Why I Didn’t Make a Sign for My Son’s First Day of School

Background of a Pinterest search for "back to school sign;" text: Why I Didn't Make a Sign for my Son's First Day of School; We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So

On the night before my son’s first day of preschool, I made a controversial parenting decision – I didn’t make him a “first day of school” sign.

As I said in a message on my personal Facebook page: “I was going to make a sign for [Sprout] to hold on his first day of preschool tomorrow. But I fell asleep in his room while trying to get him to sleep and woke up at 10:40. And now it’s 12:30 and it’s still not done. Maybe next year!”

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8 Ways to Encourage Exploration in Your Kids

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Watching my three-year-old scale the “rock-climbing” wall at the playground, I bite my tongue. I don’t want him to fall, of course. But neither do I want to discourage him from trying this new piece of equipment. Instead, I want him to explore his world enthusiastically. I want him to feel safe enough to climb high, good enough at assessing risk to know what is too high, and gutsy enough to pick himself back up when he inevitably does fall.

But as all parents know, it’s a difficult balance. It’s especially true now, when American society wants to bubble-wrap our kids and control their every moment.

So how can you find this balance?

Embracing these ideas in our parenting I think have made my son more willing to try new things and appreciate a wide diversity of people and experiences than he would have otherwise.

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What I’m Doing Differently During My Second Maternity Leave

People say that moms are much more go-with-the-flow when it comes to the second child compared with the first, such as in this commercial. Much to my surprise, I actually do fulfill this stereotype. And it’s not just my perception – both my parents and in-laws remarked how much more comfortable I seem. While the fact that Little Bird is a better sleeper than his older brother and a fast physical recovery helped, so did the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the nearly three years of Sprout’s life. Here are some of the things I’m doing after Little Bird was born that I didn’t do the first time:

What I'm Doing Differently During My Second Maternity Leave

Encouraging people to visit: While welcoming visitors is the opposite of what most advice recommends, it’s been essential for me. I get cabin fever very quickly; I was getting antsy after a few days of being snowed in this winter. Postpartum, I have to deal with the double-whammy of not being able to bring the baby to public places before he gets his immunizations and the fact that exclusively breastfeeding him means I can’t leave for more than 45 minutes or so. With Sprout, I’m fairly certain this combination significantly contributed to some postpartum anxiety. Luckily, this time around I’ve had three different sets of friends visit, bearing news of the outside world and nice things to say about the baby. My friends understood that normal “host” etiquette was out the window and I was grateful for the company.

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7 Ways to Prepare Your Child for a New Baby

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Becoming an older sibling is a huge transition, especially for a toddler who can’t fully grasp what that means. With Sprout gaining a baby brother in less than a month and a half (!), we’ve been working to get him ready for this major event. Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to take his viewpoint on this – I’m an only child and Chris doesn’t remember his sister being born.

So here’s some of the best advice we’ve gathered from articles and our own ideas, along  with how we’re applying it:

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Eating Ethiopian with a 2 Year Old

As a kid, my idea of adventurous eating was that I went to a deli that served tongue. (I never ate tongue, but the mere presence of it on the menu was enough street cred for me.) Admittedly, I didn’t live somewhere with a whole lot of options – all we had in my town for years was a couple of average Italian restaurants, a pub, and a Friendly’s.

But now, living in the D.C. suburbs, we are absolutely spoiled for choice. D.C. itself has a thriving foodie culture and our suburb has a number of immigrants who have brought their delicious food with them. So I’m dedicated to ensuring Sprout is exposed to all sorts of cuisine. So far, we’ve had Indian, Thai, Lebanese, dim sum, and authentic Chinese dumplings. But last weekend, we went a step more adventurous than we ever had before – Ethiopian.

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When Restrictions Keep You From Lifting Your Toddler While Pregnant

Parenting with Pregnancy Restrictions. How can you be a good mom to a toddler or preschooler if you can't pick them up? Here's how. (Photo: Boy kissing a mom's very pregnant stomach.)

Sitting in the specialist ob-gyn’s office, there was good news and bad news. The good news was that I could avoid more scary bleeding during my pregnancy if I just followed a few simple guidelines. The bad news was that the guidelines were simple, but they weren’t easy. In particular, I was forbidden from lifting any heavy objects.

Looking at my two-year-old son, I asked the doctor, “Does that mean I can’t pick him up?” The answer? Definitely not. He was little, but  still way past my weight limit.

Not being able to lift my toddler while pregnant put a major crimp in my parenting options. Suddenly, a key piece of my toolkit disappeared, affecting everything from how I hugged my son to bedtime routines. Over the course of the months of restrictions, I figured out some strategies to adapt my parenting to these limitations.

