Category Archives: Parenting

The Reading Road

Last year, I started a game with my kids called the Book Can Contest. It was an incentive to read. They both love books, but our busy life and technology always seemed to get in the way of a good book.

I admit, that although I consider myself to be an avid reader, I wasn’t exactly setting the right example for my kids. We read bedtime stories every night and sometimes even sit down with a book mid-afternoon, but I wasn’t doing much reading of my own. My kids rarely, if ever, saw me reading my own books. (I tend to read in bed before going to sleep.)

In this age of technology, screens, too many toys, and way too much distraction, the way to raise a reader is to read to them, with them, and on your own in front of them.

It was probably a lot easier to establish a reading habit—and therefore a love of books—when I was a kid because my parents had less to contend with. There were fewer things competing for my attention.

This generation of kids needs a very clear example and lots of guidance to get them to the same state of book loving.

Enter the Book Can Contest.

When we did this last year, every time my kids read a book, they got to fill out a ballot to put in the Book Can—a can I decorated with pictures of books and sayings from our favourite books. I’m a book geek. What can I say?

On the ballot, they would record the name of the book, their name and the date they read the book. For Big Sister who is into reading novels, she would also record the chapter that she had read. (One full chapter qualified for a ballot. The objective was to get them to read of their own accord, so small successes were celebrated. We worked our way up from there.)

On Friday mornings, we would draw a ballot from the can and the winner would get a prize. The more you read, the more ballots you had in the can and the more chances you had at winning the prize. My husband and I got involved, too, which made the competition a little more interesting.

Prizes included a new book, 30 minutes with Mommy to do whatever the winner wanted, same deal with Daddy, winner’s choice for dinner, 30 minutes of TV during the week, a chocolate bar, free pass on a chore, a trip to the dollar store with $2 to spend, dessert during the week, staying up late one day on the weekend, a lollipop, among other things.

We tried to come up with prizes that didn’t add more “stuff” to our lives. Experiences, free passes on chores and screen time (my kids get very little to begin with), decisions they weren’t usually in charge of making; these were the things we wanted to encourage them with. Your imagination is the limit when it comes to these kinds of prizes and the possibilities are endless.

To make the prize fair, I also wrote all the prize options on ballots and put them in a separate bag. Whoever won the Book Can Contest that week would then get to draw the prize for next week’s contest. We posted all this on the wall above our kitchen table so that it was visible all the time (a great reminder).

We had fun reading and winning for about five months, but then contest fatigue set in and we missed the draw a couple of weeks in a row. Then summer came and life became less routine and more relaxed. And that was the end of the Book Can Contest.

I was sad to see it go, but sometimes we have to move onto the next best thing.

For a while, we didn’t have a reading incentive—and that’s not a bad thing. Both my kids love books. One’s a reader already and the other one is in the phase of grasping reading concepts like letter combinations and decoding and that words represent visuals and are used to tell a story. He’s doing really great at it. No sense rushing him through this phase.

It can be such a fun phase if you allow the time for it. He loves to tell me about the stories he has “read” and though he describes them mostly the same every time, his powers of observation are slightly more improved or different each day and sometimes the story he tells from the book he has “read” is more elaborate and detailed because he has noticed some new thing in its pages. But generally speaking, he’s telling the story that is actually depicted in the pages of his book. Actually reading the words will follow closely on the heals of this step. But I’ll miss this phase once he can read. We are having so much fun telling stories from the pictures!

With his new-found appreciation of books and stories, he recently suggested that we revive the Book Can Contest to track how much we were reading. I thought maybe we should try a new incentive game or chart. So, I came up with the Reading Road chart.

The Reading Road is a picture I drew (very crudely in Microsoft Paint) that looks like a road, and along the road there are lines on which to record the titles of the books one is reading. The reader starts at the beginning of the road and works his or her way to the end of the road. Once there, the reader is entitled to a prize set out at the beginning of the reading journey. Because my kids love books so much, they usually choose a new book as their prize.

It has really taken off. I also plan to use the Reading Road charts to encourage reading on specific topics. We’re big into our local library and visit a couple times a week at least. Often, a particular topic catches Big Sister or Little Brother’s interest and we’ll stock up on books that feed that interest.

