Welcome to Joyful Toddlers!

This space is about increasing our enjoyment of the young children in our lives through concrete action and by adjusting the lens through which we view them. My work comes out of LifeWays, which is inspired by Waldorf education. I welcome your comments, and questions about increasing your enjoyment of the children in YOUR life.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Homey Home


In this wintery time, it's easy to start feeling cooped up in your house. If you have toddlers, you're bound to feel cooped up! There are two things to do. The first is to make sure that children get outside-time every day, no matter what the weather. I'll write an article next week on how to approach that to make it feel feasible and enjoyable in snowy weather. In the meantime, the second thing to do is to work on making your house a welcoming and homey place.  When children are in a calmer space, they often respond with calmer energy.

Think about places or homes you've been to that feel warm and welcoming. Where were they? What were they like? What was it about them that made them feel especially homey? How could you make your home more like that?  I know that for myself, there are a few things that make a home feel really homey, and I use them all at Rainbow Bridge. Give these some thought and see if they apply for you, too.

Comfort, Beauty & Practicality
A home that feels really homey makes sure that each space is not only practical, but has both comfort and beauty as well. Beauty without comfort feels like a museum-space instead of a home; comfort without beauty can feel hectic and overwhelming. Do you spaces have both comfort and beauty?

Comfort—Think about comfort for yourself, and for your children. I love to use texture for comfort: lambskins are lovely for a cozy space, velvet curtains, silks, cushions and quilts are all in use all around Rainbow Bridge, and all help to make it feel comfortable. Also, make sure that your furniture is comfortable. I have a friend who has had the same couch for years. She had moved it around from house to house because it was light and easy to move, but it was so uncomfortable to sit on that nobody in her family used it. When she finally got a comfortable couch (from the thrift store; it wasn't expensive), it immediately expanded the usable space in her home and made her home more homey.  Having comfortable, usable spaces for your family can help you spread out and use your entire house, instead of only congrating in one spot.

Beauty—Make space in your home for beauty. Tacking a deep blue cloth with gold stars to the ceiling and walls over your child's bed is easy and quick, but changes the whole feel of the room. If your shelves are jammed full of stuff, try hanging an embroidered silk curtain over the whole thing; it will calm the space immediately. In book cases, make room here and there to showcase small, beautiful things that you love. Painting the walls can really change the feeling of a room. If painting a room feels overwhelming, try painting just one wall. This can often change the entire feeling, at only a fraction of the time and effort. Also, look at your child's toys and the things that are strewn around your house. Are they beautiful to look at? I love toys made out of wood, wool, silk or stone, that are beautiful in their own right.

Make it Practical—A home that is truly homey is not just beautiful, but also practical. This sometimes means giving up how we 'think' things should be, and figuring out what works, and how to do it gracefully. At Rainbow Bridge, I was convinced that I wanted a full-sized table for all of us to sit at, because I didn't like the idea of having a kid-table in my diningroom after the children left for the day. But getting a table to sit fourteen is not easy. Not only was it enormous, but I had to get three or four different kinds of chairs to fill it up. When I finally gave in to practicality and got a kid-friendly table, the space felt so much more spacious and open, I wondered why I hadn't done it earlier. Other practical ideas might include having a play-space near the kitchen, putting a low book case in the hallway for toys, etc. What would be a practical change for your house that would make your life easier, and your house more of a home?

Perhaps the biggest thing you can do to make a space feel welcoming is to de-clutter. This can feel like quite a challenge with a busy life and toddlers in the house, but it makes an enormous difference in how a space feels, both for your and for your children. Here are some low-hanging fruit that can get you started de-cluttering:

Toys—Go through toys and weed out the ones that don't get used anymore. Then go through them again and put half of them into boxes so that you can rotate toys in and out of use. We do this at Rainbow Bridge, and children are always thrilled to see old 'friends' reappear. I often change toys when the seasons change, but you could also do it at a birthday time, or other holidays.

Use shelves—One great way to help keep clutter down is to have more shelf-space than you know what to do with. Have shelves by the back door with baskets for hats and mittens. Have shelves by the table to keep kid-bowls and kids-cups, and they can help set their place at the table. Have shelves in your study and put baskets on for mail, computer accessories, anything else that would normally be cluttering up your desk. If you can, get beautiful wooden book cases; to me, nothing says homey more than golden wood book cases!

Cover things up—Having twelve kids per day at Rainbow Bridge means that we have a lot of 'stuff' around. One of the ways we handle this is through the judicial use of curtains: velvet curtains cover up shelves filled with table-settings, dry goods, extra hats, you name it. We put curtains on the changing table to hide nine packs of diapers. Now when you look around, you see warm velvet instead of crowded shelves.

Hot Spots—Every house has 'hot spots': places that collect junk. Often this is near the door, or on a desk. The 'stuff' isn't likely to go away, but how can you make it feel warmer? Baskets to catch mail and papers? A beautiful iron hook for your purse? At Rainbow Bridge our cubby space was always a huge mess. I took cloth grocery-store bags and sewed a pocket on the outside of each one in beautiful cloth, and wrote each child's name on one. Now the cubbies are three neat rows of blue bags with beautiful pockets. What a different feeling! Not to mention that it's easier for parents to pack up and leave at the end of the day.

Clean as you go—Make sure that you include clean-up as an integral part of each activity you do with your child. Not “something we have to do when the activity is done,” but as a real PART of the activity. This can include helping to clean up after meals, making their bed after naps, etc. Kids love helping to put things to rights and showing that they know where everything goes, so let it be an activity that has its own value, not something that you're trying to rush through. Take a moment after the clean-up is done to reflect on a job well-done.

So, those are a few of the ideas I have.  I hope this inpires you to look at your home with fresh eyes, and make some changes, however small. I've lived in many spaces in my life, and the ones where I take the time to create a beautiful, homey space are the ones where I've been the happiest. We're going to be inside for most of the time between now and spring. Let's make our homes as homey and as welcoming as we can.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Two Tall Trees


Dear Readers,
I want to put in a shameless plug for my friend Jess Henry and her new online store, Two Tall Trees. Jess was a member of my LifeWays training six years ago in Wisconsin, and her mother was a Waldorf teacher at the school I went to as a child.  I remember her from then as a glamorous teenager!  Since that time, Jess has worked with children in many capacities: from the start of life as a Birth Doula, to nursery school teacher, after school art teacher, summer camp director, home childcare provider, and parent-child playgroup leader. She also has two lovely children of her own.

The inspiration for Two Tall Trees came from wishing there were a central place where LifeWays care providers could go to get supplies that have actually been tested by real kids and real adults. Slowly this idea began to take root, and expand. Wouldn't it be great if parents and home childcare providers also had a forum to talk about setting up childcare space, review products they've tried, and more? That vision is just now coming to birth in Two Tall Trees. There you can find child-sized work gloves, wooden hairbrushes for only $4 a piece, fleece-lined rain pants, grain grinders for turning wheat into flour, beeswax candles, old-fashioned egg beaters, kid-sized stainless steel cups, and much, much more!

Jess's entire family is part of the business, and her children enthusiastically test every item that she sells. I really can't enthuse enough about what a resource this will be for all of us who spend our days with young children. I know she is only getting started, and I can't wait to watch Two Tall Trees grow. Please tell all of your friends and your kids' teachers!


Monday, December 13, 2010

Changing Diapers


Many parents and caregivers whose children actively dislike diaper-changing try to do it as fast as they can, and get it over with as quickly as possible. But in my experience, this merely accentuates all of the things kids dislike about getting their diaper changed, making it even more intensely unpleasant. On the other hand, you can spend all day trying to talk a child over to the changing table if he doesn't want to go, drawing out the unpleasantness indefinitely. What to do?

My views and practices on diaper changing were altered terrifically by my LifeWays training. Up until that time, I had just viewed diaper changing as a slightly unpleasant task that has to be done multiple times per day. But LifeWays suggests making times of bodily care into special times to bond with the child, and diapering is a very intimate piece of bodily care. Using this lens can completely transform your diapering experience, whether your child hates diapering or merely tolerates it. From the child's point of view, this changes the diapering experience from one of being torn away from play, manhandled, then put down again as quickly as possible, to a special time of connection with their adult. My second year of teaching, I was so inspired by these ideas and I made diaper changing such a special time that none of the children had any interest in potty training! But that's a post for another day.

