I Know How to Get Through Winter with Six Kids

Sometimes you have to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Or at least an embarrassment into something useful. For example:

Why is "Do You Hear the People Sing?" stuck in my head?

I often have piles of laundry this big and am ashamed to let people see them. Why? We all have laundry piles and no time to fold them. I’m not alone. Still, I usually tuck them away in a corner where I think they’re less obvious. But they’re always there.

Anyway as you can see by my groovy sectional couch (circa 1984, I kid you not) there is a perfect way for littles to climb up a seat, go over the table, and down the other side for a lovely roundy round jumping game. That is if they don’t stop in the middle and throw themselves off the table. I like to call it the “Make Amy Insane Game!”

I can stop this activity in a variety of ways:

1. Nagging
2. Physically removing them (which hurts my neck)
3. Pushing the table into the corner every day (which hurts my back)
4. Blocking them with the laundry

Ahh, the laundry blockade. The perfect solution! Sometimes you have to be creative.

And that’s what getting through winter with six kids in the house boils down to. Being VERY creative. I try to come up with projects they can all do, including the toddlers who eat stuff and the three-year-olds who want to use the beads. We sing hour-long renditions of “The Wheels on the Bus,” and man is that a wild and crazy bus (the dogs on the bus go woof woof woof. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the bus go “Cowabunga!!”). I dig through the music collection for favorite songs, games and dances, we do yoga (most of them have a pretty mean downward dog), I get out the giant box of stickers, and then there’s coloring. Lots of coloring.

Sometimes the solutions are simple. The kids love reading a book in my lap, as much of it as there it to go around with four of them vying for it when they see someone else in it. I also have two teething babies who want to eat the books. So I found a giant box of board books and just brought the whole darn thing out of storage. We have been working our way through them, several books a day, and aren’t even close to reaching the end of the pile. It’s a perfect activity – they get my attention. They are learning. And they love being in a puppy pile of kids on the couch (until somebody starts asserting dominance. Much like puppies).

We spend a lot of time cleaning up the messes they make. Because they are literally climbing the walls. We lost our chair privileges last week when Mr. W taught Mr. P how to use them to climb up and get what we want off the high shelves. So when they get bored with the toys that are available, they find their own. Watching piles of construction paper cascade off the art shelf is very entertaining. Or letting babies empty an entire box of kleenex. So fun. Evil geniuses.

But the thing is, I can’t get mad at these activities. I know this is what two-year-old boys do especially when they can’t get outside to run, jump, spin, climb, and get rid of that energy in a positive way. We just keep cleaning up. I try to explain how some things in this room belong to Amy and shouldn’t be touched. But I know logically they don’t get that. They see a challenge, they want something, they problem-solve to get it. Two.

As I process all this information and think of what’s happening in the education community today, it makes me sad. The teachers in my neighboring city of Holyoke are facing a new academic hell, something called “receivership,” which I’ve never even heard of, due to low test scores. This means that the state can make them re-apply for their jobs and force the school to get outside help (paid for by who?) even though it’s been proven not to work time and time again. (Oh and standardized tests have been proven not to work time and time again but we’re basing receivership on that. Follow the money trail, friends. Your kids are a cog in the wheel. Child labor. But that’s another story.)

I think about what would happen if some state educational representative walked into my program on an 8-degree day in January. When toys were strewn all over the floor and kids were cranky, noisy, and hard to please. I would say Yes, it looks crazy. And I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, and I know that this is what two-year-olds do. And I know how to handle it. But my voice would not be heard, because a politician and a businessman sitting in a quiet office somewhere, while other people raised their children (if they had any), decided that that’s not what kids should be doing at their age.

I’ve gone from creative laundry uses to a dark place here. I guess what I’m trying to say is, where kids are involved, some things are predictable, and some things are controllable. The rest is beyond us, and being the creative, supportive, patient, guiding adult is our job. And the voices of the professionals who do this job are the ones we should be listening to, no matter how ridiculous the solution may look to an outsider. Because believe it or not baby, I am a pro.

 

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Children and Fear

I have a two-year-old, Mr. O, who suddenly developed an insane fear of the Wiggles. (Well most adults are afraid of the Wiggles so maybe it’s not that outrageous.) I usually put on the Wiggles to distract the kids while I make lunch and they’re all pretty obsessed.

One day after seeing the same video about fifteen times, I heard Mr. O crying in absolute terror. Thinking someone had attacked him, I ran to the room to see what was wrong. Nothing. No one near him, no visible injuries, he’s standing alone in the middle of the room screaming. 

