Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memories of reading

Over the past few years, I've been anxiously waiting for my son to develop an interest in books. Now that's he's interested, a thousand memories of books past have come rushing back to me. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the books that I read or my parents read to me. I remember everything about them - how the pages felt on my fingertips, the worn out bindings and the due date cards inside the back covers, the artwork and the stories.

There was the story about the lion who got all dressed up for a party but no one recognized him with his fancy checked jacket and permed mane, so they wouldn't let him in. There was "Make Way for Ducklings," "Caps for Sale," and "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel," books that my father must have read to us a hundred times. There was "The Rainbow Dress and Other Tollish Tales" and "My Twin Sister Erica," an out of print collection of stories given to my family by the author who lived in the town I grew up in. And, of course, the Curious George books that I remember getting from the Stanfordville Library, the little white house with black shutters just up the hill from the town swimming hole known simply as the Rec and across the street from the bus depot where we would pick up my father some days. I remember coming home from the Rec and curling up with still-damp hair reading books until dinnertime.

I guess it's no coincidence then that one of my first jobs was in a library. When I was in college, I worked at the circulation desk of public library. My favorite patrons were the moms with kids. There was no limit to the number of books you could check out. They would literally traipse through the children's section filling a little red wagon with books on all subjects. I couldn't wait to be that mom. But this morning, I realized how hard being that mom is.

I spent a half hour combing through the library shelves looking for books that weren't about Jewish holiday celebrations, written in Spanish, or based on African folktales. After eliminating subjects (and languages) that are irrelevant or of no interest to us, it seemed nothing was left but overly imaginative drivel that would insult the intelligence of even a 3 year old and books that tried to make a story out of number and letters. There were the "stories" with more pictures than words and then actual stories with more words than a two and a half year old can sit still for. There was even a story about a child struggling to overcome OCD called "Mr. Worry."

Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned stories? You know, the ones about everyday stuff told through the eyes of a child, not through the eyes of an adult who is trying (and failing) to think like a child? Stories told by these adults often come off with obvious morality and put way too many ideas in a child's head. We end up with books about kids with OCD, ghosts and monsters under the bed and stories about bedtime, chores and such all contrived to slyly elicit good behavior from children.

At our library, there's a smattering of Syd Hoff books, but I've yet to come across "Danny and the Dinosaur" or "The Horse in Harry's Room." Curious George books are harder to come by. Mercer Mayer and Judith Viorst of the Alexander books? Forget about it. The best finds are at our local thrift shop. Usually, the books with little to no cover art, black and white pen drawings and titles like "Andrew Henry's Meadow" and "Hide and Seek Fog" are the best bet. It seems anything written before 1970 fits my ideal - back when kids played outside alone and actually found their friends there, too.

We did check out about a dozen books, among them was "If You Give a Moose a Muffin," a cleverly written and illustrated book about money (the page numbers were marked with different denominations of money) and a book about a house being built. I guess it's back to the thrift shop in search of those fifty-cent pre-1970 books. At least with those, I won't rack up library fines!

If anyone has any suggestions on books for my son that won't make this mom gag, please pass them along.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The 10 commandments of parenthood

The line between raising healthy, well-adjusted children and scarring them for life grows ever slimmer these days. Being a parent is hard enough without having to live up to unrealistic standards.

Parenting philosophies run the gamut. One tells us not to use rewards, praise or time outs lest we scar their delicate, developing egos. Another tells us to be firm, even authoritarian, not letting them run you. Nutritionists tell us that juice is the equivalent of Coke and Happy Meals will give our kids heart disease. Doctors warn us to slather our kids with sunscreen; one bad burn will virtually ensure your kid gets skin cancer as an adult. Kids wear long sleeves, pants and a hat at playgrounds on hot days. Purell has become a diaper bag staple because dangerous germs are everywhere.

And if that's not enough pressure, we are expected to pay obscene amounts of money to over schedule our children, all in the name of enrichment. God forbid our child fall behind educationally even before his third birthday.

