What I’ve Been Reading This Week


“The tree is my friend.”

For some reason, I’m watching Match Game hosted by Alec Baldwin right now. I blame Chris – he turned it on. In other news, I finished The Happiness Project, which I think could have referenced more research, but was otherwise interesting and had lots of inspirational ideas. And now, the articles for the week, on how to raise a kid who includes others in conversation, achieve work/life balance (or not), allow your kid to roam the neighborhood, mysterious ancient earthworks in Kazakhstan and more.

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The Many Moods of Sprout

Part of growing up is maturing emotionally. Even though he’s still so little, it’s amazing to watch how Sprout has already gone through so many changes.

Since the day he was born, Sprout’s been observant. He was born watching the world around him. For the first few weeks, he didn’t smile because he simply didn’t know how. Once he started smiling – around 2 months- it was cautiously, as if he was trying on this new expression for size. He would only smile if specifically provoked to, for example, if someone was tickling him. Around the same time, he was also learning to frown. He had a hilarious cartoony frown, that was a mirror image of his smile. It made him look Very Dissatisfied with The World, even though he wasn’t crying.

Once he got used to the new sensation, Sprout started smiling all of the time. Probably not coincidently, it was around the same time he started moving around on his own. That two month period is the most consistently happy I’ve ever seen him. He seemed to enjoy his newfound mobility and didn’t really have any expectations about it. Because he only went backwards, he never went towards anything – he was just scooting for the joy of it. He never looked behind him, so everything was a surprise. He’d look up at us with a huge smile when he’d rediscovered something for the 20th time as if saying, “Did you know this rug was here? Wow!!” Once he started moving forward, he was a bit less surprised, but still generally pleased.

However, that only lasted a week before he reached the next stage of mobility – pulling up on pieces of furniture. Then, his mood became decidedly more mixed. Although he could pull himself up to standing, he had no way of getting down. His original tactic of just letting go didn’t work out well for obvious reasons, resulting in him frequently bumping his head and crying. Once he realized that was a bad idea, he’d pull up and yell for us to help him down, “ahhhh” being a favorite syllable. Of course, as soon as we’d help him down, he’d stand right up again.

Fortunately, in the last two weeks, he’s gotten much better at getting himself down without incident and has calmed down. However, he’s already starting to catch on to the movements associated with climbing, so I’m sure we’ll have more challenges to deal with soon enough.

Along with his mobility, his mood has also changed in terms of his relationship to Chris and I. When he was first born, Sprout wanted to be carried everywhere. Then, he became much more independent and would scoot around on his own for ages. But a few weeks ago, he started becoming much more attached to me and reaching out while Chris is holding him. This shift is very common around 10 months old, so I’m certainly not worried.

But there is a minor problem with Sprout wanting me to carry him, besides my sore arms. At the same time he wants me to hold him, he simultaneously wants to be crawling around. So he’ll yam until I pick him up, squirm to be out of my arms, and then yam again when I put him down. I can’t win!

Whereas before he was content with whatever life gave him as long as his bodily needs were met, he’s now starting to want things. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite know how to deal with wanting multiple and conflicting things at the same time. Of course, this is just a small preview of the future. I told my friend about Sprout’s frustration and he said, “I’m 35 years old and I still haven’t figured that out!”

Fortunately, not everything Sprout wants involves taking from us – he’s started learning to give back as well. He’s started hugging and wrapping his arms around our neck when we pick him up. He also gives us open-mouth kisses, which are both kind of gross and really adorable. But we’re not the only target of his affections; he’s become a bit of a Narcissus. He has a mirror at the back of his That’s Not My Baby book and has started slobbering all over it. It’s hilarious.

From cranky to joyous, Sprout’s many moods never cease to engage us.

Of Board Books and Bibliophibians

Chris caught Sprout “reading” earlier this week. He obviously didn’t understand the words, but there he was on the floor of his bedroom, flipping through a book page by page. As a touch and feel book, he was running his fingers over the textured spots and even had it the right side up! Moments like this make me glad we haven’t abandoned physical books yet. As convenient as e-readers are, they don’t have the material presence of books, which is essential for a child to build an appreciation of them.