What sometimes happens, though, is the books will come home and get put in our library pile and only a few will be read (the ones they like the most). Despite encouragement from me, the other books will languish in the pile until their return date. By using the Reading Road chart, there is an incentive to read all of the books they picked out on that particular topic at the library. I know it’s not a big deal if a book is borrowed from the library and not devoured voraciously, but to me it’s akin to buying food and letting it rot in the fridge. Why would you do that? My motto is: if you’re not going to use it, don’t take it.

So here’s what we use to track our reading (and practice our penmanship for those of us still in the early learning stages):

reading road chart

Here’s the PDF of the Reading Road Chart. Feel free to use it for your kids. If you do use it, let me know how it goes in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter. Use the hashtag #LTOReadingRoad.

Happy reading!

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Life’s Routine or My Routine?

Ah, routine. It happens. Sometimes it’s a routine that we fall into and it works, so we run with it. Sometimes it’s a routine that we try to set up and it doesn’t work, so we scrap it.

Either way, routine happens.

Take, for example, our current morning routine. I get up before the kids, do what I need to do, then I wake them up. I always allow time for snuggles before they get out of bed (and if I’m lucky and one of them has snuck into bed with the other at some point through the night, I can snuggle both of them at the same time and make sure that no one is left out or that one doesn’t get more time than the other). They are close enough in age that their sleep requirements are about the same and they go to bed within a half hour of each other and wake up around the same time together. This simplifies things. It wasn’t part of the plan, but it has worked out nicely and I’ll take it with a giant dollop of gratitude.

Then we all head to the kitchen for breakfast. After breakfast, we tidy up the kitchen and head back upstairs to get dressed and ready for school. This can sometimes take half an hour. There will inevitably be fights over who gets to use the bathroom first, how much time there is for play before getting dressed, whether or not we’re walking or driving to the bus stop, etc. But generally, if I plan right and allow enough time for them to move themselves through their morning routine, they manage themselves fairly well. (And isn’t it all about teaching them those executive function skills so that they can manage themselves and won’t always expect me to do it for them?)

Our morning routine is something that just kind of happened. Obviously, I had to originally do some planning to get them up and out the door for school (and in my current, somewhat disabled state, the help of my parents is mostly what gets us through our morning routine), but this is the routine that we have fallen into and the one that works (right now):

  1. Mom gets up first and completes basic morning prep (mostly sitting for five minutes in a mindful state, splashing cold water on face to wake up, brushing hair, getting dressed)
  2. Wake kids up and have a morning snuggle (this reconnects us after a night apart in our own beds)
  3. Head down for breakfast, eat and tidy up together
  4. Head back upstairs to dress and get ready for school
  5. Head back downstairs to pack lunches and school bags
  6. Head out the door

The thing about routine, though, is that sometimes it needs to change. I had to let go of our old way of doing things when I realized (after way too long) that it wasn’t working for us.

I used to get up at the same time as the kids and insist that they get dressed before they ate breakfast. After breakfast, I would send them upstairs to brush their teeth and wash up while I packed lunches and school bags. That turned out to be a stressful routine for us. I was constantly yelling up the stairs for them to hurry up. They weren’t taking responsibility for their school bags (and really, they are the best ones for that because how do I know what books are supposed to go back to school and which ones can stay home on any given day?) So I let go.

And we floated for a bit, without a routine. It was a bit chaotic, and my condition and the extra adult or two in the house were also contributing factors to the floating, but the extra help made it easy to float and to slowly, intentionally drift toward another routine that could work.

We ended up landing in a nice, comfortable routine that is working…for now. It’s comfortable, safe and works well for everyone.

I remember when Little Brother was about five months old. I caught him napping in his baby rocking chair a few mornings in a row at around the same time each day. I remember being surprised that he seemed to dose off at precisely 10am morning after morning and wondered how I could have missed this napping routine that he had created for himself. So I started taking him out of his chair just before 10am and putting him in his crib in his bedroom. And sure enough, he’d fall asleep in his crib at precisely 10am and he would sleep until about 11:30am every morning.