I asked him what was wrong and he kept repeating, “I don’t want it. I don’t want it.” These are the hilarious but frustrating moments of caring for kids. No one is forcing anything on you. You don’t have anything. What in God’s name are you talking about, child!?

I used an old day care provider trick to deal with pre-verbal kids who know a whole lot in their heads but can’t express it yet. I asked him, “Can you show me?” He pointed directly at the tv.

But it’s the Wiggles!! You love the Wiggles!! It’s Five Little Ducks – we sing this every day at circle time. What is going on? Then Captain Feathersword started to cry. (Never imagined I’d be writing that line one day.)

He was sobbing, crying, wailing, and pouring his tears into a bucket. Of course the Captain and Murray the Wiggle were giggling their way through the bit, but Mr. O couldn’t stand how sad he was! It’s a testament to what a sweet boy he is that he cares so much about sad father duck and sad Capt. Feathersword.

Most kids at this age are generally this sympathetic. It’s a nice thing that people don’t often get to see when it happens among small children. It’s also a developmental stage where self-conscious feelings begin to grow and a toddler’s perception of their own relationship to the outside world begins to change. They start to realize hey, that guy’s reacting to something scary, so maybe that scary thing is nearby. And even worse, if that guy is that upset, I should probably be that upset too.

There are scary things in the world and fear is a healthy defense mechanism. But it’s often scary for both the parent and the child to be in this moment. We want to run in and comfort our baby and shield them from everything bad in the world. But if we never expose them to fear or allow them to feel it, we’re stunting their necessary growth. It’s the never-ending parenting question: what’s a healthy amount of exposure and what’s too much?

So we have to find ways to teach our little ones how to handle fearful things in a gentle way. Often this is about stepping back and trying to see what our kids can handle, and waiting just a little instead of rushing in at the first moment. I knew that even though he was struggling, this was a teachable moment for Mr. O.

At first I just skipped the song because he was so plain terrified. This is showing him that we have some level of control over the thing that is scaring us. But after a few times of doing that, I let it play. I stayed with him, hugged and held him, and we talked about how the song had a happy ending. He still didn’t like it very much and cried a bit. But after a few more viewings he got more used to it. Now all I have to do is talk him through it and though he still doesn’t love it, he can watch without getting so terribly upset.

Fear is actually a very necessary life skill. It keeps us out of a lot of trouble. For little ones it tends to be about not falling off ledges or running into traffic. But we need fear throughout our lives to keep us safe. We need to be able to recognize and respond to that prickling feeling at the back of your neck that tells you this isn’t right – I need to get myself in a safer position, and to know the best responses to do so.

For my little guys it goes back to showing them that help is here, the scary thing is scary but we can handle it, and maybe someday it won’t be so scary. But I never totally eliminate that scary thing, because my kids need to know how to protect themselves, and I won’t leave them defenseless.

Yep. Child Care is Expensive.

Ooo, I love it, just love it whenever a new article about the high cost of child care comes out. This one by Alissa Quart covers the usual territory. Parents who use child care are stumped, and rightfully so, as to why they should work full-time and be away from their children, and then hand over most of that pay to someone else to watch said children.

With the biggest complaint being the cost and scarcity of care, the next question is why are we paying this much money for sub-par care? And then comes the litany of horror stories, which this article dutifully serves up.

That’s the part that always makes my skin crawl. Every time you hear “this woman locked the kids in one room for six hours” it makes us all look bad. The vast majority of child care providers (at least all the ones I’ve known in over ten years of doing this job) are dedicated, loving, incredibly hard-working women who would do anything for their kids. They are, in fact, required to go above and beyond by state regulations that have them putting in many unpaid extra hours after their long day with the kids is over. But I digress.

An obvious answer to the question “Why do I keep working?” is that few people can afford to take themselves out of their career path. You step away and you’re out. This is a big decision, especially for someone who now has a home, cars, and a child to provide for. Moms who keep their full-time jobs are doing it for the good of their family, but they often get knocked for leaving their little ones.

Stay-at-home moms give up as much as working moms do by being away from their babies. They are walking away from a good career and all the benefits of it, the experience they’ve been building, and possibly everything they’d been preparing for up until that point. (That’s the power your child has over you, but that’s another story.)

Every family chooses what’s best for them and we all need to stop vilifying each other. But while we’re at it, let’s stop vilifying the child care providers.

The reason child care is scarce is because it’s an incredibly difficult job. Home child care providers are on their own with very little support. We work long hours, have incredibly stressful work environments, and a physically and mentally demanding job. But we are expected to be saintly at all times. We can’t make mistakes. So people burn out, and those who want to make a decent wage often go find another job.