For one, e-books can never provide the tactile feedback of board books. You can’t allow babies to gnaw on the edges or turn the pages with drooly little fingers, even with the best covers. There’s no such thing as a touch and feel e-book, with furry and fuzzy patches that simulate the baby’s senses. Having a direct interaction with books, not just seeing them held at the parent’s arm length and out of reach, is important for a baby. It builds an inherant affection for books that they’ll carry throughout their lives. Many lovely e-picture books have sounds and animations, but those just aren’t the same, especially for infants.

E-books also don’t have the physical presence in the house that regular books do. While this is a huge advantage when you are traveling or facing a serious lack of shelf space (who, me?), you can never get the sense of being “surrounded by books” as you can with a good family library. It’s been shown that kids that see their parents reading regularly are much more likely to read themselves. I feel that having a physical library reinforces the self-image that “we are a family who values reading and books.” To quote Wondermark, I want Sprout to be a bibliophiban, to breathe books as he does air.

Relatedly, e-books also don’t allow a child to have a personal library, unless you purchase them their own tablet. Despite Amazon’s claim that an Kindle is a perfect Christmas gift for a one-year-old, I disagree. But with board and picture books, Sprout already has a whole bookshelf full of wonderful stories that he enjoys pulling off the shelf on a regular basis. Many of them carry special inscriptions in the front, reminding him of the fact that a gift of a book is a sign of love in our family. With electronic versions, it’s much harder to pass down beloved books. It’s simple to let a child read one, but it lacks the history of worn covers and bent pages that remind you that you were once their age.

I’m glad that in this day of electronic media – which I’m certainly prone to favoring myself – that there’s still a place for physical children’s books. I know reading to him on my lap, watching him turn the pages (even if it’s often backwards), has given me more appreciation for their simple charms.

Book Club: Little Pookie

Book Club is a semi-regular feature on the blog where I reflect on a children’s book (or series) and my personal experiences with it. (Just a note on this one – this is based on three of the five Little Pookie books, but they’re simple enough that I’m guessing the three are fairly representative.)

Sandra Boyton is known for her silly, cute children’s books featuring wide-eyed animals. Although most her books lack a plot or consistent characters, her Little Pookie books dig a bit deeper, presenting a rare portrait of a present, competent modern mom, even if she isn’t human.

The Little Pookie books focus on the relationship between Little Pookie, a young pig, and his mom. (Little Pookie’s gender is never specified, but the clothes are stereotypically male.) In most children’s books, the parents are either absent or ignorant of their children’s goings-on. In contrast, Little Pookie’s mom is present and engaged with the story. In fact, she’s the narrator. The books consist of her conversations with Little Pookie, where she invites him to do something – go to bed, dance, think about who he is – and he responds.

Through these conversations, we see a mom who is a good role model for parents reading the books to their kids. She talks to Little Pookie at his level, with relatively simple language, without talking down to him. She is playful, pretending she doesn’t recognize him when he’s sporting giant sunglasses or knowing where he is when he’s hiding under the sheets. She trusts him to be independent, offering guidance without nagging: “Now you brush your fine teeth and wash your fine nose.” However, she does set limits, illustrated by her counting to three when she wants him to get ready for bed. She encourages creativity and movement, with an entire book of her inviting him to do a silly dance, including a part in “his very own style.” She offers choices and is flexible when he doesn’t quite pick either one. For example, when given two sets of pajamas to choose from, he mixes the top from one with the bottom from the other. She encourages reading, illustrated on the last page of Little Pookie, which shows them reading the very same book together in a clever bit of recursiveness for a board book.

But most importantly, Little Pookie’s mom tells him how much she loves him, sincerely and often. Because parents are often disconnected from the events in children’s books, this message usually isn’t communicated at all. On the other end of the spectrum, some children’s books focus on that message to the exclusion of everything else. As a result, it comes off as forced and saccharine. But the mom’s expressions of love in Little Pookie flow naturally from the rest of the story and relationship.

While I don’t think most parents would look to a pig as a role model, the Little Pookie books offer a surprising amount of insight into a good parent / child relationship. I know I’d enjoy having Sprout and I hang out with her and her adorable piglet.

