Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Waldorf: A New School Year

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there will ever be to know and understand." Albert Einstein

Future's so bright she's gotta wear shades

I don't know if Portlandia  has done a spoof of a Waldorf school, but if it hasn't, it should. We are the baby-wearing, organic-food-eating, self-righteous women who wait in line for a Terry Gross autograph.

Next week, Violet goes back to school. Despite the fact that I bought her some new shoes and dresses that she is overjoyed about, she's not thrilled about the upcoming change. I've loved our time together this summer (three months!), but with having to rely on a couple of nannies to help me out during the workday, I am ready for her to return to the nurturing, wholesome community that her school offers (and the ease of having regular care that her being in school provides me).

Because she started in January last year, I didn't have the benefit of a parent orientation, which would've helped explain what goes on in the classroom on a day-to-day basis and the rationale behind some Waldorf practices. Saturday I attended the orientation for this school year, and I feel like I got a lot of my questions answered.

Some of the school beliefs include the following: encouraging a child's sense of wonderment and activating his or her imagination by having open-ended toys, such as dolls with no faces and simple wooden cars and animals; no exposure to media because of the content of television and radio programming and its effect on the child's sense of self and well-being (the school also prohibits children from wearing character shirts), the impact it makes on logical sequential thinking and imagination due to its rapid "flickering," and all of the things a child is not doing when she is passively watching or listening to a program (such as discovering something on her own); an extensive celebration of a child's birthday to acknowledge the milestone in her life and her journey to earth; and a rhythm to a child's day that includes regular rest, oral storytelling, nourishing foods, and participation in classroom chores (baking, setting the table, cleaning up the classroom).

As I've mentioned before, I had my own reasons for choosing a Waldorf school. I liked the slower pace it offered, the fact that it doesn't focus on academics in the nursery and kindergarten classes (Violet is in the mixed-age kindergarten, even though she is not old enough to be in kindergarten in a traditional school), the open-ended toys, the idea that adults just need to get out of kids' way so that they can learn, and the home-like atmosphere. However, even though I think it's best that she not watch television,  I do allow her to watch one show a day sometimes two and, on occasion, I even allow her to watch a movie. Part of the reason I allow her to watch a show is because she does 30 minutes of vision therapy with the television, and, I admit, sometimes I just need a break. Also, half of her T-shirt drawer is filled with character shirts, and even though I serve a mostly organic diet to my children, I do allow Violet to have McDonald's once a month. There are other things too, but I am considering making some changes at home.

The parents are encouraged to participate in the school community as much as possible by volunteering to clean the classrooms and maintain the grounds; building structures (like a loft); and attending parent/child groups for children two and under, monthly meetings that explore various topics (like the impact of television on children), and lectures by experts from various fields. I've done none of this, but I did offer to do some writing to help their marketing efforts, and I've made some non-toxic cleaning products that can be used in the classroom.

Despite some of its quirks, I feel like the school offers something really special, so I am feeling hopeful about the new school year and reassured that I made a good decision. And my hope is that, once Violet gets into the swing of things, she will feel that way, too.

Practicing her curtsy

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Intentional Parenting

My friend Anna used the phrase “intentional parenting” once when we got our kids together for a play date, and I think it describes the type of parenting I aspire to. I know that I am not perfect and that I have my struggles, and that my daughters will be imperfect and have their own struggles, but most parents I know want to give their kids a running start, and this is the way I know how to do it. When it doesn’t come naturally, this hypervigilance can be tiring, but my hope is that it makes a difference where it counts.

For instance, lately I’ve noticed that I’ve been threatening my kids, that there has been a re-emergence of sibling rivalry that I thought I’d diminished, and that I’ve found myself backed into a corner with desserts. Instead of saying to my two-year-old, “Don’t swallow that toothpaste,” I say, “Don’t swallow that toothpaste or you will have to go back to your other toothpaste.” I also say things to my four-year-old like, “If you eat your sister’s food, I will have to put you out of the kitchen.” I also sometimes add the word “please” at the end of a command, which might seem like the polite thing to say but, in actuality, may result in them feeling "mom is not in control because she is pleading with me." Instead, it’d be more effective if I just left the second part of the sentence off and if I avoided saying no altogether, as saying it too much can lead to feelings of frustration, cause my kids to become desensitized to the word, and result in future rebellious behavior.  A better idea would be to say, “Let me show you how to use this toothpaste,” or, “I see you are still hungry. Would you like some yogurt or an apple?”

