Wednesday, September 30, 2009

the personal and the political - childcare

If there is one question that cuts the most closely against my flesh, it is "who will watch the children?". This question is both deeply personal - what could be more personal than my own children? - and deeply political as questions of childrearing cut to the core of feminism and capitalism.

Who will watch the children? Depending on whose version of history you look toward, childrearing was either performed unquestionably by a stay-at-home-mother or was more of a communal village affair. And depending on what class you are talking about, there is either a long history of nannies, or of mothers who stayed home, or of just scrambling to find safety and enough food as mothers had to work for pay just to survive.

The relationships and power dynamics created by childcare arrangements ripple through society. I've tried most all of it.

I've had college students as nannies. They were employees and I was unquestionably "in charge" of my children, but their level of long-term commitment was low, so there was a lot of turn-over and consequent turmoil in my child's life. This is the main problem encountered when childcare is valued at minimum wage, and children are left with a revolving door of caregivers and caregivers don't make enough to truly live on.

I've had my child in a large daycare, with "teachers" in charge of each "classroom" and a revolving door of assistants. The teachers took an attitude of being the "expert" and were very bossy toward parents, and I had to conform to their norms. When my child had special needs and a special diet, it was a huge hassle and he was frequently "accidentally" fed the wrong food. It was institutional, and no one child's needs could come first there. The teachers were paid enough to scrape by in the working class, and the assistants were not so they came and went.

Being a stay-at-home-mom, I was providing the best for my children. They thrived, and frankly I thrived too. But the power dynamic between my husband and me was different then, as I felt dependent on him. We also experienced financial stress and "provider stress" as he felt too much pressure to earn and worried about losing his job. In a society without a really good safety net, we both felt exposed and vulnerable in different ways.

When I ran a home daycare, I was somewhere between the "babysitter" and the "teacher". I was there to provide consistent care for my children while also making some money, but I had to compromise because in order to make enough money I had to take in more children than is ideal for each child to have their needs met. A home daycare provider may not even hit minimum wage until they get to six children, and they typically work 50 hours or more a week, because they care for children for longer than the parents' work shifts (travel time to and from is added on). A home daycare comes with no sick days, no back up, no lunch breaks (no potty breaks even). If things are good, children get an extended family and a consistent "second mom", but the trade-offs make this an unattractive career choice for most people.

Now I have a hobby nanny. This is the best possible arrangement for the not-rich mommy to make, as the hobby nanny is happy to watch the kids for less money than they can live off of. Usually, this option is only available to people who work part-time hours, as most hobby nannies would be unwilling to work 50 hours a week. A hobby nanny could be a grandmother, aunt, friend, or someone else that has an existing relationship with the family. I lucked out and found a wonderful lesbian couple who had been unable to have children of their own and was looking for a couple children to watch and enjoy part time. The drawback to a hobby nanny is that they will probably feel free to have a life outside of watching your children, in which case you will need to have enough flexibility in your job to sometimes watch the kids yourself.

With my hours, I also have a family member babysitting in the evenings. Family member babysitters are wonderful, if you have them. My children have the best relationship with their aunt, and I know that if anything ever happened to me they would be OK with their auntie.

Ideally, we would have a society where women could seek professional fulfillment if they wanted to. After all, the children won't be at home forever, and then what will you do? I currently have a job that I love, and I want to do this job even though I keep less than half of my take-home salary because it costs me so much to pay for childcare.

But how do we balance that fact, that childcare is so expensive it cuts into family's incomes too far and yet at the same time childcare workers don't make enough to live a decent lifestyle on what they earn? To me, the answer is simple - our society needs to subsidize childcare costs and provide some kind of financial security to stay-at-home-parents. Our children are the future of our society. It is just as important to provide early care as it is to provide later education.

Who is going to watch the children?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Been Reading - The Invention of Air

The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and The Birth of America by Steven Johnson, is a biography of Joseph Priestley written by the author of several synergistic works such as The Ghost Map.

Why I read it: Johnson was interviewed a while back on NPR, and the book sounded very interesting. Also, Priestley was an influential Unitarian minister, so reading more about him satisfied my professional effort to further educate myself about my faith tradition.

What I thought of it: Johnson's way of looking at history, seeking connections and patterns, is a delightful intellectual exercise. He connects the Carboniferous age, with its higher oxygen levels and huge lifeforms which consequently left huge coal deposits, to the industrial revolution in England which took advantage of those coal deposits and made possible the instrumentation which Priestley used to discover oxygen (he is not given clear and clean credit for this discovery, but that is a long story). He points to the connection between the adoption of coffee (instead of alcohol) as the fashionable drink and the rise of the Enlightenment.

The descriptions of the science were complete and satisfying, and some of my favorite history reappears here - Franklin's brand of science and politics, the politics of Adams vs. Jefferson, and the later letters between those two men - as well as some new connections with French science and history (I really do need to read more about the French Revolution at some point).

