the house.  Pick up his toys?  Nope.  Clear the table?  Never.  Put away his laundry?  Unthinkable.  And then one day, it all changed.  “Mommy, how can I help?”  and “Mommy, am I being helpful?” are now the most uttered phrases in our home.  Limits helped.  Consistency helped.  But what was the magic bullet?  Time.

So, whatever you’re going through with your child right now, put it into perspective.  Limits help.  Consistency helps.  But what’s the magic bullet?  Time.

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