A while back, I read Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. There were a number of takeaways that I feel I’ve done a (mostly) good job of implementing. I try to not use the words “too” or “also” when talking with my girls, as in, “I see you are cleaning up the toys, too,” so as not to compare them. I also avoid saying that I love them equally (instead telling each one, in private, the things I love about them) so that they can each feel special and have a unique bond with me that acknowledges their individual personalities. I avoid comparing them or giving them a label, as in “Harper is my good eater,” or, “See how well your sister eats?” I also have been doing a better job of letting them problem solve (not making them share) without intervening. I want them to develop their own relationship and give them the chance to be kind on their own (without me making them do it, which causes them to feel angry or hurt instead of feeling empowered), and I don’t want to cast one child in the victim role and one in the villain role. It’s hard to do because Violet is so much faster and stronger than Harper and can get to a toy first or take a toy from her so easily. I often think it’s unfair, but when I do leave them to their own devices, I get a chance to see, when Violet gives a toy back and comforts her younger sister or apologizes, how generous and empathetic Violet can be. I also realize that Harper doesn’t care as much as she initially lets on. She will often just pick up a different toy and begin happily playing with it.

Where I think I’ve fallen short is that I am sometimes demonstrative with one in front of the other. This happens frequently in the mornings. I sit down with my coffee, and Harper will come and lay her head on my lap. Without thinking, I stroke her hair. Violet, seeing that, immediately asks to sit on my lap.  When I put her on my lap, Harper then demands to be on my lap, too. If I’ve done it and then realized my mistake, I will say, “Okay, I can give you both big hugs, and then you need to go back to your seats.” Unfortunately, by that point, it’s already too late, and they are both crying. Part of me just thinks, “Oh well. Life isn’t fair.” But I know, from experience, that when I create this dynamic in the morning, it often (because of the feelings of resentment that it causes) has repercussions throughout the day.

I also fail to acknowledge both sides when it’s gotten physical. I have been good about just attending to the wounded child and acknowledging the feelings of the wounded child, but I’ve forgotten to address the feelings of the aggressor. The aggressor, let’s be honest, is usually Violet, who is very articulate and can easily explain why she did something, so it’s worth it to just get to the root of how she feels.

In terms of the affection, I think I can just thank them for the hug they’ve given me and set a boundary that there will be no cuddling right now. I can tell them that I look forward to some special time later. Later on, I need to make a point to read a book or play with a toy privately and cuddle with them then. As long as I know they get plenty of affection throughout the day, I don't need to feel guilty about not giving it right in the moment.

Recently, I wrote the post Stress-Free Meal Times. However, I’ve still had some situations come up that I've needed to address. One of them surrounds dessert. As I wrote in that earlier post, I’ve taken care to not bribe by saying that they can get dessert when they finish their dinner. However, sometimes they see the dessert sitting on my counter, whether it’s banana bread or cookies or something else, and they, of course, want some. Obviously, I don’t want them to have dessert instead of dinner, so I’ve lately begun acknowledging what they want and reframing: “You see dessert and you want some. I said you can’t have any now, and that makes you upset. When you finish your dinner, if you are still hungry, you may choose something else to eat.” They will always choose the dessert, but at least I am not mentioning it or dangling the promise of dessert like a carrot.
Another option is a tip I got from Anna, which is to say, "You need to have your healthier foods first," or, "You need lots of nutrients and vitamins in your body in order to process the sugar." I especially love the second response.

