Monday, August 29, 2016

The Christmas Gift You're Probably Not Thinking About Right Now (But You Should)

First, the Book
Chris Van Allsburg published "The Polar Express" in 1986 and won the Caldecott Medal for being the most distinguished American picture book for children. Since then it has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.

Then, the Movie
In 2004 a movie adaptation of the book was released with oomph from Hollywood powerhouse Tom Hanks acting as lead executive producer and voice actor.

Now, the Train Ride
Since 2004 railroads and train companies across the US have begun seasonal Polar Express-themed rides. Children and their families can wear their pajamas, drink hot chocolate, and ride a real train to a nearby "North Pole" where Santa might board and distribute Van Allsburg-inspired sleigh bells to believers.

Tickets often go on sale between July and August and I am happy to share that has compiled a list of train rides state by state:

The Christmas Gift You're Probably Not Thinking About Right Now (But You Should)
You could give a book, a DVD, a train ride, a sleigh bell, or some combination thereof. But if you are thinking about taking a small child on the train ride of a lifetime, I recommend you buy your tickets sooner rather than later!

Fall in Love with these Four Fabulous Ballerinas: 14 Must-Read Books

More than once Anna has opened my eyes to new ways of seeing STEAM learning. She has challenged my framework, putting the "A" in STEAM. She has recognized patterns in fashion and music that takes me out of my comfort zone, inviting me to learn new things. And ultimately her interest in stereotypically "girl" contexts like sewing, tea parties, princesses, and relationships, set in contrast to her brother's obsession with mechanical things, has brought forth what I call "Princess Engineering." This list is born from her interest in dance, where we have learned about shapes (different dance poses), grit (working toward something great), and, above all, culture.

For Beginners

Molly Idle has written/illustrated three books that feature Flora, a young girl who explores dance alongside a flamingo, a penguin, and some peacocks. The wordless books show Flora and the birds mimicking each other, moving away from one another, and ultimately demonstrating the give-and-take of partnership. The images are beautiful and the stories are heart-warming.

The Trials and Tribulations of Young Dancers

Tallulah is a young aspiring dancer. She covets a tutu, toe shoes, and the opportunity to perform a solo. In each story, she wrestles with the patience, discipline, and commitment it takes to become a "real" ballerina. Your young dancer will likely connect with Tallulah's desire to be great. The text is easy-to-read and the illustrations add dimension to the story, showing Tallulah's imagination and aspirations in a gentle but relatable way. There are two other books, too: one about performing in the Nutcracker and another when Tallulah explores tap dance. Altogether, there are five books for you to enjoy with your young dancer.

James Mayhew has written and illustrated five books that feature Ella Bella and a magic music box. In each book, Ella Bella listens to the tinkling of a magic music box. As the music plays, Ella Bella meets a character from a classic ballet story - for example, Puck from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Together with her escort, Ella Bella learns all about classic ballet stories including A Midsummer Night's DreamSleeping BeautyCinderellaThe Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Mayhew successfully weaves Ella Bella's real world where she practices under the guidance of a patient teacher and her imaginary one where she dances with the stars.

Historical Fiction

I saved this historical fiction picture book for last for one simple reason. It follows Anna Pavlova's entire life story to her death. It is a beautiful book that shows the patience and discipline required to be a ballerina. But it also shows how utterly talented and extraordinary Anna Pavlova was as a dancer and international ambassador of dance culture. It ends on a nearly empty page with gentle words that elude to her death. This euphemism is an exact representation to how she chose to die, performing as a swan one last time until the final scene when the curtains opened to an empty stage. I recommend "Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova" to more mature audiences.

Excerpt from "Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova."

Friday, August 26, 2016

Creativity will be Currency

How I Overdosed on Cuteness

Teeny Tiny 
He arrived three weeks before we expected him. Six pounds one ounce of cuteness made me feel the biggest feelings I had ever felt. I held him and my heart almost burst with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. This tiny human was mine to raise and to protect. And, like anything else I do, I threw myself into the work.

My M.O. for Love
In the beginning, I understood my role perfectly. I had to do everything for him: feed him, carry him where he needed to go, change his diaper for him. It felt good because doing things is my specialty. I enjoy doing things, seeing the product of my work, and checking tasks off my list of things to do.

It felt so good to do everything for my son that I started sacrificing my needs. After all, I had been warned that having a child changes everything. Prioritizing my son over myself seemed like the right thing to do. I started skipping my yoga practice, showering every other day instead of every day, and, eventually, quitting my part-time job.

My new full-time work would be as mom. I would show him the world!