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Always Be Yourself. Unless You Can Be Santa; Then Be Santa

How can anyone dislike Santa Claus? However, my relationship with him as an adult is a bit ambiguous. While I hate lying, I’m a storyteller at heart. I hate the modern-day commercialism around Santa Claus, but love the magic of the toymaker myth. So I thought I was going to have a lot of heartache about how to treat Santa Claus when Sprout got old enough to understand him. But I think I’ve come upon an approach that makes sense – emphasizing the idea of Santa Claus as a character rather than an actual person.

Always Be Yourself. Unless You Can Be Santa; Then Be Santa-2

It certainly helps that Sprout is the most familiar with Santa as a character rather than a real person. We already read about Santa in books, from ones as simple as Biscuit’s Pet and Play Christmas to as weird as Lemony Snicket’s The Lump of Coal. The un-reality of Santa is emphasized even more by the fact that Santa isn’t even human in all of the books – in Pete the Cat Saves Christmas, he’s a cat, and Merry Christmas, Ollie! features Father Christmas Goose.

Through these stories, we can talk about whatever parts of Santa we want to, instead of the dominant cultural version. We’ll emphasize the idea of Santa as a generous toy giver who brings gifts because he loves people, just as we give each other gifts because we love each other. (And to tie to the actual religious part of Christmas, because people loved Jesus and brought gifts to him.) We won’t touch the “good girls and boys” nonsense with a ten foot pole because I’m already ideologically opposed to using toys as rewards.

Now, distinguishing between a character and a real person sounds terribly naive when talking to a two-year-old. But while little kids have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality, it doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of it. Contrary to 1960s British “moral campaigner” Mary Whitehouse’s position, kids back then did not actually believe that Tom Baker (then playing the Doctor in Doctor Who) was actually drowning for the entire week between a cliffhanger and resolution. Even Sprout, who is only two, knows that characters in books are not “real.”

So when it comes time for him to find out that Santa isn’t a “real” person, I hope that this approach allows us to acknowledge the fundamental fiction of Santa while maintaining the magic and spirit. An excellent book for doing this, which is also had the most heart-breaking first chapter of anything I’ve ever read, is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, by Julie Lane. (There’s a couple of other books of that name, but this is the best, obviously.) The beautiful part of it is that it roots Santa Claus and the traditions associated with him in tragic, beautiful, real world (albeit still fictional) circumstances while maintaining a little of the mystery.

Besides “Santa as story,” I think it’s also important when the time comes to provide some explanation as to why we’ve been pretending to be Santa this whole time. Fortunately, even that’s rooted in an idea that Sprout understands – cosplay! Because of our foray into costuming for Baltimore Comic Con, he already understands that sometimes adults wear costumes and pretend to be characters because it’s fun. Clearly, people dress as Santa because everyone wants to be him. People dressed as Batman or Groot aren’t actually Batman or Groot, but it’s fun to pretend we are. And who wouldn’t want to be Santa? He gets to give out presents, eat cookies, ride on a sled pulled by flying reindeer, and only works for a month a year (I assume production at the North Pole starts in late November).

No matter how we get there, I want to teach Sprout that we are all Santa for each other. While there’s no single jolly old man in red dropping off presents, we can act in that spirit by giving each other gifts and reaching out to those in need. Instead of Christmas becoming an orgy of consumer receiving, we want to frame it as a gentle season of generosity. And if I can teach him that, the magic of Santa will always be in his life.

Do It Myself!

“Do it myself!” I could probably live happily without ever hearing those words again. Unfortunately, they – or some variation – are a crucial phrase in every toddler’s vocabulary, including Sprout’s. While I appreciate his need to be independent and all of that bullshit, they’re really annoying in practice.

The phrase arises most often when Sprout is supposed to be doing something that he can do, but isn’t actually doing at the moment. For some reason, it’s the most common in the bathroom. When he’s supposed to be washing his hands, he often just sticks his right hand under the water rather than rubbing them together. Other popular options include splashing in the pool of water or sticking his palm against the faucet so it sprays everywhere. For toothbrushing, he prefers to gnaw on it with his back teeth instead of actually brushing them.

In both of these cases, he knows perfectly well how to do the activity – as I’ve seen him do it correctly – but is utterly uninterested in doing so. He’d much rather mess around playing in the sink or delaying bedtime. However, when I try to help him, he flails his hands and yells, “Do it myself!” While he can, it doesn’t make his futzing any less annoying when dinner is getting cold or his official bedtime is long behind us.

Unfortunately, my options for hurrying him up are limited for both philosophical and practical reasons.

