an evening of reading and talking about books

My sons and I had last Friday evening to ourselves, so after an early dinner we settled down on the couch together with a stack of new books from the library. Earlier in the day I’d been able to collect six of the Star of the North Picture Book Award nominees and so I thought we’d read, discuss and rate them. What a fine stack of books it turned out to be.

First we read Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz because my boys thought they would like it best. This book introduced some martial arts terms that they were interested in learning more about. They thought the book was okay, but neither ended up choosing it as their top pick.

Penny and her Marble by Kevin Henkes was okay and it got us talking about paying attention to our conscience, but it wasn’t as good as some of the other books we’ve read by Henkes. None of us gave it the highest ranking.

My older son and I liked Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. We found it to be a compelling true story and declared it to be the best of the three we’d read so far. As it turned out, it stayed right up there at the top after we’d worked our way through all six books. It’s a bit long to hold the attention of a five-year-old, but was fine for an eight-year-old.

Next we read Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel. My boys found some of the injustices mentioned in this book unbelievable, and were appalled to hear about Clara’s broken ribs. It’s kind of a heavy topic for kids this age, but the book ends on a positive note. We thought it was almost as good as the Growing Table book we’d read just before it.

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt is a light-hearted story that appeals to a kid’s sense of humor. This is the story out of this bunch that my five-year-old liked best. We read it twice, the second time paying attention to how the boy in the story addressed each crayon’s concerns in his final picture. We read it the following day as well.

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert is autobiographical in nature. I think it’s probably most interesting if you’ve already read several of her other books because she discusses her writing process with examples from previous books. It was fun to learn about how her parents helped cultivate her interest in art and books. I thought it was probably the second best book of the six we read that evening. One of the librarians said it seems to be more for adults than kids, but I’d say there’s plenty there to inspire a child in his or her creative pursuits.

This reading and discussion took a good hour and a half, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an evening as a family. We’re looking forward to reading the other four books on the list soon so we can finalize our vote.

familiar and unfamiliar territory

“Fresh cranberries. What are you going to make?” the Aldi cashier asked me.

“I was thinking of cranberry applesauce,” I said.

“Oh, an old family recipe?”

“No, I just made it up.”

“Oh, wow, you’re adventurous,” she said.

That’s often how I cook. It generally works well when I use familiar ingredients. But for the last two weeks we’ve been trying out a mostly vegan diet in an effort to help my husband feel better. (He’s been suffering from abdominal pain that all the medical tests conducted to date have been unable to explain. We’ve wondered if eliminating hard-to-digest foods might help.) So many of the recipes in my usual rotation are out of the question these days, and I feel like I’ve ventured into unfamiliar territory. I’ve been looking at recipes that call for things like white miso paste and chick pea flour. I can’t even find those things in the two grocery stores where I typically shop.

“Can I wear shorts today?” my second grader asked on Wednesday morning. “It’s above 40 degrees!”

“No. It’s not summer anymore,” I said, reminding him that the forecast was calling for colder weather the next few days.

This conversation quickly escalated into an argument. Just one of the many instances lately in which my son has been trying out his negotiating skills. He seems to think everything is up for negotiation, and that the longer he persists the greater likelihood of success. It gets exhausting – exhausting in a way that’s not so easily remedied by a good night’s sleep (although I’d say it always helps to be a well-rested parent). How much easier it was when my son simply thought mommy was right and the days were filled with things like play time, reading time, lunch time and nap time. Kids don’t remain toddlers – for which we’re truly glad – but as we move into uncharted territory I’m feeling the need for extra wisdom and grace.

I wrote a letter to the editor last week about how our school district’s discipline policies seem to be leading to an unsafe, unproductive learning environment. It was published in the Pioneer Press yesterday (third letter from the top). As a result, a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio called me this morning to ask for an interview. I can express myself fairly well with the written word, but producing coherent sound bites for a radio interview isn’t something I have experience doing. I’m hoping I don’t sound like an idiot. I guess tomorrow we’ll find out.

learning from failure

I recently read The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey.

Gift of Failure This book offers an alternative to today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting approach, which “has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” Lahey begins the book by describing her dawning realization that she had been overparenting and chronicles some of her own struggles to grant her sons more freedom and more responsibility. She makes a compelling argument for allowing children the safe space they need to fail – and learn from that failure – at a young age when the stakes are still low.