Going to the Changing Table
Breaking kids away from their play can be difficult, especially if your child already has a negative association with diaper changing. Having a routine, for instance, always change their diaper right after they're done eating but before their play starts again, can help. Also, try diapering on the way to doing something they like. “Are you ready to go outside? Let's tidy up.” After tidying, you might say, “We're getting ready to go outside. First we'll get a fresh, dry diaper, then get on our shoes, jackets and hats, and then we'll be ready to play in the snow!” As we're going to the changing table, I'll talk about what we'll see outside, “Do you think Squirrel Pipkin will be running around in the Cottonwood tree when we get outside? I wonder if he's eaten all of the corn off of the cob we put out for him.”

If a child is playing and I can tell she's soiled her diaper, I'll let her know what's coming. “It smells like you have a poopy diaper. I'll finish wiping the table, and then I'll take you to get a new diaper.” When my table-wiping is done, I'll often give a choice: “Would you like to walk, or hop like a bunny?” Often, hopping like a bunny to the changing table is a fun enough activity to take a child's mind off where she's going; as she hops I'll sing, “Here comes Sarah Cottontail/Hopping down the bunny trail/Hippety hoppety, hippety hoppety, Sarah's on her way.” If I suspect that she won't walk or hop, I'll structure my offer so that one option involves me carrying her over: “Would you like to walk, or fly like an airplane?” Then I'll fly her here and there until she's laughing, and eventually land on the changing table.

Sometimes, though, I know that no option will be attractive, and nothing will distract her; we've been through this many times before. In that case, I'll simply ask, “Would you like to walk, or shall I carry you?” At this point, a child will sometimes ignore me, hoping that the situation will disappear. However, I know that she has a soiled diaper, and my job as the caring adult is to clean her up. I also know that no amount of reasoning or cajoling is likely to work now. You can't change emotion through logic, and she DOESN'T WANT to. I acknowledge this: “You wish you could keep playing. I get that. But it's time to get a new diaper. Will you choose, or shall I choose for you?” If she still refuses to make a choice, I'll say, “OK, I'll choose this time,” and I pick her up. Often at that point she'll suddenly say, “I walk. I walk.” But I tell her compassionately, “I'm sorry, it's too late to choose now. You can choose to walk next time.” This may sound draconian to some parents, but my experience is that this rarely happens more than twice if you're consistent; after that children know to choose when the choice is offered, and things go much more smoothly all around. The key is to do it with compassion; you don't have to be mean in order to be firm.

On the Changing Table
Whew! You made it to the changing table! The hardest part is done!

How can this be? you might ask. You've had lots of trouble on the changing table, and you're girding your loins for battle. However, my experience is that the transition of leaving play is the hardest part, and once you're on the changing table, you can shape the experience into one where you're connecting with each other. And the counter-intuitive trick that will change your diapering experience is this: if your child hates having his diaper changed, slow it waaaaayyyy down. Instead of making this about changing the dirty diaper as quickly as possible, make it about having eye-to-eye face-time with your child. Make it a time of you loving on him and connecting with him. Make the diaper-changing aspect of it into a side note.

Here's how I do it: when a child is laying down on the changing table, I look down at him and smile into his eyes. Sometimes I'll stroke his hair and down both sides of his face while I do it. Then I'll grin a little and lift the bottom of his shirt, and play a belly-button game: “All around the haystack goes the little mouse,” I'll say, circling his belly-button with my finger. Then I'll start to 'walk' my fingers up his tummy. “One step, two step, into his little house!” And that mouse will run up into his armpit. I'll do this two or three or even four times in row, until he's relaxed and smiley. Sometimes I'll alternate the rhyme with this one: “All around the playground goes the teddy bear. One step, two step, tickly under there!”

Next, I'll take off his pants. If he starts to get anxious because he knows the diaper-changing is about to start, I'll pause again, and do a little game with his feet: clapping his feet together sole to sole, I'll chant, “Shoe a little horse! Shoe a little mare! But little Justin's feet go bare, bare bare!” Then I'll kiss the bottom of one foot while looking up at his face, then the bottom of the other. I'll alternate feet, kissing and kissing again until he's relaxed once more. Then I'll pull out one or two wipes and get the new diaper open and ready, talking about the mobile that's hanging above his head, or the mama-baby picture at the foot of the table. I'll open the soiled diaper very slowly, pull it away and put it in the diaper pail with one hand, holding my other warmly against his tummy.  Once I had a little boy in my care who hated diapering, and I was changing his diaper while his mom watched, so she could get some new ideas.  I opened his diaper and he began to writhe and buck.  So I put my face down into his neck and started giving him lots of loud kisses, making them much more attention-grabbing than the diaper coming off.  "I see," the mother said thoughtfully, "You just kiss him into submission!"  I had to laugh.

Now comes the part that many children dislike: being wiped with cold wet wipes. I once had a wipe-warmer that was like a low-grade hotplate that went under the container of wipes, but it would dry the pack out, so I got rid of it. Instead, I'll hold the wipe up and say in a silly voice, “It might be chilly.” Then I'll put the wipe against his bottom and hold it in one place for a moment until it warms up. “Brrrr! Oh, now it's not so bad.” Then I'll start wiping, but sooooo ssllloooowwwlllyyy. While this is happening, I'm looking at his face, not at his bottom. Depending on the child, at this point I might simply look silently into his eyes, or I might tell a little story, a longer nursery rhyme (I like the on that starts “There was an old woman thrown up in a basket/seventeen times as high as the moon”), or, if being wiped is a very intense experience for this little boy, I'll make sound effects as I slowly wipe: “Zzzzzzzooop! Zzzzzooop!” Then I might change the speed a little, changing the speed of my sounds as I do: “Zoop-zoop!” for two little dabs, then a longer stroke again, “Zzzzzzzzoooop.” We are both watching each other and concentrating on the sounds and the feeling of the wipe. I smile at him. “That's a strange feeling, huh? You're doing a great job. I'm proud of you.” I give him a kiss on the forehead. We put on his new diaper, and I open the tabs and let him help place them. I stand him up and have him give me a big hug as I pull up his pants. Then I hug him back, and nuzzle his neck, and swing him down from the changing table. “Come on, let's go wash our hands,” I'll say.

So, the main thing is, get them to the changing table fairly quickly, and then take it slow and make it into a time where you're connecting with each other.  The diaper will get changed, but that's not what he will remember from it.  If you're stuck in a rut of neither of you liking it, don't be discouraged if it takes some time for them to get over their negative associations.  Just keep at it.  Good luck!

Miss Faith

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Spirit of Giving

The holiday time is a wonderful time to help children develop the spirit of giving. Instead of giving out all of your gifts at once, try giving a gift to one person each week for six weeks, so that each time is a significant experience. Giving away things that you and the children have made together, or choosing things that you already own to give away makes the experience feel much more meaningful. Here is an example of what you might do:

WEEK 1: Gift your neighbors. Bake banana bread (or whatever you love to bake), put a ribbon around it, and take it over to your neighbors. Even if you don't know your neighbors very well, they will probably appreciate a gift in the holiday spirit, and it may open doors to getting to know them! Make a card with your child: he can color it, and you write a message that the two of you come up with together. When you and your child notice their lights on, go over and give it to them together. Children love giving gifts, but they often get too shy with excitement to present them. Even children I've seen five days a week for two years sometimes have trouble presenting me with a gift. So be prepared to do the talking, but know that your child is participating through you.

WEEK 2: Gift your play-group teacher or favorite babysitter. Teachers get lots of gifts, so think carefully about what will be appreciated. I love baked gifts, but if your teacher is watching her waistline it may not be a good idea. One of the best gifts I've gotten from a family was a gift certificate to Whole Foods in a card that parent and child had made together. It seemed both thoughtful and practical.

WEEK 3: Gift children who won't get many gifts. Help your child choose some of his toys to give to children who won't get presents, and take them to a homeless shelter or an organization like Toys for Tots. This is actually a good thing to do once a month or every other month. The average American child gets about 70 new toys each year, but children who have fewer toys tend to be more creative and appreciate the ones they have, according to Pamela Paul, author of the book Parenting, Inc. Going through your toys regularly and giving away the ones that could be better used by another child can be a wonderful way to foster a spirit of giving in your children.

WEEK 4: Gift the grandparents. A lovely gift for grandparents is a photo of your child in a frame that you and your child decorate together. If you know your parents would hate a frame like that, then perhaps make special wrapping paper for it.

WEEK 5: Gift the elders. If you have elderly friends, make a special trip to visit them and give a gift. If you don't, consider going to a local nursing home. I suggest a small, homey assisted-living home so the setting isn't too overwhelming for your child. I used to take 3-4 children each week to visit the elders at Anam Chara, a waldorf-inspired assisted-living home that housed twelve elders. Both the children and the elders loved these visits.