But I was left disappointed by the discussions of Faith, which was given equal billing in the book's subtitle but not within the pages of the book. I got the impression that Johnson viewed Priestley's faith as an aberation on his intellectualism, rather than as part of it. He talks about the rarity of an intersection of faith, science, and politics in one man, but he does not explain (adequately to my mind at least) the impact on theology that Priestley had.

In fact, I detected a bit of the modern secular bias that seemed to feel that Priestley's faith was a blindspot:

In The Corruptions , Priestley spends dozens of pages marshaling evidence showing how fifth century theologians concocted the idea that God and Jesus were one, breaking from the original narrative that God had merely created Jesus to be a human messenger of his Word. But to someone existing outside the belief structure of Christianity - and even more, someone existing outside all organized religions - the two narratives would both seem to be in dire need of empirical evidence. If you don't believe in God, it's just as implausible to suggest that Jesus was a man created by God as it is to say that Jesus was God.

This passage is ostensibly describing the attitudes toward Priestley of his atheistic peers - Lavoisier and the other French philosophes and Ben Franklin - but it is the main discussion point about Priestley's theological work in the book.

Overall: A good history, and worth reading for those interested in the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary period, but a bit of a disappointment for a theology nerd.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A bit of our homeschooling - greek mythology

greek myth books
Our history curriculum is The Story of the World, and I appreciate how the author has interwoven stories from religion and myth with the factual account of ancient world history. That puts the "story" into history, and certainly helps keep my little one engaged and interested.

And the Story of the World has also done a nice job of covering the world, so we've had stories from the middle east, africa, india, and greece. I love the global and multicultural perspective.

And yet, when we got to greece, I couldn't just move on after reading one greek myth to Carbon. I have too many fond memories of those stories, and they also appear so often as references in literature and culture - I wanted to spend more time and read them all!

We started in the myth and folklore section of our library, and there were several decent picture books of various myths. Theseus, Perseus, and Hercules seem to be the favorites for retellings. At the bookstore, we found the comic book versions of the myths, and that was nice also, although the stories seemed much more violent with that style of illustration.

We found books of greek mythology written by two of Carbon's favorite authors: Cynthia Rylant and Mary Pope Osborne. And we watched a wonderful story collection from the Jim Henson studio.

But I felt like there was something missing, something I remembered from childhood that just didn't seem to be in these books and videos. And then I remembered the D'Aulaires' book, and how it gave a sort of family history version, emphasizing how the gods and so forth were related to one another. It is well written and can be understood by children, yet it also seems like a comprehensive account of the main and minor stories. After we read the whole book together, I'm satisfied that we did justice to these stories and that Carbon has been given an adequate taste for now.

So, we can go back to The Story of the World, which I believe is going to take us to Rome next. We'll see how far we get in the main text before the next rabbit trail lures us away ...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday - community

Why attend a church? For a religious liberal, the answer is not obvious, and we inhabit the borderland between the churched and the unchurched. Within my non-church social groups, it is almost embarrassing to say I go to a church, and many seem to regard me with some suspicion, as though they are not sure I am stable or sane.

So why be part of a church, if you do not believe it is a matter of divine command? For me, the answer is all about community.

I grew up without a church. I grew up with hippie liberal freedom, and the encouragement to seek spirituality as a private affair. And then I did something, at the tender age of 16, that broke the norms of my family - I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church.

Why? I get asked that all the time now, and I always answer "community". Where else do you find a community that challenges you to be a better person and will circle the wagons for you whenever you need help? Where can you improve yourself, do good for your larger community, and find lifelong friendships?

Tonight I welcomed 13 young adults into my home for a BBQ dinner, kicking off our new young adult group for the year. We had a group returning from last year, and we had four brand new freshmen from the nearby college, and community was achieved. I was delighted to see how these kids, new to town, new to college, new to adulthood, were welcomed and embraced.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

clothing for my boy


When I saw these dino items on the gymboree website, I just had to order them for Carbon. I love that shirt design in so many ways, I wish I had thought of that.

carbon's new hoodie

And then something homemade, that I managed to do up on my day off this week. I bought the penguin fabric when Hypatia was a baby (it was going to be a layette), but Carbon still liked it when I pulled it out of the fabric closet. And I'm still using the yards of organic black knit that I bought two years ago - a great basic fabric to have in your stash for projects for the whole family. My hoodie pattern is too small for him now, but I was able to enlarge it as I cut and still have it seem to all go together (I'm too lazy to actually measure and draw a new pattern on paper, so I just eyeball it while I'm using my roller blade to cut the fabric). The sleeves only look like they are different lengths in this photograph - he's standing funky.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Let's take it back a notch

Yesterday I had a bad morning with Carbon. I was about ready to grab him by the ear, drag him across the street to the elementary school, and demand that they enroll him and take him off my hands. "Here, you deal with this!"

