Don’t Take It Personally!

“NYAAAH!”

“No MommEEEE! No!  NO! NOOO!”

These kinds of outbursts from your very young ones, several hundred times a day/seven days a week, can drive you crazy.  It’s like you are personally put on earth to frustrate your toddler.  Everything you want them to eat, they don’t want to eat it.  Every toy you want them to try, they don’t want to play with it.  Everything you want them to climb off of, you have to pry them kicking and screaming.  And forget about throwing something in the trash, picking up a sock, or some other “constructive” chore.  Your little one doesn’t want to do it and they are very vocal about letting you know.

The fact is, it isn’t personal.  No matter how much it seems like your little kid will be an angel for grandma, or daycare, or daddy, or whoever, but NOT YOU… it isn’t true.  What’s really going on is that your relationship and your environment (usually Mom, at home) is the default structure in her life.  It is the most familiar to your child so she understands it most and can get frustrated or bored with it most.  When you take her to grandma’s, or daycare, or someone else’s house, it is new and exciting and the emotions of curiosity take over.  There’s usually more stimulation.  The rules are different.  The style and expectations are different (especially with dad).  There is novelty as a child explores a different relationship or just goes off by themselves.  But with Mom, at home, things make the most sense and are the most comfortable and the most familiar.  It’s just you and them, calmer, closer.  So it’s the most likely to cause frustration or rebellion.  Thus you get the “Nyaaaah!” or “No! NOOOO!” often as you provide the rules, structure, and relationship boundaries that the child really needs.

In some ways, this is nice because it means you are a springboard for education and morality.  On the other hand, it can drive you nuts.

This is probably the most common let-down for moms of toddlers and preschoolers.  We don’t want everything to be a battle or a challenge.  We want to make our children happy.  And we don’t want to have a hard time with our baby while others have an easier time with them.  We want a day with them to be blissful, precious.  We have visions of them cheerfully playing with play doh or looking up at us with their surprised, grateful eyes as we help them. But instead it’s an afternoon of resisting naps, heading towards the stairs, spitting out food, or dumping the bowl down for the dog to lick up.  (At least someone is surprised and grateful.)

The result is we start to feel challenged by our little one, like they are there to test us.   They act like we’re there to test them!  Then we’re guilty for feeling that way: what’s wrong with me that I’m struggling?  We believe it’s all normal but it still feels personal.

Here’s one positive thought that you can use to combat this.  Now that my children have grown up slightly, I can see that they STILL feel this way.  And it’s not personal at all.  A ten year old boy still feels frustrated and challenged and bored, and all the things your toddler does.  And he still feels these things mostly at home, mostly with me.  If he were still pre-verbal, he’d likely still be saying “Nyaah!” or ” No, Mommeee, NOOO!”  Instead he just screws up his face, or kind of pouts a little, and drags his feet off to do whatever he wishes he didn’t have to do.  Or goes off to self-soothe after a fallout with his sibling, or a beloved toy breaks.  The feelings are just the same but the expression is different.

At the same time, he is just a little boy coping with disappointing feelings.  These are sometimes caused by me–by rules or expectations–but mostly they are caused by him.  They are just the fleshly way of dealing with let downs, whatever they may be, whatever the source is.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t shape or discourage certain behaviors.  I will not let him mouth off to me, just as I wouldn’t let him throw things across the room when he was 2.  But now that he is older, I can have more mercy on his disappointed responses to life because I can see and understand them better.  He can explain them. For the most part, I have discovered that he’s just an innocent ten year old boy.  He’s not a teenager having really personal, vindictive thoughts towards his parents.  And neither is your 2 year old.

Not convinced?  Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Last summer, at the end of August, I noticed him walking through the kitchen with COMPLETELY DEMOLISHED sneakers.  I mean, both sets of toes were entirely showing through the tops like an animal had chewed gigantic holes in them.  I honestly don’t know how long they were like that, but I suspect it was awhile because when I made a big stink about it, my son was totally shocked like, “What?  There’s a problem here?”  As if he’d been walking around with them, rain or shine, and not having a problem with it until I suddenly discovered one.

Now I could have taken this personally.  I could have interpreted this as an offense like, “You just don’t CARE about your shoes.  Or how much money Mommy SPENT on those shoes.”  Then I would have been projecting adult thoughts upon him–because that’s what you think if a friend ruins something you lent them, or if your sixteen-year old bashes up your car.  But I took a step back from the situation, breathed, and depersonalized it.  It suddenly occurred to me that he was a nine-year old boy and to assume nothing.  Instead I asked questions like, “How long have your shoes been like that? (I don’t know.)”  When did you first notice them like that? (Maybe the other day).”  “Do you have any idea what’s causing that? (No.  Maybe my bike?)”  And so forth.

Eventually I was able to use my Mom Brain to figure that he was using his sneakers as brakes for his bike all summer.  With more questioning, this was confirmed.  But the point is, none of this was done to make me angry, to stall on purpose, or because my son had any thoughts about devaluing his possessions.  In fact, he had had NO THOUGHTS AT ALL.  That was the problem.  It didn’t occur to him to think about the long-term consequences of using his sneakers for brakes.  It didn’t occur to him that I would find out later and be mad, or that he would get wet toes as Autumn advanced.  He just needed to stop, found the hand brakes hard to use, and didn’t think he needed to change things as his toes started making their appearance.  It was a logic problem, not a slight against me.

He was also authentically stunned that I figured this all out.  He looked at me like, “HOW did you get this?”  That was the funniest part 🙂

The point is, my ten year old was not capable of calculating destruction and your little one isn’t either.  They just can’t reason things through yet, and many of their lines of reasoning make no sense at all.  Especially if you have a little boy, I would bet you ten dollars that most of his frustration and rebellion come from NOT thinking, not from evil thinking.  A little kid can of course calculate to get their way to some extent (i.e. it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to go for the popsicles when you’re not looking).  But the overall fact remains that at some point when your kids can talk to you and you can reason through things with them, that you will be AMAZED at how much they don’t know, can’t predict, and can’t understand.  It will then make no sense at all why you ascribed such rational logic to them when they were a preschooler throwing a tantrum.