WEEK 6: Gift dad. Dads love gifts that moms and kids make especially for him. If dad lives at home with you, you might take him somewhere special to present the gift: go to the ice-skating rink to present a pair of gloves, to the zoo to present a wooly hat. Make sure that he knows in advance that this is a special trip in his appreciation, and make him feel as special as possible. It's nice to get this sort of acknowledgment when it's least expected!

          And of course, don't forget to make Thank You cards with your child for each person from whom he receives a gift. Help him decorate them and have him dictate a thank-you message that you write down. These are often hilarious and are always appreciated. If you can, have him give the thank you cards personally, instead of putting them in the mail. Teach them to say “Thank you for your gift” when they hand it out. Practice on the way over, but if they get too shy to say it themselves, ask “Would you like me to say it for you this time?” When you say something for a child, they often feel like they're saying it themselves, so don't worry if they still ask you to say it for them the fourth or fifth time. They will say it for themselves soon enough.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Book Review: The Family Virtues Guide

Several years ago I was at a conference on early childhood. Between workshops, I was eating lunch with a friend and talking about the workshops we had attended. She had a son who was six years old, very intelligent, very intense, somewhat overwhelming. Interested in everything, he always wanted to be the center of attention, and often dominated conversations. She said, “My workshop leader said something really interesting. She works with a group call The Virtues Project, and she said that it sounds like my son has an excess of enthusiasm, which is a virtue. Instead of trying to dampen down his enthusiasm, I could work to strengthen other virtues that would balance him out. In this case, she suggested that I strengthen his sense of respectfulness.” Knowing her son as I did, I was absolutely astounded. Yes! That was exactly what was needed! What an incredible way of viewing the situation.

When I got home I had so much new information to assimilate that I never got around to looking up The Virtues Project. But that conversation stayed with me, and I often thought of it, especially when I was working with very intense children. Finally, I looked up The Virtues Project online, and ordered their book, The Family Virtues Guide: Simple Ways to Bring Out the Best in Our Children and Ourselves.

I was only moderately impressed with the book itself. It has great ideas but it seems poorly organized; it has so many sections and sub-sections within each chapter that it was sometimes hard for me to keep track of things, and I wished they gave more concrete examples. Also, it didn't address the issue of how to talk to children about virtues differently at different ages. The book goes through 52 virtues, with the idea that families might choose a virtue each week to work on and notice, then have a family meeting each week to talk about their experiences. This strategy seems much better for school-aged children, and is far too cerebral for kids under age 7, in my opinion.  However, it could still be useful for parents to pick one virtue to notice each week, without talking it out with the kids.  When we notice and appreciate virtues in our children or in others, it brings them out and enriches our lives.

All in all, there were more than enough take-away lessons that I felt the book was well worth reading. I love the idea of changing behaviors by calling up the virtue you see and then the virtue they would benefit from: patience, kindness, obedience, helpfulness. The book points out, “When a parent as educator puts a stop to negative behavior, he is being just as loving as when he applauds a child for effort.” (p.22-23).

I also got some food for thought from the book's examination of acknowledging children when you see them exhibiting virtues. First, they warn you to use 'moderation and wisdom' in dispensing praise: “Children are quite sensitive to the justice and honesty of your responses to them...Children themselves know when they have done well, when they truly merit recognition. That may be why some children get very upset in the face of undeserved or excessive praise. Undeserved praise is almost as troubling to their spirits as criticism.” (p.21).
Even more unexpected and --I thought-- insightful, they go on to say, “Please do not overdo the use of 'Thank you' such as 'Thank you for being peaceful.' The object is not to lessen the noise level for your comfort alone; it is for the child to learn the lesson of peacefulness. Overdoing thanks places you at the center of their conscience instead of the their conscience at the center of themselves.” (p.22).  I will certainly keep that in mind.

I feel like I already did my best to acknowledge and bring out virtues in the children I care for, but in a somewhat unconsious way.  This book is lovely because it gives us a framework to do it in.  Do visit their website, http://www.virtuesproject.com/index.php. If I see a workshop of theirs in my neighborhood, I will definitely sign up.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Arts & Crafts with Toddlers

This post is for you, Aralyn, and for anyone else who cares for groups of toddlers. Much of it can also be used by moms at home with their kids.

One thing I've noticed working in childcare is that parents love having craft projects that get sent home. I think that it gives them a way to visualize what their children were doing during the day, and it also can form a bridge between home and 'school.' So they have their value. However, arts & crafts projects can be a real challenge with toddlers, who have limited impulse control, limited ability to follow directions, and limited understanding of what you do or don't want on your chairs, floors and walls. Many projects end up with the teachers doing 90% of the work, and the children doing lots of waiting for the teacher's help.

What crafts can be done successfully with toddlers, and in such a way that both the children and caregivers really enjoy it?

1. Coloring is an easy craft to do. Make big coloring mats out of cotton-backed vinyl (available at most fabric stores) or even just taking a quarter-inch stack of single-page newspapers and putting a strong border of masking tape or duct tape around the edges. Use big, sturdy crayons (I like the Stockmar stick crayons best; you can find them at Three Sisters Toys ). I keep the crayons in a bowl and allow each child to pick two crayons to use. If they want to switch colors, they must put one of their crayons back in the bowl to pick another. When children are done coloring, they put both crayons back in the bowl, and put their picture in their cubby, and they are free to play.

2. Baking is a project that children of all ages love. We bake all the time at Rainbow Bridge, but we usually eat what we bake. One day I realized it could be turned into a craft project by having each child form his dough into a shape, and decorate it with raisins. I remembered which was whose, and we sent them home at the end of the day. The kids were excited to show their parents, and parents were pleased to receive them. The trick to baking successfully with toddlers is to be very organized. Assemble all of the ingredients you'll need before you start. The initial mixing parts are all about waiting and turn-taking, so I always go around the table in a circle so the children know when their turn will come. Let each child hold the measuring cup and pour in one ingredient. When you're done, each child can take a turn mixing. Sing a short song (I use All Around the Mulberry Bush), and when the song is over, the child passes the bowl and spoon to the child next to her. After the dough has risen comes the fun part, kneading. Everyone can knead at the same time, and I knead too. You have to make your own rules about whether they are allowed to take nibbles or not, and how many. After the kneading is done, bring out the raisins to decorate, and put them on a cookie sheet. These projects bake quickly, usually 15 minutes or so.

3. Watercolor painting can be done with toddlers, but it's very difficult if you're on your own with six kids, as it needs constant supervision. If you want to do this, invite a parent volunteer to come in and help.

4. Seasonal Crafts: There are always crafts to do with the seasons.

1. For fall, put leaves under paper and color over top with block crayons or the side of a stick crayon. You can also iron leaves between sheets of wax paper (a challenge if you're by yourself with the kids), and decorate the edges with paintings or colored paper. Make apple crisp, or pumpkin pie from a pumpkin, and save pieces for each parent. You can also make apple-gnomes, putting a little felt hat onto an apple and carving eyes and a mouth. As it dries out and withers, the gnome's face gets more and more wrinkled and cool looking.  Here's an example: http://www.appledolls.org/page2.html

2. For Winter, have kids color with blue and purple, then cut the drawing into a snowflake for the child to take home. Make pomander oranges to send home. This is a one-on-one project to do with each child: attach a ribbon to the orange (you can use pins to make it stay), and then you poke a hole in the orange with a toothpick or a darning needle, and the child puts a clove into the hole. You don't have to cover the whole orange, you can make designs with the cloves: http://www.aromatherapy-at-home.com/. Also, making snowmen with the children and dressing them in scarves and hats, with gloves on the ends of their stick arms, is fun. Parents can't take it home, but it can be showed off and parents can imagine their child making it.

