Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"I turned out just fine!"

This is just a little rant.  One of my pet peeves is when someone says, "My parents did (such and such), and I turned out just fine!"  Oh really?  How, exactly do you define "just fine?"  If you mean that you are an happy and fulfilled  person who finds joy in life and you are a joy to be around, you are responsible, compassionate, and creative; that you would be ecstatic if your children turned out to be exactly like you, then I guess your parents did a great job and you should follow in their footsteps.  However, if by "just fine," you mean little more than that you are employed, not a drug addict or a criminal, or mentally ill, then personally, I don't want my kids to turn out "just fine!"  I want so much more for them!

 I don't want them to have my faults and insecurities.  I don't want them to feel like something is missing from their life, like they have to constantly search for happiness.  I think the claim of "I turned out just fine" is a cop out.  People use it when they either don't want to admit their parents may have made mistakes, or probably more often, when they don't want to admit that they may be making mistakes , or spend the time and effort to find a better way of doing things.

We all make mistakes, but what makes a good parent is being able to admit this to ourselves and to search for better ways of doing things.  Being a good parent isn't about your beliefs.  Good parenting is a process.  It is constantly learning, growing, changing, developing, experimenting.  You don't become a good parent by reading a book or changing a behavior.  You become a good parent by raising your kids, and hopefully looking back and saying, "I wasn't perfect, but I did the best that I could," - and really meaning that.  Even if our kids don't turn out the way you hope or expect, we may never really know if it was because of or in spite of what we did as parents.  All we can do is try our best, and decide not to settle for "just fine."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cultivating a good life

"Cultivating a good life"

I ran across this phrase recently and it really resonated with me.  I love the idea that having a good life takes forethought and planning as well as tender daily care, just like cultivating a garden.  I like to think that we are each given "seeds", and we don't know what most of them will grow into, but the way we care for them determines how bountiful our lives will be.  We only have so much control - we can't grow a watermelon from a tomato seed.  Seldom can we rush things along without sacrificing something in the process.  Some people may be dealt a very bad "hand" of seeds, while others are very lucky to get a good "hand."  Some people may only be interested in the "crop yield", but they miss out on the best part - watching the growth and development that comes from all their hard work and attention.  Sometimes we work really hard and forces beyond our control may thwart our efforts, but we can't let the droughts and locusts of life prevent us from carrying on continually trying to make our lives and ourselves better.  Okay, so maybe I got a little carried away with this analogy . . . but anywho . . .

So, how does one cultivate a good life, exactly?  Well, that is obviously going to be different for everyone, but I think at the core is defining your purpose in life and working each day to fulfill that purpose.  And I believe one's purpose can and does change.  Each of us may feel we have several purposes in life at any given time, or maybe the same few throughout life, but different ones move to the forefront at different times, or maybe there is just one big one - each of us must define this for ourselves.

Right now in my life, being a mother is my purpose.  I have other roles, certainly, but raising my sons and taking care of my family is central.  Everything else hinges upon that.  So, for me cultivating a good life means making decisions every day with the whole family in mind - myself, my children, and my husband.

This is not about being selfless or self-sacrificing.  I must be as dedicating to taking care of myself, physically and emotionally, as I am to them.  I must be calm and happy to help cultivate calm and happiness in them, and I must value my own happiness as much as I value theirs.  And, caring for them is actually part of what makes me happy, so it is all like a big circle really.
When I think about cultivating a good life, I feel a sense of peace and a sense of excitement.  There is so much to be done and so many surprises in store for us!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Respecting the pace of the developing child

Is there anything we don't feel the need to hurry? Anything we don't feel the need to enrich, improve      upon, advance, or compete over?  While we haven't figured out a way around the nine month gestation  period, once that baby is born, its childhood seems to be "fair" game for acceleration.
                                                                                                                - Kim John Payne

As parents, we want the best for our children. We want so much for them. We want them to be smart, talented, compassionate. We want them to have self-esteem.  We want to give them every opportunity to grow into their best possible selves.

Unfortunately, I think we often get so caught up in these feelings, fueled by our profound love for them, that we want to do it all now, as soon and as fast as possible.  We often see books, toys, DVDs and products, which are marketed to us as "developmental," and we think we should get as many of these things as possible to teach our children, to enrich them, and give them a "head start."

I know I have done this plenty of times with my now 5 year old son.  We had Baby Einstein DVDs, books on every imaginable subject, toys that sing the ABCs and teach addition and subtraction, and flash cards.  We started him in pre-school shortly after he turned two.  We put him in gymnastics at three and soccer at four. I was so anxious for him to learn in every way, and proud when he learned things "early." We became frustrated when potty-training took "so long."  Impressed with his pre-reading and writing skills, I had high hopes that he would be reading at age four.   I wanted him to have every opportunity to get a head start, intellectually, emotionally, socially.  All of these things, I did out of love, and also I'll admit a little for myself as well.  Many parents, I believe, hinge their "success" as parents on the "success" of their children.   However, I never really stopped to consider if faster and sooner was actually better.

