Thursday, January 29, 2009

Child Development

The mind of a child is something incredible to behold. I spent some quality one to one time with my almost 18 month old today. Watching the little wheels turn inside his brain was really something special. He is so like his brother was and yet so different. I don't know how much of it is sex (male versus female wiring), how much of it is genetics, and how much of it is just plain "all kids are like that." Take filling and dumping for example. We all know how fascinated one to two year olds are with filling and dumping anything--blocks in a wagon, pens in a box, balls in a bag, gravel in a dump truck, sand in a bucket. It's a normal developmental process children go through.
Both of my sons however, have taken filling and dumping to the next level. Today my 18 month old became fascinated with a box of flashcards. He asked me to help him open the flap and then he dumped them out on the floor. I thought he was going to look at the pictures. Instead, one at a time, he patiently placed them, same side up, back into the box--every single card. Then he asked me to close the flap of the box back and tuck it in. And then I had to open it again. We did this several times, for about 10 or 12 minutes. My older son was always fascinated by doing similar things. He had and still has a great love of the sandbox. But the sand had to go in a certain bucket using only a certain shovel and up to a certain imaginary line that only he could see. Then he would dump it out, scrape the sand over into a pile, and start again.
Who knew watching a child stack blocks could be so fascinating? My younger son has no particular rhyme or reason to it other than to stack up the blocks and knock them down as quickly as possible. He doesn't even mind if they fall before he's finished. He just laughs. My oldest was always very specific. The blocks had to be in perfect alignment and he would become highly frustrated if they fell before he could knock them over.
Watching grass grow has nothing on watching my boys play with tinker toys, Lego's, or Lincoln logs. Seriously, these activities go on a long long long time. Both of my boys are very into this, but again sharply distinct. The baby has excellent fine motor skills for a child his age. It's frightening to watch an 18 month old fit tinker toy sticks into the holes of the wheels appropriately. My oldest would never have done that. He has only been able to do these more labor intensive fine motor things in the last year. Of course, the baby puts a red stick into a blue circle over and over and over--the same ones, whereas my 4 1/2 year old actually makes things--rockets, guns, planes, swords, etc. The most interesting thing about watching this is how intently they are both working on their play. Serious thinking is going on including cause and effect, play elaboration, creation, sorting, stacking, categorizing, sizing, problem solving.
The next time your toddler's incessant need to do something over and over makes your eyes glaze over (believe me if it isn't your first child, this will happen a LOT faster and there will be no video footage of the events) take a moment later on over a glass of wine or a beer to marvel at the amazing brain power your child is attempting to harness. Think of the potential creativity, movement, problem solving, and consensus that is being developed. By giving our children the opportunity to have these types of playthings, a safe space in which to play, and the time we allow them to work uninterrupted sends a very important signal to our children. We are saying what you are doing is important. Your play is your work. Learning is a part of our life in this home.
I realize that my sons may be unique in their ability to play with each other and even alone by themselves for long periods of time (upwards of 20 to 30 minutes sometimes)--or maybe not? Regardless, I think uninterrupted play is a wonderful goal for parents and in particular mommies. We often get so caught up in "engaging our children" or giving them constant attention or feeling as if we aren't "playing" with them enough. It is really my husband who taught me this.
I am often seriously frustrated with my husband's ability to just sit on the couch and read the paper while the boys destroy the house around him. At first (and even still) I criticized him for "ignoring them" or "babysitting" instead of parenting, when in reality, he is giving them plenty of space and time to work it out on their own. Obviously we intervene when the kids get hurt, or fight, or hit their heads. And we don't let them go on too long because silence is not a good sign around here! I have learned particularly with my second child, leaving children to their play is important. It models self-sufficiency. "You are big enough to entertain yourself. There is nothing like quality snuggle time with mommy, but mommy does not have to constantly entertain you." This was a hard lesson for me to learn, but an important one for me and my children. Brain development is going on in the quiet spaces just as much as in the rowdy, interactive, song and dance spaces. Sit back and watch sometime, I bet you'll see it. Better yet, hide behind the door sometime and watch them through the crack. What you find will light up your world.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Caddie Woodlawn

I first read "Caddie Woodlawn" in the fourth grade. Since that time, I have probably reread the book a dozen times. Last night I picked it up again, for something light to help me drift off to sleep. I love the easy writing with the fun stories of Tom, Warren, and Caddie. Their mischief is predictable and good always triumphs over evil.

