Sunday, August 30, 2009

Raising over-praised liars

If you missed it, this NPR interview with Po Bronson, author of a new book titled "Nurture Shock," is worth a listen. Bronson talks about why research tells us that praising our children, especially with the usual empty evaluative praise, can backfire -- and how much more we do for our kids when we make substantive observations (and, I would add, ask substantive questions) about their work and actions. He also talks about why all kids experiment with lying and how to help children keep it honest.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Deep thoughts by Owen

Owen’s gotten pretty good about saying please lately. Here he is asking for another mosquito bite (or perhaps just requesting that I make his current bite magically disappear.)

“I have skeeto bite on my knee. I have skeeto bite, please.”

But I think Owen’s favorite new word is “actually.” Will, who likes to point out quite often that “actually…” such and such is the case, gets the credit as vocabulary teacher on this one. Here’s Owen using “actually” to share a little truth about our world.

“Actually I big kid. Will big kid. Daddy big kid. Mommy big kid. All kids big kids.”

And one more of Owen’s deep thoughts to part on:

“I got my gas out. My gas makes me feel better.”

So… may you play like a big kid and get all your gas out today. Please.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A slightly greener birthday

For Owen’s birthday I had a small party and asked guests to bring recycled gifts – toys or books that were cluttering their attic or their toy rooms. You can get away with these things when your child is just turning two. When I asked nearly 5-year-old Will if he wanted to do the same for his upcoming birthday, I wasn’t surprised when he opted for new presents over the eco-friendly option.

But I’m still trying to keep things a little greener. Tonight I wrapped his presents from us in butcher paper posters my preschool kids had made last year and a painting Will had done a while back that he didn’t feel attached to. Our party favor bags are simple lunch bags painted by Will and they'll wind up holding mostly consumable treats and some stickers from our little pinata. We’ll do those biodegradable cardboard plates rather than Styrofoam and break out my hodge-podge of silverware from pre-wedding days to avoid plastic ware. Little things that save us money and cut down on packaging and paper and plastic consumption too.

Of course one of these wrapped gifts holds Will dream birthday present: a big plastic Star Wars light saber that is battery-operated, purchased at Wal-Mart and no doubt made in China. So I'm no purist when it comes to going green.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Boat notes

Some boating firsts from our weekend trip to Lake Rabun:

Harvey enjoys his first-ever boat ride (much more than he enjoyed his first-ever dip in the lake).
Will enjoys his first time driving the boat, with Papa giving pointers. Our swerving course may have led a few far-off onlookers to wonder if we had a drunken captain, but the only thing Will was imbibing was pure joy.

And we took our first family-of-four canoe ride. The upside of canoeing on a lake populated by motor boats is that the kids love swaying up and down on the boat wakes. Plus we can make it over to our favorite little waterfall hike across the lake in less time than it takes us to drive, and get some extra exercise and fresh air en route.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My life as a chew toy

After five weeks of serving as gigantic chew toy to our now 12-week-old puppy Harvey, while Rob mastered his alpha dog techniques – I was about to declare myself the most inept puppy trainer on the planet. Rob would do a quick calm but assertive move on Harvey every time he bit (holding and shaking him a bit by the muzzle or curling his lip under just a bit so that he bit himself) and then Harvey would go submissive for him and turn to sweet puppy licks and petting sessions that made Rob look like a first-rate dog whisperer. I meanwhile got myself into biting and wrestling matches, which Harvey always won, whenever I tried to imitate Rob’s dog handling tactics (gleaned from books and puppy owner friends alike).

Whatever I tried – and of course I tried way too many different things -- Harvey couldn’t stop “playing” with me, and I couldn’t stop shedding blood (in the form of little scratches and tiny teeth puncture wounds). We share the kitchen as a home base much of the day, so we had many battles. Now and then I’d retreat to the bedroom, flop down on our bed in exhaustion and frustration and have myself a little frustrated cry. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve shed more tears over a puppy in five weeks than I have over two sons in five years. And I’ve felt ridiculous and weak and muddy-headed.

I’d tried more submissive approaches – yelling Yipes to announce my pain to Harvey and then giving him a time-out, while Rob continued on with his apparently effective alpha techniques -- and after about a day Harvey would get bold and ignore my cries of “Yipes!” and continue to bite, at which point I’d find myself doing half-hearted muzzle shakes and getting into the unwinnable lunging and biting matches once again. Rob was alpha dog; I was plaything – and Harvey was getting mixed messages from both of us all day long.