The controlling parent or the one who always comes to the rescue of her child is challenged to begin parenting for autonomy and competence, which involves setting clear and specific expectations, being physically and emotionally present and offering guidance when a child is frustrated or needs redirecting. She argues for giving children responsibility around the home as an important part of helping kids feel autonomous, competent and connected.

In a discussion of motivation, the author describes how overparenting inhibits intrinsic motivation and essentially teaches children that without parents’ help they’ll never be able to surmount challenges. By protecting kids from failure, she argues, we’re communicating that we don’t have faith in their ability to overcome the challenges they face.

Throughout the book, Lahey offers some practical suggestions for parents, including the following:

Allow for mistakes and help children understand the consequences of those mistakes.

Don’t offer to rescue your child from the consequences of his or her mistakes.

Value the mistakes as much as the successes – in other words, support and love them just as much whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Acknowledge children’s feelings of frustration and disappointment.

Provide feedback that supports effort and guides a child toward seeing his or her mistakes and then finding a workable solution.

Praise kids for their effort, which encourages them to draw the connection between effort and capability.

Encourage risk-taking in learning; fear of failure undermines education.

Emphasize goals rather than grades.

The Gift of Failure is a worthwhile read that may have you rethinking your expectations for your kids. It challenged me to consider what level of independence I will expect of my kids by the time they are young adults and to make parenting decisions in the present that will help them reach that goal.

This school year, after reading the book, I’ve taken more of a hands-off approach to the getting ready for school routine each morning. My son packs his own lunch, though still with some supervision. He’s responsible for getting things into his backpack too. So far, he’s forgotten his homework at home once and forgotten a book that he was supposed to take to school. This is when my temptation to take over kicks in, but for the sake of fostering independence I’m trying not to.

living in the moment

“Is quiet time done yet?” my recently-turned-five-year-old shouted from his room.

“No.” I responded.

“Why not?” he wanted to know.

“Because it’s not yet three o’ clock.”

“I want it to be. Make time go faster,” he suggested. That pretty much sums up how we tend to look at life for the first few decades of life, doesn’t it? It was the same son who just today said, “When I was four, I wished I was five, but now I wish I was six.” I remember couldn’t wait for the day when I started kindergarten myself. Then I always thought it would be better if I were just a few years – or even just one year – ahead of wherever I was at the time.

“Why are parents sad when their kids grow up?” he asked last week as we were driving home from our morning volunteering gig. We’d been giving out coffee and bagels – and tissues – to parents on the first day of kindergarten at his brother’s school. We had just seen more than one teary-eyed, sniffling mom exiting the school building after dropping off a little one.

This does not make any sense to someone who sees adding one more year to his age as a most desirable thing. In the weeks since his birthday, he’s reminded us several times that he is now five. Once his big brother took the opportunity to point out, “You know, you were a premature baby so if you were born for real, you’d still be four.” But he’s not going to dwell on that. He’s five and if it were up to him, he’d be in school now, just like his big brother.

sept 10 2015
Photo courtesy of J. Gebeke via Twitter

I’m still guilty of wanting to fast-forward through seemingly unpleasant periods. (I can’t count how many times I’ve started a sentence addressed to my husband with, “When you’re done with graduate school…”) But as I’ve gotten older, I more often have the good sense to enjoy the moment we’re living, to savor it because it won’t ever be quite like this again. Who knows how much longer my son will hold my hand as we walk together? (Some days he already doesn’t want to.) Who knows how much longer it’ll be that my boys come to me first with nearly every question or random thought they want to share? Such are the gifts of this season.

time for a hair cut

“Mom, I need a hair cut,” my seven-year-old reported yesterday.

“Yes, you do, but I’m cooking dinner right now. Remind me after we eat,” I said.

Apparently that wasn’t soon enough. The boy decided he’d do a little trimming on his own. The first thing I noticed was fine dark hair scattered on the bathroom floor. And the hand-held mirror was lying near the sink with some telltale hair trimmings on it as well. “Oh, no,” I thought.

“Adam! Bring the broom here,” I called. Perhaps he knew this wouldn’t be a pleasant exchange. He retrieved the broom in record time, and I helped him sweep up the floor. Looking at him head-on I didn’t see any bad gashes. Perhaps it was only a little harmless trimming… I reminded him that only grown ups cut hair.