So what is the answer then?  How do we deal with bad attitudes and behavior? Well, the first step, as I’ve said all along, is to depersonalize it.  This has to be done before any kind of discipline or confrontation.  Think of your toddler like a pet that can’t have what they want–the dog that wants their owner to wake up, or the cat that wants to escape outside.  Your little child has a similar amount of evil intent and reasoning ability.  They have very real desires and emotions, but these are not well thought out yet, and definitely not ascribed to YOU personally.  The problem is that we’ve all seen a little too many movies like “Look Who’s Talking” or “The Incredible Journey” where the voices of animals and pets are given very adult-like scripts.  In most cases, we’re projecting upon them what’s going on and then extrapolating from those responses instead of just treating them in a more matter-of-fact like manner.

Secondly, explore reasons why you might be projecting adult-like emotions on your child.  Are you feeling insecure or guilty?  Most moms are guilt-manufacturing machines.  We just feel inadequate about everything, and baby’s responses plus cultural pressures only serve to confirm this feeling.  Deal with that.  You probably don’t feel too guilty about how you treat your pet.  Again, this is a good rubric for about how much guilt you really should have at this stage of life.  (You can save REAL guilt for the adolescent years, or if your kid isn’t toilet trained by age eleven 😉

Lastly, deal with the actual behavior that’s bothering you.  Once you aren’t operating out of your own guilt and anxiety, come up with a plan that sublimates a bad response into a good one.  For example, my ten year old is not allowed to mouth off at me any more than he was allowed to throw blocks across the room when he was little.  But he is allowed to feel upset or depressed with my rules.  I am ok with being a source of frustration and rebellion on some level–that’s my job.  But I am not a doormat for his responses.  I expect them, then shape them.  A toddler should probably be allowed to say “Nyaaah!”  But after that outburst, they still have to be led to do (or not do) what I asked.  “You can be upset with picking up your toys, but you must still pick them up…” is kind of the attitude.  Any actual defiant behavior at that point (throwing the toys around the room) would then require discipline.

The bottom line is, your little child wants what they want and will let Mommy know first when she stands in the way.  But your little one is still LITTLE.  They are just venting frustration right and left about what’s wrong with their world: their bodies, their limitations, their boredom, their sense of injustice. They don’t know you are a person, with feelings–with very sensitive Mommy feelings that will all crash down when they cry for the third day in a row over their nap.  They are just trying to get what they want and they don’t understand why they can’t have it.  It’s all about the moment.

So take a deep breath and realize it’s not personal.  It’s not about you, even if your child SAYS that it is.  I promise you that when your child grows up a little more and you can see how little they actually understand, you will realize that your two-year old is not capable of ascribing all the evil in the world to you.

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Grocery Woes

It’s the stereotypical problem: moms with little kids in the grocery store.  Having had four kids in a row, there were a couple years where I had four children under four years old, then four children under five, then four children under six.  I even had three in diapers at some point.  And I have to be honest…I usually went grocery shopping by myself!  In those years, going to the grocery store was my own “date night,” a date with food.  And peace 🙂  I did take all the kids sometimes, but mostly I went out when my husband was home at night.  Sometimes I even went to the Walmart for groceries (even though they had terrible produce) because they were open until midnight.  It was so fun to walk around and think about nothing except what I wanted to prepare, at 11pm.  Also hardly anyone is there at that point so it’s serene, almost spa-like…

Ok, maybe not 🙂

But I have to be unhypocritical and recommend that if you have a bunch of little babies and potty trainers in your home–or even just two!–consider the lifestyle shift.  It is SO worth the sanity.  You continue to enjoy meal-planning and you never have embarrassing meltdowns.  Instead of trying to lug your babies to the store and get interrupted because they dropped their toy or are crying and need to go to the bathroom while you’re in the checkout, leave them at home and go at night–even if you worked all day and your feet hurt.  You will most likely remember everything you need, you can pay more attention to your list, if you have it, and you probably won’t buy wrong or unnecessary items because you were distracted or someone asked for bonus food.

Or go early Saturday morning when only the early bird old ladies are awake.  Get up, nurse the baby or whatever, and run out!  You can get home by 9am as if nothing ever happened.  (One time I did this and left the two year old in Daddy’s room with the baby gate up, while Daddy slept.  I would never have been able to sleep, but Daddy could 🙂

About the time I had two kids who could safely walk outside the cart without me worrying I’d give them a concussion or a heel with no skin if I misjudged for a millisecond, I started taking them a little more often.  This was around when my kids were 6, 5, 4, and 2 (three potty trained well).  It took me awhile to figure out a regime which ensured grocery success, but here’s some things I came up with…

Prepare.

1. Feed children a snack BEFORE the store.

2.  Make sure all kids have gone to the bathroom BEFORE the store.  Change the baby’s diaper even if it doesn’t look like it needs it because you’d be surprised how wet they suddenly look when you plump them down in the cart.  I never brought a diaper bag to the store–I’d tuck an extra diaper in the infant carseat cushion when they were tiny, and down the back of my pants when they were older.

3.  Bring distractions for 1-3 year olds in the cart, especially near the end of the trip when they’re tired.  I used an old cell phone that was disconnected from our account but still had battery power.  A Transformer toy or something with jiggly parts also works.  FYI, something with noise is annoying but always has more attention power.

4.  Consider a list.  We almost always have a list when we go.  This is very helpful because you can assign one child to hold the list, one child to check what is on it as we go along, and another child to cross off things as they are put in the cart.  (A pencil is easier to cross off with, than a pen.)  This happens to occupy my three boys, who really need something to do other than look for treats along the way.  The list also helps make sure you get what you really needed in the first place, and not put in too many things you don’t need.  Sometimes I let my older ones read the list in the car so they can start their minds thinking about they’re going to be looking for in the store rather than what they’re not.

 Before Shopping.