I was not prepared however for the kernel of truth I found last night for the first time. My husband accuses me of reading books too fast, skipping pages, and not possibly knowing the whole story of a book. Well, we aren't all blessed with a photographic memory like his and we don't all read books as if we are headed into a brain dissection in the morning. He may have spoken a tiny sliver of truth though, because I've read "Caddie Woodlawn" many times and only last night was I pulled up short by the words on the page. Caddie's father apologizes to Caddie by way of explanation after an unfair punishment she received earlier in the day from her mother. Perhaps I've always dismissed it as trite or old-fashioned, or maybe I cast it off because I was still mad that the boys didn't get punished when it was their idea too. Regardless, the words spoke to me differently this time:

"Perhaps Mother was a little hasty today Caddie," he said. "She really loves you very much and you see she expects more of you than she would of someone she didn't care about. It's a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls than of boys. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman's task is to teach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It's a big task too Caddie--harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as much as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman's work is something fine and noble to grow up to and its just as important as a man's. But no man could ever do it so well. I don't want you to be the silly, affected person with fine clothes and manners, whom folks sometimes call a lady. No, that is not what I want for you my little girl. I want you to be a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind." *

Now if we strip away the obvious man's work/woman's work dynamic and we take the statement for what it is in the time period for which it is uttered, these are some profound truths. Caddie's father is rather open-minded for someone in 1860. And if we look carefully, there are some "test of time" phrases in there that I would certainly wish to say to my own daughter if I had one. Good women have nerve and courage and patience. They have understanding hearts and honest minds. Good health is not something to take lightly.

Substitute the word mother for woman. It makes sense to do so, because almost all women of that time (1860s) assumed they would play the role of wife and mother at some point. When you make the substitution, you have the same points we hear time and again in the 21st century to describe good mothers. Think of a mother's desire to keep the world as sweet and safe and beautiful and kind as it can possibly be for her children for as long as she can. Think of a mother's job in teaching kindness to her children. She teaches through her own gentleness and love. A mother teaches courtesy and love and affection by showing it in her relationship with her husband. It takes nerve and courage and patience to leave your home and the safety of what you know (even in the year 2009) to marry someone you think you love, grow a child inside your body, raise a family, and live your life in whatever time you may be living. Perhaps pioneers understood this better because the risks were greater then. Or maybe, Caddie Woodlawn's dad was just one in a million.

What matters is that it is important to teach our daughters and our sons what it means to be a woman of character and strength. We want them to recognize truth and kindness and courage and patience in people. We want our daughters to be strong, kind, faithful women who can influence, for good, people in their lives--husbands, children, friends, coworkers, other women. I want my sons to marry good, honest, hard-working, loving women who will not only cherish them, but pull them up short when they start throwing their weight around. I want my sons to recognize women of strength and character and wisdom as women who can help them make the world a better place and if they choose to marry them, make strong stable loving families.

"Caddie Woodlawn" won the Newberry Medal for children's literature and is considered to be a children's classic. I seriously doubt that when I was reading this book for the first time at 9 that I realized the influence this book would have on me some 20+ years later. If nothing else, I think rereading it again has inspired me to pick up the books my children are reading. I don't want to miss an opportunity to share with them the wonderful world of books and the lessons we can find in them together.

* Brink, Carol Ryrie. "Caddie Woodlawn." Macmillian Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1935. Quote taken from page 215-216 in the Collier Books Edition, 1970.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inauguration

Some of the best lines from a great speech. I remain quite hopeful that America's best interests will be served.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

To all those who are disappointed in the outcome of the election, it's time to get over it. We as a nation proved again today that every four years we can choose unity of purpose over conflict and discord by peacefully transferring power to those who won the election. This is not a reality to be taken lightly. Look at the world's track record on elections and ask yourself, am I glad to be an American or what? If you aren't glad to be in America and you don't exercise your right to vote and accept the outcome, then don't let the border gate hit your ass on the way out to somewhere else. Delta is ready when you are.

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics"

Oh I sure hope so. It would be such a relief to go forward and do the work that really needs to be done. And if Obama could somehow make cable news networks shut up that would be great too.

"In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned."

I don't think I need to expand upon this one.

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works?"

Excellent point. The system is broken on so many levels. Let's fix it and move on.

"Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill...The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."

I think Obama has a handle on this. Let's hope Congress doesn't derail the train of hope. I like that thought, "the reach of our prosperity". We can use our nation's prosperity in so many ways that don't necessarily translate into more government programs and an increase in taxation. I doubt seriously Nancy Pelosi believes that, but there is another election in two years in case she's thinking her reach is bigger than my reach.

"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."

Finally, someone is calling out the American people. Our freedom and way of life are not accidents. Get on board America. It's an "ask not what your country can do" reprisal.

"Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true."

Dear America, if you don't know what these words mean look 'em up. Decide what you are. Are you working hard for America or are you looking out for yourself? Are you being honest every day or are you lacking the courage to do so? Are you a tolerant person who believes in fair play? Basically, I'm asking--to borrow words from Bill O'Reilly--are you a pinhead or a patriot? Get on board America, it's time for a little audacity of hope.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I Wish I Could

Do you have a, "I wish I could" list? I do. Here are a few thoughts on what I wish I could do.

1. I wish I could sew. This very basic skill used to be a run of the mill routine all women knew how to do. What happened? My sewing skills are limited to sewing on a button and cross-stitching. I can't embroider. I can't smock. I can't even sew a decent hem line. I do wish my mother had taught me how. She sews beautifully and even has a sewing machine. She was always making costumes, or hats, or curtains, or hemming my clothes, or making hair bows. My mom is very talented. I regret not taking a greater interest in her talent when I was at home.

2. I wish I could play a musical instrument. I sing very well. I used to play the piano well with practice. I never played another instrument though. In hindsight, I wish I had stopped the piano and taken up the violin. Piano was very boring to me. The discipline of it was wonderful for me and the sight reading skills I honed while playing were critical in my singing. However, I was never going to be great at it and I didn't really enjoy it beyond playing a piece to which I could sing along. I do wish I had learned an instrument. It seems like a talent people appreciate.

3. I wish I could speak another language. I used to have tolerable German. My German is rusty and my grammar has always been terrible. You would think after all the years of singing lessons I could at least read Italian. Not so. I also know a fair amount of sign language, but my signing skill is industry specific so to speak. I use it in speech therapy, but I don't interpret, I'm not that good. If I could pick a language, I think I would choose something like Russian or Arabic or Chinese. I mean, I can get around Western Europe well enough with English and my German is passable for minor forays into Eastern Europe. But if I ever wanted to be truly ambitious, I think a language with a different alphabet would be a great challenge. I have a sneaking suspicion that I am a linguist at heart even more than a speech therapist. I found that I loved studying language for language sake as well as phonetics in graduate school. It's just so darn interesting.

4. I wish I could cook well. I don't. I love to bake. Baking is easy. Plus generally, I bake for a special occasion when I want to do something nice for someone that will bring a little bit of joy to them. Sugar equals joy. Not a hard concept. But cooking requires energy and interest. There is a quality to excellent cooking that is just plain missing in my life. My meals are uninspiring and limp. I don't like to mess around in the kitchen. So my family is very happy that I choose to go to "My Family Dinners" ( plug) and schedule meal making sessions once a month. They get variety. I get simplicity and directions. We all get something worthwhile to eat.

5. I wish I was a naturally good person. I'm not. I have to work at it. I'm a lot like Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was always jealous of her sister because Mary was so sweet and pure and knew all the Bible verses all the time and she was just naturally good. Plus she had golden blonde hair that never tangled and she could wear blue. I am more like Laura. She had uninspiring brown hair, unruly temper, great imagination, and a sense of humor to go with it. Reading about older sister Mary makes me want to yell "Bitch" at frequent intervals. That's not the reaction of a naturally good person.
I am naturally at ease with people I like and I try to be kind to all everyone. But there is still a little devil inside me that is sometimes just plain mean. I gossip. I make judgments. I make jokes at others' expense (sometimes). I lose my temper frequently with stupid people. I don't have time for people who bore me, exasperate me, or otherwise drive me crazy. I can't even tell you why certain people bring out my hackles. This behavior worries me. I would like to think I am better than that, but I'm not. I'll have to try harder.
A lot of people tell me they think I'm a natural leader. I don't know about that. Natural leaders have authority. They have auras. While I might inspire on occasion, I don't find myself hankering to jump in there and lead the charge against the latest tyranny. I'd probably get into a verbal shooting match and lose my temper and then lose the cause.

