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The Things My Children Teach Me

At the risk of revealing too much of my crunchy side, one of the things you should know about me is that I believe people come into our lives for a reason. In fact, the lyrics of the song “For Good” from the musical “Wicked” say it best:

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return

When I think of some of the most significant people in my life, I can often guess what it is they have come into my life to teach me.

And even though our society doesn’t typically emphasize children as “teachers”, some of the biggest lessons of my life have come through my children.

My oldest is teaching me about authenticity and strength. At the time she was born, I was in a marriage that wasn’t healthy for either of us. But I stayed because it was what other people told me was the right thing to do. After she came along, I started thinking like a mother. I wanted to give her the world. I wanted her to be happy. Most of all, I wanted her to be herself. I didn’t want to change her, I wanted to discover her. Because I could see from the beginning that she was perfect exactly the way she was.

But how could I teach this tiny human to be true to herself if I wasn’t living that example?

It wasn’t an easy decision. And even after I finally decided it was, in fact, the right decision, it wasn’t easy to follow through with it. But I did. Because I wanted better for her. I didn’t ever want her to be unhappy because of someone else’s opinion about her life. I wanted her to learn to live a life that felt authentic to her, even if it didn’t align with the opinions of those around her. Wanting that for her gave me the strength to finally live my own life that way.

Now I am constantly striving to see and honor my children for the people they are without trying to turn them into what I (or society) thinks they should be. It’s a lesson I will be learning for the rest of my life.

My middle child is teaching me about love. Obviously all of my children have each taught me something about love. The middle child just has a certain unique way of stretching my heart in ways it hasn’t been stretched before.

I still remember the moment in the delivery room, the first time I laid eyes on her. It felt like gravity shifted beneath me. I was head over heels for her from the very beginning. Even through her challenging toddler behavior, I’m still mesmerized by her. The color of her eyes. The curls in her hair. Her fingers, her toes. I cherish every inch of this child for the miracle she is. She reminds me daily to slow down and notice these sacred moments with all my children. She reminds me not to take milestones for granted. She opens my heart in ways I didn’t even know I needed. She makes me a better mother, not just for her but for all my children.

And some day she will teach me about loving and letting go. Perhaps it is because my oldest always went to daycare, so I was used to her having her own independence, and my middle is the first child I’ve stayed home with for her entire life. But I dread the days of being away from her. I dread her starting preschool and school. I don’t remember life without her by my side. But being her mother means it is up to me to help her learn how to be without me. So I will do what I need to for her, no matter how much it hurts.

Love is complicated like that. But that’s what she is here to help me learn.

My youngest baby is teaching me about humility. She’s showing me that I know less now, as I’m raising my third child, than I did when I started. She’s showing me that this parenting thing isn’t something that has a “right” or a “wrong” way to it. That every child is different and every parent is different with every child and that sometimes just doing the best you can is the best you can do.

She’s teaching me about asking for help. About not being ashamed when I can’t do it all. About not being ashamed to admit (often publicly on my blog) that I can’t do it all.

Humility may not sound like a complicated lesson to learn, but in many ways it is the most complicated of all the lessons I am learning. She’s pushing me to discover my own limitations, and helping me make peace with them. She’s helping me to be more graceful with myself and others. Lessons about love, patience, generosity and respect are all wrapped up in learning about humility. Lessons about peace. For being the smallest of my children, she appears to have brought with her some of the biggest lessons. Which isn’t surprising, considering what I know of her personality so far.

Even though we are still only just beginning this learning journey, the list of things my children have already taught me and will continue to teach me is more than I could ever capture in a simple blog post. And while I know the lessons won’t always come easy, I’m grateful for the privilege of learning.

Because I couldn’t have asked for better teachers.

 

“On Children” – Kahlil Gibran

Christmas 2016

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.” And he said:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and he bends you with his might that his arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so he loves also the bow that is stable.

~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet ~

Here’s What I’m Telling My Daughter About the Election

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Dear Daughter,

Last night our country elected Donald Trump as the next President of the United States.

It wasn’t the outcome I was hoping for.