1.  Before you get out of the car, give The Lecture.  I tell my kids that there will be absolutely NO asking Mom for special things in the store.  They’re not even allowed to tell me, “Hey Mom, look at this!” (I let them tell each other though 🙂 ) You don’t have to be as strict as me.  The point is just to make clear what you expect before you get in there.  I also tell my boys that they need to walk on the same side of the aisle I’m on, and not more than two cart lengths away.  The littlest one can hang on the front or back of the cart, but not the sides.  No running at any time.  And no-one is allowed to take stuff and put it in the cart without telling me, even if it something we always buy (just so we don’t end up buying four ketchups).  Tell them EVERYTHING you expect and do this EVERY time so they say “Mom, we know, we know!”  Then there can’t be any dispute that they didn’t know, if they get in trouble.

2.  Offer a reward.  If they get through the store without bugging me for stuff, they get a snack when we’re all back in the car on the way home.  Otherwise, no snack.   One mom I know does this except that she and her kids make a big deal about what snack they’re going to buy in the store very first thing when they go in there.  So they all go to the cookie aisle or whatever and pick something out and put it in the cart first.  Then they continue the shopping and use it as a bribe until they get all the way through.  I tried this a couple times but there was a lot of pressure to pick and better and better reward, which took up more and more time right off the bat.  So then I just went back to regular snack things I was going to buy anyway and reminded them that they’d get it early if they were good.   Worked for them.

Note: When I had my really young toddlers, like 9-18months, I did put graham crackers in the cart first thing and give them one a couple times throughout the trip.  Another mom I know does fruit, but one time I gave my two year old a very small apple to work on as I shopped…and then at some point in the trip, he handed me back the stem and I realized he’d eaten the whole thing, even the core!  So don’t do that unless you’re paying attention 🙂

3.  Offer potty trainers a chance to go to the bathroom one last time before you start shopping.  Do not give any liquids during the trip.

4.  Be prepared to leave the store if real trouble arises.  I am not saying you have to leave a store if your two year old pitches a fit and you’re really close to getting out of there.  It happens.  But with my little crew (who are 9, 8, 7, and 5 now), this is the rule.  They actually think getting to shop is a privilege because I’m so strict about it!  They know if they argue with me, fight with each other, or otherwise cause a disturbance, we are out of there.  We only had to do this one time, and I made them apologize to the customer service person on the way out because we were leaving our cart there, half-full.  I wasn’t mad or anything, I just calmly informed them that was enough and led them out.  They cried on the way home because they thought they wouldn’t have any milk in their cereal for breakfast the next morning.  (They did.)  When we went back the next day, they were whispering and reminding each other the whole time to stop arguing 🙂

At the Store.

1.  You have already informed them of the rules, so just remind them as necessary.  I always have to remind my boys not to run (because they will, when they see something exciting and then call to each other about it).  Just part of being a boy.  I also have to remind them to move out of people’s way or stop blocking traffic.  This is normal but do TRY to get them to think about it once in a while.

2.  Consider cart arrangement.  I used to carry the baby in the sling when I shopped, so I could see better and put things in the seat where the infant carseat usually goes.  I tried not to have more than two people on/in the cart.  We did those kids’ Car Carts for awhile where they “drive” in the front, but that led to a lot of getting out and getting in.  My typical thing with the littles was wear one, let one sit in the front seat, one hang on the end, and one walking with me holding on somewhere.  Then we graduated to two in the cart (one in seat, one in the cart) and two walking (one on one side of me, one on the other).  Now we’re at all four walking with the littlest one allowed to ride in the seat or hang on the end when she’s tired.  Do what works!

3.  Distraction is your friend.  With a whole brood, distraction is really important, especially for ages 5-10.  Minding the list is a good start, but find other ways if your kids normally drive you crazy.  Teach them about sales and checking prices per unit.  Even the littlest ones can be taught to look for the yellow sale tags.  Have them check them as you’re picking your items–like “Which is cheaper this week, the Cheerios or generic O’s?”  You can even ask them to look at something you’re not going to buy, just to give them something to think about other than why you’re getting chicken when they don’t LIKE chicken.  Tell them to compare prices of something they’ve never seen before like turkey gizzards or whatever is nearby.  They get to look at something new and think about something productive.

One thing my 9 year old likes to do is add up the saving as we go.  Keeps his mind busy.  If the cheese we buy is 40cents on sale, he’ll try to remember that.  Then if the apple juice is on sale for 30cents cheaper, he’ll add that to the 40.  By the end of the trip, he likes to tell us how much we saved as best as he can remember.  Sometimes my 8 year old will check the receipt in the car on the way home to see if he’s right.

For younger kids, like 4-6, I like to tell them to look for the items we normally buy.  When we get to the peanut butter, for example, I’ll say, “Ok, can you find the peanut butter we usually get?”  This takes my 5 and 6 year olds a couple minutes and ensures they are staying in the right spot while I figure out whether I want to try “Lite” strawberry jelly or not.  I do the same thing with the bread, pasta, toothpaste, etc.  This keeps their eyes looking for what we get instead of what new thing they want to try. And they always feel triumphant after they’ve found something in a really hard spot.  After awhile, the kids will learn where everything is and this won’t be fun for them.  But my 5 and 6 year old have found it fun for a whole year now. I can tell they are learning the aisles really well because I’ll catch them saying things like, “the next aisle is the peanut butter… I know where it is!”  The only thing you have to watch then, is the racing to go get it before you’re that close 🙂

My older kids like the challenge of something slightly more complicated.  I’ll tell them something like: “We’re going to get pretzels this week.  Go down this aisle and look at all the pretzels.  Find the ones on sale, compare the prices, and pick the ones you want to try from the 2 or 3 best ones.  But don’t run.”  That keeps them busy!  It also keeps me from having to walk past all the cookies (which are at the end of that aisle) and dealing with sadness that we’re not getting any of them.  The kids find the pretzels they want, feel triumphant about it, and bring their trophy to where I am at the milk and OJ nearby; I don’t go down that aisle at all.

