Monday, July 30, 2012

Opportunities for learning abound

I've bragged before that my son is a smart cookie, and to set the stage for this post I'm going to brag some more. By 16 months Evan knew all his letters, could count to 10, had a vocabulary of literally hundreds of words, could apply abstract concepts to real-lilfe objects, and has a memory like a steel trap. I'd like to say that he is this way because I'm a super-mega-awesome mom and I fill his little brain with all this knowledge and deserve a big ol' pat on the back — but that's not true. He was born with some very special gifts, and nothing I do or don't do can take away from that. I am just really a proud mama and am in awe of the amazing things he does and learns so quickly.

Now, having said that, it's still not the whole truth. Because I know my son has a natural aptitude for learning and understanding complex things at a young age, I work very hard at building on that. I consider it a great honor to have an intelligent child, and I also feel a great responsibility to nurture that intellect.

But still, I don't take it to an extreme. I don't have lesson plans or flash cards, and truth be told I probably don't challenge him as much as I should. Instead, I've realized that the opportunities for teaching and learning are everywhere. That's what we focus on.

Like so many kids his age, Evan is a sponge, absorbing anything and everything around him. There's really no need for flash cards with toddlers, because practically everything in their world is new and exciting and sparks their curiosity. Instead of stressing about structured learning, take the time to explain things as you're doing them, or encourage your children to explore and try new things. You will be delighted by the connections they make and the things they come up with, and you will be inspired to find more ways to light up their little minds.

One of Evan's favorite games: Does it sink or does it float?

Here are some great ways to get your child learning without cracking a book. They may not be able to recite their alphabet or identify hexagons now, but these lessons are being filed away and not forgotten.

ABC's and 123's:

Counting: Although learning to count is a somewhat by-rote experience, children will understand that numbers have values when they see objects being counted instead of just hearing numbers recited. Count out loud when you're divvying up snacks, climbing steps, sorting the dishes, or stacking blocks.

Colors: Identify colors wherever you see them. For example, attach a color (and adjectives) to the name of common objects: big blue truck, yellow block, soft, brown monkey. Give your child a chance to identify colors in the choices they make, like, "Do you want to wear the blue shoes or the brown shoes?"

Letters: In addition to reading to your children (often!), draw attention to letters when you're out and about. Focus on one letter at a time ("Look, that sign has an 'S' on it!") or when something big catches their eye. This is also a great way to distract kids in the car or the store when they're getting cranky: "Can you find me a letter B?" This also works with colors and shapes.

Shapes: Our everyday objects are all made up of simple shapes, which makes the discovery of these shapes in everyday life more exciting. In addition to playing with shape blocks, point out similar shapes when you're unloading the dishwasher ("That plate is a square"), putting away toys ("That football looks like an oval"), and heading outside ("That stop sign is an octagon. It has 8 sides to it.")

Textures: Sensory play is especially important for babies, but with toddlers' burgeoning communication skills, identifying textures by name takes it to the next level. Try naming textures in the grocery store ("That pineapple is scratchy"), when folding laundry ("Your socks are so fuzzy"), and playing outside ("That sidewalk feels hard"). Soon you'll be able to ask: "Does that slide feel smooth or scratchy?" Your toddler will get a kick out of being able to know the answer.

Life Skills:

Making decisions: Like most humans, a child's level of confidence is related to how much others respect and approve of their decisions. Even though giving a toddler the reins seems like a suicide mission, in the long run it will help them be confident in their decisions and themselves and encourage bravery and independence. Not only should you give your children limited choices ("Do you want to eat oatmeal or eggs for breakfast?" or, "Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?"), you should praise your children for making decisions ("That was a good choice") so they learn to trust themselves. You can also build on this confidence by challenging your toddler to push a little out of their comfort zone, then praising them with phrases like, "I knew you could do it."

Responsibility: Teaching responsibility is a lifelong task. When it comes down to it, it's one of the most important roles of parenthood. It's never too early to start. Have routines, rules and consequences so that children learn that life has boundaries and we all play a role in making things run smoothly. When there are hard-and-fast rules, it makes it easier for us as parents to both enforce the rules and encourage good behavior, because these rules — and the consequences for breaking them — will always remain constant. Rules like, "We always pick up toys before we go to bed," "We wash hands before/after we eat," and "If you throw your book I will take it away," are easily understood and enforced.