You see, throughout his lifetime and his campaign, Mr. Trump has said things that I found offensive about women, minorities, people with different religious beliefs, and people with disabilities. Mrs. Clinton, while not a perfect candidate herself, had significantly more experience and has spent her life in public service. And to be entirely honest, I wanted to be able to share the moment that a woman finally became president with you.

But at the end of the day, my vote didn’t come down to politics for me. I have friends with all different colors of skin, friends with all different religious beliefs, and friends of various sexual orientations. To me, they aren’t just members of a group, they are human beings. Throughout this election season, I saw these human beings experience fear, confusion, and hurt at the idea of a leader who didn’t respect them or represent them. I saw them experience fear, confusion, and hurt at the idea of being surrounded by their fellow citizens who would choose to elect someone like that.

I saw their fear and I couldn’t imagine standing in their shoes. I couldn’t imagine having to raise children in their shoes.

So I exercised my right to vote.

And I truly believed in my heart that, as a country, we wouldn’t elect a president that only respected a small percentage of our diverse population as a country.

And when we did, I felt deeply heartbroken. Deeply confused. Deeply sad.

This election tells me that, when it comes to taking care of each other, respecting each other, appreciating each other, we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do.

I wish that I could give you better than that. I wish that I could give you a place full of people that love and respect each other despite all their differences. A place that lifts up those that need it the most.

But we aren’t there yet.

So instead I’m going to tell you a story about a caterpillar.

At some point in a caterpillar’s life, it spins itself a cocoon and huddles down deep inside. It does this not out of a conscious choice but rather a deep instinct. Once inside this cocoon, a tiny cell in the caterpillar’s body begins to change.

And the caterpillar’s body fights against it, pushing back against that change.

And then, in response to the resistance, the tiny cell grows and pushes harder.

And again, the caterpillar’s own body fights it back.

This push and pull continues until the caterpillar is essentially destroyed, broken down to something shapeless and unrecognizable.

From that chaos, a butterfly is born.

You may be tempted to credit that tiny cell that started the change. But in reality, it is the resistance it faced that made it strong enough to succeed. It is the resistance, the fight, that tore down the old so that the new could be born.

It’s true that I am deeply dissatisfied with what this election suggests about our priorities as a country. But somewhere at the bottom of this heartbreak, I can feel a tiny ember of hope burning. A hope that this resistance will not be for nothing. I have been searching all morning for the words to give voice to this hope.

But I still don’t know what to say.

What I do know, however, is this:

It is hard to fight against something you cannot see. Some of us were more aware of the undertones of hatred and intolerance in our country than others. But there is no denying it now. This experience has illuminated the darkest corners of this issue and, although painful to look at, realizing the extent of this problem is the first step to addressing it.screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-1-52-30-pm

And address it we will. We know we have work to do. While it is disheartening to realize we haven’t come as far as we thought we had, where there is great despair, there is great love. I choose to believe that our sadness, our confusion, our heartbreak will open us up to a greater capacity for love and inspire in us a deeper and more powerful drive to do as much good as we possibly can. I want to give you a world where we all agree that it’s never okay to treat someone with anything less than respect. Period.

The good news is, we don’t have to rely on a president to create that kind of country. It’s up to us to do so. Together.

So even though we may not have seen the outcome we wanted, sometimes it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about finding your people. In the midst of the cold, early morning darkness that followed the counting of the ballots, my greatest hope came from a group of incredible men and women who stood together in that darkness. They were authentic in their grief, and yet they still found the strength in the midst of their sadness to do their best to keep holding each other up.

They were the others, like me, who had seen the fear and confusion in our fellow citizens and voted against the judgement and hate that would affect our neighbors and friends. The beautiful thing about this group of people is that we voted for each other. When I voted in favor of a world that valued love and respect above all else, I did so not just for you but for my friends and their children and their friends and their friends’ children. And in that way, they also did so for me. And for you.

In other words, we are not alone. YOU are not alone. You cannot see it yet, but you are surrounded by this incredible, indestructible, undefeatable tribe of human beings that will never stop trying to make this world a better and more loving place. For you.

This morning I watched this tribe of people, weary and broken, pick themselves up off the floor and go back out into the world to keep fighting.

For you.

This work may be hard and we may be weary, but we will never stop fighting to make this a better place for you. For all of us.