4.  If you get stuck in the lunchmeat line, my kids like the challenge of reorganizing the cart.  It can feel like an eternity, so rather than having them pine away for the donuts and pies nearby, I’ll have them shift things around in the cart so light things are on top, or frozen things are near each other.  This is also the time my 5 year old gets tired and I let her stuff herself into the shopping cart seat where she can tell her brothers that their configuration isn’t good enough or they missed the butter on her side.

5.  Negotiate Extras.  While I don’t let my boys point out everything cool they see, sometimes we really do all realize we want something special.  There’s kind of an expectation that on any given trip, we will add ONE special thing to the cart.  So whatever things the kids have seen along the way, they kind of figure out if anything really is special–or sometimes I decide myself–and we’re all happy to add it near the end.

The Checkout.

1.  The easiest way to get through the checkout is to have everyone help get the items on board.  Seems simple enough, but my four can sure be clumsy and wild during this process.  This is where arguing can start because someone really wants to load the Angry Birds gummy snacks, but someone ELSE grabbed it first.  I have not exactly figured this out yet, sorry to say.

2.  Once all things are on the belt, I have my kids go to the end of the checkout where the person is helping bag.  They pull the cart forward towards them and I tell them to each hang on to it.  This seems dumb, but it helps for a couple reasons.  First, no one gets accidentally sandwiched as the cart squeezes through.  Second, no-one gets stuck on the front end with me and either smashed by the next cart coming behind us or separated out into the general store while we’re going through.  Third, no-one wanders out the door without us, thinking it’s all over.  Fourth, no-one is stuck eyeing the candy bars while I’m trying to pay.  We DID have someone steal something one time, and another time my son spilled a bunch of them while he was picking them up and reading the ingredient list.  So to prevent all temptations and accidents right at that unfortunate time, they have to go to the end and hold onto the cart until the last bags are loaded.  Then we train out of there all together.

Whew!

Now I realize at this point some of you may think I’m ridiculous for even needing this process, let alone sharing it.  But you have to get creative when you have a bunch of little kids.  Some days not all props are needed because everyone is mellow and happy.  But sometimes on the way home from the YMCA or whatever, we’re not.  So having a little routine helps, even if it is a little involved.  This is ours.

I’m Not Good Enough

Ahhh, the “I’m Not Good Enough” Syndrome.  Welcome to motherhood.

Every mother feels this strongly at some point, especially when their children are young.  I would say that mothers with two or three young children under the age of five LIVE there.  Seriously, if you have a baby and a 2-yr old, or a toddler and a preschooler, you have permission to feel wilted and Zombie-ish for a year or two.

I really think this point gets lost on young mothers.  Having been one myself with four children four and under, I was really hard on myself, always feeling like a failure.   I couldn’t get this one to nurse enough, this one to take a nap, this one to stop playing with the remote, and this one to stop whining.  There was always this “under water” feeling, as I tried to cope with the daily foibles of little children.  But it wasn’t my fault.  And It wasn’t because I wasn’t taking action.  It was just the way it was.

If I could convince every mother with little children of this point, I would.  If I could bottle up and sell this message, so each mom could open it and take a deep whiff whenever they were stressed, I would.   I have so many friends going through this phase of life, and I have just left it, so I know how often you need to hear, “It’s ok to just survive today.  It will get better.  Hang in there.”

I think that moms with young children feel a lot of pressure.  I used to feel that I had to keep these kids in line so I wouldn’t be like that family who is losing it in the library, or the grocery store, or the playground.  I felt I could (or should) be different.  I felt that I had to find answers, had to fix problems.  I read books about motherhood, I listened to cultural messages about it, and I felt guilty that I didn’t have the romantic experience I was supposed to be having.  Some of my moments with my newborns were lovely and precious, but many of them were difficult and trying.  Sometimes I relished my toddler blowing a dandelion puff, but sometimes I was ready to strangle him.  Sometimes I was enthralled by a cute thing my preschooler said, but most of the time I was worried that he wasn’t developing enough on time.  Big black clouds threatened to cut off my joy a lot.  Plus I was tired, depleted, and annoyed with my extra pounds.  Recipe for disaster.

There is good news, though.  And the answer is not to check out.  I’m not going to tell you that structure isn’t necessary–it is.  I’m not going to tell you that training isn’t necessary– it is.  I’m not going to tell you that discipline and education aren’t  necessary– they are.   When you abandon those things, your children’s morality, your family life, and your emotional vibrancy suffer.  You’re close to authentic depression.

What I’m going to tell you is that expectations are everything.  Have high standards but do not EXPECT them.  Sounds hypocritical, but it’s not.  It is a pathway to joy.

Keeping your standards high–for structure, training, discipline, education, whatever–is important.  It provides hope, a direction, a mission.   You want to know where you’re going and what you believe in.  Remember how easy it was to idealize during your first pregnancy?  You thought clearly, then, about what you wanted for this baby.  You imagined how you would run your family differently.  You believed in special Sassy toys and Brainy Baby stuff.  Or maybe not, but you still idealized the baby experience and probably how each thing from pacifier to baby food was important.  It’s ok to have all that in mind as an ideal.

But keeping your expectations low means that you have permission to fail or fall behind.  You have permission to be a human being with human limits.  And the child does too.  They have permission to be a baby, to be difficult, to be behind.  You have permission to buy inorganic diapers or whatever other thing you swore you’d never do.  You want to know where you’re going to get out of all that, but you want to feel no pressure to be something you’re not.  Or in a place that you can’t reach. Being in survival mode for awhile is ok.  Getting that blissful reading time in is a goal but not a reason to feel you’re falling short.  Getting your two year old to stop climbing on the table is a goal but not a litmus test of your childraising techniques.  You need training tips and magic moments, but you don’t need more of them to prove you’re a good parent (especially to yourself).  Progress is the eventual result, but not something you will see every day.

