Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas Traditions

When I was a kid, with the exception of once, my dad trekked through several feet of snow once a year, up the back mountain, to harvest a Christmas tree. A few years we got to go with him. He liked to put the tree up on December 18th, his mother's birthday. Christmas was her favorite holiday, and it was his affectionate way of paying tribute to her and the holiday spirit she had instilled in him.

"Santa" filled stockings, left one or two presents, sometimes wrapped, sometimes not, sometimes a little of each, and Santa always added new lights, decorations, set up dioramas, etc. We kids were always awestruck in the morning, and couldn't understand how my parents weren't as excited to see what Santa had done. My parents would get up with us while we opened stockings, then go back to sleep for an hour or two. My brothers and I would enjoy our stockings, and impatiently wait to open presents when they woke up.

The only thing distinctly different for my children is that Santa only fills stockings. I told the girls I sent Santa a letter, telling him that we get lots of presents from our family and friends, could he please take an extra present to someone less fortunate instead of bringing it to us. As of yet, that seems fine with everyone here. We load the stockings with treats, many of which are edible or usable, like granola bars and goldfish crackers, a little candy, bubble bath, new character undies and socks, chapstick, some little trinket toys or instruments, homemade play dough, new art supplies... things to keep them busy and fed while we catch up on rest before present opening, things that we regularly buy anyway, and things that are fun and disposable.
Maybe it's just my kids, but they love their Tinkerbell underwear, goldfish crackers, and anything that makes noise or a mess.

This year I traded stocking stuffers with a friend who has similarly aged children - small toys her kids or my kids have received throughout the year and don't play with; a metal kazoos, a prayer drum, mini nail polishes, matchbox cars, etc. Along with those, I found and/or purchased a few small, party favor style toys, that I"m going to attach to strings and hang from the bottom branches of the tree for the girls to pick off. I have a Christmas tea set that Santa is going to give them - set out for them with little breakfast snacks, and a Playmobil Christmas set to arrange. We'll see if the Polly Pocket and Ryan's room doll houses get assembled for them, and whether or not they get wrapped. It depends on how long it takes this Santa and her helpers to get everything else done.

What were Christmases like for you as a child? What traditions have you continued with your own children, and what have you changed?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Fog Will Lift, Eventually

After reading the following question, via Mama Birth on facebook, I decided to blog my response.

"Is it just me or have the last couple months been a struggle? I'm always tired n cranky. The kids are constantly bickering n whining & driving me nuts. I don't want to stop co-sleeping or breastfeeding my 20mth old, but I'm feeling so exhausted &... over it. Or is it 4yrs of broken sleep finally sent me mad?"
Oh how I empathize. In my case, I do think it's largely due to 4 1/2 years of broken sleep; but I think it's specifically due to practicing all of those energy consuming attached parenting practices while trying to maintain a certain lifestyle (or at least exude the image of it), in a culture that doesn't offer adequate support. For example, if you (or I had) had other adults and/or significantly older kids/teens our older kids could conveniently go play with while we "slept in" or took a nap, that broken sleep wouldn't matter so much. Instead, primarily on our own, we're expected to be bright eyed and bushy tailed after maybe eight hours of broken sleep, have our four year old to preschool at nine, after a nutritious breakfast, keep the house (and the car) at least fairly tidy, healthy lunch, healthy snacks, healthy dinner, and maintain consistent bedtime routine. Somewhere in there we're also supposed to make sure that everybody gets bathed regularly, including ourselves, laundry is done and sorted, the liners are pulled from everyone's boots to dry, the dishes are done, and that we regularly go through and get rid of all the excess junk toys that keep multiplying even if we don't buy them. Don't forget to get your own hair cut once in a while too.

If you're a natural, attached parent, you're also taking time to listen to kids, to interact with your kids, to work with your kids, as individuals with a birth right to respect and consideration. And you probably realize and regularly remind yourself to be on your best behavior during all of this, because you know you are child's first and most significant teacher. If you are a natural attached parent, this is all even more exhausting for you because you do respect your children; you don't let them cry it out to make your life more convenient, you're probably deeply opposed to threatening or punishing your children into fearful obedience, if you're like me you also try to avoid bribing and rewarding them into obedience.

Anyone who has ever had an intimate, respectful relationship with anyone can tell you that it's sometimes exhausting. Trying to cultivate a relationship like that with someone who barely speaks your language and whose brain truly works differently than yours, takes exhaustion to whole new level. I love my children - my "job" - but they are often as exhausting as they are fulfilling. Even if you have a supportive partner and some supportive local family members or friends, it's often not enough to significantly alleviate that exhaustion. All too often they too are struggling with the exhaustion this lack of supportive culture so often creates.

It's easy for those who chose early, parent-lead weening and for those who chose to coerce their children into sleeping in separate beds and/or in separate rooms to tell us how we could make our lives easier. It's tempting when it's wrapped in a package that says "don't feel guilty. You need to take care of your own mental and physical health too." While I don't wholly disagree with that statement, in this context, I won't accept it. I know that's the easy way out. I've done research, I've weighed pro's and con's. I know that evidence shows that people who breastfeed longer are, to put it simply, generally healthier. I know that kids that co-sleep are, generally, happier. I know that kids that are respected, not manipulated through punishments and rewards, are generally happier, healthier, better adjusted people.