That, my dear and beautiful daughter, is a gift to you, and a gift to me as your mother. That, my dear and beautiful daughter, is what gives me hope that the world you are growing up in, the world you will inherit, though flawed, is ultimately good. It is what gives me hope that love will always win.

So for now, I don’t want you to worry. I want you to play outside in the sunshine and the fall leaves and see only the magic in the world. I want you to savor the last of your Halloween candy and make your Christmas list and complain when I won’t let you stay up late. Your childhood is a privilege, and there are many people fighting to protect that privilege.

And as you grow and begin to shed the armor of your childhood, as you begin to feel the weight and pain that this world sometimes offers, you can take your place among this tribe of people and know that we will be here to walk beside you the whole way.

 

 

The Struggle to Succeed

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Two days ago I wrote a post about The True Measure of Success, in which I reminded myself to keep my parenting battles in perspective by using my daughter’s happiness as a measure of how well something is working or isn’t working.

That post got me thinking.

What if it isn’t that simple?

I still believe that happiness and joy and love of learning should be the true measure of success. But sometimes it isn’t as simple as happiness in the moment. Without the opportunity to struggle, to learn perseverance, to test their own limits and build their own confidence, children won’t have all the tools they need to pursue true happiness throughout their lives.

If that is the case, me stepping in when I see my daughter struggling isn’t necessarily what’s best for her.

(When I say it out loud like that, I think “DUH”. Of course I can’t step in every time she is struggling with something. She would never learn.)

But even as obvious as that seems, it’s easier said than done, you know? As a parent, we want our kids to be happy. One of the hardest parts of our job is letting our kids struggle and even fail. We have to let them fall down, let them get frustrated, let them make mistakes. It’s how they learn that they can succeed.

What I wasn’t prepared for is the fact that as they grow, so do their struggles. I’m just getting to the point where I can let my toddler take a tumble or struggle to figure out a new toy without stepping in every time. But now the oldest is in first grade. She is learning how to struggle with dynamic friendships. With responsibilities like homework. With reading and math. With rules in class that she doesn’t want to follow.

And she’s doing it on her own. I can’t be there to help or advise or comfort. The best I can do is hold her tight when she gets home, weary from her own battles of figuring out how this big world works and what her place in it all is.

And as she does so, I’m figuring out what my place in supporting her is. How much do I let her struggle and how much do I help?

I’m going back to the homework debate as an example, because it’s something so many of us parents are reading about and wondering about and struggling with right now, due in part to all the hype on social media and the beginning of a new school year. In my previous post I came to the conclusion that perhaps questioning the homework policy for me as a parent wasn’t necessary because my child wasn’t struggling with it (yet).

But what am I teaching my daughter if I support her doing homework until it becomes a struggle for her?  I don’t want to teach her that the response to difficult situations is to remove the challenge. If it is something I believe in, shouldn’t I stand up for it no matter what, regardless of how well she is handling it?

Because there will probably come a time when it does become a struggle. Then what?

Really, it all boils down to an impossible question: how do we know when to let them struggle and when do we stand up for them? How much homework-induced discomfort will teach them perseverance and grit and responsibility? How much of it will damage their love of school, their self-esteem, and their love of learning?

How do we know where the line between benefit and harm is when it comes to struggling? 

It truly is an impossible question because I think it is different for every child. And not just that, I think it changes at different times in a child’s life.

BUT. WHAT IF….

What if the most important question here isn’t how much struggle is the right amount? Maybe we would be better off asking which struggles are worth the struggle instead.

Because here is the real secret: NOT ALL STRUGGLES ARE CREATED EQUAL.

If children are going to struggle, it should be for a purpose, not simply for the sake of struggling.

Sure, she could struggle with the boredom of another math worksheet. Or instead she could struggle to learn to ride her bike. She could struggle with the discomfort of having to do her chores or clean her room. She could challenge herself to read a book that she chooses. Or challenge herself in a swimming or gymnastics class. Or setting the table.

Or perhaps she is challenged all day at school and she just needs a break.

Which one of these things would be best for her whole-self development?

Honestly, it’s probably different every night.

Which is why, as her parent, I’m hesitant to say that struggling with homework is a good thing. Or an evil thing. Some nights it may be exactly the kind of challenge she needs. But what do I do on the other nights? Because I don’t need to let her struggle at homework just for the sake of struggling, especially if her time could be better spent elsewhere. 

