Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Time by Mary O'Connell

It’s funny how time is a constant and yet it hardly ever feels that way. Time flies when we are having fun, but drags on and on when we are bored or tired. When my own children were wee ones, the season of the sleepless nights and the days filled with meeting their ever-present but ever-changing needs seemed like it might go on forever. 

One day, when I was in the grocery store with my three children under the age of five, my boys decided to race off ahead of me collecting as many of those coupons that shoot out of the little dispensers as they could. (It didn’t matter that the dispensers were over their heads; they would gladly leap into the air to reach them.)  In their excitement, they bumped into people and caused a fair amount of chaos, while I called for them to return, patted a fussy baby on my shoulder and tried to maneuver our full cart of groceries with one hand. An older woman walked up to me looking intent on saying something. “Here it comes,” I braced myself. “She’s going to tell me that I should get a handle on these children.”  I took a deep breath and turned toward her, coaching myself to graciously accept her advice and let it slide. She looked like she was ninety years old, after all, and my parents had taught me to respect my elders. 

The woman smiled at me and the children and said, “How I remember those days! Just remember, dear, the days are long but the years are short.” Then she patted my baby on the back, winked at me and went on her way.

 As I sit here writing this, I have already said good-bye to one of those no-longer-so-rambunctious boys as he headed back to college after winter break. The other leaves to go back to school this weekend. The house will again become pretty quiet; just my husband and me and our teenage daughter who is more often at school or working, playing sports or hanging out with her friends than she is with us, the way it should be of course. It seems a blink of an eye since that day in the grocery store. The days were indeed long sometimes, but boy were those years short!

The sad thing is, even though I had the gift of that wise woman telling me this simple truth, I didn’t believe her. Not really. If I really would have understood and embraced her message, I would have done a few things differently. For one thing, I would have not worried so much about the future. I would have concentrated on embracing the present. But I guess that’s an age-old struggle for all of us, right? 

I also wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to keep up with all the societal expectations I felt pressing in on us. I wouldn’t have worried about “preparing them” for school, or signing them up for gymnastics, karate, dance class, soccer, or any of those other things. While we did, actually, resist most of that stuff, I worried that maybe my kids were missing out somehow and would fall behind their peers who had been playing sports/mastering the violin/reading novels/visiting art exhibits since they were knee-high to a grasshopper. Looking back, I see so clearly now that my children (and all the others I have watched grow up around us) had plenty of time to do all those things in their own proper time. If they were destined to go to college on an athletic scholarship or become a musical genius, they -and the universe- would find a way to make that happen. I didn’t need to put them in classes or in sports when they were three years old. I just needed to make sure they were loved and had a simple life with a strong rhythm, outdoor time, good healthy food, and plenty of good sleep. Those are the things a young child really needs.

Sometimes, I watch parents drag their exhausted children into LifeWays on a Monday morning and the little ones have visible dark circles under their eyes. They had such a busy weekend taking in all of the many, many activities that are available to today’s families, they can barely hold it together until naptime when they fall gratefully into their cots for some much-needed rest. And I fear that modern society's pressure to provide children with every possible experience RIGHT NOW has become even stronger than it was when I was raising little ones. I wish I could say to parents, “The years of early childhood are short! There will be plenty of time later to take in all those sights, play all those sports, go to all those museums and do all those things. Really. I promise. For right now, just embrace these children, give them a nice steady rhythm of healthy food, sleep and play, and they will have everything they need to fully enjoy all of that other stuff in its own time.” I guess I just did say that, didn't I? Well, it's nice to get that off my chest!

But perhaps I can't expect you to believe me any more than I believed the nice old lady in the grocery store, until enough time has passed and your own children are going off into the world. Time is funny that way.