Of course, that napping routine didn’t last forever (and I was very sad when he gave up his morning nap), but it was a routine that we enjoyed for many months and was one that I didn’t force or try to create to suit me. It just worked.

And that’s the point, I think, with routines. Routines are necessary, especially for children. They create a sense of knowing what’s coming next. But in order for them to be effective, they have to be kind of natural. Forcing a routine has never worked in our house. All it has done is forced me to re-evaluate the reason and need for that particular routine.

So now, we let routines show themselves and then we intentionally and lovingly slip into them until they no longer fit. We’re trying hard not to hang onto old routines once they are worn out and no longer useful and we are all happier because of it.

On Struggling

There has been a lot of struggling at our house lately. I’m struggling with recovery from surgery, lack of contact with others, exhaustion, feeling like I’m not in control, feeling left out. Big Sister is struggling with math and, well, math. Little Brother is struggling with being at a new school and learning new rules. Husband, well, I’m not positive what he’s struggling with. He’s the strong, silent type. Maybe he’s struggling with lack of sleep because he’s the one the kids go to while I’m in surgery recovery mode.

It has been about seven weeks since my surgery. I’ve had six different casts, five trips to the hospital for surgery follow-up and foot repositioning, and 52 days of a life that doesn’t look much like the one I’m used to. But I’m told that I have excellent coping skills and I think I’ve adapted pretty well to this new (and hopefully temporary) version of my life. Knowing all that (and reminding myself of it constantly) still doesn’t make the hard days any easier.

It’s very easy to slip into blame mode when the rest of my family struggles. It’s all the fault of my foot. I am up and about and thankfully not confined to bed (anymore), but it’s surprisingly hard to help a struggling child when you can’t get up off a chair and walk over to them, put your arms around them and comfort them. How do you convince a child to come to you for a hug when all they want to do is run away? Words have been used in ways that I used to use gestures and physical contact, but sometimes the words are not as effective. And patience has been practiced more in this house in the last 52 days. A silver lining, I suppose.

From struggles come lessons.

I’ve been reading a book lately called School Struggles, by Dr. Richard Selznick. It’s a guide to helping your child break through the shut-down learner mentality and achieving success in school. It has helped me immensely to understand Big Sister’s struggles with math. I’m not great yet at applying the lessons learned from the book, but Dr. Selznick’s message has given me different approaches for helping her.

A growth mindset

See that little word up there? That little “yet”? That’s my new favourite word. I read an article somewhere recently about how this mom was using “yet” at the end of every negative phrase that she heard her children utter. So she hears her son yell from amongst a pile of LEGO in the living room, “I can’t build this LEGO spaceship!” She recognizes the frustration in his voice, but she’s busy making supper and can’t rush to his aid (nor should she, because what will he learn if she does?). So she yells back, “Yet!” She’s been doing this whenever an “I can’t” phrase is said in her house and she’s turning it around.

I’ve started doing it, too. And when helping Big Sister with her nightly math struggle homework, and she screams says, “I can’t do this!” I follow up with “yet”. It’s a tiny thing, a tiny little word, but I think it’s working. It’s putting the idea in her head that almost everything is a struggle and you just have to persevere. A little hard work, some help from an understanding (and calm) adult, and she can do it.

Some math issues are bigger than we can handle together, though, and that’s where Dr. Selznick’s book has been particularly helpful. Though written for and about the American education system, many of the principles apply to Canadian education and it has encouraged me to seek help for Big Sister even though she’s not struggling enough by the school’s standards to qualify for special help.

I’ve always wanted to be the help that gets my kids through, but after so much time spent in hellish battles with red-eyed, purple-winged, hairy number and equation demons frustrating-for-everyone-including-Little-Brother homework sessions, I recognize that it is time to seek outside help.

cat_math_problem

I struggle with this. I want to be the one with her when she has that Aha! moment. I want to help her break through this shut-down learner mentality and realize how wonderful learning is, whether it’s learning about math or words or science or emotions. But my own struggles have taught me that I am too close to her math struggles to be honestly helpful.