Maybe it doesn’t matter whether homework is good or bad. Maybe what matters is that it might not always be the best use of our time in the evenings or the best way to teach responsibility or perseverance.

Surely teaching our children when to stick with the struggle is just as important as teaching them how.

Ironically, it appears I am learning the same thing.

 

 

 

 

My Toddler is Stealing Mommy Time From Her Sister

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Siblings have to share attention. It’s just how it is. Most likely it is good for them and they end up better for it.

But that doesn’t mean it is easy.

My oldest was four and a half when her little sister arrived, so she was pretty used to undivided attention. However, she had also had enough time to consider the benefits of having a sister. And it helped that she was mostly to an age where you could reason with her enough to explain that the initial “share shock” of sharing mommy with a newborn baby wouldn’t last forever, and eventually she would grow into an awesome play buddy.

And my oldest has been an amazing sister. She is helpful when I need her, she is patient when I am not available at the exact moment she want me–she’s a blessing.

To be totally honest, she isn’t complaining about sharing my time. I am.

You see, we’ve hit the full-blown toddler transition this week. Perhaps it is because we are battling teething and a cold, which have affected our sleep. Or perhaps it’s just that magical hour of childhood where children figure out what they want but they don’t have the language to ask for it, which I’m sure is frustrating to say the least. Either way, we are experiencing all the reasons why people dread the toddler years.

Today alone I had to deal with a temper tantrum before breakfast, then breakfast, and then dressing the toddler to leave for the oldest’s eye appointment. The oldest got herself dressed, her teeth brushed, and helped hang out with the toddler while I got ready. We walked to the appointment, which was a nice time for conversation with the oldest. But as soon as we arrived at the eye doctor, all the toddler alarm bells went off. Strange place with strange people means crying, even if mommy is holding us. And you guys, this is not a quiet cry. It’s a “Sorry ma’am at the front desk, I can’t hear what you are telling me to fill out on the paperwork” kind of cry. So I’m juggling a hysterical toddler, trying to fill out paperwork when they come to take the oldest back to the room.

I already know from past experience that this isn’t going to work well. The toddler will cry the whole time and the doctor won’t be able to hear anything else or concentrate on my oldest. So rather than accompanying her to her first eye doctor visit, she went with the nurse while we waited in the waiting room. She didn’t seem to mind and was a total rockstar. (Although she did tell me on the walk home that she wished I had been able to come with her. Insert mini heartbreak here.) I told her I wished I had too, but that she had done such a good job and that it was great that she was old enough to do stuff like that.

When we got home we all played in the basement. I got out one of my old dolls for the oldest and we went through the tub of accessories, talking and having fun. But soon the toddler was trying to climb the dollhouse and wouldn’t listen when I told her to stop so I had to get up to get her, which meant a defiant temper tantrum which meant I had to take her up to time out. And then it was lunch time so I had to feed her. And once again the oldest was left to entertain herself, which she happily did.

She doesn’t complain, but in my head, I do.

In my head, I throw a little fit that I can’t sit down and concentrate on her without having to attend to a temper tantrum or a danger or a diaper. In my head I throw a little fit that I can’t be with her in the doctor’s office because her sister is afraid of everything outside of our living room. In my head I throw a fit that I can’t play dolls for a few minutes without having to always keep an eye on a mischievous toddler. In my head I throw a fit that even her doctor’s appointments can’t be “her” time. And it isn’t fair. But there’s nothing I can do about it.

Perhaps it is because I’m acutely aware of the fast-approaching school year and I’m dreading having even less time with her. Perhaps it’s because the new baby will arrive in September, meaning my time and attention will be even further divided.

Either way, I feel like she is in this perfect stage of being independent, yet still wanting to spend time with me. She is funny and creative and articulate and makes me laugh and think. And I don’t want to miss it. I want to be able to fully appreciate who she is at this moment in her life.

But it isn’t always that easy.

So we schedule mommy-daughter dates. We make the best of toddler nap times. We share subtle laughing eye rolls when her sister is being especially toddler-y. I take advantage of the little chances to hug her and thank her for being my helper. I remind her that this stage can feel hard for both of us and that some days it feels harder than others, but it won’t always be difficult.