Parenting: The Ultimate Role Playing Game (RPG)

Text: "Parenting: The Ultimate RPG / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So" Photo: Purple role-playing dice spilling out of a purple bag with white dice next to it

Yes, you’re a nerd if you know what these are for.

Two years ago, I managed the difficult task of becoming an even bigger a nerd then I already was: I started tabletop role-playing. But my group’s campaigns aren’t focused on the battles and die rolling. Instead, they’re improvisational storytelling sessions. You create and dwell in a character, just as you would if you were writing a fictional story. Unlike writing, role playing requires you to be clever on your feet (even if your character isn’t!). So far, I’ve played a young innocent woman running away from court for a life of adventure (Pathfinder) and a socially blunt Nordic blacksmith who has been appointed as a trade guild representative (7th Sea). Because neither of these reflect a lick of my real-life experience it’s forced me to inhabit perspectives very different from my own. Developing this keen empathy for my fictional characters has sharpened my skills for relating to real people, including my son. In fact, creating a character has been good preparation for adopting to my new role as a parent.

To develop a character, you construct a whole person, with their own background and voice. You need consider what she would want in any given situation and respond accordingly. It can be seriously challenging.

But that process was easy compared to my mental and emotional transition to the role of “mommy.” Instead of coming up with a fictional identity, I faced a whole new facet of my own.  Rather than abilities like climbing I could write on a sheet, I suddenly had to learn a list of real skills, from diapering to breastfeeding. My own needs and wants hit me in a barrage of emotion, causing reactions that my old self would have never predicted. I cry at beer commercials! Sometimes I felt like a character in someone else’s life, playing an unfamiliar role.

I ended up handling both challenges with largely the same approach – fake it ’till you make it. I used to hate this idea, feeling that if you can’t do something well that “pretending” was fraudulent. But, I realized there’s simply no other choice. You can’t become familiar with a character until you play them for a while. No one knows what it’s like to be a parent until it happens. At first, it’s totally foreign. But by acting like a “good parent” even when you don’t feel like one, you eventually become one. C.S. Lewis has a good analogy in Mere Christianity, talking the process of becoming a “good Christian.” He explains that we will never reach Jesus’s level of love, but we can “put on his clothes” and practice. Just like little children walking around in their parents’ shoes, we too will grow into the people we need to be.

Courtesy of Cafepress

Courtesy of Catherine Bowers and Cafepress

In addition to helping me take on my new role, gaming has helped me see the world a little more through the eyes of my infant. If he had a character sheet, it would read strength 2, dexterity 1, intelligence 5 (current level of knowledge, not IQ), and charisma 18. While he’s since leveled up in forward locomotion and object manipulation, crying was his sole skill when he was born. Contemplating how much he had to learn – even eating and pooping! – helped me comprehend how overwhelming the world must be. Seeing the world from his perspective has reinforced my patience, even at 2 AM in the morning.

While many people make fun of role players for living in a fantasy world, it’s actually helped me be a better parent in the real one.


Babbling Like a Brook

Sprout has been “talking” a ridiculous amount and I (mostly) love listening to him. Generally, he gets stuck on a noise for a week and then moves on to another one the next week. While he doesn’t yet have words – even as the proudest parent, I’d be fooling myself if I thought so – he definitely communicates. Sometimes he’s communicating through his words and sometimes through his expressions. And sometimes he’s just making noises for fun.

“Creative” babbling runs in my family. When I was a baby, I sounded so confident that some people thought I was actually talking in another language. When one person asked, “Is she speaking another language?” my mom dead-panned, “Yes, Japanese.” Then that person asked, “Really?” resulting in a good chuckle from my mom. It’s worth noting that I’m so white that we joked Sprout would be translucent.

Now, I wish I maintained my knowledge of the secret baby language. Although I can figure out what Sprout wants most of the time, sometimes I’m just baffled. At those times, I turn to him and say, “Little dude, I wish I knew what you were saying, but I don’t speak Baby.” This skill would be particularly useful when he wakes up and whines in the middle of the night. It would be great to know if he’s hungry or his teeth hurt or he just wants to be cuddled.