Parent Development by Jane Danner Sustar

Back when my now 17 year old Gustav was a baby, I started going to a mom’s group at our church. We moms spanned a wide range of backgrounds: educational, economic, even religious. Our director picked a mothering book to read and we took turns presenting a chapter each week. We discussed the ideas presented and then gently widened the discussion. It was a wonderful circle of women and though I loved them all dearly, I enjoyed leaving them all to that distinct group. They did not become my dear friends or movie companions. They were my mom’s group.
 Part of that experience was a yearly retreat. One of the woman offered her lovely house on Pewaukee lake for a whole Saturday sometime during the Easter season. It was always a huge pain in the backside to arrange a whole day away from my kids and family but, as you would expect, I was always so glad I did it. It was a wonderful experience to spend one day reflecting on the question, “Why am I doing this?!”
During one of the retreats, one of the young moms confessed .With heart wrenching sobs she told us all how she could not get her two year old to take a nap! How no one in the world had ever talked to her like her two year old was talking to her! How she could not believe the things that were coming out of her own mouth. And this she whispered, how she could not believe she was being brought to her knees by her very own child! Those moms who had gone through” the dark night of the soul” themselves, rushed to her side, expressing  warmth and comfort. Those who had not, sat in silent witness.
We talk a lot about child development at Lifeways, but I often wondered as a young mom, who was really growing up? Thankfully, I had the loving support of my mom and my sister and good friends helping me grow up but the painful process of becoming a parent did not end when the doctor put Jennifer in my arms for the first time. My parenting birth has been a lifelong ordeal. There has been a lot of labor. There has been a lot of false labor, those moments that I thought were hard only to find out later that they had been nothing compared to the REAL thing. It is the kind of labor that is not gender specific, either.  Peter and I did a lot of growing up together.
Do you suppose it is possible that if parent development were actually studied there might be specific stages not unlike the stages of grief? Confusion: Oh my God, we are going to have a baby!  Or Questioning: Who in the name of heaven thought that this was a good idea to let me be a parent? Or Denial: This trait did not come from my side of the family. This must be a Sustar thing! Acceptance? I am doing the best that I can do. I am just going to love this child like crazy. Or would acceptance come at the moment when you realize, Wow, this child of mine doesn’t need a parent any more. He/she wants to be friends. I am sure developmentally that should come when the child is around the age of twenty five, not around the age of two. Anger? Sadness?  Despair?  I can’t believe I am being brought to my knees by a two year old! I love how Kim John Payne describes those moments as moments of “soul fever”. Times to pull back a little and take care. Times of great growth. A mom in my suite went through this recently, reaching out to me and other moms looking for advice and then she pulled back a little with her daughter and in doing so was renewed and refreshed. She is a great mom.
 Parenting is a mystery. Despite all the parenting how to books and all the good advice and all the methodologies there is not one recipe for child rearing that is foolproof. Even within a family, what works for one child is a total bust for another. Now having said that, I witness every day how children thrive in an atmosphere of simplicity, a strong rhythm, plenty of outdoor time, good healthy food, and daily rest. Did I know that with Jennifer, my oldest? NO! I couldn’t wait to show her everything the world had to offer. Peter and I took her everywhere with us. Did I know that by the time Irene, my third, came along? You could have told time by our rhythm, which is not, of course, really rhythm. It is schedule. But as a parent, myself, I found these four things a good solid foundation to work with in. If there is a struggle happening within you or your family, they are a good place to start. Make them your own.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I have learned in all these years as a parent is how to laugh.     

Saying “I’m sorry” by Amanda Quesnell

Children aren't always sorry for the things we think are worth an apology.  And even when they are, many have a hard time saying it.  Some children may actually blurt out "I'm sorry" too easily, and consider it a quick way to get back to play.  When a child knows how to say s/he's sorry and actually mean it, s/he gains more than a social skill.  S/he also learns how to undo his or her mistakes, take responsibility for his or her actions, and consider others' feelings.  In my time working with children I have learned that some will say “I’m sorry,” all on their own, while other children will do anything to make sure they never have to utter those words.  Just because a child doesn’t say “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean they are mean, or have bad manners; they just yet haven’t learned yet how to take others’ perspectives.  For example, three-year-olds may not be able to respond to another child's feelings if they don't share the same feelings and perspective on a situation.  While building a tower with blocks, Ingrid yells loudly, "Hey! You knocked over my tower!"  When questioned by the teacher, three-year-old Leah, oblivious to Ingrid's feelings of frustration, says, "Oh, I was just taking a little walk.” Because Leah didn't see herself as destructive, it is difficult for her to be empathtic toward Ingrid and her situation.  Instead of telling Leah to say sorry, children first need to learn why it is important to say, “I’m sorry”.   Many children at the ages 3-5 aren’t yet able to put themselves in another’s shoes. The adult can help show Leah how she knocked over Ingrid’s tower which made her sad.  If the child doesn’t want to say “I’m sorry,” sometimes it helps them if a parent or teacher goes over to say it with the child.  This helps the child learn to say, “I’m sorry” because it is modeling for them how we apologize.  It’s also easier for the child because it may be their first time having to say they are sorry.  They might be nervous about it, but with someone to help them the first time it makes it easier for the child to say all on their own the next time the situation arises. 
It’s not the end of the world if a child refuses to say, “I’m sorry.”  It might take the child some time to learn, but it should not be forced on them if they child is not ready.  Once a child can understand the emotions that someone else feels, they will develop empathy towards others.