In theory, I could get him to obey by physically forcing him to do it the way I want him to. However, I try to limit my physical enforcement of rules as much as possible to only the most dangerous of situations (like running in the road).

Physical enforcement often goes hand-in-hand with “might-makes-right” and authoritarian parenting, messages that I try to avoid at nearly all costs. The more I can convince Sprout that he should follow the rules because he wants to – or at least feels he should – the more he’ll form a moral compass in the future.

On a sheerly practical level, physical enforcement seems more effort than it’s worth for the stress. In a power struggle between a toddler and an adult, the toddler will always win in some way or another.

For example, the dentist recommended if he wouldn’t let us brush his teeth that one of us hold him between our knees and the other force his mouth open. Because that’s a great way to calm a toddler down before bed! No thank you on the additional half-hour needed to bring him down from a massive tantrum.

In fact, forcing him to do these things can actually be pretty dangerous. When he brushes his teeth or washes his hands, he uses a small stool to reach the sink. If he freaks out, waving his hands and stomping his feet, he could easily fall off it. He’s fallen off “dancing” around, much less throwing an actual tantrum. Slightly cleaner hands done a couple minutes earlier isn’t worth head trauma.

Instead, I try to find alternative ways to motivate him. When he says, “Do it myself!” I tell him, “I know you can – so show me!” Sometimes that works. When he’s spraying water all over the place, I prevent him from getting what he wants by cupping my hands around it so the spray is limited. I’ll only sing the tooth brushing song if he’s actually brushing them correctly. When he does actually do things correctly, I congratulate and praise him heartily.

And sometimes I just breathe deep, put my head in my hands, and wait. Eventually, he’ll do it right if I just give him time. After all, it’s just a phase.

When does your kid (or one you know) say, “Do it myself!!”

The Outdoors Guide’s Guide to Parenting

I’ve railed against parenting philosophies before, especially those with hard and fast rules that are more about shaming than actually helping people. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hold my own deeply held thoughts about parenting. Because helicopter parenting is far too restrictive and totally free-range is a little too hands-off, I’m somewhere in-between.

Instead, I see myself in the basic position of an outdoor guide, like one you have for hiking or rock-climbing. Although I’ve never been a fully licensed guide, I have taught outdoor education, where I led hikes, belayed climbers on rock-climbing walls, and taught field ecology to elementary and junior high students. You have to be quick-witted, skilled at the Art of Being Prepared for Anything, and well-versed in both first-aid and outdoors skills. Most importantly, you want to bring people on and back from an adventure safely, where they both learn skills and a lot about themselves. So, it’s very similar to parenting!

1) It’s essential to be strong, smart and flexible at the same time.

Who knew I was preparing for managing a toddler?

Who knew I was preparing for managing a toddler?

Some people – usually men who like weightlifting – think rock-climbing is about doing a series of pull-ups. Invariably, they are exhausted by the second climb. In contrast, the strategic climber who uses their legs well is just getting warmed up at that point. While strength is necessary in both climbing and parenting, it’s not enough by itself. It needs to be tempered with a thoughtful investigation of the unique situation, as well as the ability to switch gears as needed. The ability to judge which routes or fights are worth pursuing and which are best just to leave well-enough alone for now is key to reducing stress. Toddlers and climbing walls will always be the ones to win pure power struggles.

2) It’s important to learn how to evaluate risk and teach those skills to others.
On an outdoors trip, you have to trust the people you’re guiding not to do anything absurdly stupid. But part of building that trust is teaching them the difference between what will get them in big trouble and what’s a reasonable risk, especially when it’s not obvious to a newbie. The level of risk also depends on the circumstance – in some places, you’ll be fine hanging your food from a low tree branch but in others you better put in it a bear canister if you don’t want a furry friend in the middle of the night. Teaching children to judge and minimize risk without eliminating it is even more important. Whether making friends with a new person, climbing up a slide, or going to sleep-away camp, childhood has an immense number of social and physical risks. But avoiding them altogether limits opportunities, the ability to meet new people and find adventure. It’s tempting to make those decisions for your kid, but teaching them to make those decisions independently is even more important.

3) Learning how to judge when to spot, when to belay and when they can go on their own is essential.
While I’m not a helicopter parent, there are definitely times I hover, especially when Sprout is climbing a piece of playground equipment he’s not steady on yet. But I don’t see this as a bad thing; it’s the exact same thing I would do if Chris was tackling a tough bouldering problem. Spotting – putting yourself between the climber and the ground for support – is a perfectly valid strategy when someone needs that extra level of protection. Similarly, belaying – when you’re hooked in to a rope to prevent falling – is appropriate when you’re high up enough that you could get seriously hurt from a fall. Figuring out when to provide full, partial or no protection for your child when they take a risk is the next step after teaching how to judge one. After all, taking a huge risk with no safety net is terrifying, while taking a little one is fine. On the other hand, always being on a rope can encourage recklessness. Figuring out how to offer that support is another balancing act.