3. For Spring, of course plant things! Plant crocus and hyacinth bulbs in pots and grow them indoors. I've done very successful Mother's Day gifts where the children decorated small pots, and we planted marigolds in them together. Both the decorating and the planting were done outside. We also make an Easter Egg tree with blown eggs: take a branch from a flowering tree and put it in a vase weighted down with pebbles (the kids can help with the pebbles).  Depending on what climate you live in, it can be great to start with a bare branch, then watch the leaves come out, then the flowers. One by one, you can blow eggs and decorate them with the kids, either with paint and a paint-brush, or with scraps of different colored tissue paper. Just dab a drop of water onto the egg, and a child can put a scrap piece of tissue paper onto the water. Put 3-4 layers of tissue paper over the whole egg. We hang each egg on the 'tree,' then the day before spring break each child got to take one home.  Also, growing wheat grass is easy and fun.  Get baskets from a thrift store, line them with plastic (sturdy plastic wrap, or those plastic holders you put under flower pots), and put your wheat grass inside.  You can use dirt or just the wheat berries by themselves; soak them overnight and don't let them dry out.  Each child can take a basket home before Spring Break.
4. For Summer, wet felting can be a very fun outdoor activity: http://www.ourbigearth.com/. We made balls and then attached 'comet-tails' of ribbons to them, and called them meteor balls (in Colorado August sees many meteor showers). We didn't send them home as craft projects, but you certainly could.
Hope that gets your creative juices flowing! The first key to doing crafts with toddlers (especially if you're alone), is to think the process through and do as much work up-front as you can, gathering all of the materials you'll need, etc. The second key is, just do one step at a time, and keep it containable. By this I mean that you may be called away from the project at any moment if a child across the room is having problems, so you need to be able to pick things up and put them on the counter if it's something kids can't touch without supervision. And third, don't rush, just relax and have fun. After all, if nobody's enjoying it, what's the point?


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Making Your Own Rituals

You may have noticed that the children in your life love having things done exactly the same way every time. There is a good reason for this: when we do things the same way each time, it lets children develop competence. They are able to anticipate what will happen next, they know exactly how things go, and eventually they will be able to do it themselves. Children get a great deal of satisfaction in having things done the same way each time. As adults, this can sometimes drive us crazy, either because we're in a rush, or simply because we get bored of doing the same things over and over again. However, there is a way to do things the same way each time that feels fulfilling to both child and adult: to take our routines and transform them into rituals.

What is ritual? There are six definitions in my dictionary. One is, “Any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner.” If we use this definition, we engage in many, many rituals each day, whether we think of them that way or not. However, the term ritual often has connotations of ceremony, sometimes in connection with religious or spiritual practice. The set of actions is imbued with emotion or meaning. Think about the rituals that you remember as a child. Many people have fond memories of holiday rituals. Whether you are religious or not, holiday rituals often hold a special place because adults do their best to imbue them with specialness, with love and beauty.

When we take our day-to-day routines and imbue them with love and beauty, we transform the experience, and with it we transform our children's experience of the world. An easy place to start is eating and sleeping. How can you add some love and beauty into these routines? It can be simple, such as saying a grace or lighting a candle before a meal, or saying a certain nursery rhyme as you wipe their faces after meals. As you start to get inspired, your rituals can become more complex. For example, if you like to keep fresh-cut flowers in your dining room (which I highly recommend!), then you might have a little bud vase that stays by your child's bed. The bedtime routine could start with the child choosing one flower from the dining room arrangement, and taking it upstairs to put in his bud vase. He brushes teeth with you and gets pajamas on, then climbs into bed and you bring the vase over for him admire and smell the flower one last time before turning out the lights, and you sing softly while he falls asleep. Later, before you go to bed yourself, take the bud vase downstairs and set up a breakfast spot for your child: beautiful place-mat, bowl, cup, bib, and the bud vase with the flower, to wait for your child's awakening. After your child has eaten breakfast, you or he can put the flower back in the dining room flower arrangement, and you put the bud vase by his bed again, to wait for evening.

Incorporating these little pieces of beauty into your day can change things from being ho-hum to being a bit magical. My only word of warning is not to add too much too fast, and not to add so much that you get bogged down going through all of the steps every day. Remember, simpler is often better (notice that there was no story-reading in the bedtime ritual described above; the flower took its place). Try adding one thing at a time, and let everyone get used to it before you add the next piece. So you might start adding beauty to your meals first by getting fresh flowers for the table or sideboard. Then by getting nice place-mats. Then a candle to light at the meal. Thinking about how to add beauty and love to each portion of your day can help keep you inspired in your parenting and home-making.

You can also have rituals which only happen periodically. I knew one lovely woman who would pick up her young grandson from kindergarten every Friday and they would take the city bus to the library, choose one book, and bring it home. That one book would be read every time she saw him (she was a secondary caregiver) until the next Friday. To me, taking the city bus with a five-year-old sounds like torture, but she explained how taking the bus was an integral part of their experience together, and they both looked forward to it all week. So it's not so much WHAT you do, it's HOW you do it, and the life you breathe into it. Other periodic rituals can happen inside the home, such as baking bread or making cornmeal muffins on the same day each week, or having certain toys that only come out on rainy days, or singing the same song each time you go to a certain place (My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean each time you go to the lake, or Over the River and Through the Woods each time you go to Grandma's house, etc.). Giving these activities the regularity and the same-ness that you might not otherwise consider doing can turn them into rituals, and may be the ones that your children remember fondly when they have grown up.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Everyone enjoy your Thanksgiving!  Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I'm really missing the States today, and feeling especially grateful for my family and my community in Boulder even though I'm not there.

Instead of writing about toddlers, I'm going to give you my current favorite Thanksgiving recipe.  I found this about 3 years ago, and I love it!  It's relatively easy, but the colors are vibrant and it tastes fresh and delicious.  I love the beet/tarragon/orange flavor combo.

Roasted Beet Salad with Oranges & Greens

6 medium beets w/ greens attached
2 large oranges
1 small sweet onion in thin wedges

1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. grated orange peel
1 small bunch fresh tarragon
salt and pepper to taste

Chop off the greens and roast or boil the beets (to roast, wrap each one in foil and cook at 400 for 90 minutes.  This can be done a day in advance).  Peel and cut into bite-sized wedges.

While beets are cooking, peel oranges and peel off the sides of each segment (some types of oranges are better for this than others, but I don't know which).

Chop beet greens and steam till just tender (if your sweet-onion is not sweet enough, saute onion slices until almost soft, then fold the greens in)

Mix up the dressing, then combine everything.  Let stand at least one hour before serving.  Serve at room temperature.  If you want, add some soft goat cheese on top.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Being Firm Without Being Mean

I've talked before about how it benefits children when we have clear expectations and firm boundaries, and how it is reassuring to children to know that we are in charge. I've talked about how having regular schedules and doing things the same way each time can help cut down on discipline issues and allow children to develop expertise. But even when we do all of these things, issues are bound to arise. One of the main tasks of the toddler is to establish their own opinions.

A mother came to me last spring to ask advice. Lately, when they had been getting dressed in the morning, her 2 ½ year old daughter wouldn't allow them to put socks on her. Mom, who was home with her all day, thought they should pick their battles and wanted to let her go barefoot in her shoes. Dad said that it was important for her to know they were in charge, and once he'd said she had to wear socks, he couldn't back down. He had tried reasoning, bribing, and finally resorted to manhandling her to put her socks and shoes on. The whole thing had taken twenty minutes and involved lots of tears. What was my opinion?

The first piece of my response is that while it is important for everybody to feel like you are the one in charge, that doesn't mean that you can't take her opinion into account. So if you tell her she has to put socks on and she puts up a fight, you might say, “Oh! I can see you don't want to put your socks on. Why don't you try asking me politely: 'Dad, please no socks!'” When she manages to ask politely, you can consider her request. “That was nice asking. I think it would be OK for you to have bare feet today.” On the other hand, if it's snowy and cold, you might respond, “I heard your nice asking, but it's a snowy day. We will all wear socks today.” Sometimes, just feeling like their opinion has been heard will be enough to diffuse the situation. More likely, however, tears will ensue. At this point, many adults make the mistake of trying to reason with their child, pointing out the temperature, talking about the importance of warmth, etc. But reasoning almost never works at this point; it can even have the opposite effect and send tears into a tantrum. When you've said no to something, just be compassionate for a moment. “That's a disappointment, isn't it.” Give her a hug. Really acknowledge her feelings, and then move on, using humor and a little imagination.

You might try something like this: “This ssssock iss a sssslithery ssssnake! He'ssss ssseeking ssssomething to eat! Sssssssssss! The sock-snake probably won't go straight for the foot. He might try to eat a book, then the bed-post, then it finds the foot. “Sssay, sssausssage! Delicioussss!” And the snake may be able to eat up that fat sausage, and the day can go on. But maybe he comes up to the foot, and she remembers and pulls her foot back. The snake's 'head' bows down. “Ohh, the ssssnake is ssssooo ssssad!” The snake shakes his head sadly, and peeks up at her. She's smiling a little smile. “Pleassssse, says the sssnake! PLEASSSSE sssend me the sssausssage!” Maybe she sends her foot his way. If she doesn't, it's time to take more drastic action. Put the sock on over your hand and swoop down and swing her up. “This snake is starving! He's gobbling you all up!!!!” Fall onto the bed with her, kissing her and nuzzling her into helpless laughter. While she's laughing, slip that sock on. Then immediately pick her up and move on into a different room. As you're leaving the bedroom, you might say, “Wow, that was sure a hungry snake! I'm hungry too! Let's see what's for breakfast.”