I seem to have spent a great deal of time on how Big Sister’s and my struggles have intertwined here of late. Little Brother is also struggling. He’s at a new school (Big Sister’s school, finally!) and he has to make new friends and learn new classroom rules (because every teacher does it differently). For the most part, he has adjusted nicely. He’s learning a new language this year, too. He comes home each day singing the new songs he has learned in French. (If there’s a way to get this kid to learn, it’s through music. And really, who can blame him for choosing that route to knowledge?) But his struggle is with rules. He wants to build and experiment and figure things out. And, unfortunately, there’s not a lot of time for that in classrooms today. The big focus in class from what I can tell is on literacy—letter recognition, reading and writing. He has a great teacher who does allow for more “figuring things out” time, but this is what he wants to spend his whole day doing, and the materials he wants to use are locked in a cupboard for when the teacher can supervise their use.

Getting used to the rules

It will take some adjustment, and there will be days when school will seem unbearable to Little Brother because it’s not how he wants his day to go. But he will struggle through it, and from the struggle he will learn the lesson that we can’t always have things the way we want them. Sometimes we have to conform and follow the rules of the class lest there be chaos. (But really, what’s wrong with a little chaos every now and then? It helps stretch the soul.) I struggle with his sadness that school isn’t fantastic for him. I struggle with wanting to pull him out and show him the world from home in a safe and free-flowing learning environment. This is my biggest struggle.

I can cope with the surgery recovery. I can manage the physical pain. I can adapt to new limitations and new-found abilities that come from limitations. But my biggest struggle is watching my kids slowly shut down because school is taking all the joy out of their learning.

And for now, I will continue to struggle.

2 kids being helpful

Because Helping Should Come Naturally

Before I had surgery that took me off my feet, I wondered sometimes how my kids would survive in the world. It was evident that they were capable of doing many things, but do those things they did not.

I’ll jump in and take almost full responsibility here.

To move things along in the morning (and in the evening, and throughout the day), I made their breakfast, packed their lunches, packed their school bags, practically dressed them, guided them through with repeated instruction the process of brushing their teeth, washing their faces, and going to the bathroom.

I would talk to my husband constantly about how capable the kids were but how they just wouldn’t do it themselves.

And then there were those golden times when I had some miraculously unending stream of patience and a bright and cheery disposition to go along with it. I would step back and watch my kids blossom into their permitted independence.

Then life would take over and we’d be back to me following them around and hounding reminding them about getting ready for school, their chores, picking up after themselves, helping out around the house, etc.

But all that had to change. And we were facing a deadline for that change: My late summer surgery date.

Having that deadline changed things for me. I wasn’t going to be able to do half of what I usually could for myself, let alone for my kids. So, I needed to figure it out. And the impending surgery gave my kids something to shoot for.

So we began summer training. I did my best to keep my comments to myself when I saw one of my kids doing something their way instead of mine. And I made sure to build in lots of time for everything I was asking them to do. That way, there was less chance that I would get frustrated with their slower pace because time was not bearing down on us.

I created space for my kids to grow their independence; like planting a seed, watering it and watching it develop into a beautiful flower.

And they grew. They did chores, they got themselves ready, they prepared basic meals. (Cereal and sandwiches, mostly.) By the end of the summer, we had reached what I had hoped for most but had not dared to set as an achievable goal: my kids recognized when help was needed and they stepped in to provide that help.

Of course you want your kids to help and to be able to take care of themselves doing age-appropriate chores and tasks, but I think, ultimately, you want them to learn more from doing chores than just how to do the chores. You want them to recognize and anticipate needs and to do their best to help fulfill those needs.

I’ve been off my feet now for six weeks. Though sometimes my kids still fight me on getting dressed in the morning or getting ready for bed at night (hey, let’s not hold our kids to impossible standards; even adults don’t always want to do chores), in that summer of training with a patient mother (even when she didn’t want to be), they learned how to help with anything. And they learned that they mattered because their abilities were valued.

Sometimes we still slip, though, so tell me, how do you get your kids to take responsibility and help around the house?