In other words, Childhood is a MARATHON.  Your kids are going to be navigating a  very difficult obstacle course their whole life, for cleanliness, responsibility, intellectual ability, etc.  At least, they will if your standards are high. But daily expectations are low.  It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong if your routine isn’t getting your baby to sleep.   Or that routines don’t work.  They do, they are right, keep going.  It doesn’t mean your discipline is all wrong if your three year old still badgers the baby.  Or that discipline doesn’t work.  Or that your goal is futile.  It does, it’s right, keep going.  Doing the right thing will eventually breed results, but not all results are fast.  In fact, most are very, very, VERY slow.  Especially in that special season of 0-5 yrs.

Now I’m not saying that you should keep doing something blindly.  If evidence is coming in that a discipline technique you’re using is bringing BAD results, change it.  Or if the standard you have is putting the child in distress, toss it out.  Ignoring bad evidence can be abusive.  But changing what you’re doing becuase you don’t see enough GOOD evidence (or fast enough) is premature. Keep the standards and ideals for the long haul in place, and trust your conscience for what techniques you believe in, and prepare for the long, slow march towards progress.

Because it’s so easy to judge before you have children, or to judge children of a different age group than your own.  But there are reasons why the common struggles *are* the common struggles.  Chances are, your children will have at least a handful of the same ones.  Sometimes you can kind of cherry-pick which ones you are firmly against by applying more training and discipline in a particular area (i.e. my child will NOT get away with backtalk in MY house!).  But keep your expectations low because you probably will experience it at least a little before your efforts kick in.  Not ALL mother have trouble getting their toddlers to nap, but many do.  Not ALL mothers have a challenging personality in their house, but many do.  Somewhere around you, a “good” mother is still struggling with what you’re struggling with.

And survival IS difficult.  Most mothers in my demographic grew up with a pretty nice, easy life.  We were raised in the suburbs with good parents who sent us to good schools.  There was money to take vacations and have pets, maybe even a pool in the backyard.  Teachers cared about whether we went to college, and which ones, and neighbors were safe and friendly.  We weren’t spoiled, but we didn’t know what we had and how hard it was to get it.  We assumed that we would go to college, get married, have a couple kids, and have the same standard of living as our parents did.  It looked so easy, so natural.

Then we got married and we realized, WHOA! Marriage is TOUGH!  Then we bought a house and realized, WHOA!  Owning a house is HUGE!  Then we had kids and realized, WHOA!  This is HARD!!  Everything was much harder that we were prepared for it to be, and we started thinking something was wrong with us.  What didn’t we know?  Why did everyone else seem to have such an easier time with this?  Why were we feeling “under water”?  No one told us that this is normal.  No one told us that they went through survival mode too, and that it was tough to even do that.  No one told us that relationships with spouses and kids were probably the hardest thing we would ever work at, and that they would be challenging, frustrating, even heart-breaking at times.  We just weren’t prepared for this level of responsibility and emotional hardship.  At least, I wasn’t.

Survival is hard, and it’s ok to feel like you are one step away from walking out the door.  That is absolutely normal.  What isn’t normal is to actually take the step out.  Only a small percentage do that, and you don’t want to be one of the ones.  The grass isn’t any greener once you’ve left a marriage or children.  You want to be one of the ones for whom what didn’t kill you, made you stronger.  You want to make it look easy for your kids when you’re forty or fifty.  You want to rise up and conquer the enemies rather than have them conquer you.  You can do this if you’re committed in ideals and action.  But you don’t have to get the results overnight.  Do you see the difference yet?  Work your butt off, for the right things, but don’t watch the pot boil.

This will give you hope and joy while you parent.

Lastly, moms feel pressure because they are stressed about things they think they need–instead of what the child needs.  You think you need your child to have some experience they’re not having, and that it is your responsibility to get them that.  But that’s often not what they need.  Does a baby need a new nursery?  No.  Does a toddler need more playdates?  No.  Does a preschooler need to feel happy all the time?  No.  Does any child need to be performing the same as other kids his age?  Or be compared to a checkbox on a chart?  No.  When you start making psychological standards for your child, and then trying to meet them, you will always feel pressure.  Get rid of any pressure that is coming from something you’re putting on yourself (or allowing society to put on you).   Ask yourself what things your child really needs to become a good person, and to feel loved in your house.  Put all your effort into that, and don’t settle for “sounds right” or “looks good” answers.

Help My Kids Get Organized!

This morning I watched my five year old help put away the dishes.  (i.e. not really “dishes” but plastic cups and plates).  I watched him stack up the plastic cups according to color and then, finding that his tower was too tall to fit in the cabinet, proceeded to unstack the cups and realize he needed to make two towers.  Then he had to figure out a color pattern that would allow him to fit two towers into the cabinet.  This was a tricky process because he wanted both his towers to match, and we have three colors of cups.

I was very tempted to interrupt this painstaking process to tell him to hurry up and help me before I did it all without him.  But before I did so, this little voice in my head told me not to.  And as I watched him with a little more interest, it hit me that this is probably why this particular child is the most organized of all my children.  He’s able!  Don’t ruin it!

Of course my other three children are not that way naturally.  But there are ways to help an unorganized kid become more organized.  My husband and I have worked hard on this trait because we all stay at home together (we homeschool and my husband works from home).  We would go crazy if we didn’t have some order.

So here are some things we’ve learned:

1.  Clean up every night is important.  And they should do it, not you!  (I actually clean up my own stuff while they kids clean.)  We have made the kids clean up their stuff every night before pajamas since we only had one baby and he was about 15 to 18months old.  Somewhere around that time, we started doing that regularly with him, and we never went back.  This makes a nice habit in the back of the kids’ minds that whatever mess they make, they will be accountable for at the end of the day.  It keeps them mindful of their stuff… that things won’t get forgotten, glossed over, or ignored for long.  And it keeps them remembering what they actually own, which helps them figure out what to do when they’re bored.  And it supports the ethic of being generally clean in the house, which is the foundation you’re looking for.

Lastly, it keeps you from welfaring them and getting so mad that they have so much stuff that you threaten never to buy another Lego again!