Enough is enough. What's perceived as a fine line is really an eight-lane freeway and worrying about every little detail of their lives will make them neurotic and us old before our time. We're not bad parents if we forget the sunscreen or don't think bug spray is necessary all the time. (By the way, I just learned that a tick can transmit Lyme disease only after being on a person for 48 hours. Personally, I'd rather do a nightly tick check than spray my kids with chemicals.) Your child will not see the occasional time out as a time out from your love and approval; sometimes my kid just needs to chill out and sit still for a few minutes and there's not a damn thing wrong with that. And, no, I'm not going to pay the Little Gym or Gymboree for exercise classes when my kid can play at the park for free. Nor will I take my child to the museum to look at bugs, frogs and butterflies when he can find them all in our backyard for free.

So here are my first 10 commandments of parenthood, in no particular order. I'm sure there will be more to come. I think you'll find them quite liberating.
  1. Thou shalt not assume your child won't eat apples with the peels on, bread with crusts or any other food that he hasn't tried and refused on his own.
  2. Thou shalt not assume that your child will suddenly dart into the street if he's standing two feet from the curb. Watch closely, intervene if necessary, but don't hover and fret.
  3. Thou shalt not force your child to eat every morsel on his plate, even if he still wants a cookie later on. Eating most of his dinner is enough.
  4. Thou shalt not insist that a toddler at a park with a water feature or a stream stay away from the water. Instead, come prepared to let him get wet.
  5. Thou shalt not rush to your child's rescue every time he expresses frustration. He'll figure out eventually (and usually without your help) that square pegs don't fit so well in round holes.
  6. Thou shalt not aim to entertain your child every waking minute or even most of the time. He'll be much better off if he learns to play on his own.
  7. Thou shalt not try to make every experience educational. Chances are that most of what happens daily in your own home is more educational than anything you plan.
  8. Thou shalt relax about your child's idiosyncrasies. Probably 99 percent of what kids throw at us is completely normal and no reason to rush to the doctor or the child psychiatrist or an exorcist.
  9. Thou shalt not try to be pleasant at all times for your child's sake. It's okay for them to see that you, too, are sometimes a mess.
  10. Thou shalt not restrict activities or food based on the worst-case scenario. It's okay to let your kid eat a McDonald's cheeseburger from time to time. He won't get heart disease, juvenile diabetes or weigh 200 pounds by the fifth grade. Really.
Less is more. It really is. And doing and worrying less doesn't make us lazy parents, it makes us smarter parents. Throw away the books, trust your instincts, trust your kids and have fun.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

On the radar

A letter arrived yesterday from the state Department of Health and Human Services - the original helicopter parents. I knew that once the birth certificate and the PKU test results were filed it wouldn't be long before some nosy nanny would come knocking.

It took them only four months to discover that I'd had a baby and she's not had her newborn hearing screen. Apparently, newborn hearing screening has been mandated in North Carolina since 1999. The letter was signed by a woman whose title was data specialist which makes me think that they are more interested in mining data than whether my daughter can hear. Luckily, they provided me with a handy little chart that lists hearing and speech milestones. I've been asked to call them to talk about a hearing screening for my baby.

This afternoon, Fiona listened intently and smiled slightly as I hummed the tune and sang some of the words to the Dead's "Ripple." (good song for a baby, by the way. Lots of "la la" sounds.) Later, she bolted upright from trying to suck her toe as Jim came around with the vacuum. Um, yeah, I think she can hear. And since I didn't see the words "free" anywhere near the "suggestion" to get a hearing screen, I think we'll just use our common sense here.

Why should I be forced to worry about and pay for a test that will result in a diagnostic referral for a mere 2 percent of infants? Just add my child's hearing to the long list of personal facts that are none of the government's business.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Our toddler, our fruitcake

Toddlers' eating habits are nothing short of perplexing. If food is fuel, then apparently toddlers can somehow run on fumes ... for days. A quick accounting at day's end of Danny's intake usually looks like this: grapes, cheese, grapes, a piece of mommy's "eggy," two spoonfuls of noodles, grapes, crackers, an entire apple, two bites of chicken, a few grains of rice, a cookie (or an ookie-cay as Danny, now fluent in pig Latin, calls them) and part or all of an 8 ounce banana and yogurt smoothie.