Every little thing is gonna be alright

Be the example

Frustration, anger, upset, exhaustion, etc. These are all emotions of motherhood. (I know, there are the good emotions, too, like love, compassion, cuddling (that’s an emotion at our house), happiness, calm, joy, peace, etc.) But this is about the messy emotions that hurt.

I let those get out of control a lot when my kids were young. I didn’t have a good grasp on what it was I needed to keep those emotions in check. Turns out, that last one I mentioned in the list above, exhaustion, was the guiding emotion. He was the Big Kahuna, the one who basically set the tone for everything else.

When sleep was elusive with babies and toddlers in the house, Exhaustion moved in and took over. And when Exhaustion is in charge, Anger, Upset and Frustration are like groupies. They follow wherever Exhaustion leads.

It can be hard, for several reasons, for a new mom to recognize this. There’s the cute new baby that everyone is in love with—and because it’s so cute and cuddly, you’re losing sleep to stay awake and watch it sleep—or you’re wondering why everyone is so in love with this bundle that eats, poops and sleeps all the time, and these thoughts are keeping you up because you’re stressed because you feel like a bad mother. Then there are the constant loads of laundry. I.Mean.Constant.

And there are the expectations that you put on yourself. (OK, the expectations start with society, but we moms internalize them and they become our expectations if we’re not careful.) And these standards are high. We ran corporations, headed up major projects, hiked across Europe and made something of ourselves. This motherhood thing should be a cinch.

Haha. It’s not.

When we were doing all those other great things in our lives before kids, we did them in a non-hormonal state, without the responsibility for the most precious thing on earth—human life.

Turns out, becoming responsible for a new human life coincides directly with enhanced hormones and sleep deprivation.

So, what to do? Don’t let Exhaustion be in charge of you. He already has his groupies. Don’t be one, too.

If you’re a first-time mom, the solution is simple—not easy, but simple. Sleep when the baby sleeps and let your partner (or, if you’re a single mom, let anyone who is willing to help you with these things) do the laundry and cook the meals. Ask for help from neighbours, friends and family. Even better, accept it when it’s offered. There is no prize for doing it all. Seriously. No prize. (This hurt when I found out.)

Your calm, peaceful attitude will rub off on your baby. The less exhausted you are, the less stressed you are, the happier your baby will be. I’m not talking perfect bouncing cherub-faced baby all the time here. I’m just saying, deep down, your baby will be calmer when faced with upsets. Be the example, even at that young age.

If you are not a first-time mom and don’t have the luxury of sleeping when the baby sleeps because you have to make sure that the toddler doesn’t dump all the Cheerios on the floor and burn the house down, put the kids to bed at a decent hour (bedtime is between 7:00 and 7:30 pm in our house), spend some quality time with your partner (I’m talking a good solid connection but for a short period of time), then go to bed early.

I didn’t do this when my kids were little because I thought I had to do it all. And I wanted to spend a lot of time with my husband because, you know, he’s an adult and adults are really cool to talk to. But now that those years are behind me—and I suffer from terrible guilt attacks from how many bad emotions I consistently displayed in front of my kids—I realize that those years were short and my children and I would have been better served by lots of sleep so that Exhaustion could not be in charge.

Silver linings

There is always something good to come out of any bad circumstance. You just have to look for it. And the silver lining to my early years with my kids was that I had ample opportunity (more than I’d like to admit) to be an example of regaining control after losing it.

I wasn’t always good at it. Sometimes Exhaustion had me in its cold, iron grip and I just couldn’t squeeze out. And when I was very upset and Exhaustion was in charge of the upset instead of me, it often spiraled out of control and ended up in the most dramatic of upsets: the upset that I couldn’t seem to keep it together no matter how hard I tried.

But there were days of calm when things would happen unexpectedly and Upset and Anger would step up to the plate and I would reign them in by sheer will and my desire to be a better person and a better mom to my kids. (Those were days that followed nights of adequate sleep.)

So when I see that my children are tired and frustrated, my example is the best lesson for them. If you let yourself get frustrated at your child’s frustration, the situation escalates. Jan Blaxall, a professor of early childhood education at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario says, “Research shows that children learn how to regulate their emotions by watching their parents.” (Source: www.todaysparent.com/toddler/toddler-behaviour/how-to-deal-with-a-frustrated-toddler/).