The Little Professor
How beautiful it all began. He could spend an entire morning crawling up and riding down slides at the playground. He could spend hours throwing rocks in a stream. And when he was only one year old his eyes lit up when I showed him how sand pours. Having left my teaching job, where I taught physics, engineering, and math, I was tickled to see him study playground physics. It was as if he were a miniature version of his father who was a professor. Unfortunately, physics was just about all he was interested in.

He had no interest in imitating the work of life. Never once did he imitate me cooking or join me cleaning. He never attempted to get himself dressed. He preferred to study objects and how they moved. He could spend an afternoon just laying on the floor and watching how the pages of a dictionary fell as his thumb slowly released them in a flutter. He contented himself by watching how the wheels of his truck turned against the floor. And instead of pretending to shave with his father, he sat with a shave brush intent on the motion of the bristles.

The Perfect Storm: Nature (Autism) & Nurture (Attachment)
I wouldn't know until he turned four years old that his attention to objects over humans was symptomatic of his being autistic. Another symptom was his lack of language. For two years I rationalized that it was OK that he didn't speak because he could jump and run like a child twice his age. Plus, we didn't seem to have trouble communicating. I could intuit his needs and he could confirm with sign language.

Between his disinterest in self-care and my inclination to do things for for him, we were digging ourselves deeper into unhealthy codependent relationship. Intuiting his needs made me feel important. Our rhythms were in sync and it felt good to be attached to each other. The only problem was that a second child was on the way. How could I intuit his needs if my attention was needed elsewhere? How could I do it all for two young children?

I couldn't.

He was almost two and half years old when his sister was born. He still wasn't speaking and his constant repetitive motion was beginning to impede on daily life. I could not get him the exercise he needed. It had been cute when he was three months old and would lay on his back and run his feet. I had lamented fondly that he was "all boy" when he jumped like a madman in his Johnny Jump Up or bounded down the trampoline at gymnastics with the big kids. Spinning in circles is just a childhood pastime right? But what about the arm-flapping (one of his nicknames was our "little flapper") and head-banging?

He needed more than I could give, or, from my other perspective, I couldn't do enough for him. Feeling like I was failing, and with a six month old baby in tow, we began weekly speech therapy and occupational therapy, complete with at-home therapy recommendations. I was doing so much, too much.

Rock Bottom
One year into therapy I knew I needed more help. I sought out preschools. Two schools wouldn't enroll him and steered me toward developmental psychologists. A few weeks before getting a diagnosis that included autism, the third "developmental" school expelled him.

I hit rock bottom. I cried in denial. (Surely the specialist and all those early educators were wrong.) I cried from exhaustion. I cried for feeling inadequate. I cried for yelling when I was angry. I cried for crying when I felt overwhelmed. I cried for my daughter, who always seemed to get the short end of the stick. I cried from the sheer intimidation of beginning new therapies with new goals with new never-ending lifelong challenges. I cried and cried and cried. All day the children watched TV while I cried.

Then I wiped my tears and made a plan.

Recovery: Toward Independent Children & Confident Motherhood
I knew that I could not do it for him, I could not do the therapy for him, I could not live my life alongside him, nor should I. No longer would I intuit and meet all his needs. The change would be hard. How could I honor his strengths and scaffold his weaknesses? How could I encourage him to be independent? How could I be independent myself? One word: trust.

I had to learn to trust that he could figure out how to do things for himself. I had to learn to trust my son and his development. He would learn to speak to express himself. He would learn to speak to negotiate. He would learn to use a toilet.

I had to learn when to help and when to watch.

I had to learn to trust myself. All those years of intuiting his needs had left me with a powerful sixth sense. I knew when he had had enough of playground play. I knew when he had had enough fish crackers. I knew when I had had enough of life and needed a break. I needed to trust that what I knew was right and act appropriately. Trusting myself would mean that I could decide to leave the playground, take the box of crackers away, or hit the gym.

I learned that I could help him if he needed it. But by not doing everything for him, I had more to give when he truly needed it.

Just in Time for First Grade
That six pound baby is now almost 70 pounds and beginning his first full-day school experience. He is a first grader at our local elementary school. He still needs to jump and run and spin...a lot. He still is intensely observant of and keenly intuitive about how things work. He is still reluctant to do the work of life.  And he can analyze a social situation but he doesn't flow easily in and out of playground play. But he can do school. And when he gets home, we can cooperate as separate, whole, loving individuals.