So, I've toughed it through. My youngest just turned two. She is a high maintainance mama's girl. I used to dread leaving her with anyone, even my husband, because I knew she would be fussy and miserable while I was away. I felt guilty putting my "needs," that seem to stem from the flaws in a culture she has no control over, before her emotional and mental well-being. I can't put my well-being before an infants and not feel bad about it.

Here's my silver lining;

I knew that eventually it would get easier.

Slowly, especially in the last couple of months, it is finally getting easier. My youngest is very slowly becoming less reliant on my presence. I finally found some teenagers close by who both my kids and I am comfortable with, who watch them for a few hours once a week. At first I really did take naps for almost the entire time my kids were gone. Now I only nap for half of it. I have a friend who share-nurses my youngest, who occasionally spends the night and keeps the "baby" in bed with her or watches her during the day once in a while. The youngest one is finally starting to sleep for at least a few hours by herself at night. By which I mean in a big bed with her sister, without me right next to her. She still wants to feel skin when she reaches out, and if she doesn't, she wakes up and is upset. She still usually spends the last half of the night next to me.

I still feel like my brain is made of mush most days. I still often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of trying to raise happier, healthier, better adjusted people, in our culture. But it really is getting easier. The fog of exhaustion is slowly lifting, my brain is starting to function again, and I'm finding that I'm proud of myself. I know that even if I didn't (and still don't) always do the best at practicing what I preach, even if I yelled sometimes, spent to much time on the computer, meals weren't terribly healthy or organized, even though I sometimes resorted to threats and/or rewards, and routines were all but non-existent for some periods, I know that I tried.

Of course, it still sucks that it often takes the first half of any given day to perk up from the lack of sleep the night before. What frustrates me more is that so many people would rather tell me to do it the conventional way, their way, than occupy my kids while I take a nap. Seriously, nap would usually do me more good than most lectures.

Friday, August 13, 2010

To each their own?

I agree, up to a point, that there's no need for us to criticize or try to correct other people's parenting methods or styles, that we should all do our best to accept and support eachother as much as possible.

Unfortunately, the way other people parent their children does often have obvious effects me and my children. It effects my childrens' perception of adults, of parent-child relationships, and it effects how those other children treat me and my children.

I quit working at a childcare center in a local gym because, as much as I enjoyed the employee membership and discounts, I was tired of my children being exposed to violent, threatening, mean parents; parents who openly hit (spanked) or threatened their kids with that type of violence, in front of my children, or who constantly criticized, ridiculed and humiliated their children, etc. I want my kids to trust adults, and I don't want to have to explain to my four year old why that "grown up" thinks it's ok to hit their kid's bottom, bite their kid, or scream at their kid, call their child names, or say mean things to their kids.

(Just for the record, I find parents who condescend, patronize, pamper, and compulsively praise and/or reward to be almost equally offensive.)

I might not tell you how to parent your kid, but I will ask you not to behave like that in front of me or my children, and I may tell you I think you're behaving very poorly, probably embarrassingly, not to mention ineffectively. I feel like the least I can do for my children is let them know that I will always do my best to stand up for them, and for other vulnerable people. You know, like other kids.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

willing participation

A few days ago, at a mothers only potluck, a woman told a story of her sons' resistance to "obeying" her when she told them to mow the law. Every Saturday there was battle of wills, punishments threatened, and resentful youth coerced into doing the task. This cycle repeated itself week after week. One inspired Saturday morning, she got up and after her normal routine, casually said, "If you need me I'll be out mowing the lawn." Before she was even half done with the job, both boys had joined her and taken over - without any requests, threats, coercion, or resentment. They've done it every Saturday since, without being reminded.

It got me thinking about chores, or tasks as I now prefer to call them. (Chores has a negative connotation to it.)

About a year ago, for a few weeks, my (then) three year old refused to brush her teeth. Enter nightly power struggle. And of course we were right to try to force her to brush her teeth, right? Good oral hygiene is essential. After a while though, it was not just exhausting, but, honestly, traumatizing. How could we expect our three year old to learn that her body is hers and hers alone, that noone else has the right to touch her without her permission, how can we expect to instill in her the confidence to say "no" to someone threatening, when we, her parents, responsible for protecting her, weren't even respecting her cries of no. So we stopped. For three days we said nothing to her about brushing her teeth. We said, "oh! Look Honey," to eachother, "it's time to brush our teeth," and my husband and I would head for our toothbrushes, then go lay down on the bed with the nightly stack of books. On the fourth day, she joined us, and with a few exceptions, has every night since.

When I was a kid, my brothers and cousins and I often referred to the adults in our lives as 'dults. As in "The 'dults want to us to pick up the garbage the dog tore up in the yard." In general those 'dults asked a lot of dumb questions and gave a lot of dumb orders.