No one is as hard on me as I am. The problem is that I believe, for my children’s self-esteem and for their development, that these methods are the best (also because bribing, distracting, and threatening don’t work, and, if they do, it’s just because the child is trying to avoid punishment or because she wants the reward, not because she is making a good decision), but even though I know that intellectually, it doesn’t always happen in practice. I have to keep reminding myself how I’d like to handle things going forward so that I can at least lessen the frequency of my automatic, more negative responses.
You can read more about these techniques (and others) here, here, and here.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


     Before I got pregnant for the first time, I taught in the public school system for eight years, finished grad school, and started a new career in writing and editing. I traveled when the urge struck me, taking off for two weeks at a time to visit places like Ireland and Alaska. I published the occasional short story or essay and harbored dreams of a novel, with my name on it, occupying the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble. At thirty-one, however, the birth of my first daughter sparked a tectonic shift, and I let go of all of the things I thought I wanted, releasing them like Chinese lanterns into the night. By the time I had my second daughter, at thirty-three, I was already wearing motherhood like a comfortable pair of sweatpants. 
     Now I spend my days and nights thinking about whether my children are happy, whether I am raising them to be well-adjusted teens and adults. I think about whether they are getting the nutrition they need and whether they have enough time to play. I think about getting the laundry done in time for school and how to turn my house into a home that is both loving and beautiful. I take care to cut my girls' sandwiches in a diagonal, just the way they like them. I engage in mental sessions of self-flagellation when I find myself distracted by recipes on Pinterest. Despite yearning to sip my coffee in peace in the mornings, I do my best, as I look upon these hungry, vulnerable little creatures, to twist my face into something open and honest.
     I'm as likely now to abandon an ambition as I am to follow through. Seven months after the birth of my second daughter, I ran a marathon. I began training for a second one and stopped running cold turkey right in the middle of it in favor of spending my free time reading books in bed. I intend to get dressed and maintain an acceptable level of personal hygiene, but I work in my pajamas and sometimes skip a shower. A couple of days a week, I might not even make it outside of the house.
     After spending my twenties fantasizing about extraordinary experiences and working toward grand accomplishments, I tend to consider my thirties thus far characterized by mediocrity. I no longer spend my evenings and weekends studying. I'm not so quick to volunteer to work the longer hours I used to. Instead I've discovered that I derive a perverse pleasure from producing baked goods. I have to wonder what that says about me. Will I ever, even after the kids are both in school, be ready to write a novel or to even put in the time and concentration required to publish again? Or will I just use my children like talismans against potential failure? 
     Then again, maybe mediocrity is just a label applied by the vestigial twenty-something still residing somewhere in my consciousness. In my sweatpants and ball cap, at the park, I feel miles from the sexualized images of checkout-line cover girls. But I don't need a low-cut shirt, makeup artist, and air-brushing to advertise my fertility. The two kids I'm chasing around are evidence enough. Like Gaia, the mother goddess of Greek mythology from whom all beings sprang, I have the power, as a woman, to grow life inside of me. Viewed through a different lens, my life takes on a separate hue. My children worship me. It seems like ever since the umbilical connection was severed, they have maintained an attachment via sameness — striving not to be mere approximations of me, but me exactly. Violet, my oldest daughter, with urgency in her voice, tells me that she wants to grow up to be just my height. She wants her hair to turn red, like mine, and she wants to wear all of my clothes. She wants to walk like me and talk like me too. 
     I am my girls' mediator. I am protective of them in a primal way. Psychically, I anticipate all of their needs. I have forged a happy marriage and communicative partnership with my husband to shield my children from familial instability. If I get the rare weekend away, a chance to lounge poolside and sip on fruity alcoholic beverages, by Sunday it already feels too long. 
     When considering my two girls, the importance of some of my old aspirations drifts away like the distorted image of a leaf being swept downstream under the surface of the water. Now I have new ambitions: raising my two miraculous girls in the best way I know how and loving them in that fierce way that only a mother can. Now I know that this is not mediocrity at all; instead, like every woman who strives to be a good mother, it's what makes me extraordinary.