Find Your Guide
I was not uninformed about being a parent. I had read all sorts of books and articles about the early years. I liked how books on attachment parenting paid close attention to meeting a child's needs. I liked the bullet points in the "What to Expect" books (however alarmist they seemed). I liked how simple the sleep-training books seemed. But what I needed was something that blended my interest in honoring my son's right to being an individual with my right and responsibility to act as an adult. I didn't discover Janet Lansbury until about the same time my daughter was born and my son was almost 2.5 years old. If I had to do it all over again I would have started with her sensible, palatable and balanced guidance.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Navigating Parking Lots with Children Doesn’t Have To Be So Hard

The Necessary Evil of Running Errands
Some people pay to have their groceries delivered. Like most of you, I am not some people. I hit the stores with my own two feet. And, in an effort to keep our weekends clear to enjoy time with my husband, I often shop with my young children in tow.

"It is good for them," I figure. They push the miniature carts, which I fill with items off our list. Sometimes it is hair-raising to see them heading toward a shelf of glass jars or a stranger's ankles. But for the most part it is a way for them to participate meaningfully in life's work.

What's the Rush?
The most stressful part of running errands is getting my children safely from the car to the store and back. Drivers are often preoccupied with their own lists of things to do, their own passengers, or otherwise not paying close attention to their surroundings. They might be arriving late to an appointment. For one reason or another, we cannot depend solely on the drivers to keep the parking lots safe.

Hold My Hand!
So I insist, "Hold my hand." Some of us have one hand per child, some of us don't. And it seems common to hear young children protest. They crave their freedom and try to insist upon it at inappropriate times. What if there was a place to park that offered a bit more space to separate our children from moving traffic? Would you choose it?

Blood-Pressure-Reducing Safe(r) Havens = Sidewalks, Cart Corrals or Grassy Islands
Of course! I have started parking strategically and you can, too, if you know what to look for!

  • If there is a spot where I can park at a sidewalk that leads directly to the front door of the store without pedestrians having to cross traffic then that is where I park. 
  • If that is not an option but there is a "floating" sidewalk in the middle of the parking lot, then I aim for that sidewalk. 
  • Some parking lots don't have any sidewalks/walkways for customers. In those cases, I look for spots next to a grassy island
  • Cart corrals are good spots, too.

When I started using this parking lot strategy, shopping with my children got a lot less stressful. However, it isn't foolproof!

There Is Still Teaching/Parenting To Do
Children still run. They still require your attention in these dangerous places. You will still have to watch them, give them verbal cues, even hold their hand sometimes. However, a sidewalk or patch of grass can provide a teeny tiny peace of mind. And I take every opportunity to make life's chores simpler. Don't you?

Rethinking a Lot
Parking lots are so ubiquitous that you might not realize that there are engineers who think about them deeply and brainstorm ways to make them better. Urban designers and governmental planners consider everything from environmental impact to functionality. They aim to solve problems of humanity and it is up to us to take advantage of their work!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Two Minutes You Didn't Know You Should Add to Your Morning Routine

LEGO Landmines and Dolly Dropzones

The aftermath of creative play is riddled with underfoot hazards. LEGO corners jab feet, inflicting eye-crossing pain. Dolls laid to rest under blankets roll ankles as well as any divot on a soccer field.

The messy madness is a common challenge of parenting, one we often feel ambivalent about. We would like our children to pick up their rooms but we don't want to bribe or threaten them to do it. We certainly don't want to do it ourselves.

But how often do you wind up sneaking around after bedtime stealing and stashing toys for donation and “treasures” for trash? What if I told you that two minutes a day could save you the trouble of daytime negotiating and the bedtime blitz?

Two Minutes

Experts in organization and minimalism advocate for working routines into your day.  It helps you simplify your life. Put junk mail directly into the recycling bin, pick up five things and put them away every time you walk in a room, etc. It is the two-minute rule that is a powerful parenting tool.

If you can complete the job in two minutes or less then just do it.
Two minutes. It isn’t too long for anyone. Even the most distractible child can do something for two minutes...especially with your help. And you can probably carve out two minutes to help your child clean his or her room.
This is how you do it.

Sand timers give a nice visual cue. 

When are the Best Two Minutes?

First, find a time of day that will be the most likely time a routine like this will work. For my family, immediately after breakfast is the best time because we are rested, well-fed, and I have patience to help.

Helping Your Child for Two Minutes

Set the timer and work with your child to pick up his or her room. You could say, “We have two minutes to clean up in here. Let’s work together.” And give directions like, “I will pick up the dirty clothes and put them in the hamper. Will you put the LEGO in the LEGO box?”

Tips that Work

Work until the two minutes have passed, no more, no less. “Complete” in this case refers to the timer, NOT to the extent to which the room would pass Marie Kondo’s inspection. If you’ve been doing the two minute clean-up for a week and the floor is (gasp) free of debris, then vacuum or start the laundry or dust (do people still dust?) or wash the windows, walls or floorboards. Two minutes, every day. No more, no less.