I had a moment of clarity a few weeks ago when I bartered with Danny to eat more of his hot dog and then he could have more grapes. (Yes, I occasionally give my son a hot dog. And, no, I don't worry that he'll get leukemia and die.) Wait ... what? For some reason, his single-threaded eating habits really bug me even if it's grape or applesauce or "camelope" that he's binging on. Most moms I know would love it if their kid ate nothing but fruit. I don't understand how he could eat so much of something that, judging by what appears in his diaper, his body isn't completely processing. I worry that he's not getting enough protein or calcium. I worry that he'll get sick if he doesn't eat enough vitamin C foods. Meanwhile, he's never broken a bone, he's blowing past developmental milestones and he hasn't had even a cold in almost a year. Our doctor told us to look at his nutritional intake on a weekly, not daily, basis.

Fine, but we still need to instill variety in his diet. I can't bring myself to be a clean-your-plate mom, but Danny and I have had conversations about eating different kinds of foods. The conversations usually go like this:

"Danny, you need to eat lots of different foods to grow big and strong."

"Uh huh," he says, wide eyed and shaking his head. After a short pause, he adds, "More grapes Mommy."

Maybe a reminder of the diaper rash he gets from an all-fruit diet?

"Danny, too much fruit will make your bum bum hurt."

"Ouch, poopy hurt. Uh uh, no." Pause. "More grapes mommy."

Sigh. At least he isn't whining at me as much.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Warm up for the big trip

Over the weekend we took a five-hour road trip to Maryland, our first such excursion with two kids. It went better than expected, especially since it rained both ways and Fiona is still nursing like there's no tomorrow (more on this later). It was a warm up for our much-needed vacation to Daytona Beach in about a month. Both kids did great. On Friday, I kept Danny up all afternoon and he slept for some of the trip and looked out the window or played with his cars the rest of the time. He even sat in an adult chair (no high chair!!) at the restaurant for almost the whole time. Fiona cried a bit before and after she was fed but slept most of the time also. Surprisingly, she and Danny also held fairly close to their normal sleep schedules even though they were up late both nights we were there.

I'm relieved that the trip went well. It gives me some hope that the trip to Florida won't turn us completely gray. We've talked about flying to take the hassle out of the trip, but have decided that flying could bring hassles beyond our control. For traveling with small children, I'd rather have hassles that we can resolve on our own. In other words, there's no chance that we'll be trapped in our own vehicle for hours without food or water. If we fly, that's a very real possibility.

The kids

Fiona is two weeks shy of four months old. I've been toying with the idea of introducing her to some rice cereal now just because she seems so ravenous. Some doctors have gone back to recommending waiting until six months instead of four months to start solids. That is not going to happen with Fiona. Besides, as Jim points out, she was born two weeks "older", so she's technically four months, right? She goes up to eight hours overnight, then eats around 4:30, 8:30 and 11:30. But from about noon to bedtime, she seems to eat every two hours, sometimes less. I can't keep up, I can't pump (which means I have a rather short leash) and I can't seem to satisfy her any other way. Well, I can satisfy her, it just requires me to hold her in my arms, not a sling, ALL DAY LONG. Clearly not a viable option ... although this evening, she did hang out in the sling for about a half hour, so completely still and silent that I kept asking my husband if she was asleep. She was awake, head pressed against my chest, listening to my heartbeat.

She's quite a handful, that girl. Right now, she's like a six month old in a three month old's body. When I put her down on her back, she refuses to put her head down right away. She lifts her head and her feet and just stares at me, wide-eyed. No wonder she likes her car seat so much. It gives her the sense that her head is up.

As for Danny, his current obsession is cars. Jim looted the garage at his mom's house this weekend and found a race track and a monster truck. Danny played for hours today with the box that the race track came in ... using it as a ramp, putting the cars into the box, carrying the box around, dumping the cars from the box. Good thing we don't usually pay for his toys. And he's been helping me in the garden. Today I turned around when I heard him muttering "Mulch" only to find him placing mulch around the potato plants. He had just placed it in a circle around the potato hill and was patting it down like he'd seem me do with other plants. I was so proud of him!