Homeschooling first grade has not been all joyous fun for us. He has resisted the increase in his "workload", he fusses and whines about having to do it, and reading and writing can easily dissolve into hyterics. This is not the family lifestyle I wanted when I chose homeschooling.

I am insisting that he do a certain amount of work, as I am not an unschooler. However, because of the secular/religious, unschooling/homeschooling breakdown in our community, we are associating mostly with unschoolers. I can't talk to these moms about my difficulties at all, because the experience is like when I was trying to give birth without drugs and the nurses in the hospital wanted to say "you don't need to hurt - just take this". The unschooling moms are telling me "you don't need to fight, just stop doing structured work", and that is not supportive or affirming because that is not what we want to do as a family.

I grew up with this stuff, and I do not believe in unschooling based on my experiences and the people I have known personally. I hear about and read about families that make it work, but I have only known In Real Life families where it didn't work that well.

So I have the unschooling moms around me, and then I have the opposite pressure: the pediatrician and eye doctor who tell me that Carbon is "delayed" because he fumbled his letters on his vision tests, and all the other folks who question the entire notion of homeschooling. I'm between a rock and hard place, fighting with my son while I feel crushed by the pressure from all around me!

OK, that's a bit hyperbolic - as my husband and my mother remind me, I'm programmed to be extra sensitive to what I imagine others are thinking, and I hardly ever imagine they are thinking anything nice. But I am really facing a problem with Carbon, and it is making our time together stressful for us both.

Thankfully for me, my mother has been here before me. And after she homeschooled four children, she went on to run a tutoring center where she has worked with hundreds of children, teaching them to read and do math. So I took a timeout from school yesterday morning, sent Carbon to his room to play, and called her. She talked me through it all: how much work I was expecting him to do, how much help I was giving him as he did it, when and what triggered stress and resistence, and how I was structuring his days. And then she had a few suggestions for me:

1. Don't make him erase and redo work when he reverses his letters and numbers. Note the reversals, but then just move on. (Erasing stresses him out, and there is some new brain research that actually points to this being a normal phase that can self-correct if you don't fuss with it too much).

2. Continue daily reading practice, but ease up on the stress by giving him more prompts, by reading every other page, by having him read to his sister, and anything else that makes it more fun and less frustrating for him.

3. Give him more of a sense of control by telling him everything that we need to do that day, and asking him what order he'd like to do it in.

4. As long as he can narrate and answer review questions after I read to him, go ahead and let him do "fidget" activities while he listens. Or have him do some handwork such as knitting or sewing.

5. Disallow the use of the computer and tv for non-school purposes until the entire day's work is done. During "recess" he can play with his toys or go outside instead.

We talked about rewards, and about having him keep samples of his "best" work to show his dad that night, but I don't like external motivations and manipulations like that, so we're avoiding them.

Today was smoother, but it's a lighter school day for us anyway. We'll see how it goes, and if we can find a love of learning around here again.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Happy Fall!

working the cider press

watching the cider pour from the press

There was a time in my childhood family's faith journey that we were pagans, celebrating the sabbats and lunar cycles. As I've moved along my own faith path, I don't feel any need to anthropomorphize or give mystic explanations for nature (no offense to neopagans - this is just a description of my faith journey - I used to do those things and now I don't feel the need to do so). However, I'm still a fan of paying attention to the wheel of the year, to honoring the passage of time and the natural cycles, and to making an effort to feel connected to nature rather than apart from it.

So, happy fall equinox, happy first day of Fall, happy Mabon! Last weekend the kids and I marked the change in seasons in two ways that I really loved. First, we went to a cider making party at the home of some church members. We gathered apples from their mini-orchard, and then pressed them into cider. Carbon was also allowed to pick grapes from their vines and climb the apple trees - it was a great afternoon. Standing around with members of our church community, processing apples, just felt perfect. Community, slow food, and connection to nature - a winning combination!

The other activity this weekend was to plant fall flower bulbs in my flower garden. Bulbs are such a miraculous thing, and I see them as a physical expression of faith and hope. What else but faith and hope could motivate us to plant now, as we are facing the long grey winter? Tenderly patting the bulb into the ground, I picture how it will be invisibly growing and preparing for spring, and how it will seem to suddenly "spring forth" (pun intended) and herald the end of winter.

Blessed Be this Fall.

"me" time

I worked over 60 hours last week, as it was a crazy week at church and I had way to many commitments piled into one week. And when I work a 60 hour week, I still have to do all the homeschooling and all the household work and all the mom-stuff - so you will understand how exhausted I am after that!

Something has to give. I just cannot run myself this ragged.

One good thing is how amazing a tiny bit of "me" time can feel. Yesterday, after church, I left the kids with my husband and I ran to the plant nursery by myself for 30 minutes of plant browsing. It was heavenly to be engaged in a task that was completely non-essential, and to be all by myself.