So what did my angry outbursts and unhelpful self-care patterns teach my children? It taught them that getting upset and freaking out was the way to go when things didn’t go their way. It taught them that cooperating and helping each other was optional depending on their mood. And it taught them that when they couldn’t keep it together, they didn’t have to try harder, they could just fall down into a balling mass of tears and screams. (Yeah, I did that sometimes. I was that exhausted and unwilling to ask for help. Lesson learned.)

And this is a vicious cycle. The more upset I got, the more upset they got. We needed some peace in our lives.

And somehow, somewhere deep down inside me, I found that place where peace exists and I dragged it up into the lives of my children. And I saw an immediate change in their behaviour as it related directly to my behaviour.

And even now, with slightly older children and no babies in the house, sleep has to be a priority. If it isn’t, we open the door and invite Exhaustion in. And his groupies follow him. And they don’t make for a very nice family life.

two kids by a pond

A river in the city – some Time for Nature

Originally published August 27, 2012

My family and I live in a city. You might be picturing a concrete jungle without much opportunity to connect with nature. Yet our neighbourhood is teeming with nature and my kids love it.

We live not far from the Humber River and spend many a lazy day sauntering along the path enjoying what nature has to offer. We have met deer, frogs, snakes, geese (always geese), chipmunks and squirrels. I think we may have even spooked a beaver by accident once.

On a particularly beautiful day, we went to a local park to do some climbing, sliding and swinging. At the edge of this park there is a path that leads down to the Humber River. Thinking our kids would rather play at the playground, we settled on a park bench to enjoy the sun and to watch them play. Continue reading

caterpillar changes to a butterfly

Change is good, right?

What if your whole life has been stable and then change happens? Because it does that, you know. It happens. It doesn’t matter if you lived in the same house, went to the same schools, and had the same friends since you were born. Eventually you move out, whether it’s to pursue your education or a career, or just to spread your wings out on your own. Without hesitation, change happens.

You can either be ready for it, and meet it at the door when it comes knocking, or you can cower in the farthest room of the house and hope that it doesn’t notice you curled up in that dark closet.

And, if you’re a parent, how you handle change will be the guide for your children.

In my young years, there was not a lot of change that came from my parents. We were a pretty stable family, doing the same thing day in and day out. That was a good thing for the most part. Outside of my home life, things got changed up a bit. And as I got older, I created change in my own life. But without guidance, it was all very terrifying.

When I was 9, I was devastated when my best friend moved to Vancouver. I thought my life was over. She was gone. I cried for what seemed like weeks, but was probably only a few days.

After graduating from high school, I didn’t go away to school because the thought of leaving home terrified me. I never once considered the benefits, the fun, the new experiences that going away would provide. So, I stayed at home and went to school locally. When I finished school, I felt a little more like spreading my wings. All my friends had their own apartments and I was still living with my parents. I may not have been happy about the change of scenery, but I disliked being mocked by my friends because I still lived with my mom and dad. So, I got my own place.

I remember visiting my parents one night after I moved out. I went into my old room and lay down on the bed, wondering why I had left, wishing I could turn back the clock.

Now that I’m older and have experienced countless changes in my life, I look back on it all and realize that all of it was good. There were some painful-in-the-moment emotions related to changes, but they soon settled themselves and the change became the new normal until the next change.

And with kids, there is so much change. The first year at home with a baby was life changing, the next two years with a toddler in daycare and all the scheduling and changing and reorganizing that went along with that—that was another big adjustment. Then the second baby and the absence from work again, home with two kids, then school for the first one and daycare for the second one and back to work for me. Then a different daycare in a different neighbourhood, a different school for a different program, a second job for me, contract changes for my husband, and so on and so on. And it keeps changing. Every day, every week, every year is different. And each time I have faced these changes, I have been terrified for about a split second (in the grand scheme of things), then I remind myself that this is not the first time I have had life turn upside down on me and I’ve gotten through it with barely a scratch. And this won’t be the last time.

Change is good, right?