Bins, bins, bins. Containers for stuff is the simplest solution to putting away just about everything in your child’s room. There should probably be at least two: a toy box and a book box. Or in my son’s case, a LEGO box, a stuffed animal box, a mini-figure box, a book box, an underwear box, a box for shorts, one for pants, one for shirts and another for pajamas.  

It Even Works (It Especially Works) for My Autistic Son

At the risk of making sweeping generalizations I need to tell you that my son is like many autistic children who work and live better when things are defined and delineated. This includes everything from where he sits, what things are his, where things belong, to the amount of time it will take for something to happen.

“Cleaning until it is done” does not sit well with him. But cleaning for two minutes is palatable for him and you know what? It is palatable for me, too. His sister brushes her teeth while I help him clean. Then he brushes while I help her. Then they scamper off to play while I do the remainder of my morning routine.

Upon reflection I have realized that a lot happens in those two minutes:

  • I clean the most disturbing messes and let him take care of lesser offenses;
  • I provide the support my child needs to do something that is hard for him;
  • I teach him a life skill by telling him how I tidy up and invite him to find his own method; and, last but not least,
  • I succeed in carving out two minutes a day when he is not making a mess.

It worked for us and I know it can work for you. You just have to make it happen. All it takes is two minutes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Monday, August 8, 2016

Fan Favorites - July 2016

Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties In Closer Proximity To Ocean

What Screen Time Really Does to Kids Brains
Tablets are the ultimate shortcut tools: Unlike a mother reading a story to a child, for example, a smartphone-told story spoon-feeds images, words, and pictures all at once to a young reader. Rather than having to take the time to process a mother’s voice into words, visualize complete pictures and exert a mental effort to follow a story line, kids who follow stories on their smartphones get lazy. The device does the thinking for them, and as a result, their own cognitive muscles remain weak.

10 Insights of Remarkable Parents from a Family Therapist
"Unless you studied play therapy in school, most adults will never fully understand and appreciate the power of play.

Play is how kids learn all the things and develop all the stuff. This means leaving time each day for straight-up unstructured, kid-controlled, exploration of the world kind of play."

Why Typical Preschool Crafts Are a Total Waste of Time

So perhaps the real problem here is that, despite what the popular mantra says, the product still very much matters. At the literal end of the day, the kid still goes home with some product — as in, something tangible that he or she has made. The unconscious message that this ultimately sends children is that you must have something to show for your day. And so, in Christakis’s view, the “very first step” to making a meaningful change in the way preschools approach creative work “is for parents to stop asking children what they made at school each day!” (Exclamation point hers.) Two and three and four really are mighty young ages to already be indoctrinated into the grown-up cult of productivity.

13 Empowering Photos Show There's No 'Right' Way to be a Boy

‪#‎ABoyCanToo‬ aims to empower kids who dare to embrace their true passions, even in the face of gender bias and bullying. McGoey started the project by photographing her own sons and then reached out to friends, acquaintances, past clients and even strangers on social media. To date, she has photographed 17 boys pursuing interests ranging from dancing to reading to figure skating.

I'm A White Mother Raising Three Black Children, and Here's What I Mean When I Say Black Lives Matter
My children’s lives matter. And when I or another parent shares this with you, your response should be simple: yes, absolutely yes.

Gentle parenting isn’t meant to be easy

What we are about, is the bigger picture. Connectedness over obedience. Relationships over perfect behaviour. Mindfulness and understanding over punishment. A commitment to helping our kids deal with their emotions, making them feel safe, respecting them as people, guiding them through life, setting boundaries and limits lovingly, and not relying on fear and power to get our message across. Because what we’re aiming for is not momentary compliance, but nurturing a human being.

Child behavior: when nothing else works, consider these 7 strategies:

Of course we value our kids and want what is best for them. The issue isn’t bad parents, but these societal shifts acting beyond our awareness. Societal changes have subtly interrupted parental availability, connection and influence. These 7 strategies are all about counter-balancing and reclaiming the parental role to enable connection. Parents can begin the process at home. The 7 strategies are a start.

Simplifying Childhood May Protect Against Mental Health Issues
Developmental Psychologist David Elkins reports kids have lost more than 12 hours a week of free time per week in the last two decades meaning the opportunity for free play is scarce. Even preschools and kindergartens have become more intellectually-oriented. Many schools have eliminated recess so children have more time to learn.
The time children spend playing in organized sports has been shown to significantly lower creativity as young adults, whereas time spent playing informal sports was significantly related to more creativity. It’s not the organized sports themselves destroying creativity but the lack of down time. Even two hours per week of unstructured play boosted children’s creativity to above-average levels.