It's also been a great help that I'm keeping up my daily yoga practice. It's just 10 minutes, but it starts the day off right, and I feel stronger and taller and more able to handle my day.

And I'm squeezing in some exercise. I get to the YMCA once or twice a week, and work out for about 40 minutes.

Just remember to put the "me" in "mommy".

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday - a little nature table

Now that the church year has started, I've decided to do a short religious education post every Sunday.

nature table view 3

nature table view 2

nature table

I was inspired to set up a nature table for my Spirit Play classroom. A nature table is a Waldorf idea, to bring nature into the home/school and celebrate the turning of the seasons, and Spirit Play is a Montessori-based religious education method. But why not combine the ideas? My nature table has natural and spiritual elements, and I plan to change parts of it as the seasons change.

I had a little kids desk that my great grandfather had built, and I stuck a bulletin board on top of it, then tacked felt on that board. So now the kids can use it as a felt board and as a nature table, and as a bit of an altar as well.

Today was its first use by children, and they seemed to really like it. Now it's time to add some fall natural elements - leaves, pine cones, etc.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

a bit of our homeschooling

model pueblo

model of a pueblo

Carbon's pueblo model

The standard 1st grade curricula I've checked over have each started off with precolumbian or pre-European history. That's good - but they've only had two or so topics before they moved on to European explorers! Instead of jumping right over our hemisphere's heritage in that way, I'm planning on studying native cultures with Carbon all year.

We aren't following any particular order, and Carbon started off interested in pictographs. We read a couple picture books about petroglyphs and pictographs, and that led to a book about the ancient southwest cultures. Reading that book, Carbon thought it would be a fun project to make a model pueblo from "mud and stuff". Not being too keen on that idea, I ordered this paper model kit, published by Dover.

Next we will read about the Maya.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

how to teach anti-bias to my kids?

Here is a tricky subject to discuss - how do I address the racial bias in our society with my white children? How do I react to their racial statements (especially when they say them in public)? How do I teach tolerance and anti-bias?

Example 1:
We are in Kansas on our family visit to my grandparents. We've gone to a steakhouse that is decorated with long horns and cowboy memorabilia, and Carbon has been asking lots of questions about cowboys and so on, checking out all those props tacked up on the wall above us. Then, a black family comes in and sits in the booth next to us, and he says "what are they doing in here?". My husband reacted pretty strongly to the comment, and shushed him and then looked very embarrassed. I tried to interact with the family "naturally", and made a bit of polite chit chat, but it was strained. After we left the restaurant, we asked Carbon what he was thinking when he asked the question, and he answered that he thought black people weren't cowboys.

Example 2:
We are with my husband's family in Kentucky, and they repeatedly make crass joked about President Obama, in "polite" conversation talk about "the coloreds", and one individual uses the N word in front of me and the kids.

Example 3:
I am driving, and Hypatia announces that she wishes she was black. I was curious, so I asked her why. Carbon interupted her answer to say that he didn't wish he was black, because black people are "rare" and he likes to "be like everyone else".

Example 4:
We are in the library, and Hypatia sees a black man. She points and says "look, it's a black man!"

Have things like this happened to you? I feel a bit vulnerable even putting a couple of these out here, and it's not something mothers seem to talk about much. In each of these situations, we responded as best we could. We talked about how, in fact, there had been black cowboys, and we wondered why the restaurant hadn't put any pictures of them up. We also talked about how it doesn't matter if there were black cowboys or not, that now all types of restaurants are for everyone. In Kentucky, we spoke up when family was being racist, and told them "that's a horrible thing to say" (they just laughed at us though, so I still worry about that exposure for the kids). I talked to Carbon about how black people aren't really that rare, and tried to explain why our town is so majority white. I stopped in the library and said "yes, people come in a beautiful rainbow of colors" when Hypatia pointed out the black man there.

I want my children to be anti-bias, to live in tolerance and acceptance, (in college, we were taught we should be "white allies", but that term seems to have some problems associated with it now). I buy the "multicultural" art supplies and explain that there is a whole spectrum of skin colors, and encourage them to draw people of all colors. I read them multicultural books and books about justice and equity. They have dolls of different races. Our next door neighbors are a mixed race family with a black father.

Yet we live in a mostly white town - in the Northwest which is already pretty white. And our church is mostly white, mostly upper middle class. Our homeschooling group is mostly white, with a small smattering of multi-racial. So the kids really only know multi-racial kids, or transracially adopted kids, and one black adult.

This is a problem, because it would be so much easier, and maybe better, if they were growing up in a multicultural community. When I was browsing TeachingTolerance (preschoolers and prejudice article here), I saw a review for a book called What if All the Kids Are White?, and I've ordered it. Maybe it will give me some good tips, not just for my own children but for the other kids at church.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fiscal responsibility

Yesterday I watched the documentary IOUSA, so now I'm thinking pretty seriously about money. The documentary is mainly about our national fiscal policy, but it had some pointed comments to make about how most Americans manage their persona finances as well.