4) Helping them set their own goals, while also giving input when needed.

The Inca Trail!

The Inca Trail!

A good outdoors guiding company will focus on the participants’ goals, whether that’s climbing a huge mountain or backpacking for the first time. At the same time, they’ll also let you know if you simply aren’t ready to take that step yet. Someone who has never put on crampons shouldn’t try to summit Mt. Everest. As a parent, I want to encourage Sprout in his goals while also making him aware of the hard work that has to happen to get to them. In a few circumstances, I may even recommend he has a back-up plan in case things don’t work out. Even the most prepared, experienced climber shouldn’t summit Everest if there’s a storm coming.

5) Recognizing and respecting how your children’s skills are different from your own.
One of the worst things on a hike is when you’re the last person in the group, trying to keep up desperately. Then, as soon as you get to the place where everyone else is resting, they get up and start again. Conversely, one of the hardest things as a guide is keeping track of where people are and ensuring you’re going their preferred pace, not yours. (This is the hardest part of leading my Kidical Mass bike rides with small children.) Understanding and respecting how your children’s skills are different from yours and how that may affect their goals, interests, decisions and activities will help you give them the freedom they need. Learning to really listen to them is absolutely key. I feel like I have a bit of a head-start on this particular skill because while I’ve had a pretty straight-forward career (undergrad, grad school, federal job), my husband had a much more circuitous academic and career path. (And contrary to our society’s perspective, loves being a stay-at-home dad.) I’m already attuned to the fact that not everyone is suited for a traditional school experience or office job.

6) Encouraging failure as a form of learning.
You can never get better at rock climbing without falling a few (if not several) times. You don’t learn to put up a tent without getting tangled in poles once or twice. Anything worth doing involves screwing up and learning from it before getting it right. Our current test-based society is a little obsessed with getting things right the first time, but that just leads to depressingly stunted thinking.

7) Travel light.
Even if you’re car camping, packing too much is a big pain. When you’re backpacking, it becomes sheer misery. The same goes for raising kids. Having too much junk makes parents and kids less, not more, happy. One of my favorite parenting books is Simplicity Parenting, which among other things, advocates having fewer, more versatile, and more simple toys. (They also just posted a guest post by me!) For our sanity, pocketbooks and environmental / social sustainability, we try to limit the sheer number of toys (and other stuff) in our house, particularly the number that require batteries. We also try to buy ones that Sprout can use in different ways as he gets older, so he’s less likely to get bored of them. Most importantly, we try to emphasize time spent together over anything else.

8) Spend as much time outside as you can.
Red Rocks Canyon w/Chris
Being outdoors benefit everyone, but is especially important to children’s development. Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods talks about “Nature Deficit Disorder,” which happens simply when kids are inside too much.

9) Teaching appreciation of diversity, both of people and the natural world.
The best outdoor guides know all about the natural and human history of the places they lead people. I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation of so many places I’ve visited by listening to a guide explain the details I’d miss or context I didn’t know about. Their inherent enthusiasm for the subject inspired excitement in me. Likewise, I’d like to pass on that knowledge, love of learning and appreciation of diversity to my son. You miss out on so much beauty if you just stick to things you already know. I want him to explore while also appreciating the simple pleasures around him.

10) Respect your fellow travelers and the environment.
Leave No Trace is a popular camping and hiking philosophy. While it’s impossible to leave zero trace, the idea of leaving a place better than when you started is a good one. Two of the biggest values I want to teach my son are kindness and respect. Those are as helpful in everyday life as they are on the trail.

11) Fight for the things you love.
The first people to advocate for environmental protections were people who loved both the outdoors and bringing others into it, like John Muir. While there were some definite problems with the original conservationist movement (namely, racism and classism), we can still take inspiration from the idea of our passion motivating us to make a difference. Whether it’s working to ensure everyone has access to fresh, affordable, good food or protecting clean water, advocacy starts with a love of people and nature.

12) Remember that it’s about having fun.
In the middle of a downpour or a temper tantrum, it’s hard to remember that this experience is supposed to be fun. But that’s a major reason I became a parent. And despite all of the challenging times so far, I truly enjoy so much of the time I spend with Sprout. If we can’t stop and just enjoy ourselves with our kids – finding the magic in the mess, as Beth Woosley puts it – we’ve missed much of the point.