Upon further inspection, I saw a few places in the back that looked like a goat had been at work (as his daddy would say). So after dinner, I pulled out the electric hair trimmer, put on the number 2 attachment and evened out the back considerably. Then trimmed his sides and top too. Just one small spot is shorter than the rest now. The hair should grow in within a week or two.

I gave his little brother a hair cut too. And then the four-year-old illustrated just how badly, in his view, they had needed a hair cut:

2015-08-03 19.23.53

Notice those piles of hair to the right and left of the boy in the chair?

two types of vacations

In June we took a family vacation. I recall one mom who used the term “taking the show on the road” for such trips because although they do offer one kind of rest – a break from doing the same things in the same way – it is not necessarily a break from such tasks as planning meals, cooking, washing dishes, and all that. In fact, there’s a fairly intensive pre-trip planning that’s required unless you’re willing to shell out a bunch of extra cash for things you forgot. As we packed everything we’d need for several days of both camping in the woods and camping in a friend’s empty apartment, I couldn’t help but think that it would be much easier to just stay home. A little change of scenery is good for us, though. And we’re making memories.

As it turned out, this year there were plenty of memories to be made. It started with a car breakdown just as we were turning into our camp site at Devil’s Lake in Baraboo, Wisconsin. We couldn’t get a tow truck to come get our car until the next day. Then they needed a full day to repair the power steering line. So we ended up staying an extra day at our campsite. The good thing: it was a lovely place to be stranded. Our boys enjoyed sleeping in a tent, roasting marshmallows, observing slugs up close and taking in plenty of the simple delights of being outdoors all day long. But on our second night, just as it was time to retire for the evening, it started pouring. For two hours straight. We had a river running between our tent and the ground cover. You know how when you’re camping you reassure yourselves by saying that if it gets too bad you can always hop in your vehicle? Well, there was no car at our camp site just then; it was still in the repair shop. The boys’ sleeping bags absorbed a good deal of water. The next morning my son said, “It felt like I peed my pants, but I didn’t.” My husband threatened to never go camping again. Thankfully we got our car back so we could pack up our wet gear and move on to phase II of our adventure, which involved sleeping with a roof over our heads and the use of an electric range for cooking. Such luxuries. We got more sleep there, explored the Madison zoo, swam in a pool and splashed around at a splash deck. That was our June vacation.

In July we had a vacation of an entirely different kind, the kind in which parents who are used to having their children around all time time are suddenly at a loss for what to do without them. One very thoughtful sister of mine offered to take care of the kiddos for two nights of camping at their Grandpa’s farm. My husband and I couldn’t believe how quiet the house seemed. We went downtown, slept in until 7 a.m. (the latest I’d slept in months), and visited a different church on Sunday, just because. I realized that after a few hours of stillness, I’m ready to hear our boys’ laughter and commotion. I’m ready to have one boy or the other come to find me with a question when I’m cooking or writing. I’m ready to have someone ask me to read a book. I’m not ready for a week with no children around.

Now I know.

Five Ways to Help Kids Thrive This Summer

A little something I wrote for our PTO newsletter. 

  1. Take a virtual vacation

Your child chooses several countries he’d like to visit and makes an itinerary. For the first stop on the virtual vacation, he reads about the climate, culture and customs of the country. Together prepare a typical meal from that country and then your child can share some of what he’s learned about the place and perhaps teach everyone a few words from the language. Enjoy a folktale, book or movie set in that locale. The next week, repeat with the second country on the itinerary and so on, until you’ve finished your international virtual vacation.

  1. Entertain the family

Don’t let your child just consume entertainment, suggest she create her own. She can make a movie, develop a board game or write a play to perform with friends or siblings. It may be fun to try her hand at making number puzzles or word games. Book making is another option. Brainstorm ways she can share her final product with others.

  1. Plant something

Kids learn about responsibility by taking care of living things. Suggest your child choose a vegetable or herb for planting if he would like to enjoy the fruits of his labor. If outdoor space is limited, fill a large container with soil and try planting a cherry tomato. Or grow some herbs on the window sill.

  1. Stay active

Summers are short, so make sure to provide ample time for outdoor fun. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. While some children naturally want to keep moving and easily get in an hour of exercise, others may need a little encouragement. Look for new activities to try and repeat favorites often, whether that be a nature walk, a bike ride or a certain sport or active game.