Although I am not the worst, I am a child of the credit card age. I got my first credit card before I was 18 - which is crazy when you think about it. I came out of graduate school with huge student loan debt. My husband and I, early on in our life together, bought a brand new car because we didn't have enough money to repair our old car. Our credit was good, so we were able to finance the whole thing with no money down.

And we're pretty normal, if not more responsible than the "normal" we see.

Watching the movie yesterday, I thought about how I'm currently managing our money, and how it always seems to be gone faster than I expected it to be. We could, and should, be saving a lot more, and we could, and should, pay down our debts much faster than we are.

I think I need to handle more of our spending the way I handle the kids' allowances. They get their allowance from me on the 1st of the month, and they look forward to that day and plan what they will buy. We go to the store and they get their toys. The rest of the month, if they want something, they have to wait if they don't have any money left. It's a challenge, but Carbon is starting to try and save some or all of his monthly allowance so he can buy larger and more expensive things.

This is the old-fashioned, before credit way of buying things. This is not how I manage my own purchases, but it should be. I'm going to try giving myself a series of "allowances", with days of the month that they are designated. For instance, I could take out the money for the family clothing allowance on the 10th, and I could go shopping and get the items on our list for that month. We don't ever have "emergency" needs for clothing, so it can be planned out. And if it doesn't all get spent, it can go in the savings account.

For larger items that we need to save up several month's allowances before we can purchase, we can set up a few sub-savings accounts at our credit union, and I can transfer the monthly allowance into that savings account on its designated day. If I max out the number of sub-savings accounts I'm allowed, I can always set up some envelopes or jars and save cash in them.

The main advantage will be in changing how my husband and I think about our money. The secret to fiscal security may be just as simple as "Don't Buy Things You Can't Afford".

Monday, September 14, 2009

Performing Arts appreciation

Last night we had a disappointing experience.

Way back in May I was driving and listening to the radio, as I usually do. Carbon heard an advertisement for the broadway show "Wicked" coming to Seattle in September, and he immediately started clamoring for tickets to go see it.

I was excited at the idea of him wanting to see the show, and even though the cheapest tickets were $27 each, I got three tickets. My husband and I read the book, and I thought I had enough preparation discussions with Carbon about the story and the show.

Yesterday, after a crazy 2 hour drive and some getting lost in downtown Seattle, we finally ran through the doors just before the show started and found our seats. The show was great, but Carbon was not ready for it. He couldn't sit still, and the seats were too close for wiggling without disturbing the rows in front and behind us. He wanted something to drink, and couldn't understand why he had to wait for intermission. My husband and I worked really hard to keep him quiet and interested and polite through the first Act, but that sucks the enjoyment out of the experience for all involved.

At intermission I decided we should just leave, and Carbon agreed that was what he wanted to do. My husband was all set to just lay into Carbon about how he needs to learn to sit still and behave, but I tried to steer us away from that. He's young, and I worry about making too big a deal out of this so that he ends up hating theater or having bad memories of it. I made a tactical miscalculation, choosing a long adult show for his first live theater.

On our drive home, we all talked about, all got upset again (taking turns being upset), and all discussed what had made it hard to enjoy the show. Carbon said he hadn't understood what the show would be. He also said that it was hard to be rushed and have to run to get there and then not get anything to drink and that he had thought we were mean to not buy him a soda. We explained that, although movies let you take a soda in, live theaters don't allow food or drink in the theater seats.

These were discussions we should have had before we went. And I should have shown Carbon some clips of the show from Youtube beforehand, to prepare him and show him what to expect. Lesson learned, and now we are going to have some more intentional performing arts appreciation worked into our homeschooling. I'm going to get the whole family tickets to the Seattle Children's Theater production of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and I'm debating some of the classical tots daytime performances the Seattle Symphony does. Before any performance, we will prepare with books and clips and discussions.

I'm still bummed about Wicked, but it's not the end of the arts for us.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Farm City

I've just finished the very well-written memoir Farm City by Novella Carpenter. My last post about this book (about my omnivore status) only touched on one major theme from this book. The story of Carpenter's years living in an Oakland ghetto and having a "squatter's garden" in an empty lot is compelling on many levels. She explores our relationship to the food we eat, our relationship to our parents and our family heritages, and the social dynamics of inner-city life and how our society does or does not care for people.

Reading the book, I could easily imagine being friends with Carpenter. She is the child of hippies who were back-to-the-landers for awhile (mine wished they were), she grew up in a small town near where I live now, she talks favorably of the college that I and my husband attended, and she lived for awhile in the Seattle neighborhood that I spent my early childhood in. Yes, we have many things in common, and a similar outlook on politics and life. However, I can only marvel at some of the experiments in urban farming she embarked upon:
  • She raised bees so close to her apartment that there were always bees inside stinging people
  • She slaughtered birds and rabbits in her city backyard
  • She followed what she called "the 100 yard diet" for a month and only ate out of her own yard
  • She raised two pigs by dumpster diving for food scraps all over the city
  • She got a chef to teach her how to make salumi from her own pig meat

And all of this is recounted in a very nice writing style by a woman who has a likeable ability to self-observe and reflect on her own behaviors and motivations. A great read!