And we get through it together. Because that’s what families do. If this beautiful family of mine has taught me anything, it’s how to be flexible. This week it will be the toddler who needs me, next week the oldest, next week the baby. There will probably be weeks where I have to steal time from all of them to take care of myself.

That’s what families do. We all give and take from each other.

And in the end, we all end up with more love because of it.

Careless

  
The hard parenting days have been accumulating like dust. One after the other until I feel like I’m in a haze. Until I feel like I am muddling through instead of being intentional.

It was a long day. I know it was. We drove to Lincoln and back, we went to the zoo, we picked up our new minivan and dropped off our old car. Things that you forget are a lot for a four year old. 

We got home and were rushing about getting ready to go on to the next step of the day. She was playing with her sister and making her laugh. I reminded her probably three times, each time I passed through the room on the way to the next thing, to “be careful” “be gentle” “be kind” with her baby sister. The next time I walked into the room, I found her trying to pick up baby sister with one hand.

I lost it. 

The day, all the days before, it all came to a head and I lost it. I hauled her to her room and yelled. I yelled that I couldn’t believe she would do that. What was she thinking. Had she not heard me a hundred times telling her to be careful. She knew better. How could she. 

I told her I was so mad I couldn’t think straight. And that she was not to come out of her room. I paced. I fumed. Every time I closed my eyes or tried to regain my composure, I saw her being careless with our sweet baby and I lost it all over again. I went back in and yelled more. When she didn’t respond the way I wanted, I stormed out again. Then back in to yell more. Then out again. And every time I went back in it got worse. 

And then I burst into tears. Because I feel helpless. I googled “what to do when sibling doesn’t seem to care they are hurting baby” and nothing helped. I called and texted my go-to friend until she answered.

And thank God she answered. 

She listened to my tears. She encouraged me. She reminded me this is normal. She reminded me that my child was just that… A child. She was my cheerleader. Thank God she answered. 

And so I wept and wept and then I took a breath. I went back inside and I fed my child and bathed her. And sat her down on her bed and I said,

“Today has been hard. This evening was hard. I know you’re feeling a lot and so we will talk more about this tomorrow. But I would like it a lot if you could listen to me. Really listen with all your heart. And hear just a few things. And let them be in your brain and your heart while you sleep tonight. And we will talk more tomorrow. 

The first thing I would like you to hear is that I love you. I love you with all my heart and soul and strength. You are my world and I am your mama and I will do everything I can to take care of you and keep you safe in this big world. And I will always love you. Always. 

She gets uncomfortable in serious talks, bless her heart, so she wanted to talk about mama fighting bad guys with swords. And I said yes, I would do whatever it takes, and we could talk more about that tomorrow, but right now I just needed her to hear my love. 

And then I told her the second thing I needed her to hear: that she was good. She was good good good. Amazing and smart and beautiful. That even on the days where it felt like she was in trouble all day, even on the days where she did bad things, that no part of her was bad. I could see how beautiful and sweet and kind her heart was and I was so proud to be her mama. 

And third, I could see how hard today was for her. I could see that she missed dad, that changing cars was a big deal, and that it was a long and tiring day. And I knew that sometimes on hard days we feel overwhelmed and we don’t know what to do. And that now, on bad days, she has to share mama with sister and that feels hard. I told her I was trying. That being a mama was like learning how to swim. It took a long time and a lot of practice and you just had to keep getting better slowly and that I was always trying to get better. And that sister was still new, and that it wouldn’t feel this hard forever. 

And then I told her the fourth and final thing, and that it was important. That I thanked God every night for making me her mama. Because that meant God trusted me to help her find the good and pure and beautiful and special things that were in her heart that weren’t in anyone else’s heart. That she was amazing because there wasn’t another heart like hers in the whole world. And that I was so lucky to get to learn about her special heart. 

And that baby sister, even though she just seems like a baby, that she had a special heart too. A heart different from anyone else’s heart. And that God thought we were the perfect family to help unwrap this beautiful gift of a heart. And because there was no other heart on earth like hers or baby sister’s, that we had to be careful and take care of each other and those special hearts. 