The most important lesson in all of this is that when children don't want to do something, don't try to 'change their minds' through reason. You can't use reason to change an emotion, and they don't WANT to. Instead, meet the emotion with understanding, then work to bring up a different emotion using imagination and wit. When this other emotion is going you can usually do the action that they were protesting, without talking about it. If you're tired and hungry yourself, and you can't come up with the imaginative forces to turn that sock into a snake, there is the simpler (although less effective and less joyful) method of saying, “I see that you're not ready to put your socks on yet. We can put them on in a minute or two.” Then after a couple of minutes, don't discuss anything, just matter-of-factly put them on your lap and start pulling the socks on, while talking about something else altogether. Children who are loving the word “No!” will often let you do things without words that they will vehemently disagree with if you ask them verbally.

These are techniques that I use all the time with the toddlers in my care. By keeping my compassion intact and my imaginative forces strong, I am able to move through the day with relatively few battles of will. And sometimes I see how strongly a child feels about something, and I change my mind. But even then, children can rest in the assurance that I'm the one who is making the decision.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Having Their Own Experiences

Whether we work with children or we are caring for our own, we are with these children because we love them, and we will do anything to help them. Some of us have devoted our careers to them, others have given up careers to be with them. With such large commitments on our parts, it is natural that we want to be right by their sides as they explore the world, be with them for each new discovery. When we see that they want something, we reach to give it to them. When they tumble down we go running over. When they laugh for joy, we are laughing along with them.

Children experience things so fully, it can be lovely being with them as they go through it. And we are, most of the time. But I would remind all of us to consciously take a step back as often as we think of it, and let our children experience the world on their own. Children have inner lives of their own, and they need space to experience and develop them. When we give a running commentary on what our children are doing or seeing or experiencing, we shape their experience into what we are experiencing. Many times I've seen a child playing in the play-kitchen, and an adult walks over saying, “Oh, are you cooking soup?” The child nods. He may not have been cooking soup when he was playing alone, but by putting that suggestion out there, the adult has transformed it into soup. “What kind of soup are you cooking?” the adult asks. The child thinks for a minute. “Tomato,” he answers. He has now been taken out of action of his play, and moved into his head, into thinking about play instead of actually playing. “Can I have a taste of your soup?” asks the adult. “Mmmmm! This soup is delicious!” The child is watching the adult intently, and has stopped playing altogether. He waits for the adult to ask him to do something else. “Would you cook me some eggs?” asks the adult. The child is happy to comply.

I'm not saying that we should never play with our kids, or that playing with our kids always takes them away from their own play. If we're reading on the couch and they come over with a spoon and say, “Taste!” then by all means taste the delicious soup. And there are times when it is lovely to play imaginatively or energetically or joyfully with our kids. But what I'm suggesting is that it's valuable for children to have times when they can delve deeply into their play without having it shaped by us at all.

Likewise, if we notice a child has been sitting for a long time in one place outdoors, we will often go over and start asking them questions, or trying to engage them in play. But just sitting outdoors can be stimulating for a child in all the right ways. Maybe she was experiencing the wind blowing through her hair, or feeling the sand beneath her feet, or watching a bug that we couldn't see as it crawled over a leaf. When we go over and start asking her questions, or try to prompt her into play, we are taking away her own experiencing of the world. Even if we notice what she's noticing, when we comment on it, we shape her experience into the form of our experience “Oh, are you watching a bug?” we say. “Look, he's black and red!” Instead, let's let her notice her own things; they don't have to be verbalized to be appreciated.

Even when a child takes a tumble, it can be useful not to rush in too fast, and let them truly experience it. When a child tumbles down at Rainbow Bridge, I watch them first. If they look to me or start to cry, I will let them know that I'm there. “I saw you fall. I'm right here if you need hugs and kisses,” I'll say. If the tears continue, I hold out my arms. Quite a few times I've seen a child fall down and start to cry. I invite them over, but they stay on the ground. Soon their crying stops, but they don't get up: they have discovered a whole new world down at grass-level. Other times they get up, and start to come over to me, but see something more interesting, and away they run. They didn't need me after all. And sometimes, they get up and come to me for hugs and kisses. Being there in my chair with me, they can stay as long as they want, and we watch the world together from our perch. Whichever option they choose is fine, I'm available but watching as they go through their experience.

Children who are used to having a constant commentary on their lives may not initially know what do without it if you stop. You might say, “Well, I try to step back but my child doesn't know how to play by himself.” If this is the case, you will have to be even more conscious of this. If your child always wants you to play with them, stop making yourself the most interesting thing in the room! There is a certain way of being present for a child that lets them know that you are there and available for them, without having to be involved. The best way to cultivate this is to find “something else” to do. This “something else” should be something that you can do in the presence of your child, that your child can help with -or imitate- if they wish, and something that you can start and stop easily if your child needs something. As you do this “something else,” you can gradually become invisible. Household chores are really good “something else”s: folding laundry, doing dishes, sweeping the floor. Instead of thinking of these things as items to be rushed through so you can do something else, try lingering over them, stopping and starting again as kids need you, but you are always drawn back to it, like a magnet. Knitting or other types of craftwork can be good for this too, and raking leaves or working in the garden are great in the yard. The trick is to be available for them if they call you; don't tell them that you're busy. But you are soon back to doing “something else,” and invisible. The more invisible you let yourself become, the deeper they can get into their own experiences.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Hi All,
Sorry not tot write last Thursday, it was my birthday and I took the day off.

Thinking about birthdays, I thought I would share a few thoughts about toddlers and birthdays.  When a child turns one, have as big a party as you want.  The party is really a party for you, getting through your first year of being a parent to this little being!  When your little one gets tired, just put them to bed and keep partying with your friends.

After that first birthday, you start wanting to have a birthday celebration for your child's benefit.  It's fun to think of your child as a social being, and perhaps you remember wonderful birthday parties from when you were a child.  Before you get carried away, however, heed my advice:  SIMPLER IS BETTER.  The birthday parties I remember most fondly fell from about age 7 to age 11; save the big parties for that age.  Younger than that, birthday parties can spin out of control really easily.  You think you will invite the five girls in your three-year-old's preschool class, and suddenly you have six three-year-olds, twelve parents, and two to four older or younger siblings all crowding into your livingroom and kitchen.  You may not have planned on a party for for twenty-three people, but that's what you've got.

In general, a good rule is to invite one pint-sized guest for each year of your child's age (or you can do their-age-plus-one).  Three friends over at the same time is absolutely enough to be a party for a three-year-old, and that holds true at almost every age.  Additionally, be clear on your invitation if parents are to stay or to go, whether siblings are welcome, and what time things will end.

Another good rule is to plan activites that alternate big energy with quiet energy.  It can be so exciting being the center of attention and having so many people over, that children need help calming themselves down.  You can give them this help by planning a storytime into the schedule of events, either reading a picture book about a birthday, or telling the story of your child's actual Birth Day, or telling the story of the star child choosing his parents and making the journey across the rainbow bridge.  Most of you readers have seen the puppet show of that story that I do for birthdays, so I won't share it here.  If anyone hasn't heard it, tell me in the comments and I'll write it out for you.  I remember hearing that story every year up until the age of seven, and it holds a special place in my heart.

And finally, keep it short and sweet.   An hour or two hours is quite long enough for a party for a child age 5 or younger.  Birthday parties can be so exciting that children go through their energy reserves very quickly.  Having a wonderful time and then saying goodbye leaves everybody with fond memories, looking forward to the next birthday.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Caring for Ourselves

When I spend the majority of my day caring for 8-12 toddlers per day, I tell people, “When I get enough sleep, I have the best job in the world. When I don't get enough sleep, I have the worst job in the world.” People who don't have children laugh, and people who do have children laugh too, but it a completely different way.

I believe that there are a couple of reasons for the stark contrast of how it feels to be with kids when we're rested vs. when we're tired. The first and most obvious reason is that our patience is impaired, along with our imagination and our wit, all three of which are huge bonuses when it comes to enjoying the children in our lives. But I think it's actually more than that. I think that it has to do with the fact that children learn how to interact with the world though imitation, and it is largely us who they are imitating. Not just our actions, but our mannerisms, attitudes and moods as well. So when I am short on patience and snappy in my interactions, I suddenly have my hands full with children who can't get along with one another, and can't resolve their conflicts peacefully. Children have no filters at this age.  They soak in whatever is around them, and it comes out in their actions.