2.  Having a place for everything is important. You can’t really expect things to stay organized unless everything in your house has a home.  If it doesn’t have a home, expect it to be on your counter, floor, or stairs.  It will sit there until you die, basically, because no-one knows where it goes but you can’t throw it out.  So make sure that whatever your kids play with, you have a storage container big enough to hold it.  And that there is a place for that container (which can sometimes be a bigger problem).  Even if it is just a specific corner of the room, that’s enough.  Obviously really huge items can’t be stored away, but make sure they have a corner or place too.

3.  Try to keep similar things together. In our house, we have “centers” where similar stuff is grouped.  So there is a place for art things, which keeps crayons from being everywhere (usually).  We also have most of the building toys upstairs in the bedrooms so that when it’s Saturday Building Morning, the huge mess of pieces can be contained in a place smaller than the entire basement floor.  Big noisy toys and gross motor toys tend to collect in the basement.  We don’t have centers for everything, but obviously books are grouped together in one or two places, outside toys are in holey laundry baskets outside, and homeschool stuff has its own cubby.  Sometimes the kids get permission to travel with something somewhere, but they always have to bring it back.  Now they do that automatically.

This mental organization also helps them decide where they want to play and what they want to do… are they in an artsy mood?  A building mood?  A run-around mood?

4. There is some value in pretty/matching storage containers. While I have never succeeded in having my closets or shelves look like they should be in a magazine (i.e. who has CLOTHES which fit a color scheme?), I have found out that there is some value in appearance when it comes to organizing.  While kids are not naturally trained to appreciate beauty or style the way adults can, they are able to appreciate symmetry and order.  They are able to appreciate a neat cubby that is color coded and well-sized.  Or matching baskets with labels.  Or even a closet organizer.  They don’t know exactly why they like it, but they like it.

In the early baby days, our house was tiny and did not have any closets in the kids’ bedrooms.  In general we were low on storage space.  So my husband and I took one closet in the living area (a coveted place), and turned it into the babies’ toy closet.  We installed that cheap running shelving and invested in approximately 20 Rubbermaid clear buckets of various sizes to fill with their toys.  And we organized those toys and put the buckets on the shelves.  So every day the babies would toddle over to the closet and look at all those buckets–they had labels and matching lids–and you could just see the ooooh’s!…hmmm’s…whaaa’s?!   And every day we would help them clean up and put those buckets back.

Today our stuff isn’t that consolidated because we have a bigger house, more complex toys, and more “centers.”  But we have invested in a couple pieces of furniture from IKEA and whatever, to make the visual organization more clear and appealing.  And we still have those buckets in various places.  The kids are visually trained to sense organization or not because they can SEE whether things are at the same height, the lids matching, etc.

5.  Keep the organizers as close to the items as possible. Put laundry baskets in the hallway, bathroom, or bedrooms.  Put toy buckets near the toys they belong to.  Put organizers for crayons or whatever on the desk they use the most.  Put school organizers near the coat closet or front door.  Wherever things are actually used, or dropped, put the storage stuff there.  Don’t expect kids to return something to another room. And don’t expect them to go through more than one step (i.e. opening a lid, hanging on a hook) to put something back properly.

6.  Massive cleaning (purging) is necessary. Any good cleaning magazine will tell you that getting rid of stuff is important, and it is.  But throwing away helps you stay organized in addition to lightening the load.  It helps because many times when you have systems of organization already in your house, your house is still messy because there is spillover– all those places are all used up and all the extra stuff is messing up your daily living space.  Purging every six months or so helps free up space in the places you’ve already allocated for stuff.  This is particularly true of kids clothes and toys.

Every seasonal change (i.e. hot to cold, cold to hot), we have one day where we go through all the kids’ clothes.  It takes all day and I’m exhausted by the end.  And the kids are fed up pulling shirts on and off!  But we do this because I want to have an inventory of everything in the house that they wear.  I want to find the items we’ve lost, take stock of what I need to buy and what I don’t, and reassess the articles I thought we’d use but didn’t.  Or the things I wasn’t sure they’d still fit in but kept around just in case.  We have an extremely small clothes budget (i.e. thrift store, Old Navy), but I tend to scrap stuff if I’m not sure who it will fit or if it will last one through one more season of washing and drying.  I make sure all their stuff fits in their drawers and we don’t have extra articles cluttering up their closets (where their other stuff is already stored).  Off-season stuff goes in a huge Rubbermaid bucket in the basement.

We also go through toys about once a year.  We go through all puzzles and take out ones we hate or have too many pieces missing.  We get rid of toys and books they’ve outgrown.  We put away toys or books that we don’t want to give away but aren’t being used like we thought.  (They will feel new when they come out later).  We search under dressers and beds and make them clean again.  We reorganize bookshelves by giving each person a shelf and color/size/or subject coding.  We throw away broken things and have a talk about accountability.  We make sure that each person has enough stuff they love… and a private place for their most treasured items… and talk about being thankful for the things they have.

A 6-8 year old is usually able organize their own bookshelf, desk, closet, dresser, or toybox, even if it takes all day.  That’s fine… let them.  I usually set some parameters and let them have at it (i.e. I want you to take out enough toys that the lid fits on easily without bumping up.  or, I want you to move enough books to the basement that all your books here fit on one shelf.)  With a younger child, include them in the organizing process, but do it and oversee it yourself.  They’ll learn.  I used to make my younger children put puzzles together to see what was missing, or things like that, as we cleaned.  I also asked them their opinions about stuff and gauged their reactions as we uncovered things.

Lastly, a lot of organizers have a rule that if something new comes in, something old comes out.  We tried to do that and it was too hard for us.  But we do have a Christmas rule: we will either prepare for the onrush of new stuff by getting rid of old stuff, or we will do a deep purge post-Christmas.

7. Be organized yourself. Kids need models and they notice if your extra grocery bags are kept in a certain place, you have recycle buckets for different kinds of bottles, and if your silverware drawer has a nice, neat tray in there.  They notice whether your closet is all junky and you have to take out six things to get the vacuum.  And they notice if you’re digging through your garage to find a tennis ball or screwdriver.  Chances are, if they see you using your organizers, they will know what to do when you put something in their bathroom or bedroom to use!