Empathy: Empathy is a skill that is, sadly, fading away. We live in a me-first world, but that doesn't mean that your children have to follow their generation. When you show children that everyone has emotions, good and bad, and that we can be sensitive to others and help them feel better, you are not only empowering them to reach out and be kind, you just might be changing the world. Empathy is not that hard of a skill to learn when you start early. Point out emotions in others ("The baby is sad," "Mommy gets mad when you pull a tantrum"), talk your child through their own emotions ("You are mad that I took away the ball," "You were scared when you couldn't find Mommy"), and help them calm down ("Let's have a cuddle until you feel happy again," "Let's take some big breaths until the mad goes away"). Above all, practice empathy yourself ("I understand, you really want a cookie," "I know you feel mad, it makes me mad too") and model appropriate behavior for your own emotions ("I am so mad I need to stomp my feet," "I feel sad, can you give me a hug?"). Not only are they crucial emotions to teach your child, but it may help you be in touch with your own and motivate you to keep your negative emotions in check.

Enriching young minds:

Asking questions: The best way for a person to learn something is to allow them to find the answers themselves. Asking questions instead of simply explaining everything is a great way to give your child the chance to participate and be creative with their responses ("What will happen if...?" "What do horses eat?"). For young children, giving them the choice between two options can build this skill while still filling them with knowledge ("Is the sky blue or orange?").

Open-ended play: I could write an entire post on "Heuristic" play, which is defined as "offering a group of children, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment, a large number of different kinds of objects and receptacles with which they play freely without adult intervention." Since I'm no expert on the subject I'll just hope that you read up on it, but I will say this: Toys are not the only things that are toys. Children learn so much when they are given an object and their imaginations are allowed to wander, because discovery is a far better teacher than any instructor could ever be. Let your little ones rummage through the kitchen utensils, give them a bunch of empty boxes, let them play in the sand and the dirt and the rocks. This is where their neural pathways are ignited and grow, so let them.

This is, of course, far from an all-inclusive list, but hopefully it will inspire you to try something a little different. So what are your ideas? What have you done with your children that has taught them far more than any flash card?


An article on heuristic play
The Imagination Tree
Play at Home Mom
Growing Play
Kid Activities board on Pinterest

Monday, July 9, 2012

Are you a stay-at-home mom or a full-time mom?

I have so many things I've been wanting to blog about, but this one topic keeps coming back to mind. I've started and stopped posts about it several times, but I just can't seem to get it right. It is such an important issue to me, but there is just so much to be said about it that I just can't make the words come out right.

The heart of the issue is, I am happy and proud to be a stay-at-home mom. I never knew that life could be this good! I never knew I could feel so centered, calm, and happy. When I made the decision to quit the daily grind a year ago, I thought I could never be as fulfilled and challenged as I could be in a really good career position. I am so happy to report that I was wrong — dead wrong.

And yet still, the title of "stay-at-home mom" is misunderstood and the role is drastically undervalued. Even the phrase it self — stay-at-home — seems to undercut the role, suggesting the archetypal trailer park mom who lounges in a bathrobe and curlers, eating bon bons and watching soap operas all day.

To me, the phrase "stay-at-home mom" implies that mothers are locking themselves away and simply letting the world pass them by. In many ways that may be true; in fact, it sure feels like it some days. And although many may look down upon this aspect, it is where I've found my greatest sense of peace.

Frankly, I am tired of trying to keep pace with the world. There are so many mixed messages out there, especially for women. We are told that we can have it all, be it all, and do it all — and be glamorously fabulous all the while. I don't know about you, but simply reading that wears me out.

I am tired of trying to be everything to everyone. In all my years in the workforce, I always felt like I had to prove myself every single day. No matter how skilled or accomplished I was, it never felt like I was taken seriously or even really appreciated. I busted my buns all day every day, and I rarely had anything to show for it. Not only that, but by the time I finished at work, there wasn't much of me left. I was exhausted, stressed, depleted, practically demoralized. I doubt I was a great wife or a good friend, or even a great mother. I used everything good I had trying to work toward someone else's bottom line, toward some boss or manager or CEO's definition of success. At the end of the day, I had nothing left for the people in my life who matter most.

For years I thought this depletion was my fault — like I wasn't trying hard enough or working smart enough, or that I just plain didn't have the resources (emotional and mental) to cut it in the workforce. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. Either way, it all boils down to this: I was putting all my capital into an investment that never, ever paid off.

In light of this confession, it may sound like my choice to become a stay-at-home mom was one of those "by default" decisions. Let me assure you it wasn't. I still had the fight in me, and I wanted to keep at it until I found that mythical measure of success I kept chasing. But as you can see from my earlier post, "Why I became a full-time mom," eventually my good sense prevailed. I chose to quit the daily grind to focus on what's really important: My family and my son, who desperately needed me to be at my best.