We’re trying to teach him baby sign language, but he won’t start using it for several more months. Plus, “teaching” him would probably stick a lot better if we did it consistently. The only one I regularly remember is “milk” and he probably won’t be signing until after he stops nursing anyway. At least Chris and I are learning some American Sign Language.

While Sprout has a number of different “expressions,” my favorite is his tendency to say, “blah blah blah.” It’s like he’s making fun of us self-important adults, talking about silly things that aren’t important to babies. It’s very reminiscent of the teacher in Peanuts – wah wah wah. I smile and repeat, “blah blah blah” back to him, knowing that his commentary is probably right.

Although that’s my favorite noise, the funniest is his tendency to make shockingly realistic farting noises. A couple of months ago, he became an expert at blowing raspberries, far better than I’m able to. But in the last few weeks, he’s taken that skill up a notch. Because his uncanny ability to sound like a whoopee cushion is hilarious, our laughter encourages him. Unfortunately, this is coming back to bite us, as he decided to make these rather graphic noises in the middle of church this week. Thankfully, our church is very kid-friendly and no one minded.

Unfortunately, Sprout’s latest noise appears to be shrieking. He isn’t in pain or anything – he’ll shriek and then have a huge grin the next second. Yesterday, he was testing his ability to make noises as loudly and at as high of a pitch as possible. I know he’s trying out his limits, but it’s hideously annoying. I do hope he’ll move on to something else soon.

As generally charming as his noises are now, I can’t wait until he starts talking. If he’s funny now, I’m sure he’ll be hilarious once I can actually understand him.

He Holds the Whole World on His Back

The Sleep Turtle is our bedtime friend.

I started the world’s slowest sleep training routine several months ago. We’ve worked up to Sprout falling asleep in my arms without nursing or rocking. However, he would only do so after squirming and crying for a good 15 minutes. Listening to him cry and getting whacked in the arm and chest were both pretty painful.

About a week and a half ago, the idea came to me to let him play in his crib with the Sleep Turtle before sitting down with him. We had introduced the Sleep Turtle (a stuffed nightlight that projects stars on the ceiling) at the beginning of the sleep training as a transitory toy. However, I only let it play for a couple of minutes before putting it away and picking him up. With this new approach, I left him in his crib with the Turtle and sat down on the nearby chair. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t fall asleep on his own. Instead, he played with it for 10 minutes before he started to cry. But the real benefit came once I picked him up. While there was a bit of squirming and whining, he passed out in only a few minutes. It was clear that the turtle helped him calm his busy, ever-engaged mind and body. It’s been working well – with a few exceptions – ever since.

While there are versions of the same nightlight that use other animals, I find the Turtle a particularly appropriate choice. Several cosmologies, including Native American, Hindu, and Chinese traditions portray the universe as balanced on the back of a World Turtle. The idea of stars streaming out of the back of a turtle – even if they’re shifting between green, orange, and purple – is magical. Those stars transport the whole universe into your room, bringing something so distant close and intimate. 

In fact, sitting in that dark bedroom with him, it feels as if the whole universe is right there in that little space. As if only the whole world would be okay if only he’d fall sleep. These moments block everything else in my life out, that little bundle of needs demanding my full attention.

The World Turtle reminds me of the story of an old woman at an astronomy lecture. Afterwards, she told the lecturer that she believed the world rested on the back of a turtle, to which the scientist said, “What is the tortoise standing on?” In response, she states, “It’s turtles all the way down!” While most people use the phrase to refer to the infinite regress problem (“the chicken or the egg”), Real Live Preacher, one of my favorite bloggers ever, uses it to talk about faith. Faith is knowing that everything you do balances precariously on the back of a turtle and another turtle and another turtle – and that’s okay. He says, “Faith is measured breathing in the face of uncertainty. Faith is turning your heart to faithful living when your mind has reached the end of its rope. Faith is the choice you make when you face the darkness.” Parenting is the most uncertain, challenging, and sometimes dark thing I’ve ever done. I’ve needed more faith in myself and God as a mother than I’ve ever had in my life. I rely on faith in my skills even when I don’t feel like there’s proof. I rely on faith that I am doing the best I can. I rely on faith that love is really enough. The world may rest on the back of a turtle, but in parenthood, it’s love all the way down.