If we accept this idea that children soak in and imitate everything around them, then we must strive to be worthy of imitation as often as we can. And this means taking care of ourselves. Not just in getting enough sleep, although that is certainly necessary. But to really take in and believe that the more we care for ourselves, the more that benefits the children in our care. Not just our physical self, but our social, intellectual and spiritual self as well.

Our Physical Self
Caring for our physical self is fairly straightforward, although even this can seem overwhelming if you have a toddler and a newborn at home. Getting enough sleep, eating nourishing foods, and exercising all help us feel less harried and more alive. Outdoor air and sunshine are also important for our physical selves, and young children benefit enormously from large chunks of outdoor time, so try to be outside with your child both morning and afternoon if you can, perhaps a long walk in the morning, and play in the yard or at the park in the afternoon.

Our Social Self
Caring for young children seems to take up all of our energy, and we often feel too tired and sometimes even guilty to take the time to nurture our social lives. But making the effort to have social time with other adults, both with your child and away from your child, is important. Having social time with other adults while your child is present can start out as a challenge if they're not used to it. Start small, and use it as an opportunity to teach your child the skills they need in social situations: to welcome a guest into the house and offer them something to drink, to say “excuse me” if they would like to interrupt two adults talking, and to thank them for coming when they leave. I loved having guests at both Boulder Waldorf Kindergarten and at Rainbow Bridge, and the children quickly grew to love it too, and often played 'guests visiting' in the play-room.

In addition to having guests over, it's worth the expense to get a babysitter, or the effort of arranging childcare swaps, to take social time away from the children. Go on date-night with your partner. Meet a friend for coffee or for a drink. I remember quite clearly as a child when my mom's friend Harriet would call, my mom would excuse herself, and I'd hear peals of laughter emanating from her room for the next twenty minutes. I would sit outside the door, unable to hear the words but enthralled with this new, vibrant side of my mother. Later, as a teenager, I used to babysit for a family with three boys ages five and under. Every other Friday they would go out on date-night together, and come home laughing and full of life. I remember even at age 16 being impressed that they “had a life” (as I thought of it) just with each other. When you take the time to be social without your children, the positive effects spill over to them.

Our Intellectual Self
By nurturing our Thinking Self, I mean pushing ourselves to continuously push our boundaries and learn new things. This can happen through signing up for classes, doing workshops, reading books, or any way of seeking out new ideas and working to gain new skills. I can clearly remember my dad referring continuously to instruction manuals as he did home-improvement projects, saying quietly to himself, “Aha, so that's what I need to do.” Or going on nature walks with him and stopping to figure out what kind of conifer we were standing under, using the tree-identification book. He'd go through all the questions with me (rough bark or smooth? Long needles or short? Single or multiple needles from one spot?), but he wasn't doing it to teach a botany lesson to me, he was doing it because he was curious. He was nurturing his Intellectual Self. Likewise, when I took the LifeWays early childhood training, every time I came back from a training session I was completely jazzed up, full of new ideas of things to do or try with the children. Or simply seeing the things we were already doing in a new light, based on my new-found knowledge of child development. I was truly sad when the year was over!

Our Spiritual Self
If you already have a spiritual or religious practice, then take the time to renew your energy in these areas. But even if you don't consider yourself to be spiritual, you can nurture your Spiritual Self quite simply by doing the things that help you feel grounded or centered. For me, these include going on hikes by myself, doing artwork, sewing, dancing. Each time I do one of these things I feel so good afterward, and think, “Why don't I do this more often?”

Which things make you feel that way?

If reading all of these areas with the different selves makes you think, “well, that sounds nice and all, but I'm far too busy with my high-maintenance two-year-old who is driving me crazy,” I sincerely suggest that you think again. You don't have to work on all of these areas of your life at once, just choose one thing to take care of yourself, and start to do it. Children are happier when the adults in their lives are happier, and they are learning their way through the world from us. Taking care of ourselves is an important piece of taking caring for them.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Value of Rules

We often think that the rules we impose on kids are something which benefits us, their caregivers. We know they're necessary to keep our sanity, but when we're feeling good we often don't bother to enforce them, because we don't feel like we need them at that moment and we may even feel a little bit guilty about imposing them. But I'd like to suggest the idea that in fact, rules benefit our children even more than they benefit us.

How can this be? Well, remember that for our children, we create the world that they live in. A world with clear expectations and clear boundaries is so much easier and more enjoyable to live in. And isn't that what rules are: expectations and boundaries? Just think of the last time you traveled to a foreign country you'd never been to before. You have to be "on" all the time, because you don't know what to expect, or what people expect from you. So the clearer and more consistent we can be with our expectations and our boundaries, the more our children can relax into the world. I read a wonderful quote the other day in the book The Family Virtues Guide, which I will review in a few weeks. It talked about how not providing clear expectations and boundaries for a child is like a person without a job description. "Imagine yourself on a job in which your supervisor walks in the first day and says, 'Do a good job,' but fails to give you a job description. How is this different from parents who want their children to "be good," but give them no guidelines?" (p27).

What happens when expectations aren't clear, or boundaries aren't enforced consistently? It creates anxiety. Instead of being able to relax into knowing "how the world works," children must constantly watch you and try to gauge your mood to see where the boundaries might lie at any given moment. When the boundaries move around, children are forced to test where they are, again and again and again. Not because they're trying to annoy you, but because they MUST know where the boundaries are.  Why?  I like to think of it like a ship in the ocean: when the depths of the sea are consistent, the ship can sail at full speed. But coming in to rocky shoals, everyone on board must be on "high alert," and sailors must do coninuous soundings in order not to run aground. Children may seem like they want the boundaries to shift, because they push against them, but they're just pushing against them to make sure that they know where they are, and how firm they are. If our boundaries are consistent enough, our children can relax and sail full speed ahead, only stopping every now and then to test the waters.

So, does this mean that we can never change our routines, never relax and let things slide "just this once?" No, it doesn't mean that, but there are ways that we can do it so that children don't feel like the sands are shifting beneath their feet. First, try to do it as little as possible. Then, when you do alter the rules, announce quite clearly how things usually go, and what's going to happen this time, and for how long. For example, one day we were having a picnic lunch outside at Rainbow Bridge, when a child blew bubbles in his water. Now, I'm not morally opposed to children blowing bubbles in their water, but with a group of ten children ages 1-5, that's like setting a spark to tinderbox. Normally I would squash this right away. But it was sunny and breezy, and I was in a good mood. So I announced, "Normally, our water is just for drinking. But today it will be OK for you to blow bubbles in your water. You can blow bubbles today, but tomorrow at snack things will be just like normal, and we'll all use our water just for drinking again." The kids had a blast blowing bubbles and fooling around. At the end of the meal I said, "That was sure fun. What a treat to do that one time. Tomorrow we will drink our water again."

The next day, just as snack was starting, I said, "We had such a fun time yesterday, but today we are drinking our water, just like usual." And do you think they sat quietly and drank their water? NO! As soon as it was passed out, someone tried blowing bubbles. How could they not? The boundaries had shifted, and they needed to know where they were. So I quickly and firmly said, "That water is just for drinking. You can drink it quietly, or I will keep it by me until you're ready." Then another child tried it, and another. I took one cup away, and that was the end. After a moment I asked if she was ready to drink her water, and she was. At the next meal, nobody tried again. They knew things were back to normal.

So, was it worth it? Maybe. The older kids remembered that day for a long time. They would reminisce about it often, and they would sometimes ask if we could do it again. I would smile fondly and shake my head. "That was a fun day, wasn't it," I'd say.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Book Review: Raising Happiness

I absolutely loved the book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, by Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Christine Carter is the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, an interdisciplinary research center that “translates” the study of happiness, compassion, and altruism for the public. Through examining the research, she shows that:

1) Fully 40 percent of our happiness come from intentional choices about what activities we pursue, and
2) Happiness is a skill that we can teach to our kids (and benefit ourselves in the process).

Most people I know don't think of happiness as a skill, but read Carter's book and you will be convinced, as I was convinced. Many of us think of happiness as something you just “have” or “don't have.” However, Carter points out that this is a false assumption on our parts. For example, studies have shown that one of the best predictors of peoples' well-being is how connected they feel to other people. Knowing that, we can increase our happiness by making a conscious effort to increase our connection with others. There are concrete steps we can take in this direction, and Carter gives them to us. She does it with humor and grace, and left me laughing and feeling inspired at the same time.

This book is so full of good, practical ideas of things to do with children of ALL ages, that after the initial reading I could easily see re-reading a section per week, and choosing one or two or three activities to do from that section. And then starting again the next year, till your kids move out to go to college.