Most kids will eat an apple only if it's cut up and peeled. My son eats apples, core and all. Bizarre. I'm trying to wean him off of fruit, his other obsession. Sounds weird, I know, but this child will eat fruit all day long if we let him. Then we end up with the dreaded fruit poop, which, sadly, bears no resemblance to Fruit Loops. I've actually given him a cookie as a diversion to grapes. It's that bad.

Anyhow, this post is more scattered than my normal offering, so for that, I apologize. Not everything that goes on here fits into neat little 500 word posts with a theme!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On the verge

It's easy to forget in the heat of battle those little bits of wisdom that actually make sense to me. My sister's theory about children being fussy, boorish and sleepless among other things just before they acquire a new set of skills rings particularly true this week. Danny has been an absolute joy lately. We've had our moments, but in general, the tantrums have subdued. And looking back on the past few days, I see him making great strides physically, emotionally and mentally.

He pleasantly asks for more "camelope" instead of whining. He's more easily diverted from meltdown back to giggling with just the sing-song sound of my voice. He's more focused and imaginative in his play instead of frustrated and distracted. He meticulously lines up his cars instead of mindlessly scattering them. He's interested in putting puzzles together instead of just taking them apart. He can easily hop onto his three-wheeler instead of struggling to get his leg over. He can swing from the bars on the playground. I could tell a dozen stories about his little world. There's so much to observe, measure and compare against the Danny of just two weeks ago.

The Danny of two weeks ago was throwing tantrums at the drop of a hat, especially at bedtime. Changes in the routine are making a difference this week. Instead of Curious George and a banana smoothie to wind down, he now plays in the living room with us, drinks his smoothie and then goes up to bed. Prayers are said and a book is read. Finally!! You have no idea how excited I am that he finally is interested in books and puzzles.

The Danny of two weeks ago didn't really express complex emotions like sadness. Today he displayed feelings that I've never seen before. Fiona was listening to a musical toy that was once his. He'd long since forgotten about this toy, or so I thought. Even before he began chanting "Turn it off," his lip began to quiver and tears began to form. I explained gently that I couldn't turn it off, it just stopped singing when it was done. He then took the toy and put in the closet and said "Put back." I pulled him up on my lap and hugged him. My guess is that he remembers when that toy was in his crib, the crib that Fiona now occupies.

Boy, I've got a lot to say lately. That's surprising since I'm just coming off another one of Fiona's non-stop nursing growth spurts. She, too, is on the verge. Fiona is a 6 month old trapped in a 3 month old's body. She wants to move, stand up, sit up, roll around, basically be in any position but on her back. I don't remember Danny being as frustrated at the limited mobility. She is so much bigger than Danny was and so much hungrier, it seems. I'm literally counting the days until I can introduce her to some solid food. She's starting to reach for food on my plate and watches us all intently at dinner time. She's been very fussy today, so much so that I finally just put her down, walked out of the house and sat on our garden patio (don't worry, my husband was home).

Good night.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Just say yes

Just for fun ... you must read all the words in quotation marks in the most annoying, whiny voice you can muster. Incidentally, saying yes more often to many of his (reasonable) requests has dramatically reduced the whining.

As Danny approaches the 2 and half year mark, he wants to be included in EVERYTHING. In fact, his favorite phrases are "Try it," "do 'gain" and "want to watch it, mommy." We do it, he sees it, he wants to try it, whatever it happens to be. That includes trying to lift a 50 pound bag of dog food at Sam's Club. He saw Jim do it and began screaming "Try it" as we wheeled the cart away. Later, Jim let him "walk 'round" and he ran straight to the dog food section, Jim on his heels, and tried to grab the 50 pound bag off the shelf. Brilliant!

Sometimes I find myself saying no to his requests because saying yes often means extra work for me. But these days, it's just not practical to say no as often as he asks to do something, anything that I'm doing. And, again, I have to remember that we can take our time. I'm starting to see that "free ranging" a toddler means not automatically telling him or even assuming that he can't do something. Many parents will say, for instance, that their 2 year old can't sit in a chair without being strapped in. Meanwhile, the child is 2 and a half and falling off of chairs because he's never been allowed to sit in a real chair. My son has wiggled in and out of an adult chair so many times that he knows how to do it without falling or hitting his head on the table. Sure, he fell at first and hit his head, but it wasn't a big deal. Mommy and Daddy didn't rush him to the ER assuming he had a concussion and now he rarely hurts himself.