Luckily, we enrolled in a puppy training class at PetSmart, and luckily the other puppies were no-shows for the first class yesterday. So we had ourselves a little one-on-one consultation about the many errors of our ways with a seasoned dog trainer. He told us to drop the negative discipline altogether – and focus on ignoring bad behaviors and rewarding good ones. It is typical, he said, for a dog to accept a man’s alpha dog techniques and ignore a woman’s attempts at them – and it can lead to later aggression. Rob’s actually glad to be turning to a more positive approach, and I feel reborn as a puppy parent. Following a few simple tips from our dog-guru, Jeffrey, I suddenly feel like I have a workable plan for Harvey – and one that the whole family can adhere to together. Harvey and I have spent more time sharing walks and puppy kisses and petting sessions than we’ve ever managed to up to now since I was too busy disciplining him while he was too busy biting me. Suddenly we are both much more at peace. Sure he’s still a hyperactive, chew-happy lab-spaniel puppy who bites on everything including me, but I’m consistent in my responses and lack of responses and we are both finding our rhythm I think.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Meatless Mondays

Monday’s almost over, so I’ve got to sneak this one in quickly. My friend Grace introduced me to an international movement with a fairly modest goal: Encourage people to cut meat out of their diet one day a week. Meatless Monday is no challenge for those of you who are already vegetarians -- and even for moderately-carnivorous-but-veggie-loving moms like me, going meatless fairly frequently is just part of meal planning. But I like the idea of making a conscious ritual of going completely vegetarian one day a week. So from here on out, when we don’t have events that push us towards meat, I think I’ll go with meatless lunch options and plan a vegetarian dinner for Monday. Go to Grace's blog for regular Meatless Monday recipe ideas -- and find plenty more on the Meatless Monday Web site itself.

Here I’ll add one of my own vegetarian suggestions, Senegalese Hoppin’ John, courtesy of our local farmer Jenny Jackson, the Senegalese cookbook "Yoele!" she found it in, and Shannon Klein, who first made it for me. I whipped up a batch of it with okra, tomatoes and Serrano peppers from Jenny Jack Sun Farm , served it over brown rice -- and it was delicious.

Senegalese Hoppin’ John:

First simmer for 25 minutes:
1 chopped onion
5 T tomato paste
2 chopped tomatoes
2 small eggplant and 10 pods of okra
(I got the onion going first in some olive oil)

Then grind with mortar and pestle:
1 clove garlic
½ onion
½ tsp. black pepper
1-2 serrano peppers at most (My kids couldn’t even handle one – be conservative at first here)

Add to tomato/onion mixture and simmer 5 more minutes. Then add 1 can coconut milk with a half can of water and simmer all together.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Peter Pan: Before Disney....

Lately Will and I have been enjoying this classic illustrated edition of Peter Pan, a tale that I never read in its original form when I was a child. Will is so intrigued by the idea of Neverland and pirates, fairies and children in flight that he is quite willing to put up with the wordy, whimsical writing – which in many ways seems aimed to entertain adult readers as much as children. The pictures also keep Will desperate to read more. He often studies the book alone on the couch when we aren’t reading together.

We are also enjoying Ragweed by Avi (the story of a town mouse who heads to the city).

Now I am on the hunt for more children’s books that are illustrated but more interesting than some of the formulaic Magic Tree House books we’d been plowing through over the summer. In a recent NPR interview, author Lesley Blume offered her own list of classic children’s books, some of which are more illustrated than others. There are some old favorites here (like Twenty One Balloons and all things penned by Roald Dahl) that I’m looking forward to revisiting when the time is right for Will.

What are you reading with your kids -- or what are your kids reading on their own?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Party politics

Ever since he rung in his four-year birthday with a baseball-themed party, Will has been plotting a football party for number five. I'd been secretly hoping he'd lose interest in the dream so we could move on from the sports themes, but he's as excited about it as ever, so here we are prepping to a host a very small football party at the end of the month.

What do you do at a football party? Play football of course, in our very small backyard with a bunch of young ball-hogs who don't understand the game and aren't really coordinated enough to play it together even if they did. But Will has built up this dream of his friends playing football together and sometimes I wish I could get inside his head to see just what this amazing dream of a football game looks like. One thing I know, in football as envisioned by Will, he is the head coach -- and a rude, bossy one at that.

As we were trying to sort out who to invite to the party this week, Will said "I can only invite slow people and fast people. I'll put the slow people in the audience and the fast people in the football game.... And I planned that no sick ones can come."

Then as he considered the drawbacks of inviting one friend who sometimes doesn't share as readily as others and might not take orders graciously, Will pronounced, "If he doesn't do what I say, I'll put him in the audience."

At which point we had a discussion about Will's grand vision for the football game and how in reality we'd all have more fun if everyone was just allowed to play as they wished, whether or not it was football. He agreed and is already modifying his game plan.

In any case, it's a rather murky plan for a party so I've decided to keep the invite list small. One of our keep-it-small strategies is to invite, by mail, only the boys from Will's preschool class along with just a couple other of his lifelong friends. Fortunately there are only five boys in his class including Will, and that's about all we can handle, especially since my back-up plan when everyone loses interest in the football game 30 seconds into the first quarter, is to send the boys in to put on their swim trunks while we break out the slip and slide.