It’s true, parents give us a huge chunk of their income. But we have no benefits, no paid time off, no sick time, and personally I just cover my bills. I can’t even get into the doctor for an appointment for myself or my children. I accrue nothing. There is no safety net. And the job is over-regulated by state agencies who don’t give the support necessary to cover their requirements.

Another thing that people often overlook is that when you work in child care, there is no upward mobility. You may become a director if you work in a center, but the stress of that job isn’t commensurate with the pay (again, very low, and “Director” at a child care center has far less cachet than “Director” at a company).

We often turn to the proposal of federally-funded child care, as Ms. Quart does in her article. But this idea usually makes people go ballistic. My taxes are not going to pay for your child!

Why doesn’t anybody get this enraged about their taxes paying for endless war, destruction, and general misuse around the world? It confounds me when people get angrier about taking care of babies and toddlers at home than they do about killing children in other countries.

But I digress.

Ms. Quart actually does a good job of hitting all the major points in the debate over child care, and I often found myself agreeing with her. But her conclusion touches on my single biggest problem with the way we view child care: that parents have “a discomfort with center-based day care and even the term ‘day care,’ preferring terms like ‘educational enrichment’ and, yes, preschool.”

This is the trend that makes all child care providers crazy. We know children. We know what they need. They don’t need early educational enrichment. We see what the school systems do to kids once they get there. They are over-tested, over-stressed, have no recess or down time, and then are blamed for bad behavior, which is a normal human child’s response to extreme pressure.

Providers know that we are the last bastion of protecting babies and toddlers’ freedom. What babies need is love, consistency, sleep, and fun. They do not need curriculum, and early enrichment will not help their future success. In fact, studies show that over-stimulation at early ages causes children to withdraw and perceive themselves negatively, while those in child-centered classrooms thrive.

Child care providers give kids what they need in so many more ways than “enrichment.” Nurturing and building a strong foundation of self-esteem leads to enrichment. We teach them ABCs and 123s, and that is an appropriate amount of knowledge for a toddler. The rest of what they need will come later.

Articles like this will always pop up every few months because of our country’s anti-woman, anti-family policies. The sweeping reforms often suggested by their authors aren’t backed up with enough political capital to ever happen. Child care is expensive, but not always as bad as they make out in the articles. It will continue to be hard to find as long as high quality is demanded but no support systems for providers exist. And the discussion is incomplete until you include and respect the voices of providers who actually do the job and have the wisdom needed to change the system.

Parents who have had to pay for child care are immensely relieved when their kids are old enough to attend public schools for free – which, egad – are supported by taxpayer dollars. So when the push gets big enough, when enough people demand subsidized child care, perhaps we’ll see a change. But a system that doesn’t value families, that pushes individual success above all else, that fights against health care and elder care and any kind of perceived “handout,” will never willingly embrace this idea on its own.

Feeling the Love

Sometimes in the middle of the insanity you can feel so much appreciation. Or maybe it seems even better than usual because you’re in a bad place. I needed it today, and boy did I ever get it.

This is a job where you don’t always feel that love, especially in summer. Parents are stressed out because they’re juggling schedules and trying to find care for kids who are out of school. My kids are home feeling neglected and bored while I work. And then there’s just the normal job stuff of making everybody follow the rules and managing extra equipment and activities for multiple ages – in your living room.

Today was looking to be a doozy. Without school in session I am IT for both my usual crew plus the after-schoolers, and I am overloaded. Usually the house and yard are trashed from one end to the other by the end of the day. I was expecting chaos from the get-go.

Instead, I started my morning with the sweetest moment. One of the moms was dropping off and she commented, “Your house has a certain smell and I realized what it is when I came in today. It’s comfort.”

Wow. Could you say anything better to someone who spends her life trying to comfort many little people? (And isn’t it nice that the soccer and baseball equipment are laying right there in the front hall, but she could still say that somehow.)

Another wonderful thing today has been my boys. I finally offered to pay them if they would stay with me and help with the kids, and geez why didn’t I think of that before. They have been all over me, doing everything I ask IMMEDIATELY. I need to mention that I’ve spent the first half of the summer begging them to put away their dirty laundry and dishes to the point of wondering, is there something mentally wrong with them?

Not today. Throw a little cash at them and they’re suddenly professional child care assistants. Having them with me has been delightful. They’ve carried babies (I’m still hurting from the bad back), set up pools, served lunch, and led the arts and crafts time. They’ve been simply amazing.