And I cried and told her I was sorry that I had been so frustrated with her and so impatient. I told her that even though I got mad at her for her big energy, that I knew she would use that energy to change the world and make it a better place. And she looked and me and said,

“Mama, I already have changed the world.”

And so I bawled and I drank wine. And I said out loud to my husband, but mostly to myself, that I was ashamed of how I had treated her today. Because she was a child. Yes, she was smart and maybe she knew better. But she is still a child, with big feelings that she doesn’t know what to do with yet and big thoughts that she doesn’t understand yet and that she isn’t bad. She isn’t bad. She isn’t the bad guy here, and I’ve treated her like one. I coo and awe over her baby sister and then I yell at her to slow down, be better, stop. And she just needed her mama to slow down and see her. 

I have yelled and yelled at her to stop being careless with her baby sister. But I have been careless with her. I can see it in her sweet little eyes when she looks at me. She is learning who she is, but until she had the skills to figure it out for herself, she will believe whatever I believe about her. Whatever story it is I tell about her, she will believe. And she will tell that same story about herself. 

And for the past few weeks, my tone of voice, my lack of patience, my anger and frustration, have told her that she is bad and wrong. That she is too much. 

Realizing this breaks my heart. 

And makes me feel relieved, that I realized it now. That I can wake up tomorrow and do my best to start fresh. With a different story. A better story. I can teach her what she needs to learn, about self awareness and self control, without making her believe that she is bad or broken. 

Because she isn’t. She is perfect. And I am so unbelievably blessed to be her mama. I hope someday she knows how much she has taught me. About being careless or care-full. About love and hard days. About how easy it really is to change someone’s world. 

Because you have, baby girl. You’ve changed my world for the better. More than you’ll ever know. 

Open-Ended Summer Play Ideas

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Ahhh summer. Long hot days filled with kid-energy just waiting to be harnessed. If you’re like me and have younger kiddos, the transition from school time to kids-home-all-the-time can be an adjustment.  I start off the summer with big plans for fun activities to fill the time. But life happens and some days we still end up with me sprawled on the floor across a pile of laundry while she plays with the iPad.

I too often fall into the common idea trap that tells me I have to fill her time, I have to entertain her and be actively involved all the time, not wasting a minute of precious time with her in order to be a “good” parent. And every time I fall down that rabbit hole, I’m brutally reminded that that isn’t a reasonable expectation, for parents or for children. It’s not my job to entertain her all the time, to be her constant playmate. It’s my job to to teach her how to entertain herself, to learn how to play on her own when no immediate play buddy is available. It’s not my job to help her avoid discomfort, it’s my job to help her learn resilience in the face of discomfort, or perhaps even to use that discomfort to fuel creativity.

My dear sweet firstborn will turn five this June. Each year she grows older she gets a little more space and trust to go do her own thing in the great wild backyard. I have countless memories of playing in my own backyard growing up and all the ways we would explore and make believe. As her parent, I want to give her the safe space in which she too can explore and play the long summer days away. This allows her space to listen to her own ideas, follow her own impulses, create her own world. Pure, authentic, open-ended play.

Kids are natural explorers. Given the space they will inevitably find something to do to entertain themselves. It may be a safe and creative way and it may not be. 🙂 While it can certainly be good for them to explore those natural consequences (like how it hurts to jump off the deck stairs), I’ve found that a few little well-placed props can help guide them in the right direction.

Here are some ways to guide “productive” open-ended play this summer:

Outside

1. Clean out your old utensil drawer and put together a small bucket of pots/pans/pie pans/utensils. I got a bucket full for less than ten dollars at Goodwill. On sunny afternoons, I dump the contents out of the bucket and fill the bucket with water. This can literally entertain her for hours. She can play with the water or add mud. She can incorporate other toys for making “food” or can scoop water out to water the plants. The possibilities are endless.

2. Wood blocks. Paint. Markers. The local hardware store often has a wood scraps bin. With a small pile of wooden blocks, she can build chairs and fire pits, she can color on the blocks to turn them into books, a television, anything. Between decorating them and playing with them, the possibilities are endless!

3. A tent/fort. If you have a tent, set it up in the back yard and turn them loose to play camping adventure. If you don’t have a tent, why not do the old chairs-and-sheet trick outside? Any “shelter” can become a starting point for adventure.