We didn't know the word dolt back then, but now I can tell you the definition of 'dolt' is almost synonymous with how we felt about those 'dults at those times. Our responses usually went something like, "if the garbage bothers you, you pick it up. It doesn't bother me, so why should I do it? If you don't want to pick it up, then don't let it bother you so much." In typical fashion, arguments would ensue, usually ending in some sort of compromise that didn't leave anyone involved feeling satisfied. On the 'dult's part there was frustration, exhaustion, and those feelings and fears of inadequacy that every parent whose child "won't listen or do as she's told" feels; and there was frustration and strong underlying resentment on our part. Did they think we were their slaves? Why should we do the dirty work they weren't willing to do?

Now I realize how much more was going on in subtle and subconscious ways.

I chuckled when I heard the lawn mowing story, because so many times I've been through the same act with my children and children I've cared for. If I command they do it, they might. If I start doing it and ask them to join me they're more likely to. If I do it, willingly and joyfully, because I want it done, because I will feel better when it is, and my children witness this, then they will not only join when requested, but will often just jump in, or ask me if they can or if I'd like them to. Sometimes all it takes is saying, "hey, let's do [insert task] together. I'll start." They don't feel as though they are my little servants, as though I am a tyrant dictating they do the undesirable work so that I will not have to suffer the drudgery of it. They don't feel like I'm valuing my own preferences and desires over theirs, and trying to force them to accommodate me. I might have to willingly, joyfully do it myself multiple times before they jump in, but generally, they will. I try to remember to be willing and cheerful about the tasks that are generally seen as "mine" too, as my attitude directly teaches them how they should approach "their" tasks. If I can't be willing and cheerful about it, and it's not a matter of extreme importance (life, death, or a dirty diaper), than I do something else until I can again appreciate that task. Most of the time, I don't see much point in grumbling about things that "have to" be done, like changing dirty diapers. Diaper time is belly button raspberries and toe tickling time.

Not that any of that is always easy, but here's the part that most parents I know have the hardest time acclimating to; in order for this to work, there cannot be any rewards or punishments involved. You must sincerely be willing to complete the task on your own if they don't jump in. You could extend the courtesy of asking if they'd like to help this time (every time), but prepared to graciously accept their no, and trust that your child is an inherently social being, with an inherent desire to be accepted and valued, that they will grow to do what is expected of them and to follow the examples set for them.

As is often the case, the younger your child is when you adopt this approach, the easier it will be. You must give your child ample opportunity to be social, to participate in accepted, valued activities that encourage development, even when it's not convenient, not the task you wanted them to do or they are not yet able to do it to the same extent you are. For example, if your two year old wants to help do dishes, let him. Get him a stool or chair, set him up at the sink, and let him wash all the cups and plates and spoons - or as many as he wants to. When he's ready to wander off to play, leaving some dishes undone, let him. Now that he knows he's welcome, he'll be back. You might have to rewash a few, it might take longer, but it probably hasn't shortened your life expectancy any, and really, what were you going to do with those few minutes that was more important than nurturing your child's sense of social and self value? If your four year old is hungry, let her make herself a peanut butter sandwich. She's not likely to stab her eye out with butter knife, but if you just can't stomach the idea of letting her have one, let her use a spoon. If she asks for help, give it to her, no strings or criticism attached. If your six year old wants to help weed, and accidentally pulls up an iris, thinking it's just weird, fat grass, bite your tongue unless you can gently, encouragingly show them the difference, without being upset at them for the mistake. It is essential that you do not hover while they do these tasks, as it would likely give them the impression that you do not believe them capable of these things. Do something else, nearby, keeping busy and watching only peripherally.

If your children are older, it may take longer for them to start willingly participating, unasked. Any change in lifestyle or discipline is going to require an adjustment period, (sometimes much longer than we'd like), dedication, and a belief that you are doing something beneficial for yourself, your children, and society in general. Children are often resistant to change. They may test you in unexpected ways. They may simply refuse your invitations to join in tasks for a long time, or they may ask "you're not going to make me do it?" They may ask, "what do I get if I help you." My response would be, "I can't make you do anything. It's your choice," then whistle my way through the task at hand; or for requests for rewards, a smile and "I'll take care of it," should suffice. I don't know about you, but my head is always full of ideas and thoughts that could use more sorting, and what better than some repetitive, mundane, but useful, task to give me time to meditate on them?

I suggest that you evaluate your own reactions to events, and attitude toward tasks. See if you can identify any of the same behaviors and attitudes that are frustrating you in your children. Ask why you resent or dislike the task at hand, why you are reluctant to do it. Could it be that you were never given the chance to do it just because you wanted to? That you were never given the opportunity to grow up in an environment of obvious unconditional love and acceptance, whether or not you did your chores. That you feel like these are things you have to do, rather than things you choose to do? Could it be that it was taught to you, probably unintentionally, that these are tasks that 'normal,' socially accepted people grumble about and try to avoid, pawn off on others, or do only because there is no way around it? Do you complain about your job or about all the work you do around the house, or about how hard it is to do anything with your crew of wild children, your uncooperative rebels? Do you then expect them to do differently, to go "work" (school, tasks, etc) willingly, without complaint, and to be anything other than the whiney, wild, uncooperative rebels you've labeled them?