"Childhood has its own mysterious processes, its own pace." -Kim John Payne

Children learn at an amazingly fast rate about the world around them every day.  Just think about the complexity of everything they are learning from what different things feel like to the touch, to how to control the different muscles in their bodies, to what different facial expressions mean, to how other people respond to their actions.  These are essential lessons that are learned by being able to experience these things in their world over and over again.  I believe that when we try to control and direct their learning too much that surely other more basic aspects of learning must suffer in some way.

 Have you seen the product called "Your Baby Can Read"?  When I first saw this product, I thought "hmmm - I wonder if that works." Now, when  think about this product, I think, "How ridiculous!  Why on Earth would a baby need to know how to read, and who would want to spend these precious months trying to teach a baby such a thing?!"  Surely, there are much more important and enjoyable things that should be happening during the first couple years of a persons life!

I remember how anxious I was for Aiden to become potty-trained.  We used a sticker chart to reward him for using the potty. We put underwear on him and let him wet his pants very day for a couple weeks when we were tired of using pull-ups.  Now, I think "Why were we in such a rush?"  I bet if we hadn't used stickers or tried to rush the process, that it probably wouldn't have taken much longer than it did, and probably would have been a lot less stressful.  I think with Owen, I will take a more relaxed approach. It will happen eventually - he won't be going to Kindergarten in diapers!!

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when teaching children is to follow their lead.  Children are naturally curious, and they will let you know when they are ready to learn a new skill.  I am not saying wait until a child asks you specifically to use the potty or to learn the ABCs.  Offer them opportunities to do these things and then let them control the pace.

"Simplifying  . . . acknowledges how a child comes to understand the world - through play and interaction, not through adult concerns and information.  The pressure is off when childhood is no longer seen as an "enrichment opportunity," but instead as an unfolding experience." - Kim John Payne

I think when we rush our children through their stages of development, we take some of the joy out of being a child and out of being a parent.  I still want my children to have every opportunity to become their best selves, I am just beginning to believe that perhaps the way to do that is with less, rather than more.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Saying "No Thanks!" to TV for young children

As parents, we are constantly bombarded by the media and peer pressure about ways to make our children smarter - to the point that we often ignore the people and institutions that really know what is best for children.  For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics (as well as almost every specialist in child development) suggests than babies under two years old watch no television, at all, and that older kids watch very little, and also limit all screen use.  Yet, as a society, we largely ignore this.  

 I have always believed in limiting screen time to some degree, but I was always more worried about content.  We don't have cable, and when we did, Aiden only watched Noggin or DVDs such as Baby Einstein or Elmo's World, so I didn't have to worry about him seeing commercials or anything inappropriate.  TV was a part of our mornings for a long time. He was an early riser, and I admit that I used it as a babysitter while I got a little more rest on the couch.  He also often watched up to an hour in the afternoons.  I thought, "Surely if I only let him watch educational shows, with no commercials, for just an hour or two a day, it won't be harmful." This is simply not true.  Every parenting book I have read warns that TV really is very detrimental for children - and not only because of things like  violence, marketing targeted toward kids, and the fact that it fosters a sedentary, and therefore, physically unhealthy lifestyle.

Researchers have determined that babies, up to age 2, need 3 types of stimuli to optimize brain growth:

 1- Interaction with parents and other human beings
 2- Opportunities to manipulate their environment (to touch, feel, and move things)
 3- "Problem-solving" activities, such as figuring out object permanence (games like peek-a-boo)

TV provides none of these stimuli.  In fact, in Simplicity Parenting, Payne states, "Multiple studies have now concluded that watching TV, even such educational programs as Sesame Street, actually delays language development." Hearing someone on TV sing the ABCs is actually not the same as hearing someone do so in real life.  The language centers of the brain only light up on a brain scan if they are spoken by a human rather than a recording!

Television and other screens have detrimental effects on older children as well.  Dmitri Christakis, a researcher at Children's Hospital states, "We think that with continued exposure to high intensity, unrealistic action, you're conditioning the mind to expect that level of input."  Real life, in comparison, can seem quite slow, and children can respond with boredom and inattentiveness.