  1. Volunteer

Help your child gain life skills and compassion through helping others. Volunteering together helps your child understand the importance of giving back to his community. Whether you choose to pick up trash at a park, pack meals at Feed My Starving Children or collect supplies for an emergency shelter, volunteering helps stave off a sense of entitlement. Find local volunteer opportunities at an online site such as Hands on Twin Cities.

popcorn and poetry

“I don’t like poetry; I like non-fiction,” our first-grader said as I scanned titles in the poetry section of the library. “I like animals.” I took it as a challenge. It’s national poetry month after all. The first book I grabbed was a book of animal poetry that looked like it held promise: animal poetry Some of the poems in this book qualify as nonfiction, though not all of them. But the pictures alone earned the book high marks with my two young book critics. Then I found a book of nature poems by an author we know and like, Jane Yolen: count rhyme The poems are fun, and it too has outstanding pictures. It was a quick read with some memorable poems, as was a similar title by the same author:   color rhymeWe’re likely to check both of them out again. Another winner was an anthology edited by Mary Ann Hoberman: forget me notsThis book has a lot of classics in it as well as contemporary poems, organized by topic. Some made us laugh out loud. I also appreciate the tips on memorizing poems, a skill too few people value these days. The book would make a great gift for the child in your life.

So last week when I suggested we read poetry, we had options. “Popcorn and poetry!” Our younger boy welcomed the idea but insisted that popcorn was a part of the package. We had my sister to thank for this, but I don’t mind a bit. There aren’t many things I enjoy more than sharing a book with my boys before bedtime.

We persuaded their daddy to join us. “Which do you like better – popcorn or poetry?” he asked.

“Both!” my four-year-old said.

making time for the important stuff

My freelance commitments have sort of been taking over my life for the past several weeks. (Very much not what I envisioned when I decided to stay home and take care of my kids rather than hire someone else to do it.) In recent days, to get everything done by deadline I’ve resorted to working mornings several days per week as my four-year-old is left to entertain himself.

Some independent play is good, but he already has scheduled quiet time from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. each day. So he’s been sharpening a lot of pencils, drawing more than ever and hovering nearby, adding to my guilt with questions like, “Mom when will you read me a book?” and “Can you be done now?” I do allow him to interrupt me from time to time. But I’ve found myself frustrated for seeing my son’s requests as interruptions.

One recent day, after I’d crossed some big tasks off my to-do list, my son and I took a walk. We wandered through the cemetery near our home with no agenda beyond enjoying the sunshine and being together.

As we turned to retrace our steps toward home, two Canadian geese flew overhead. We stopped to watch them flap their powerful wings. “Coo-ool” my son said. Then, “Activate Canadian goose power!” He extended his arms and started flapping them as if they were wings. I smiled to myself. Why do we lose the wonder of experiencing the world with four-year-old eyes? What a blessing it is to have someone remind me of the joy and beauty in this world, and to point out what I’m missing. In a blink of an eye we’ll be sending this boy to school and I can work for a seven-hour block without interruptions. I will miss moments like these.  And I’ll miss our Friday mornings at the library together. And I’ll miss… the interruptions.

My husband showed me a page from his textbook about the African view of time: “Time is not a monetary commodity but an experience to be shared with others.”

So even when I come across articles that suggest things like it doesn’t matter how much time parents spend with their children, I’m still planning to better guard my time with my family. Not only because I question the research, but also because those experiences shared with others bring a lot more richness to life than a slightly bigger pay check ever could.

black history month at our home

“What language were those people speaking?” my four-year-old asked me as we were driving home from Aldi this morning. He was talking about the couple I had a brief exchange with on our way out of the store.

“English,” I said. “They speak English, like us.”

“They speak English?” he asked.

“Yes, they speak our language but they have a different dialect — they speak Black English.”

There were no more questions. Until evening.

After dinner we read Coming Home: from the life of Langston Hughes. In the book, Floyd Cooper explained that Langston Hughes’ father went to live in Mexico because, as a black man, he was not allowed to practice law in Oklahoma.

“Because he speaks Black English?” my four-year-old asked.

Living in a biracial household, I think it’s more important than ever to address my children’s questions about race and skin color and culture head-on. And they get a dose of Black History Month each February. I make up the ‘curriculum’ as I go.

This year, we started out with reading a picture book version of The Negro Speaks of Rivers and then moved on to the biography of the author of the poem, Langston Hughes. I’m still looking for ideas of what topics to cover this month. That’s part of the adventure. I am expecting some interesting conversations along the way.