Here's an example of the type of how she works: in one section of Chapter 2, she talks about kindness. First she looks at the benefits of doing acts of kindness, and adds, “It is important to note that experiments have demonstrated again and again that the effects of kindness on our health and happiness are causal” (p.31). She goes on to say,
My guess is that most parents hope their children are kind, but few deliberately teach kindness in conscious ways. In young children and adolescents, there is a lot of evidence that parenting practices are significantly associated with kindness in children, meaning that we can, in fact, stack the deck so that our children grow up to be kind and generous adults(p.32).
She then goes on to list Seven Ways to Raise Kind Children, with each “way” containing between one and three things you could do. She intersperses her “research-y” style of writing with funny anecdotes of applying (or attempting to apply) these lessons with her own daughters, ages 5 and 8.

My only complaint is that I wish she had cited more of the the studies she talks about, instead of saying “studies have shown.” She does have a long list at the back of the book, but there are so many it's hard to tell where you could find a certain fact. Addtionally, in my opinion she doesn't talk much about the different stages of child development, and what might not be appropriate for children of certain ages. So as a parent you will have to decide for yourself which activities are age-appropriate. That being said, even those things that are not appropriate for the young children in our lives would still be beneficial for ourselves. This is a book I'll be keeping on the shelf for years to come.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Biting From Excitement

Dear Miss Faith
I am currently daily striving to create a warm, loving home environment for my family, which is napping right now! I have a 5 month old son and an intense, energetic little boy who is almost 3. I just don't know what to do when we are playing with other children (at a park for example) and he pushes a child down repeatedly or bites or hits his cousin. It usually co-incides with being hungry, thirsty, tired or needing a diaper change, but I usually try to be pro-active about those things and am surprised when my first sign is him being rough with other children. I usually remove him from the situation, telling him that we have to be gentle with other children and I try to figure out what might have caused the situation and try to respond to that. I am usually also holding the baby in these kinds of situations, which makes it more difficult to intervene. After the physical need is taken care of, he usually wants to go give the child a "gentle hug". We live outside of the city and don't often go to public parks where we meet many people we don't know. We usually have visits with friends that we know who have older children but sometimes he bites them. In these cases, I think he is over-excited. (...hmmm am I making excuses or accurate observations...?)

I find it alarming, discouraging and embarassing that my child hurts other children. I am sure it is linked more to his age and stage of development than anything else, but I would really appreciate any guidance that you could give me.

I completely understand how discouraging and embarassing it is to have your child bite, especially if it leaves marks, and I want to emphasize: it's not a reflection of your parenting. Many children go through stages of biting at this age, and it is our spiritual task as caregivers and parents to be consistent and patient, especially with ourselves!

The first question that I ask myself with a biter is, what is the motivating feeling behind the action? Many children bite out of frustration, but it sounds like your son bites more out of excitement and/or over-stimulation. Does that sound accurate? If so, this is both good news and bad news: good because it's much nicer to have an excess of enthusiasm, but bad news because it's much harder to see it coming. Good for you for being on top of tiredness/hunger, etc. Here are some ideas I have:

Structure Breaks for Him
One way to help your son self-regulate and avoid becoming over-stimulated is to remove him from the action periodically, so that he can have regular out-breath time during the course of play. This can be especially helpful for children who are very intense, as they often won't do it on their own. One way to do this is to have him come over to you and sit on your lap (or next to you if you have the baby) and eat a little snack. Otherwise a little snuggling or massage can be nice (long, firm strokes down arms, body and legs can be very grounding), or have him come over to 'help' you with something, in the kitchen, getting something for the baby, etc. If he's having a great time he may resist, but once you guys get in the rhythm of doing it, it will be easier. Just remember: it's much better to remove him BEFORE he gets rough! One way you might do it: Have a song to call him over. Allow a moment for him to come over on his own, then walk over to him and take his hand. As you walk back to your spot, you're saying, "Wow! You're having such a fun time! What are you and Eric doing together?" then, "Really? That sounds really fun! What will you do after our break?" How often these breaks need to happen depends on your child and how stimulated he is, but I'd suggest every 15 minutes as a starting point. Going potty is also a great break, and a slightly larger one which can be very calming. Also, consider shorter play-dates so you can end things on a positive note.

Help Him Step Back
Another thing to do is to help him learn to regulate himself during play by stepping back a little bit. One way that I do this is: when I start getting that slightly nervous feeling that something might go wrong (or just periodically during the play) I'll go stand or squat next to the child and simply talk about what's going on. "Look! Justin is digging a big hole. It's sure deep, isn't it? Oh! Julie's putting some sand into his hole. Justin doesn't like that at all." This helps him take a mental step back from being IN the action, to watching the action, and he can calm down a little. This action sometimes feels awkward, but it can be really helpful for toddlers as they learn the ropes of social interaction.

Help Him Join In the Play
Sometimes children bite older kids because they want to join the play but they don't know how to incorporate themselves gracefully. I had one little boy in my classroom who did this regularly: he would play on his own, then he would notice the other children playing, he'd watch them for awhile, and then he'd jump in and hurt someone. With him, I found that putting words to what was going on was helpful. I'd see him watching and I'd say, "You're watching!" I'd wait a few minutes, then I'd suggest a way for him to incorporate himself into their play: "They're playing that they're a family. Why don't you bring them some milk for their kitty?" or, "Why don't you find a bucket and dig next to Michael?"

Re-Direct Excitement
Finally, you might have something that he can do when he gets really excited INSTEAD of biting. I've had mixed success with this one, as I think nothing can really be as satisfying as chomping down, but with a few children it's worked really well. This might be something else he could bite: "Wow, you're really excited! Here, bite this apple!" (a whole apple has a satisfying crunch). Or, it might be a special ball that you bring with you everywhere, and when he's excited, he throws it as hard as he can and runs after it. These activities can be useful if he's biting because he doesn't know what do with all of his excitement, rather than being over-stimulated.

Anyways, these are a few ideas to get you started. If he is biting more because of social frustration, I have some ideas around that as well, so let me know if that would be helpful. And most of all, good luck! The good news is, most children are done with biting by three and a half, although it can come back in spurts during times of stress or before developmental leaps. If you have any more questions, please don't hesitate to write back.


Monday, October 18, 2010


This is a response to a comment made in response to the blog entry on Whining, below. My response became so long, I decided to make it a separate etry.

Dear Kim,

Good for you for trying the new techniques! It takes a lot of effort to change habits, so don't give up that these new techniques don't come naturally; they will become easy with practice. And you're right-on that everything's easier when you've had enough sleep!

Here's an idea of what to do when your child asks you again and again for something. I like using this progession, because the conversation evolves and you don't just feel like a broken record. In this case, I'll use your example of the cookie she can't have till the next day. The first time she asks for it you tell her, “You can have the rest of the cookie tomorrow.” The second time, “You love cookies, don't you? Don't worry, you can have it tomorrow.” The third time, “Wow, you're really looking forward to having that cookie, aren't you? You can have it tomorrow.” The next time, “Hmm. When CAN you have it?” She answers, tomorrow. You respond enthusiastically. "That's right! You know the answer!" If she's disappointed, you can sympathize. “Yeah. It feels hard to wait, doesn't it?” The next time she asks, you have a question in reply, “Is it tomorrow yet?” She answers no. “It seems like a long time to wait till tomorrow, doesn't it? I know! Why don't we think of something to do while we wait. That will make the time fly by.” The two of you can brainstorm about activities you can do 'while you wait,' and then do one. After this, it turns into the skill of learning how to wait. The next day, when she finally gets the cookie, be sure to point out, “Look! You waited and waited, and now it's finally time.”