8.  Mess is less important than organization. At least in our house, good organizing doesn’t keep our peeps from making messes.  As it shouldn’t!  It can’t be healthy to try and keep kids neat the whole day. “Cleaning as you go” may work for some, but I find, like cooking, it’s often easier to just mess up the whole kitchen and then attack it at the end.  There is freedom to do what you have to do.  So accept mess, but only on the condition that it gets cleaned up.

In our home, the rule is the house must be clean on waking up and going to bed.  I have this rule even for myself and my kitchen.  Sometimes this leads to disorder over time as people clean up but don’t organize correctly as they clean– pieces get stuck in the wrong buckets, or the corners of closets collect random items.  So when things get terrible because everything is out of its place we take a Saturday morning and reorganize it.  We put Barbie shoes back in the Barbie bag, DVDs back in their cases, and game pieces back in their boxes.  Many times kids won’t play with stuff because important pieces are missing.  Who will play Mouse Trap if they’re missing a part?  Or Nerf gun if they’re missing the bullets?  So organization is more important to keeping kids using their stuff, than it is preventing mess.

Lastly, accept that when organizing, things will get messier before they get cleaner.  Cleaning is for external appearances, but organizing is for internal.  If you catch your kids making a huge mess in their rooms as they’re organizing them, that’s good!  It’s part of going through everything and putting it back right.  They will take at least double the time you take, to do it, but smile and encourage =)  They are learning things that will be natural for them later.

Salsa!! (Pico de Gallo)

Now I know salsa is not on the most practical end of little-kid foods.  It is spicy, there are specks, etc.  But for whatever reason, all four of my picky eaters (ages baby to 4 yrs) would all snarf the pico de gallo whenever we went to Baja Fresh, Chipotle, or Qdoba.  So since my husband and I LOOOOVE mexican food, I started trying to make my own pico at home.  After two futile years, and many seemingly similar recipes, I finally got something we all like.  It’s totally adjustable too, so flex it as you like.

Pico de Gallo

3 medium or 2 large tomatoes, hydroponic DOES make a difference! (sorry, regular people)

1 jalapeno pepper

1 med-small red onion

2tsp to 2  Tbsp. minced garlic

1/2 c. cilantro

2 or 3 limes

salt, garlic powder, cumin to taste

I’m not sure directions are really necessary, but here goes =)

1.  Dice up your tomatoes into small cubes.  There are some great youtube clips on how to dice properly.

2.  Chop up your jalapeno finely.  For non-spice, remove the pith and seeds.  For spice, mash up the pith and seeds, and add.  Beware!!  This can make it incredibly hot!  My husband and I like medium, so I only “kind of” mash up half the seeds by jabbing them with my knife handle a bit.  The pepper itself is not hot, though, so you don’t have to take it out for kids.  Keep it in!  It has amazing amounts of vitamin C, more than oranges.

3.  Chop up your red onion.  Again, consult youtube.  They show you how to slice your onion from bulb to tip first, which makes the difference in getting a good fine chop.  (You could use a white onion for more bland eaters).

4.  I have that garlic minced in a jar thing, so I kind of throw in 2 heaping tsp of it, but this is all relative.  Fresh would obviously be better but I hate having garlic bulbs around the pantry and not being sure how old they are or how long they will stay there =)

5.  Take 2-3 limes and squeeze all the juice in there.  Do not omit the LIMES. Repeat: Do not omit the LIMES.

6.  Mix it all up and season until you like it.  I tend to sprinkle the spices in a little at a time, continuing to taste.  But realize that the most important part of salsa is letting it sit for awhile.  You won’t know how it is really going to taste until 4-24 hrs later.  So don’t season for today’s immediate impact.  I think I sprinkle in a small palmful of kosher salt.  A small layer of sprinkled garlic powder and an even slightly smaller layer of cumin, just over the whole top.  Then mix in.  The salt should bring out the taste of the tomatoes, but if you can taste the salt itself, you put in too much.  Better luck next time, or cut some more tomatoes and onions.

7.  The last step: Cilantro!  So many people hate this herb, but I suppose not too many mexican lovers do, since it is in everything.  Get a fresh bunch and, after washing and patting dry, chop it up!  I guess I use anywhere from 1/2 to a whole cup, depending on how big my batch of tomatoes were.  Just take a nice handful and throw it in there.  My pieces are always too big, but smaller is ideal.  I stink at cutting up herbs… more youtube for me I guess.

8.  You’ll of course be snacking on it immediately, but it will be at its peak 12-24 hrs later.

*NOTE.  So much of salsa is proportions, which change from person to person.  You have to find a balance you like and eyeball it.  For this recipe, it makes about one medium tupperware amount of salsa (up to the brim), and the proportions of tomatoes to “everything else” is about half and half.  Usually a restaurant pico is closer to 3/4 tomatoes and 1/4 “everything else.”  And they almost always take out the tomato goop/seeds, using just the fleshy parts.  I didn’t do this unless the goop fell out intentionally.  Adjust as you like.

The Dawdling Monster

Ahh, it has been too long since I wrote a post.  Probably because as all of you moms with little children know, a day can feel like a week, or a week can go by like a day.

But as I wait for my four, almost five-, year old to get down the stairs for breakfast, it dawns on me that this is the third child I have had to go through this stage: the Dawdling Stage.  My once efficient, independent, do-it-myself preschooler slowly turns into this lazy, haphazard, stare-at-each buttonhole kindergartner.  Somewhere between the ages of four and five, at least with all my boys, this has happened.

The Dawdling Monster eats your child up slowly, though.  One day before school, they are done WAAAY before they need to be and you have to finish packing the lunch and get to your child to read them a story or something before the bus comes.  But then, sometime later, you realize you have to keep getting up five minutes earlier, five minutes earlier, and five more minutes earlier, just to get them ready in time.  You’re flying out the door, forgetting the lunch, because your four or five year old has taken fifteen minutes just getting his clothes on.  Then ten minutes to eat a bowl of Cheerios.  And he’s wandering around without a care in the world.