Here, someone had ignored convention and planted this fruiting plum tree. Maybe he had been hungry. Maybe the tree reminded him of home. Maybe he had imagined plum dumplings or plum jam. Whatever his motives, he watered the tree, didn't cut it down, let it flourish and fruit for all these years. Based on its size it must have been forty years old. Whoever planted it could never have predicted my existence - a crazy, starved, foraging locavore. The past was feeding me today, and I was grateful.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Birthday bests

excellent birthday box

Today is my birthday, and I'm feeling pretty spoiled! I got this wonderful box from my step-mother-in-law, who really knows how to make a fun box. She put little notes on each item, and made a funny card.

The kids came running in to wish me happy birthday as soon as I was awake, and they gave me the fancy beer steins I wanted (it's so efficient to take the kids shopping myself - I get just what I want!).

I hurried through work today, and then took myself to the shoe store. When the kids and I got home my husband was doing a bit of yard work for me, and he had gone to the farmer's market to pick up our CSA share. When I went in the kitchen to put the veggies away, they were in the rolling Reisenthel carrycruiser I've been wanting! It is the coolest shopping basket ever, and I can also use it to haul stuff to work or on picnics.

Tonight we go out with friends, and tomorrow my family comes over for dinner. It's good to indulge yourself and be indulged, at least once a year.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

staying home from school

I imagine you have heard the "controversy" about President Obama giving a speech to the nation's school kids, a speech about "controversial" things like staying in school and trying your best. Conservative pundits called for people to keep their kids at home, rather than have them subjected to this "propoganda".

And in the more liberal media, that idea has been (probably correctly) scoffed at - one commentator I heard said "this is the kind of craziness that leads to things like homeschooling!".


I know there are always folks who think homeschooling is crazy, and I know homeschooling is associated with conservative Christianity. However, there are people all along the political and faith spectrums of our society who choose to homeschool, for a lot of different reasons. And, personally I don't think it is totally crazy to want to have more say in what your children are taught.

None of these personal life choices are really consistently and purely political. A few years back it was the conservative position that government could do whatever it wanted - like wiretap your phone without a warrant and keep tabs on what books you checked out from the library. And then liberals were all about liberty and "this is not My government". Now we are seeing the flip side of that, and now those conservatives are worried that the government is too intrusive in their lives.

As usual, I'm just not very good at black and white thinking or at following the crowd - even when it is mostly my crowd. Olberman and Maddow - I love you guys, but I also homeschool. And I don't think that is a crazy thing to do.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Farm City

wicked witch

Here is my long-lived chicken, named Wicked Witch. She is over 10 years old, and no longer lays eggs, but she has been the survivor of so many events that killed her sister hens off that I feel like she has earned her elder years in my back yard.

My own chicken stories wouldn't be out of place in the memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter, which is an account of a keeping a mini farm in inner city Oakland, CA. Carpenter and her boyfriend rent an upstairs apartment and keep bees on the deck, chickens and other fowl in the yard, and a "squatter's" garden in the vacant lot next door. As they are surrounded by homeless men, gang activity, and drug users, she experiments with self-sufficiency and food security.

In the first section of the book Carpenter raises a turkey from a day old chick to maturity and kills it and cooks it for her Thanksgiving dinner. She is confronted by the issues of meat eaters - it is just a cop out to give the job to someone else, but it is hard to actually kill.

I inhabit this murky middle ground, believing that we need to treat animals humanely, and yet not sure about vegetarianism. When I was 18, my mother got her first meat birds. It was quickly clear who in the family was not going to be the butcher - I just couldn't face killing. And, rather than be a hypocrite, I became a vegetarian. I read Diet for a Small Planet, and I cooked careful veggie meals from Moosewood Cookbook.

It was pretty hard for me to stick to it, because I also have food allergies, gluten and lactose intolerance, and a genetic blood disorder called elliptocytic anemia. It is not in my food security interests to give myself another hurdle in finding dinner, and it turned out to be very bad for my anemia to be a vegetarian. When I met my husband (the child of two vegetarians, raised vegetarian) he was an unrepentent meat lover.

So, now we are omnivore's, trying to be ethical about it. I like to cook vegetarian several times a week, and I try to keep the meat as a small part of the meal, rather than having giant chunks of it with a tiny bit of green stuff on the side. And we keep our own chickens for eggs and shop for our meat from local sources as much as we can.