It's all very sexist and horrible -- a football party for just boys -- but what's a harried mom to do?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Back to school

Today Owen and Will and I all started pre-school again. And I traded in our lax summer schedule, with lazy mornings in pajamas and no agendas, for the opportunity to spend a few mornings a week with an extended family of 13 3-year-olds. It was a good trade. I’m truly looking forward to work tomorrow and for the rest of the year.

Will, who, with his August 31 birthday, will be repeating pre-k this year, seems very happy in that role. Today he announced that he’d had “the most fun I’ve ever had in pre-school.” (He quickly acknowledged that it was equally “most fun” on the first day last year.)

Owen, meanwhile is dealing with separation anxiety from Will more than from me. His big brother has been a constant playmate throughout the summer, and during the couple days they spent in nursery/day care while I was prepping for the return of students last week, the nursery workers opted to keep Will with them rather than listen to Owen’s constant tears when his big brother left to go down the hall with the big kids. Luckily for Will, who was soon bored out of his mind, we brokered an arrangement whereby Owen got to join the big kids if he stayed quiet and manageable. On Saturday Owen told me, “Actually I big kid.” Then he added, “Will big kid. Daddy big kid. Mommy big kid.” Kind of makes you wonder who’s supposed to run this show.

(I did, of course, let Owen know that his big kid status doesn’t match Will’s yet. Today, with his permanent teachers, ready to welcome him – tears and all – into their classroom, Owen had a brief body-shaking meltdown when I left him and then he settled into life with his fellow-2-year-olds quite nicely. It should be a good year for all.)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Early bird gets the moon

One of the few perks of having to get up at 6:20 a.m. with two wide-awake kids and one ready-to-party puppy: you can stargaze at daybreak. When Will spotted a planet, one barely visible star and a full moon from the back deck early this morning, Rob pulled out the telescope and we all got a little more closely acquainted with the moon, craters and all.

Not a bad way to start the day.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hair cuts for rock stars -- and Swedish adventures in gender-free parenting

Yesterday morning, after I had wetted Will’s hair and combed it out for him, Will pulled at his long locks and announced dissatisfied, “I look like a girl.” He put both hands to his hair and tried to mess the feminine out of it until he looked more lion than human – female or otherwise.

Rob has been quietly promoting Will’s shaggy mane as a nice “rock star” look. But now that Will had decided it was time for a trim, I told him we’d take care of it on the back deck that afternoon.

We took this picture before we broke out the scissors.

Will – whose shaggy hair obviously wasn't really long enough to put him in either a rock star or girly arena -- suddenly got nostalgic on me. He said we needed this picture, “so we can always remember my rock star hair. I’m just so sad to see it go. At least soon it can grow into rock star hair again.”

I gave Will a fairly light trim, partly because I'm semi-fond of his rock star hair, partly because he seemed reluctant for major chopping and partly because he quickly lost interest in the hair cut and wanted to go stand on the tree-swing in our backyard and swing in his underwear.

Still it was the first time Will, who on rare occasions will decide to try on one of my skirts or some ladies’ shoes, had worried about looking like a girl. And it reminded me of this story I’d heard about of a Swedish couple who’ve decided to raise their now 2-and-a-half-year-old “Pop” without telling anyone but their most intimate family members (who’ve changed the child’s diaper) the gender. Pop wears girls clothes some days, boys clothes on others, and Pop’s hairstyle varies from feminine to masculine. Pop’s mom says “We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset.” I’m all for providing girls with toy trucks and boys with baby dolls and encouraging them to play beyond typical gender roles – but the Pop plan sounds to me like a pretty extreme social experiment to carry out on your kid before they have the opportunity to decide if they want to be a guinea pig. Always interesting though to wonder about how much our children's girl/boy instincts are biologically programmed versus socially constructed.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Revise, revise, revise

I recently stumbled on a link to this list of “20 Alternatives to Punishment” from the Aware Parenting Institute while reading a friend of a friend’s blog. It resonated with me since I am constantly working from multiple angles to manage life with Will and Owen without imposing artifical punishments or rewards, which tend to backfire for us in the long run.

I think I’ve used just about every tactic on the list with varying degrees of success, but I especially like #19, which reads like this:

Young children have intense feelings and needs and are naturally loud, curious, messy, willful, impatient, demanding, creative, forgetful, fearful, self-centered, and full of energy. Try to accept them as they are."

I could add a few adjectives and use it as a guide for puppy parenting too. I've been doing some major revising over the past couple weeks as a dog owner and over the past five years as a parent -- and I am saner for it. And a lot more patient too.

Check out the whole list if you're interested in alternatives to punishment. I'm a believer in the occasional parental time-out (#20) -- although I don't give it an official label.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


From Will, complaining of growing pains in his legs last night:

"My ache pains feel like they're hurting."

From Owen, who was so proud of himself for pooping on the potty this morning that he imagined his poop was proud too:

"That big poop! Poop likes me! Poop claps!"