Goodnight, my Sleep Turtle. At bedtime, my son’s little world – and therefore mine – rests on your back.

Goin’ Mobile

Sprout is on the move! As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, he’s scooting backwards, although he’s closer to crawling backwards now. He can actually go in circles and most of the way across the house if we let him. Unlike when he stayed where we put him, he’s now giving us a perspective into what the world looks like from a baby’s point of view.

For one, it reminds me of what a luxury movement is. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never been immobile for a long period of time as an adult. In contrast, this is all totally new to him. The first time Sprout moved on his own, he looked surprised, wondering, “Why can’t I reach my toy that was in front of me?” The confusion turned to mild alarm when he first realized he wouldn’t be able to see us soon if he kept moving. By this point, he knows that we’ll return even if he doesn’t see us. But he had never been the one choosing to not be in the same vicinity as us. As he scooted into the hallway, we waved goodbye, giggling at the adorableness of his newfound freedom. If he was worried about leaving our view, he didn’t have any time to consider it – we promptly went to pick him up the minute he disappeared around the corner.

Now that he has the ability to explore on his own, it’s also much easier for him to investigate what’s interesting to him. Needless to say, it’s not what we as adults are interested in or would choose for him to be interested in. He still does enjoy his toys, which Chris places strategically around the room. That way, when Sprout is scooting, he can play with the toys as he encounters them.

But besides his toys, he’s very interested in the physical make-up of our living room and his bedroom. Edges of things seem to be particularly fascinating, including the edge of the carpet, the moulding on the wall, and the gaps in our hardwood floorboards. I think the contrasting textures and how these spaces transition from one type of object to another interests him. Plus, it’s apparently really fun to look under the rug. He’s also fascinated by objects that hold other objects, like bags and boxes. We keep our fleece blankets in a fabric box and he loves pulling at the blankets and the box. Similarly, we keep his toys in a bag and he thinks its more interesting to pull toys out of the bag than play with the toys themselves. Watching those gears in his head turn as he realizes that objects are actually separate from each other – a concept adults take for granted – is really fun.

I know that once Sprout is able to crawl and then walk, there will be no stopping him. (Unless we pick him up.) For now, I love just sitting on the floor and watch him take his first tentative moves towards being independent.

Milestones to Milestones

The books make it sound as if baby milestones are obvious, when often they are anything but. Sprout’s path to various milestones has been unpredictable and the ambiguity sometimes makes me twitchy.

Sometimes, it’s unclear if he’s reached a milestone at all. Is he really sitting up if he supports himself with his hands? (Yes.) If he rolled from his front to his back when he was two months old several times but hasn’t for months, does that count? (Sort of? He did eventually do it again.) What if he’s so close to crawling that it seems immenent but he’s just missing one little piece? (No.) And how on earth am I supposed to tell if his vocalizations are consonant / vowel combinations or not? Does any baby outside of comics actually say, “Ah-goo?” (No idea still.)

Milestones can also be unpredictable in their timing. One week, Sprout was hardly putting weight on his feet. The next, he could stand on his own while holding on to something. I’m not entirely certain he wasn’t practicing in secret. Now, despite being able to stand with support for months, he hasn’t shown any signs of trying to pull himself up to standing.

The route to get to some milestones has been rather circuitous. Rather than crawling, Sprout has taken to scooting. But he only moves backwards! He leans back on his knees, as if he’s about to crawl. He then kicks his legs back, pushes his arms, and slides across the hardwood floor. It’s very funny to watch. I figure he’ll either start crawling soon or get really good at going backwards. In fact, he already looks behind him before he starts moving.