Some parents would obviously balk at letting a 2 year old help prepare food, too, but that's where we are now. Let me assure you that he is well supervised and allowed to help only when I'm not also juggling my infant daughter's needs. But telling him to stay completely away from a hot stove or knives teaches him fear, not respect. It doesn't give him the chance to learn how to safely approach the stove or exactly which end of the knife is sharp. Letting him help usually doubles my work, but triples his self-esteem and delight. So much for "free range" parents being lazy.

Anyhow, here's a list of things I've let him do recently and some self-help skills I've taught or am teaching him:

... drink from a lidless cup while walking around the kitchen (I can't stand those snack cups with a spill proof lid. How the heck is the kid ever going to learn how not to spill his snack?)
... pull a step stool up to the water dispenser at the fridge and help himself. (He was absolutely delighted Friday afternoon to be bringing ME cups of water while I nursed the baby.)
... pull a step stool up to the cutting board and hand me fruit to cut.
... pull a step stool up to the stove while I'm cooking and even put ingredients in the hot pan.
... "stack" the napkins in the basket. (I didn't even go behind him to "straighten" the pile.)
... help put away the food after a grocery trip.
... bring the lighter grocery bags in the house.
... pull his own pants up and down. (in preparation for potty training)
... put his own shirt on (if I get him started, he can pull the shirt over his head and gets his arms in.)
... get in and out of the van and his car seat by himself.

Saying yes to his requests to "Try it" is one small thing I can do to give him confidence and make my job easier in the long run. The goal should be self-reliance, not dependence until the parent believes the child can do something proficiently. Really, who cares if he doesn't stack the napkins neatly or gets a little water on the floor or puts his shirt on backwards at first? We're on the hook for 16 more years, so there's plenty of time for improvement. And I'm pretty sure a few bumps and bruises along the way aren't going to kill him or his self-esteem.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The princess and the car seat

To say last night did not go well is an understatement. Getting Fiona to sleep all night in her crib instead of her car seat was the goal. Miss Fiona is capable of sleeping six to eight hours in a row. Apparently, that's only under certain conditions. Last night, she slept about an hour in her crib. The rest of the time, when she wasn't howling, she slept with me. We probably should have started with a more realistic goal.

I hate this part. I really do. No matter how much I think I've learned, I still end up forcing unrealistic expectations on my kids before wising up for the umpteenth time. As "granola" as I am, the pediatric voice of doom still works its way in. It tells me to not do anything at bedtime that I'm not willing to continue forever. The voice of doom doesn't give children enough credit. I know better - kids are more flexible than adults in many ways. To believe that I have only to remember the number of times I thought I had my son's preferences figured out.

With Danny, we started him on a routine shortly before I went back to work to make things easier on Jim, who would be with him at night and who gets up around 4:30 every day. Danny did really well with it. Jim and I could expect time alone together before bedtime most nights that I was home. Danny slept in his crib until the first night feeding then he was with us. I never feared that he would be in our bed forever. Giving a child what he clearly needs, emotionally or otherwise, will help him outgrow the need for it faster, I've found. Danny stopped cosleeping around 11 months and has never asked to come sleep with us, even when he wakes up crying in the night. I do love cosleeping with my babies and she's no different. This time, though, it's much harder to get comfortable with the baby. Maybe I'm just getting old or the last pregnancy was harder on my body, but I wake up with sore hips every morning from sleeping around her.

Now that I'm home full time, the boundaries are blurred. I have no solid reason to get her to sleep in her crib other than my own comfort and desire to be alone for at least part of the night. (And, yes, I know that's an important need. But my needs always seem to be met eventually if I just relax and do what needs to be done for my kids. That doesn't make me a martyr.) It seems that the only reason sleep training is so popular is because it serves the needs of two income families who have to adhere to stricter schedules and have a limited window of time for sleep. Nothing wrong with that, but I'm finding that because I'm home we can take our time, there's nothing we HAVE to do.

Right now, Fiona is rolling around on her blanket and squealing at me. Last night is passed from her mind. She likely doesn't remember crying in her crib for the 15 or so minutes that seemed like an eternity. Some would use that as an excuse to continue allowing a child to cry until they fall asleep.