6. I wish I could make the world a better place. I am trying even in my small little corner of life to make tomorrow a little better than today. You hear the phrase "think globally, act locally" bantered around a great deal. You know it's not a bad idea. What I do right here, right now is like a drop of water on a pool. If you remember that experiment from physical science class--the ripple goes to infinity because the energy is transferred from wave to wave as long as there is a medium to receive it (or something like that). What I teach my children today may have enormous affect on our world tomorrow. You just never know. So like any good Girl Scout (which I hated by the way, but that's another blog) I try to be prepared to do a good deed everyday. Random acts of kindness or even calculated ones are still acts of kindness. The Golden Rule is the best way to make the world a better place. Do unto others--hmm, that sure makes me think about number 5 some more.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Postscript on the Parenting

I decided to publish my previous post on parenting even though it smacked of teenage whining and this postscript will smack even harder of teenage groveling. I'm sure someday when my boys cast the litany of my sins upon me, I will remember I once wrote a blog about my parents that kept me awake, but gosh darn it, I published it anyway. You know how your mom says, "Remember when you were such and such and acted like so and so? See, now you know how I felt. I told you those chickens would come home to roost. " when you tell her something your kid has done that makes you insane? Well, my day is coming and mom and dad, I'm very well aware of it. Love you both always and forever and then some more.


I just finished reading a book about parenting. If I didn't think I could write a decent one, albeit a far funnier one, I would stop reading parenting books. This particular book has made me feel inadequate on so many levels I may have to go into therapy. Parenting isn't easy. It isn't fun or funny. I'm not naturally good at parenting. I need lots of books. The problem is, every time I read one, I realize just how bad I am and that there is no turning back. The deed is done. For better or worse my children are here and it's going to be my fault when they turn out to be axe murderers.

These feelings of inadequacy have made me pause and reflect alot on my own parents and the parents of my contemporaries as well as my friends who are in this parenting gig with me. Perhaps it is a sign of maturity, but I'm starting to feel sorry for my parents. Or maybe, instead of sympathy, I've finally learned the lesson of good old fashioned empathy? Maybe both? Believe me, I have done and still do on occasion plenty of trash talking about my parents. That's what 30 something parents of kids under 10 do right? We sit around and try to one up each other on the "well my childhood SUCKED and let me tell you why" scale. In the end analysis however, my parents were and are still good people. However misguided I think they are from time to time, I accept that I can neither change them, will them to change, or otherwise talk to them about why I think they are so crazy. My parents were generally true to their generation and that generation's problems. Life threw us, as a family, some curve balls that we took right in the kisser instead of hitting pop flyers into right field or letting them go right on by.

I have learned alot about my parents and I realize that they are fairly comfortable with the way I turned out--much more so than I am. It's not that I blame my shortcomings on them--well not many of them. I don't. After all, isn't the whole point of being a grown up taking ownership of your faults? It's just that I don't think my parents are very grown up. I often find them to be exasperating, overgrown children--both of them. Finding out how fallible your parents are is like finding out Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy aren't real all in the same moment. I don't know where I'm going with this analysis except to say, the "my job is done here" attitude coupled with "I don't have to explain myself to you"attitude coupled with the rest of the typical parent-grown child cliches wears thinner and thinner. Longevity is in my DNA on both sides of the family, so we're in for another 40 years of this stuff at least.

So I am both frustrated with my own fallicy and theirs at the same time, because deep down, way down somewhere I keep waiting for them to get better and by extension make me better. Newsflash, this is the best it's ever gonna get. I suppose they had that flash about me at some point. I have no doubt of their love for me. I've never ever doubted it for one milisecond. Discovering that the way I feel about my boys is the way they feel about me, is WIERD. WIERD. It's not that I can do no wrong--I've done and continue to do plenty. The thing is I can't reverse the feeling. I suppose that's because I'm not their parent, they are mine? I didn't choose to bring them into existence and to continue in that same vein, they aren't my creation. (Technically we're all God's creation, but He tends to give liberal license on earth.) That's perhaps an avenue to explore on another day with another therapist.

I guess I'm hoping that being a parent will make me a better daughter. I am hoping that at some point I become okay with who I am so that I become okay giving them orders about how and when and why to relate to my own children in particular ways. As one who rarely bucks trends or authority, laying down the law isn't particularly easy for me. Setting healthy boundaries with your parents is like getting a root canal. In fact, I find that I prefer to live in the pain of limbo and the unsaid rather than straight talk it. WHY is that? How will I ever set the right example for my sons if I can't even tell my parents--who love me unconditionally and for as long as I take a breath on this earth--what they need to hear most? What does this say about my parenting skills? Sheesh, I don't know.

Luckily for me, I am blessed with any number of friends who have these same thoughts. I can't tell you how often we all kick these questions around over drinks or dinner or long car rides. Maybe I should start collecting data. Maybe these are eternal questions that aren't meant to be answered only survived? If that were the case then parenthood would be something to be survived instead of lived. While I certainly have days where I'm hanging on instead of hanging in, I prefer to live my parenting instead of survive it. So I guess I keep reading those parenting books that give me advice on how to talk to my kids and form lasting relationships and create stable self-sufficient human beings and all. Maybe I'll write one of my own: "How to cope with your parents once you're grown" instead of "How to cope as a parent until they're grown."