And then other milestones come as a complete and utter shock. On Monday, Chris was frustrated that Sprout wasn’t drinking much from the bottle. Every time Chris broke Sprout’s latch to adjust the pressure, Sprout would bat at it. Yesterday, Chris realized he wasn’t trying to grab it for himself – he was trying to push it towards Chris! When Chris took a couple of pretend sips, Sprout thought it was fantastic and then was willing to drink from it again. Chris may have been seeing things in an overly optimistic light, but certainly seemed like he was trying to share with his daddy! It’s possible Chris misinterpreted his actions, but if Sprout was trying to share, I guess he’s got a better grasp on that non-possessiveness concept than I realized.

Watching Sprout soak up experiences and exhibit new behaviors is exhilarating. I don’t have to worry; I just need to watch in wonder.

My Baby as Yoga Teacher

To get better at yoga, I could learn a lot from my baby. I’ve been reading the excellent, Kickstarter-funded book, Pedal, Stretch, Breathe. In it, the author walks cycling and yoga enthusiasts through yoga’s philosophical foundations. While I’ve been taking yoga classes for a long time, I’ve never explored the philosophical side of the practice. I don’t agree with all of it, but a lot of the principles serve as good areas of self-improvement. As I read, I realized how effortlessly Sprout embodies many of these principles. (Although there are a few to work on!)

Contentment (santosha): Sprout is an extraordinarily even-tempered baby. Ever since he was born, he’s only cried when he needed something specific. He sometimes gets whiny if he’s tired, but it’s miles away from the fussiness that a lot of infants display. And when he’s happy, his smile is radiant.

Non-violence (ahimsa): Sprout doesn’t know anger or meanness yet, so he doesn’t know intentional violence. But it doesn’t mean that he can’t hurt someone – I have scratches on my chest to prove it. As he gets older, we’ll work to teach him that not all violence is on purpose, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt. (Or as the bloggers say, “Intent Isn’t Magic.”)

Truthfulness (satya): Sprout hasn’t developed the ability to lie or deceive. Nor does he understand the idea of someone being insincere towards him. He has no frame of reference for it, taking in the world as it presents itself to him. I am a truthful person, but even I can be cynical or fib to myself or others. Sprout is as exactly as he presents himself. If only we could all be so open and honest with ourselves and each other.

Non-stealing (asteya): He’s managed to steal a lot of my sleep. But then, I willingly give it, so is it really stealing?

Moderation (brahmacharya): Sprout generally takes what he needs, never more, never less (except for sleep). I suspect this will change rapidly with toddlerdom (“I want all of the toys!”), but we’ll deal with that issue as it emerges.

Non-possessiveness (aparigraha): I suspect that Sprout thinks everything belongs to him, including my hair. We’ll start working on this when we introduce the concept of sharing.

Cleanliness (saucha): Ha. Yeah, no.

Heat, fire and dedication (tapas): Babies are passionate about learning; they’re built for it and it takes up most of their time while awake. It’s amazing to watch him work so hard to do something that seems so simple, like reaching for a toy. It’s a good thing he’s dedicated to gaining these skills – he has a lot to learn!

Self-study (svadhyana): Sprout is constantly in the process of self-study. While most adults take their bodies for granted and know their limits, he simply doesn’t. One day he can’t sit up, the next day he can! As such, he’s constantly testing what his body can do. Now that he’s started some locomotion, I think this exploration will become even more exciting. I expect a few face-plants along the way.

Surrender (ishvara pranidhana): As anyone who has ever taken care of a newborn knows, they are a bundle of needs. They are completely dependent on you, whether they want to be or not. From my perspective, I’ve learned how important it is to ask for help. I’ve also learned that as a parent you have to surrender your sense of control; there will be times when you have no idea why something is happening, much less how to fix it. (I have never said, “I don’t know what to do!” in desperation more times in my life than during the last seven months.)

Although it isn’t one of the official yamas or niyamas, I’ve always associated the idea of being fully “in the moment” and aware of the world around you with yoga. Since the day he was born, Sprout has been extraordinarily observant. He is constantly watching and listening intently to what is going on around him. And he’s taught me to do the same. When I play with him, I’m fully engaged like I am in few other activities. As someone who constantly worries about “what comes next,” it’s a beautiful experience to interact with my baby who so lives in the so here-and-now.

Besides all of that, he does a mean baby cobra and happy baby.