Not me. I'll just pop an herbal sleep remedy and try my best to sleep around the baby tonight. That should make for a better morning tomorrow for all of us.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Stunt baby

For weeks now, we've been dancing around the issue: When will we alter our daughter's sleeping arrangements? For most parents, that means deciding when and how to move the baby out of their room. For us, it means moving Fiona out of her beloved car seat and into her crib. She sleeps six to eight hours in a row only if she's in her car seat placed in her crib. (Picky little princess!) When I dare put Fiona in her crib at night, she howls and I cave out of exhaustion. And, no, I didn't imagine every frightful, dangerous scenario that could transpire with this arrangement. I do cosleep with her, usually after the first night feeding, which is between 4 and 6 in the morning. Obviously, no one is willing to give up this arrangement and I'm not the kind of parent to institute anticipatory changes in routine. I usually wait for a clear sign from the universe.

Well, the universe called this morning.

I went into her room around 6 a.m. when I heard a little "eh" from her. She wasn't in her car seat. It didn't occur to me to panic and think someone had snatched my baby in the middle of the night. Just last night, my mother was relating how strong my sister was as a baby while we watched Fiona do crunches on the floor. Jax stood up in a grocery cart at 4 months and was climbing out of her crib by 8 months. I peered into her crib. She was on her stomach parallel to the car seat. I can't even imagine how she got there. She's obviously pretty strong. She's been holding her head up from about six weeks and likes to stand on my lap. Diapering has already become a battle as she rolls and does crunches. She's growing up faster than I'd like.

So tonight, we ditch the car seat. The next few nights will be tough, but it's obviously for her own safety.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

New look, for now

I'm tweaking the design on our blog. The old template was getting a bit boring. Bear with me ... I'm a perfectionist and an amateur graphic designer, a possibly paralyzing combination.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

American Chopper, playground edition

Sitting on a bench at a local park this morning, my husband and I must have looked pretty lazy. Just about every parent there was two steps behind a child about Danny's age and size. Meanwhile, our son happily and widely orbited around us, watching and imitating older kids, going down slides and up stairs, beating on drums, swinging on his stomach, squirming his way off a three-foot high ledge. My husband and I marveled at his independence while other parents assisted their children in everything from going down the slide to shoveling wood chips into a pail to simply walking on a foot wide beam that was no more than two inches off the ground (really).

I often read Lenore Skenazy's Free Range parenting site. If the name sounds familiar, it's because helicopter parents everywhere had a massive coronary when she let her 9-year-old son traverse New York City alone by subway. I wouldn't do this with our own children, of course, as they are much younger. I do, however, wonder what free range parenting looks like in the toddler years. Just watching other parents at the playground today, I saw what it does not look like.

Parents hover, children believe they are constantly on the verge of disaster and fear even the easiest of activities, like sitting in a chair, drinking from a lidless cup or climbing on playground equipment. Sadly, I've even seen parents set up toys while their children stood idly and anxiously by. As for me, a few months ago I stopped putting Danny's train tracks together for him. In minutes, he figured it out on his own. A few days later, he was putting together an entire circuit of track.

By comparison, our parenting style probably looks like neglect. Danny's been climbing stairs spotted, yet unassisted since he was 8 months old, sitting in a real chair and using adult utensils (minus the knife, of course) since he was 18 months old and recently began climbing ladders and rock walls at the playground. He's 2 and a half. Most of this has come about with minimal direction. And sometimes we don't physically help him even if he asks. Just instructing or reassuring him from a few feet away is usually enough.

Before you jump to conclusions about our parenting style, let me just say that our son is not running around with knives and climbing ladders to the roof. He is, however, given the freedom to learn without being constantly directed, having structured activities forced on him and being physically manipulated. He's also given the freedom to refuse food when he's not hungry and stay awake when he's not tired.

Helicopter parenting deflates a child's innate desire to learn. In its place rises distrust of their own instincts. My sense is that hovered-over toddlers become children and adults who never develop the judgment that would help them navigate the wide world. The paradox is that protecting children from our worst fears makes them more likely to fall prey to those very fears.