Keep checking back. I'll let you know when I've figured it all out.

Monday, January 12, 2009

On Being a Godmother

I am now a godmother. I take this new title very seriously. My best friend asked me to stand up in church in front of her parents, her in-laws, and an entire congregation and take vows to raise her daughter in the Christian faith. This path is not a pursuit for the faint of heart. My husband and I took these vows ourselves at Confirmands and then later for our own children at their baptisms. Baptism is one of the sacraments (like Communion, marriage, etc.). Sacraments are grounding rods for one's faith. The acts are themselves symbolic, but the covenants they represent are real.

My little goddaughter has such beautiful parents and grandparents. Her mother is my best friend. My best friend's parents are incredibly special people. They brought forth and nurtured this beautiful woman who isn't the slightest bit pretentious, is totally honest, and is a loving and caring person. They took me into their home on a hot summer July 4th weekend which they probably hoped to spend with family and friends, because it was important to their daughter. This mouthy girl from the South descends upon them, terribly homesick with her world upside down, and finds the most wonderful people who actually wanted to know her. My best friend's husband is a stellar guy. Plus he's from my home state, so he gets bonus points. The trust that these awesome people put in my husband and me to watch over their child is very real and we are respectful of it.

Sunday was a beautiful day. It was gray and cold and mysterious outside. The high curch service was beautiful and moving. My goddaugher was perfect. No crying. She actually watched the minister preach for a while. We had such a lovely, comfortable lunch afterwards. It was a joyful time, complete with chicken salad and chocolate cake. I can't help but see that all signs point to a happy life for this little girl.

Bottom line, when my goddaughter calls me and tells me she is running away, I'll tell her to run here to me. I'll comfort her and pat her back and let her get it all out. Then, I'll ask her if she still has her guardian angel on the bookshelf. And does she remember the framed cross-stitched sampler those wonderful ladies from her church congregation made for her? And I'll tell her that same old story about the time I came all the way to Duke chapel to watch her beautiful self be baptized in a white dress. And how the Holy Spirit was in the water and the music and the air and the people who were there that day. And how special she is to those people. Then I'll read her the riot act about how great her parents are, agree with their decision that made her mad in the first place, and send her packing right back to them with a pan of "mamma's brownies" to sweeten the road. That's the covenant a godmother makes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Yesterday I had a friend over for a chat. She had not been upstairs in my house before. When she saw my husband's desk with the computer on it she said, "so this is where it all happens?" We laughed. It was funny. Reflecting upon that further, it's true. I used to think, how will I ever write anything without quiet time to think and edit, etc. etc. Truth be told, I don't know what I would do with that silent time. Hopefully I would use it to meditate or rest, like I said in my last blog.

Simply put, without a noisy home to indicate my muses are indeed around me, I would not have the desire to write much. Without the incessant sound of digitally recorded voices blaring from the latest Fisherprice piece of plastic called a toy, without the constant BAM of the baby gate as it bangs shut, without the stomp stomp stomp of feet running following the "I gotta ppeeeeeeeeeee" all the way down the hall, without the shriek of a baby who doesn't want to nap, without the telephone ringing, from where would my inspiration come? I don't know. If there wasn't a little bit of magic happening every day in my house, I'm not sure the world would be the same. My 4 year old keeps me honest with his innocent, yet deep thoughts. The baby keeps me entertained with his discovery of attitude and ability. My friends keep me sane.

I saw a good movie last night. "Marley and Me." I've not read the book, maybe I should? The movie can stand on its own without the book, which I find isn't generally the case with book turned movie pictures. It was one of those "slice of life" movies, as my sister says. This movie truly captured the spirit of raising a family, making career choices, the crazy life of home, kids, and dogs. I laughed and cried by turns. I tear up as easily as I laugh. It was a good movie. My husband was right again. Whenever he suggests a movie, I usually say, "really? No, let's not and say we did." He always says, "Aw come on, this will be one of those movies I make you watch that afterwards you say I'm so glad you made me watch it." So, kuddos to you chief, you did it again. See I can admit when I'm wrong.

So I'm thinking of making my own movie. Most people I know could make a movie. Life with kids is never dull. We don't have any pets though. What is that line from "Shakespeare in Love", people want a laugh and a bit with a dog--it's something like that. I could deliver that. Perhaps I should get to writing my screenplay. But it will have to wait until later, one of my muses has come asking me for help.

Hope you have a great day and a great story to tell at dinnertime. Go see the movie.