4. Rock painting. Enough said.

5. A bucket of water and paint brushes. They can paint on the sidewalk, the swing set, rocks, anything. Then it dries. No cleanup!

 

Inside (or outside for less mess 🙂 )

1. Make a bucket list. Ask what they want on it. Don’t veto anything, just let their imagination run wild. This can help get their creative juices flowing. 🙂

2. A flashlight. Then send them to the dark basement or the dark bathroom or into a dark blanket fort.

3. Paint. I know this can be messy, but it is also a great way for kids to jump into creating. Keep it exciting by changing things up. Hit up a Hobby Lobby and buy a canvas bag or a tshirt and fabric paints for them to paint on. Have them add salt or sugar to a painting for texture. Have them paint pictures on old newspaper. Use straws to blow the paint. Paint with forks. Paint on paper plates. Ask them if they have any ideas! My four year old asked if she could use ice cubes in her paint the other day. I was skeptical, but it turned out amazing! I am framing it and hanging it in her room as a reminder to follow our ideas.

4. Hit up the dollar store or the craft store. At our local dollar store we found pipe cleaners, picture frames to decorate, glow sticks, shoe laces, etc. My four year old played with pipe cleaners, making people, trees, etc. for HOURS. I never expected them to be so popular.

5. Keep boxes and let them create with cardboard.

6. Give them a roll of tin foil and let them create! (I take it out of the box so the sharp edge isn’t a problem.) They can make bowls, car tracks, rivers, statues, etc.

7. Give them bowls with food/spices and a cup of water and let them mix and stir. We do flower and sugar and salt and pepper and occasionally some other spices like cinnamon. Then I give her bowls and spoons and water. You can even go crazy and give a bag of frozen peas or vegetables to add to the “soup”.

8. I buy old books at goodwill and let them paint and glue all over them. This is a fun art project even as an adult!

Paint chip alphabet
Paint Chip Alphabet

9. You know those strips of paint color samples at hardware stores? I collect handfuls of them every time I walk past. My four year old cut apart the colors and turned it into an alphabet game. With older children, we’ve take the paint color names and turned them into “paint chip poetry”. Best of all: they’re free!

10. Just let them draw! Some of my favorite creations from my kiddos came from a simple notebook and pen.

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These ideas are really just a starting point. The purpose of open-ended play is to turn your child loose to discover and create. Ask them what ideas they have and then listen. Let their imagination drive the activities.

Reminders for Parents

A few things that are important for parents to remember when trying open-ended play with your kids:

1. Kids get used to the way things are. So when you change up the way “play” works, they might be a little confused at first as they learn the new “rules of the game”. It’s ok to explain to them why that they are going to practice playing on their own.

2. It can be really hard not to want to “edit” kids’ wild imaginations. But do you best not to stop anything unless it’s dangerous. Kids will figure out the natural limits on play, and it will be a more potent lesson because they learned it on their own.

3. Remember that the purpose of open-ended play is for them to discover what it is they want to try, not what you want them to try. There is no “right” way to pain or create or play. Acknowledge every effort as an act of bravery on their part, but make sure you praise the effort and not the outcome. This will encourage them to keep trying, rather than simply trying to please.

4. Most importantly, have fun!!

 

Mirrors

 

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No one gives you clearer feedback on your parenting than your children. More times than I can count, I’ve heard my oldest speak in a certain way or say something in particular and it is like watching myself in a mirror. I’m not talking about family resemblance; I mean the way I lecture her on the importance of listening or my tone of voice when I’m angry. Usually, it’s the things I’m not so proud of that I find reflecting back at me.

Tomorrow is her day to bring snack to preschool, so today we were separating her choice of cheezits and grapes into individual snack baggies for each of her classmates. She did great with the cheezits, but lost stamina when it came to the grapes. Of course, that was at the same time her baby sister needed to eat and only minutes before her dad was scheduled to pick her up. “Come on, Lex. Get this finished. You can get these done, just sit down and do it. You’re old enough to help with this,” I coached (repeatedly) until it was finished.

When we were finally done she headed out to play in the back yard until her dad arrived. I left the screen door open so I could keep an ear on her. It didn’t take long until her play turned into a very loud lecture during which the dog was being scolded to “get to work” and “help out” and “get it done”.