I can attest to this personally.   When we moved, we got rid of cable, and we started to explore our new city.  We were busy all the time, and rarely watched any TV.  Then it got hot, we ran out of things to do, and couldn't play outside with the heat, so I started letting Aiden watch more TV and play more video games - a lot more.  I could tell a difference in him - his attention span did seem shorter, and he got very upset when I did limit his screen time.  I knew this was not good, but between dealing with my own fatigue and always feeling like I had to keep him entertained, I continued to allow it.  This went on for about 2 months.  Then, one day, I asked him to draw a picture for his grandfather, who was having surgery.  He has always loved to draw, so I thought he'd enjoy it.  I kept asking him, several times, throughout the day, and he kept saying he would do it later. Twice, he actually sat down and tried to start, but couldn't.  He couldn't think of what to draw nor could he sit still long enough to actually do it! I  finally got him to do it just before bedtime.  That was it. I knew I had to do something.  So, now he has a 30 minute screen time limit per day.  He usually chooses to play on my phone, but he's gotten so used to not having screen time, that some days he doesn't even ask for it. Now he has started Kindergarten, as well, so a lot of his time is occupied, and that, of course, helps.

Owen, my 17 month old has never watched a lot of TV, but after all the reading I have done, I have decided that he doesn't need any.  If Aiden or Hunter are playing a video game, I let him watch, and sometimes I show him short home movie clips of himself on my phone, but that's pretty much it.  At first, he would sometimes point at the TV and cry, but I held my ground, and now he has forgotten that it is an option.

I have also been trying to limit the amount of time I use screens in front of my children. I only watch TV after bedtime anyway, but I try to use my phone and the computer when they are napping/at school, or after they go to bed.  I admit it is challenging, having gotten used to checking my email, Facebook, and Words with Friends several times a day, but I know it won't be long before Aiden will be able to call me out on my hypocrisy! Besides, they are sooo many better things to do with my time during the day!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Too much stuff

The first area Payne talks about in Simplicity Parenting is the child's environment. This is often the easiest area to make changes in - it is certainly the one I was most eager to tackle. In  fact, I had already begun to do this before reading this book.

There are many arguments that can be made against having too many toys, not least among them that children will gain a sense of entitlement.  Some may argue that it is ecologically irresponsible. Some say it's a waste of money. These are all valid arguments, but Payne is only interested in speaking about how it affects the child.  He does mention the entitlement issue, but his main concern goes beyond that.  Basically, he believes that when children are surrounded by too many toys, books, clothes, etc., that it is overstimulating.  "Too much stuff," he says, "deprives kids of leisure and the ability to explore their worlds deeply."  If a child is surrounded by 150 toys (as the average American child is at any given time), he will likely play with one toy for a few minutes, then move on to the next, and the next, and the next, never getting full enjoyment out of any one of them.  He may even feel so overwhelmed, he doesn't really play with any of them.  Also, when a child has so many toys, he often undervalues all of them, perhaps thinking, "I have so many of these that none of them are special - I must need something else."

He also talks about how young children are such tactile beings that they want to touch, feel, throw, and sort everything.  "Imagine the sensory overload when every closet, drawer, and surface is filled with stuff."

He says this about the nature of children's play:

No special toys or quantity of toys is necessary to develop a child's imagination.  Children use and grow their imaginations quite naturally.  They need only time to do so.

  He believes that reducing the number of toys a child has leads to increased attention span and capacity for deep, imaginative play.

In addition, he talks about the types of toys that may foster or hinder imagination.  When getting rid of toys he suggests the first to go are the "exploding disasters." (I love that term!) These are the loud, obnoxious toys that all parents seem to hate. They may "whir, talk, gyrate, or detonate."  He suggests keeping a mix of both active toys (for digging, building, construction, etc.) and receptive toys like dolls and stuffed animals, as well as some art supplies.

He also talks about drastically reducing your child's books.  At first, I was taken aback by this, until I realized he was only suggesting nutting most of them in storage and rotating them out, so that there were only a dozen or so out at a time.  This way, your child can read and re-read each book several times over the course of, say, a month.  He suggests doing the same with toys, having fewer out than stored.  I think it is a good idea.

So, what did this mean for me?  Over the past month, I have gotten rid of over half of my sons' toys.  They have not yet missed a single one!  In fact, I mentioned something to Aiden (my 5 year old) about how now we can find things better, since I gave some of the toys away, and he said, but that makes me sad because I miss my toys when you give them away." I said, "Oh really? Which toys do you miss?"  "What did you give away?" he responded.  He could not think of a single toy that he missed.  I gave away most of the battery-operated toys, all the cheap plastic pieces of crap, some cars, some stuffed animals.  I put most of the extensive Beanie Baby collection from Granny in a bin in the closet.  I put most of the probably 200 books in the closet, leaving about 40 out on the bookshelf.  I bought some little baskets at Salvation Army (8 for $7) to help with organization.  We know where all the toys are now. It looks and feels great!  It's not as simplified as Payne would have it, but it is much better than it was before. Now if I could only get my own space simplified . . .