If your child has a long memory and is not easily distractable, then she will have to learn to wait. One thing that could help with this process is to tell a story about waiting. Don't tell it while you're telling her she has to wait; let it be completely separate. You can tell it many times, for example, every day at lunchtime or naptime for four or five days. If you're not comfortable telling your child long stories without reading, try making your own storybook, where you write or type it out and draw simple pictures to go along with it, then staple it together. Kids will love a book that's made by you! Here's a story about waiting that I just made up. It's appropriate for most kids ages 3 and older, but younger kids might need a more simple story:

Once upon a time there were two sisters, named Nan and Aga. These sisters lived with their mother in a little house, and loved one another very much. One summer, a carnival came to town! The sisters went together and they had a wonderful time, riding the rollercoasters, playing the games, and seeing the clowns. They came running home. “Mother, mother! Can we go again?” The sisters asked. “Yes,” said the mother, “you may go again next Saturday.” Nan was happy, but Aga began to wail and cry. “Next saturday!” She said, “That is so long from now! How will I wait?”
The next morning, the sisters woke up and the first thing they thought about was the carnival. Aga began to cry. “I don't want to wait! I want to go right now!” Nan replied, “I don't like waiting either. I'll find something to do to help the time go by.” She looked around, and decided that she would make a hat. She found some yarn, and some knitting needles, and before she knew it, it was time for bed.
The next morning, they woke up and Aga began to moan and cry. “I hate waiting! I want to go to the carnival today!” Nan replied, “I don't like waiting either. I'll find something to do to help the time go by.” She looked around, and decided to make a basket. She went to the willow tree and collected some soft branches, and took them home to weave together. Before she knew it, it was time for bed.
The next day came and it was just the same. Aga moaned and cried the entire day, while Nan decided to bake some bread.
Finally, Saturday morning came. Aga and Nan woke up and they were so excited! They could go to the carnival again! They got ready to go, and Nan made some sandwiches from the bread she had baked, and put them in the basket she had made. She put on the hat she had knitted, and they were ready to go. They went to the carnival together, and they both had a wonderful time. As they walked along, Aga thought to herself, “I'm glad to be at the carnival, but I wish I had made fun things while we were waiting, too.”
And from that day forward, whenever it felt hard to wait for something, she would say to Nan, “It feels so hard to wait. What should we to to help pass the time?” And the two girls lived happily till the end of their days.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Q: Hi Miss Faith! I’m loving your blog – really wonderful, practical advice, Thank You! One thing I would LOVE for you to address is whining. It’s driving me and my friends of toddlers (mostly girls...) nutty. I reaaaaaallllly waaaaaannnnnt that dresss....... I’m hunnnngrrrrrrryyyy what can I haaaaaave.... You know. What have you found to be the best way to handle this?

A: In my experience, children whine because they are tired, or because they need more attention (or a different type of attention) than they're getting. I'll look first at ways to minimize whining, then I'll look at what to do once the whining starts.

Provide Rest During the Day
If your child is whining, they may well need more sleep than they're getting; the American Academy of Pediatrics says that 3-year-olds should sleep 10-13 hours out of each 24. In addition to this, children need significant portions of “down-time” throughout the day, where they can rest and re-charge. These are especially important to schedule in if your child is no longer napping, and might involve reading books in a quiet space, snuggling together and singing softly or telling soft stories, or children coloring pictures while you do something quiet nearby. Let your energy levels drop, darken the space a little, and avoid eye contact so your child can really be restful during this time. I recommend scheduling several of these into the day, 20 minutes at a time if your child still naps, with a longer one (40 minutes) in place of naptime if your child no longer naps. If your child is in a morning play-program, try not to schedule much activity in the afternoon, to give them time to come down from that high-energy environment. If your child is well-rested, you may see the whining drop off significantly.
Note: watching videos or TV does not not work for down-time, as the medium itself is not actually restful: among other things, watching screens (TV or computer) suppresses the body's production of melatonin, and makes it hard to fall asleep, which is why we can watch TV all night long even though our eyes are scratchy and we know we're exhausted.

Once the Whining Starts

Show Them How
Once a child starts whining, there are a few tricks you can have in your bag. The first question is whether they are asking for something that you would give them if they weren't whining. If it is, you can cue them to ask in a more appropriate voice. Don't just tell them to ask you differently; model what you'd like them to say, and how to say it. For example, if your child whines, “I waaant you to carrrrry meeeeee,” you can simply say, “Mom, will you carry me please?” Chances are good that your child will repeat your words and tone exactly. Then you can respond to her request: “Yes. I will carry you when I've put the baby into her stroller.” Or, “My hands are full right now. I'll stop for a moment and give you a snuggle, then we can walk together to that bench at the corner.” If your child doesn't repeat what you say when you cue her, wait for a moment, then repeat it again. Usually that will do the trick, unless your child is too tired. If she's too tired to say it, you might say, “I can tell you're thinking it. I bet next time you'll be able to say it yourself,” and respond as if she had asked nicely.

I'm not an advocate of time-outs for whining; I'm an advocate of time-in. This is because whining is usually a result of kids needing something (rest, attention) that they're not getting. So having some love poured into them for a few minutes is often just what they need “Wow, it looks like you could really used a snuggle. Let's go sit in the armchair together for a few minutes.” Sit together and pour love into her until you can feel her relax. Then she'll probably be ready to ask you in a normal voice, and respond when you cue her.

I had a little boy at Rainbow Bridge who was almost four. Several times a week he would get whinier and whinier as the morning progressed, until he was ready to fall apart. As it got bad, I'd say, “Let's go to the nap-room and snuggle in the rocking chair for a few minutes.” It would only take a minute away from the other children for me to be able to transform my annoyance into compassion for this little guy, and for him to soak in the quiet and the love, and relax. After a few times of doing this, I started saying to him, “You know, we can do this anytime. You can just ask. You can say, 'Miss Faith, I need a snuggle,' and I'll bring you right down here.” After a few more times, he asked me for a snuggle. He asked two or three more times, and then he never had to do it again.

I'm not saying this will happen for your child, but this technique is a little magic. Some parents have asked me if this isn't rewarding bad behavior instead of punishing it, but I disagree. Children fall apart because they're not getting something they need, and they don't have the vocabulary to tell you what. We get good behavior from our children by seeing them as their highest selves, setting them up to achieve living into that self, then unwaveringly expecting it. Children want to live into it too; if they are unable to, it's either because they need some sort of support (more rest, more consistency in their lives), or because our expectations are not age-appropriate.

How to Say “No”
If your child is whining for something that you are not going to give in to (they want a candy bar at the store, they want to eat cereal for every meal, they want to rollerskate in the house), then your tactics may be a bit different.

The first tip is, never use the word “No” to say “No”! Try one of these, instead:
1) Tell them when they CAN do what they want. If they want cereal for lunch, but they already had it for breakfast, you might say, “You can have cereal again tomorrow.” If it's raining and they want to rollerskate in the house, you might say, “You can rollerskate outside when the rain stops.”
2) Give them an alternate set of choices. “You can have cereal again tomorrow. Right now, you can have noodles, or stir-fry.” Or, “You can rollerskate outside when the rain stops. For now, you can color with crayons, or make a fort.” In this last case, it may seem like you're setting up a false dichotomy, and in some ways you are, but the object is to move their minds away from the rollerskates and get their creative juices flowing. They may well come up with some third option at this point that you both can be satisfied with.
3) If they continue to insist on their first, inappropriate choice, continue to avoid the word “no”, as that just causes them to dig in their heels. Instead, acknowledge their love for the thing that they want, or the desire, and then circle back to when they can do it later. “You really love that cereal, don't you. You can have it tomorrow, don't worry,” Or, “You really wish you could ride those rollerskates RIGHT NOW. I hear that. You can ride them when the rain stops. Right now I'm going to build a fort in the dining room. Did you know that when I was little, I always used to build forts when it was raining?” Walk to the linen closet to get the sheets.
4) And if THAT doesn't work, pull out your trump card, and take them on an imaginative journey. In fact, depending on the situation, you might move into the imaginative journey straight away.

The Imaginative Journey
Taking a child ourneyon an imaginative journey when they're whining for something might look something like this:
Child: I reeeally waaaant that dreeeeessss!
Adult: That really is a beautiful, dress, isn't it! Look at all the ruffles. If you wore a dress like that, you would look like a princess! Where would you live if you were a princess in that dress? (If they don't know, you can continue) I bet you would live in a castle where everything was made of gold and silver, and where you would have a bed made of feathers and tiny little dogs who loved you and followed you around wherever you went (etc. etc).

Taking a child on an imaginative journey like this changes the dynamic from them wanting something and you saying no, into a situation where both of you are on the same imaginative page, creating something together. It can work for something as prosaic as a candy bar:

Child: I reeeeally waaaant that cannnndy baaaarrrrr!
Adult: That candy bar sure looks delicious, doesn't it? If you had that candy bar, what would you do with it? What if you had a hundred candy bars like that? Who would you give one to? (wait for answers, and respond). To Sam? That's a good idea, I bet he would love that! I would give one to Grandma. Do you think she'd like that? (etc. etc.).

You can continue this conversation as long as you'd like, and slowly drift away from the actual object that started the conversation. This tactic is especially useful if you're out shopping, when kids often get over-stimulated and don't get enough of the “right” kind of attention from their adults.

And finally, having a consistent schedule where children know when things are going to happen, and how, will help cut down the whining.