Sigh.

I called her to the door and asked “Did you feel like I was lecturing you about making snack?” Bless her heart, she seemed surprised at the question and responded that no, she hadn’t. But just because she didn’t realize it doesn’t mean it escaped my awareness.

“Let’s both work on asking for help a little more nicely, ok?” I suggested. And she happily skipped back to her game. And I sat at the table contemplating just how many different ways I treat her or respond in a certain tone and then I scold her for exhibiting the same behavior. I expect her to be patient and kind and thoughtful and polite, but am I always those things? The answer is obvious. Of course I’m not.

The discomfort of seeing your own traits that could use some improvement in your child makes this a profound lesson; one I will keep learning over and over again. But there is a brighter side to this: every time she brings me a special gift, a token of her love or “something to remember me of her”, every time she responds with overwhelming gratitude or offers a small kindness to another, every time she marvels at the magic of the moon or the sunset or sings a song she just made up at the top of her lungs or let’s her imagination run wild… Those are reflections of me, too.

None of us are perfect, but in my eyes she is wonderfully, perfectly human. Can I offer the reflection in the mirror the same kind of grace?

Here Comes the Jump

 

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Phew! Where has time gone? Second trimester came, with its deceiving bursts of energy, just like they said it would. I made meal plans, put the nursery together, brainstormed blog posts and enjoyed the feeling of “having it all together” for the most part. The time came to make a decision about what I was going to do after baby arrives in January.

For the first time in my life, I have the choice to stay home, not just for my 8 weeks of maternity leave, but officially as a “Stay At Home Mom”.  To be honest, I never even expected this to be a choice for me. And even if it ever was, I never expected it to be one I would consider. When my daughter was born, I was overwhelmed. I needed my work and adult interaction. I needed to step away and have some distance each day so I didn’t drown in the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a tiny human.

But the second child is different. I’m older now. I’ve seen how quickly time passes. How the hard stages pass, and the easy stages pass, and no matter what you do everything passes. I used to think of becoming a stay at home mom as signing my life away. Now I see how fleeting these moments and years are. How this is time that I will spend the rest of my life looking back on.

Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. To give up a career I had only just started making my way into, to let go of the sacred spot on the infant waiting list at our first choice daycare. To ultimately make the jump from one “team” to the other in the great debate between working mom and stay at home mom. It takes a lot of letting go to make a decision like this. And letting go is never easy.

But in the end, the decision did feel easy. I have the rest of my life to work, to focus on myself, and only a few short, precious years to focus on these amazing little creatures I’m lucky enough to call my children.

So the decision was made. Time to jump.

Who vs How

I woke up this morning thinking about the difference between who our children are and how they are/how they act.

The first thought that came to my mind was how we try to teach our children to be kind, to be generous, to be patient. And then I wondered if I was contradicting my own movement. If I’m trying to make my child be that type of person, am I trying to control who she becomes? It would seem that way.

But on the other hand, perhaps being kind and patient and generous isn’t about who they are so much as how they are in the world. After all, people who are not patient people can learn to practice patience. People who are not inherently generous can be inspired to practice generosity. Perhaps our job as parents isn’t to make them into generous people but to teach the people they already are to practice generosity. To encourage them to practice kindness. To inspire them to practice patience.

Or maybe the best gift we can give them is the awareness that they have a choice. They can choose what they want to practice. It may not feel like it comes naturally. It may not be easy. But they can always choose.

I have learned a lot about myself in the last four years. I am on a constant journey of discovering who “me” is. And as I learn, I find things that I am grateful for in myself. Passion. Awareness. And I find things that I wasn’t aware of. Desire for control. Impulsiveness. These things are part of who I am, but sometimes I let them control how I am. And the outcomes are sometimes unpleasant for myself or those around me. Realizing that I didn’t have to resent those parts of me was an enormous gift. I could acknowledge that I am impulsive. And then make a conscious choice to be thoughtful instead.

If I could give my daughter only two things in all the world, I would give her the curiosity to discover WHO she is, and the awareness to see that she can always choose HOW she is.

Lucky for me, she was already born with more curiosity than I could ever give her.