But we're still consumers, removed from the cycle of life and death that bring that meat to our dinner table. And I don't think that is best for us, best for our kids, or best for our planet. Ideally, we would all understand the sacrifice as life dies so that other life may live. Ideally, we would all honor the animals we eat. Ideally, we would only kill and eat what we really needed to in order to survive ourselves.

Every day, I face the dilemma of what to eat, and how it came to my plate. We can't all live on a farm, or even keep a city farm like Carpenter did, but it's good to be reminded of how basic to our lives food really is.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Unplug your preteen

Part 4 of my series based on the book Unplug Your Kids by David Dutwin Ph.D.

This chapter begins with this thought:
While children are born with some abiliy to fight off infection, and are built to withstand a wide range of bumps and bruises as they learn to physically master their bodies, it does not seem fair that they are not pre-equipped to deal with media in any way whatsoever.

Dutwin points out that these are the years where you can still shield your children, but you would be better off giving them the tools to deal with media, as the time is coming fast when you won't be able to control them anymore. So, rather than just saying NO to all forms of media, now is the time to teach media literacy and awareness, and give them some limits that keep it all to moderation.

Key Points to think about and talk to your kids about for these ages:
  • The thin ideal in media, and how that affects the body image of your children
  • Cyber bullying
  • Online predators
  • Internet addiction
  • Video game addiction
  • Video game violence, and the desensitization that can lead to
  • cell phone use - if you give them one, how do they use it responsibly?
  • advertising

Friday, September 4, 2009

Born with a Bang

Inspired by the wonderful book, Born with a Bang: The Universe Tells Its Cosmic Story, we are working on our own timeline of paintings that show the development of the universe. We're planning to continue the timeline all the way down our hallway and across the living room ceiling, and move into the development of the Earth and the evolution of life.

Born with a Bang is the first book in a trilogy that blends science with spirituality and features many lovely pictures such as this:

Born With A Bang

Here are some of Carbon's paintings:

the big bang

the first atoms

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Unplug your elementary age child

Part Three of my Unplug series, based on the book Unplug Your Kids by David Dutwin, Ph.D.

By the time kids start going to school (or not, if you homeschool ;)), they are way more plugged into media. They are watching TV at home, they are using the computer and the internet, and they are playing video games.


Here's something you might not expect - TV can have a positive effect! When compared to reading, TV had a greater rate of memory retention for both children and adults. So, the power of TV can be harnessed to actually help educate your children.

Of course, the fact that kids remember more what they see on TV can also mean that they will remember negative things they see. And there is the big negative of TV - the violence that seems to be pervasive on television programming. The more kids watch TV, the more they assume violence is normal and come to see the world as a violent place. Even if that does not make them act violently, it can have other effects, such as fearfulness or failure to step up and try to stop actual real-life violence.

The news can actually be a culprit here also. At this age, kids are likely to see the news broadcast, and there is a saying "if it bleeds, it leads" for a reason. I vividly remember seeing the Challenger explosion as a child, and how scary that was. It is fair to say that it altered my whole world view. Similarly, children who saw 9/11 on the news would have had their understanding of the world changed. Luckily, most of us don't witness horrific events in person. But with television news, we can all be secondary witnesses, and the trauma of those events spreads farther out. So, we need to be careful how we introduce the news into our childrens' lives.

If you do want to watch the news with your child, do it interactively. Bring out a map and point to where these things are happening. Talk about how the news focuses on extreme things, but that most people are nice and safe.

Computers and the Internet

Kids on the internet? Yep. Carbon is already on the internet, and he's only six. We just set up his first computer, and we put shortcuts on his explorer homepage that take him directly to his favorite sites - which happen to be the search results for youtube lego videos. There are websites designed for kids, including some kids' chatrooms and social networking sites. What is the danger? Well, there is less danger at this age and less danger in these more controlled sites, but kids are vulnerable to predators and scams. So, keep the computer in a main area of the house where you can monitor what they are doing, and make it a rule to Never Give Out Personal Information. There's software you can use to block some content, but there is no substitute for a nearby adult monitoring the computer use.

Video Games

Like television, there is actually a small benefit to video games. They really do help with hand-eye coordination and spatial reasoning. However, they also are really violent and sexist. Know the rating system and spend some time playing with your kids so you know what the game is like (see the recurring theme here?). Moderation is called for, certainly.

Key Points for parents:
  • keep control of the devices (main areas of the house)
  • have rules about time spent on media, to prevent over use
  • understand the ratings systems
  • know how to use filter technologies for your television and computer
  • be involved and interact with your child as they interact with media

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

unplug your preschooler

Here is Part Two of my look at media use and kids. According to Dutwin in Unplug Your Kids, preschool kids are listening to music and watching TV, and 27% of them are using a computer while 16% of them are playing video games.