What do children learn from unstructured play? By Tamara Treviranus

At LifeWays, we feel that it is best for young children to have a home like environment (as opposed to an academic setting), and for the children to be able to experience plenty of unstructured play time, with a  significant portion of that time spent in a natural outdoor environment.   We know that early academics are not the best use of a young child’s time and that now is the time in their development to focus on relationships, learning about how the world works, and playing.  Through some recent continued education reading, I have gained a better understanding of not only what unstructured and outdoor play are not ( ie early academics), but what developmental qualities they allow a young child to acquire.  Not only is this type of play very joyful for the kids and you can really see them thrive, it also gives them the opportunity to develop executive function skills, one of them being self regulation. 

Executive function has a number of elements. It includes using problem solving strategies, and performing tasks to carry out decisions.  I have noticed that when children play very elaborate games, the majority of the time is spent in the set up or planning of how the game will go, what they will use, etc.  That time spent playing freely is an exercise in executive function. Have you ever noticed your children talking to themselves while they are playing?  This is called private speech and it helps the children with their self regulation.  I have noticed children correcting the behavior of a pretend person or even playing the role of someone else correcting them during private speech.  When children have these skills it is a good predictor of success later in life. Self regulation is one the most important components of executive function — the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and have self discipline. 

Opportunities for free play are undoubtedly diminishing.  Parents are pressured to provide as many structured opportunities as possible ( ballet class, soccer, swim lessons, trips to museums). Children watch much more TV and play video games now than in the past.  And while children are in a traditional preschool or kindergarten setting, there is very little time for free play as they are moved through structured activities, sometimes as frequently as every 15 minutes.   All of these factors combined create a situation where it is possible that a child has never been given the opportunity to really develop self regulation skills.  Everything is planned for them.  Everything has a time limit.  They have not had the opportunity to make decisions around play or in what fashion they are going to interact with their peers. .  They grow into a situation where adults responsible for their care and for teaching them are pressured to entertain them and focus on discipline issues in part caused by poor self regulation abilities.
I am thankful that there is a place such as LifeWays for children to be given the opportunity to develop these essential life skills.

Developing a Lasting Sense of Wonder With Children by Emily Hall

"I wanted not so much to watch Hannah's garden grow as to watch her watch it grow."-Michael P.  Branch

                There is a patch of chamomile growing near a place that the children love to call The Troll Bridge. The first year I taught Forest Kindergarten, the children and I pulled up the grass and planted the little seeds beneath the soil in May, then watched the chamomile sprout and grow around an anthill nearby. The crumbs from our snack were harvested by the busy ants as they fell to the ground. I've watched the chamomile grow taller as the children play around me. It's fun to tell the story of the little patch of chamomile and pour a little bit from our water bottles on the garden when there are weeks without rain.  Wonder comes naturally to the children, but it does not always come naturally to adults as we get caught up in the hard work involved in raising young ones. Simple gardens and sharing the work together helps build a  sense of wonder and mystery for the adult, a place for adult and child to share the sensory experience of digging, watering, and observing, putting the garden to sleep with leaves in the fall, then watching Grandmother Winter cover it in snow. Each Winter, I love to tell a story about Grandmother Winter sitting in the clouds with her knitting needles, knitting blankets of snow for the earth. The child does not have to develop a sense of wonder, but his focused attention on a story becomes stronger when the adult values and shares his awe.
                Forest Fridays in the Woodland Room are a fun day to go and visit the fallen trees that the children and I call Troll Homes. The story goes that a young boy once pointed at a fallen tree with its exposed roots and rocks and said "Miss Emily, a troll lives there!" The word troll itself comes from Lapland, and means something from the otherworld. A sense of shared beauty and mystery can be built by imagining the mythical creatures that might dwell in our favorite places in the woods. Watching silent as children watch the forest and discover it in their own way keeps stress from building up and shutting off the  grown-up's  sense of delight. Snowy troll homes where ice stalagtites and stalagmites grow from the roots of the tree are what I'm hoping for this winter. Last winter the river mermaids made little ice chandeliers to dangle over the riverbank and we had great fun telling stories about them. I hope to hear about the stories you share about nature as families at parent teacher conferences. Happy Winter from Forest Kindergarten and the Woodland Suite!