So if this is you, take heart.  There’s not much you can do, and it’s not your fault.  All of my boys, with three distinct personalities and styles, have now gone through this stage, and I am realizing it occurs all on its own until about six years old.  Then, as the child becomes a first grader, if you’re diligent about family habits in general, it eventually subsides all on its own.  The six year old will pleasantly dress, brush their teeth and hair, and come down for his breakfast cereal before your four year old even gets his pajamas off.

But what’s the answer?  Well, I confess I am writing this post more for me, than for you.  I don’t have too many solutions yet.  I have tried different things and none of them totally worked.  I have tried taking back over the morning or evening routines: taking their clothes off for them, putting their shoes on, etc., and that only made them upset.  Because they could obviously do those things themselves.  I tried setting timers before I made my move on them, but that didn’t work either.  Or telling them they had ten minutes to clean up before dinner would be ready, etc.  They would get so upset, though, trying to beat the timer, and usually not do things right or thoroughly.  I tried manipulating the schedule just to give them more time, but they always take up as much time as I give them.  This is particularly pronounced at bedtime when the routine consists of multiple different parts: cleaning up, washing, pajamas, etc. When I had four kids under four, it used to take about 30 min.  Now, it takes about 90, or longer if I hide behind a book until they’re done all on their own.

We now start getting “ready” for bed just after dinner is over, at 6:00!

I have also tried rewarding them all for finishing early or on time.  I have tried competitions, with rewards for the team that is first to clean up, get in the bed, etc.  (That only creates heartbreak for the losers, or resentment at the slow team member assigned to the faster one.)  I have tried checkpoints, i.e. “Tell mom when you’re done dressing…” and harping at them, i.e. “Come ON, we’re late!”  I have even tried (just one time) the threat of, “If you can’t get those shoes on by the time your other brothers are ready, we’ll leave without you.”  (Which we did.)  That seems to have only produced perpetual fear in my now six-year old that we’ll potentially leave without him any time we’re going somewhere.  The only thing I haven’t tried yet is giving my child a watch to time themselves.  But knowing my boys, they would just have another thing to get distracted over (they LOOOVE machines and buttons).

So I have pretty much decided to stop fighting it.  It’s really not an issue of confusion or changing things, it’s just nature.  When my third little boy entered this stage, I realized it for what it was.  Pretty much like the No-No stage.  That doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating!  He once used to blow right through an alphabet worksheet, and now that he’s starting kindergarten and learning to read, I feel like he suddenly acquired a massive case of ADD.  He stares at each letter, then into space, then back at page, then at the binding of the workbook, then his pencil with some shavings still stuck on the tip, and fingers them while saying, “uhh… “Spot?”  But while I roll my eyes a lot, I’ve stopped fighting it.  Hopefully he’ll follow in his other two brother’s footsteps of picking up the pace a little when he turns six.  Now I remember why I don’t teach kindergarten!

“Daddy did WHAT?”

I titled this post “Daddy did WHAT?” because recently I caught myself asking that to my two-year old!

No, I am not talking about Daddy doing anything abusive.  I’m talking about the 101 crazy things that Daddy seems to do when left alone with the kids!  Crazy things like:

– a tub of cottage cheese for dinner

– airplane games, upside down, by limbs

– a game of “circuits” with real electricity running through it

– telling my kindergartner to do the dishes

– talking about college (to a four year old)

– stacking up stools so a five year old can change the DVD in the VCR

It never ends!  I used to think that only the grandparents would sabotage my kids’ ordered and moral existence, but now I found out that I have a bigger subverter in the midst!  It never seems to amaze me how I can go out for a Mom’s date of some sort, come back, and bow my head at at least twice during the return-home  report =)

If you do this too—and especially if you are a young mom with your first baby—I just write this post to you that this is what husbands do!  They just don’t live in Mommyland.  They will forget the bath (or leave them in there an hour), they will feed them whatever happens to be on hand even though they don’t like it or can’t chew it, they will forget diaper changes or other teddy bears for bedtime, they will give the baby an Oreo just to see what he does with it, put mayonnaise between bread and call it a sandwich, and generally turn the house upside down with silly games.  Now not all Dads are ridiculous of course, but even my usually mild-mannered serious husband can make quite a wild party when I’m gone.  It’s not that he means to make a wild party, it’s just what happens.

When we had just one young baby, it wasn’t so much a wild party as what he actually did or forgot to do… let the baby sleep on the floor, gave him two bottles in a row because he “seemed still hungry,” use a bottle nipple as a pacifier, etc etc.  I’d come home and the house would usually be a disaster with every toy out somewhere, blankets, baby chairs, saucers, and the like strewn around.  And the kinds of conversations he would have with the baby—and now our young children—were just so absurd as to make me roll my eyes.  How can anyone under the age of 21 understand choosing a good career?  Or having their own children?  Now I see it as cute and part of the loving Dad routine.  But I remember thinking, “if he treats my six-month old like this, how will he be talking to my five year old?”  Now I know!  It never ends.

Today, I am a veteran of six years when it comes to these stories.  And I still smile when I hear what other young moms report their husbands doing (or not doing) while they’re gone.  I hear a lot of stylistic similarities even though the dads’ personalities differ.  And I am ashamed to admit to them that I was too rigid in those early days.  I thought every silly thing Daddy did would ruin the good set-up I was trying to achieve, and every nap or bedtime routine he screwed up would mean re-teaching for me.  But God works in mysterious ways and it turned out that a little “screwing up” made my kids normal and flexible.  They weren’t dependent on my routine and props because they learned not everyone did it that way.  They were better behaved because they found out Mommy and Daddy had slightly different rules, so they needed to watch themselves a little bit.  (Daddy was more unpredictable).  And they did learn, as they became preschoolers, how to adjust from Mommy’s way to Daddy’s way if I left home for a little bit—and then back to Mommy’s way when I got back.

So resist the temptation to scold Daddy for whatever routine-breaking or age-inappropriate thing he did with your babies =)  He’s just not Mommy!  And he wasn’t made to be.  Roll your eyes if you must, but believe in your heart that it will work for your baby rather than against him, in the long run.