I'm not going to lie: After the first few weeks of bliss, reality hit — hard. I came off that summer break feeling after about six weeks, and suddenly I was left to really face the stresses of caring for a small child day in, day out, all alone for nearly 11 hours a day. And it was ROUGH.

Some days it was all I could do not to run screaming from the house. There was a time when I cried, every day, for about a month straight. I was lonely, I felt unprepared, and I truly believed what society wanted me to believe: that the world was passing me by.

But then I got tough. I knew that I had made the absolute right decision for me, and I knew that it was the path that my Father in Heaven wanted me to take. Most of all, despite the stress and sorrow I was feeling, I could see the difference it was making in my son and my marriage. And so I got clever and started to face my new lifestyle for what it was: the career of a lifetime.

I read parenting books and magazines for techniques, I cruised blogs and Pinterest for play-at-home ideas, and — perhaps most importantly — I sought help. I sent Evan to the babysitter once a week or so, and I enlisted the help of family to ease the burden when I couldn't carry it. I'll admit I had my reservations and found myself feeling guilty for dumping my troubles on someone else, but that was proven wrong, too. The people in my life love my son, and they obviously love me enough to help me out. They want me to succeed, and they are helping me do it. This was one of the best things I have done as a full-time parent: giving myself permission to admit I can't do it all, and let others help.

I also spend more time out of the house. I devise an outing every single day, whether it's extravagant (a trip to the aquarium), exhausting (a trip to the park), or necessary (a trip to the grocery store). I also spend a lot of time hanging out at my parents' house. My dad is retired and I think we both enjoy the company as well as the break from our somewhat solitary lives, especially in the winter. And I made a good friend nearby, another stay-at-home mom who will commiserate and be just as thrilled as I am to sit in the backyard and whine while our kids run around like banshees. The point is, I don't actually stay at home. I shake it up a bit. The variety does both me and my son a world of good.

But perhaps the best thing I've done is, like I said, treat this for what it is: a job. I even call it that — I am no longer a stay-at-home mom, I am a full-time mom. This is my calling and my career, and I take it seriously. I am not just here as an empty presence, keeping my kid fed and out of mortal danger. I am his caretaker, his teacher, and his friend. I take the time first thing in the morning to sit, cuddle, and read to him every day. I not only enforce the rules but I take the time to teach him why rules are important — and I go through the agony of enforcing time-outs when he breaks those rules so that he understands that actions have consequences. I take the time to plan games and activities to spark his curiosity and build his skills. I make sure that I stop what I'm doing and look into his eyes when he is upset. I address his emotions, I talk through the problems, and I try to explain what is happening or has happened. He may not always understand, but he is learning that he is important to me and that I will always comfort him when he needs it.

These are just some of the things that take up my day, and I've been wanting to blog about each and every one of them. Soon I will, but already this post has gotten away from me. The point is, even though what I really want to do is sit on the couch and watch "What Not to Wear" all day, I don't. That's not my job. Being a mother is. And when I put forth this great effort to be patient, to nurture, to have fun and play and see the world through my child's eyes, I am more happy and fulfilled than I've ever been in my 30 years on this planet.

Yes, the world may be passing me by, but I say let it. Let the hustle and bustle consume everyone else. Let me be here, really and truly present, for all my son's discoveries and stages and even tantrums. What matters to me now is not someone else's bottom line. What matters to me is this precious soul that was entrusted to me the minute I became his mother. Being here, at home, with him and with my husband is where I am supposed to be. This is where my emotional and physical energy need to be spent. This is where I matter most, where my value truly shines through. This is the investment that will not only pay off, it will exceed my expectations every single time.

I am so blessed. I hope you feel this way too. I realize that many mothers work out of necessity, and that the thing they want more than anything in the world is to be where I am. My sympathies are truly with you, because I know how torn you feel. Just take confidence in the fact that you are doing the best you can to support your family. If you're not, then re-assess your life and decide what really matters to you. What's important is that you do the right thing for your family, and that is different for everyone.

But for all you moms in the trenches with me who are struggling with this lifestyle, take heart. You are not struggling alone, and what you do does matter. Decide right here and now to never be ashamed of your decision. It is noble, it is good, and it is so very important to the little people in your life.

So the next time you find yourself saying, apologetically, "I'm a stay-at-home mom," stop. Lift your head high, smile, and say, "I am a full-time mom, and I am damn good at my job."