My own preschoolers are doing all of those things. We listen to music, of course, and as with babies research indicates that music is actually good for preschoolers. They both watch about the average amount (under two hours a day) of TV, even though we no longer have cable service. DVD's fill any void that was left by the cable service, although it does mean that they tend to watch the same thing over and over again and that I have more control over what they watch because I am the one checking things out from the library and putting them on our Netflix queue. Carbon was using a computer at the age of 4, for simple educational games. And since we got a Wii both kids play some of the Wii games - they especially love bowling. The large motor action of the Wii and relatively mild and slow graphics seem better suited to young children than the other video game systems we've owned in the past. Both kids also have a Leapster handheld game and they each love to play those games.

So, is all of this OK for my kids? Should I labor under some Mommy guilt for all this media exposure, since I seem to be in the minority at least for the video gaming?

After reading this chapter in Unplug Your Kids I am concerned about how much superhero stuff I've allowed to slip in to their TV diet, stuff I would not have allowed Carbon to watch at the age of 3 but that now his little sister sees because she's with her big brother while he watches it. Dutwin identifies that TV can be fine for preschoolers, if it is educational and slow paced - such as Dora the Explorer or Mister Roger's Neighborhood. He also reports that it is much better to watch with your kids and interact about what they are seeing.

The main problem with TV that he identifies is that it can reinforce gender bias at this age - showing girls how to be girls and boys how to be boys. So, I really want to set some new boundaries around those superhero shows! Those things are Sexist with a capital S.

When it comes to computer use, Dutwin reports that the jury is mostly still out, but that software that is designed to be educational should be fine for this age. I'm going to say that we are OK with our JumpStart Language Club game and the Leapsters. I'm even going to say that the sports and fitness games on the Wii are fine (but I don't want them to do shooting games).

So then we come to the Biggie of media and preschoolers - Advertising. They just don't understand how they are being manipulated. It introduces more gender bias, it can make them want crappy junk food, and I think it starts them down a slippery slope of materialism and discontent with what they already have.

The quickie guide for media use for preschoolers:
  • Keep the media devices in your control - NOT in their bedrooms
  • Watch TV and play computer games with your kids, and interact with them in the process
  • Know what your kids are watching and keep it to educational programs that show values you agree with
  • Use your DVR or On Demand or DVD's so that you skip all the advertising.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Unplug your babies

Alright, a confession.

When my daughter Hypatia was a baby, she would go nocturnal on me for a few days in a row. She would just stay awake all night long. It wasn't that she was unhappy, just that she was totally, 100% awake.

I tried getting her back to sleep, I tried nursing her, I tried cuddling her, I tried playing music for her. And I was a mess - I was getting really angry with her and the sleep deprivation made it almost impossible for me to deal with the daytime demands of a house full of 6 as I did home daycare. So, I did something that at the time felt like it saved my life - I moved her port-a-crib into the living room and put a Baby Einstein DVD on "repeat play" so that it just kept going all night long. She was happy, and just sat in the pen watching it, and I got some sleep.

Now, it is recommended by pediatricians that you don't let your under 2 year old watch any TV. And if you are going to let them watch it, keep it to under 1 hour a day. I was breaking that rule, in a really big way. I can't be "preachy" about this; believe me I am not "holier than thou" when it comes to unplugging our families. But media has such an influence on our lives that we cannot ignore how our children interact with it either.

I'm reading Unplug Your Kids by David Dutwin, Ph.D., and I appreciate that he doesn't have an extreme or holier-than-thou tone either. In his easy-to-read review of the current research on media and kids, he discusses each age-group and what we know about how each media affect them.

The bad news for me: research indicates that TV for babies and toddlers may stunt the ability to focus, may delay language development, and it is not recommended at all for the first 24 months of life.

The good news for me: the links found are mostly unclear, and mainly we still don't know how TV affects babies.

If I could go back, I would try not to expose my kids to TV at those young ages. But, I would also try to be a perfectly calm and loving mother despite sleep-deprivation and having to work, and I know how hard that is. Bottom-line, do the best you can. I don't think TV is good for babies and toddlers, so avoiding having it on for them would be good. Avoiding having it on adult shows while they are in the room is also good.

Some coping strategies to cut back on TV use:

Playing music for them is good, so try that if the house feels empty while you are home alone with your baby.

Keep a busy box in your kitchen for when you need to prepare a meal. It can be pots and pans and wooden spoons or tupperware, or just anything that your toddler will be distracted by while you need both hands free.

Keep a rainy day box on hand for days you can't go outside. I used to have one that I kept stocked with new puzzles and books and tubs of play dough.

If you need a break, paradoxically it can work out to spend a bit of time playing with your child, setting up a game. For instance, I would sit down and build a wooden train track for the kids, and then get up and leave them to play with it. It was also always a big hit for me to build a fort or a puppet theater out of sheets and the dining room chairs. Once they are set, you can leave to do what you need to do.

Rotate your child's toys, putting some of them away in the garage or a closet for awhile. Then when you need to introduce a distraction in your day, switch out the toys. Those that have been gone for awhile will seem all new to the kids for a bit.