My five-year-old who already spent a week at camp commented, “Your house is like a campground!” So we decided that my boys are the camp counselors. They didn’t mind. In fact I think they kinda liked it.

Finally, I have a little one who has been fighting nap and her mom has been very concerned because she wants her on a good sleeping schedule. Today, after a few days of fighting through nap, she fell asleep for the first time. I was thrilled and immediately texted mom. Her response: “YOU ARE A SUPERSTAR.” (Her caps.)

It may sound silly but that’s exactly what I need to hear. A little bit of praise is so nice. When it comes to kids, I know what I’m doing, I’ve been doing it for a long time, I get good results. But on a day when eight of them are running through my house in various states of nakedness and/or dripping wet, I have my doubts. So that little bit of extra love every once in a while is just what I need.

First Day of Summer

Let’s talk about today.

First off, I started the week by putting my back out. Mr. O is going through a second phase of stranger anxiety but at 18 months instead of nine. So now he’s twice as heavy as a 9-month-old. And I’m twice as old as somebody who should be hauling around any baby.

When Famous Carol came to sub for me to go to Younger Son’s graduation from elementary school, I picked up a screaming Mr. O, the back went pop and so, pretty much, did the rest of my week.

With school out I don’t have to transport the boys back and forth, which is great, and I love having them home more than anything. But they are two extra bodies in the house who, however self-sufficient, still need attention and feeding and leave a trail of dishes, crumbs, and wet/dirty/smelly clothes in their wake.

Younger actually wants to help with the day care kids, which is awesome, but requires extra work in finding supplies and cleaning up after the highly complicated art projects he chooses at random each morning.

I had an interview coming at noon and had to print out a contract – and the printer was out of ink. I should add that an interview makes you want to have everything clean and tidy. But there are seven kids underfoot who don’t care all that much about cleanliness. And that just creates a lot of angry noise in your brain that you’re carrying around on top of the usual chaos.

The weather has been crazy this week and it was downpouring all morning. At 10:15 when there was a break in the rain I told the kids, we need to get out in the yard now before it comes back! Once we got there, the skies cleared and the sun was beating down on us.

I hadn’t brought out any supplies for swimming (towels, bathing suits, change of clothes) but the children were already half-naked and jumping in the pool full of rain water.

Well, OK fine, they’re distracted, we’ll deal with that mess later, I thought. Now is the perfect time to put together my new climber that the neighbors donated and are bringing over at this very moment. The interview will see it and think, what an awesome place to bring my daughter. That climber will put me over the edge, I’m sure of it!

The babies were running around naked with soaking wet “pendulum diapers,” as my neighbor noted. Miss A was playing a half-serious game of chase with Mr. L in which she showed him her doll, he tried to take it, and she ran away screaming, “You can’t have my doll!”

I stopped her and explained that she should stop showing it to him if she didn’t want him to take it. She listened politely, showed Mr. L the doll again, and ran away screaming with him trailing behind her.

I realized the climber was going to need more help than a good swift kick to pop it together, so I went to grab the rubber mallet out of the garage. Not there. But this small axe should do the trick!

The two big girls were playing a game of princess rescue in which one of them hid somewhere in the yard and screamed in pain to warn the prince that she needed help. This game intersected with the baby doll chase and four children were now running through the yard tackling each other with various levels of real- and fake-pain screams. The babies were beginning to melt down, lunch time was approaching, and I feared my interview could walk in at any moment.

Pay no attention to the axe in the play area.

I hustled the sweaty, dirty, crying, mosquito-bitten, sunburned, droopy-drawered children into the house and somehow miraculously managed to get them all cleaned up, changed, and sitting down ever-so-beautifully at the lunch table when the interview arrived.

I found out five minutes after she arrived that she used to be a preschool teacher. She was completely nonplussed by the disaster, and sat down with a book and two kids on her lap while I finished cleaning up lunch. Some things are meant to be.

They left and I put the kids down for nap and to have a lie-down on the living room floor (oh yes the back is still twinging amidst all this). I have lately fashioned a pillow out of two comforters and a pillow case for Mr. L who, instead of drinking his water, dumped it out in his bed and wailed about having a wet bed.

It’s 1:50. I’m just sitting down to lunch. We’re only two hours behind schedule. And I’m just a few clicks away from a nervous breakdown. Welcome, summer!

Just One of Those Days

It was Wednesday. It started out with me melting down at my own kids, then one of them melting down, a melting down baby all morning, and a different one melting down all afternoon. It was not a pretty day.

I slogged through it the best I could, repeating the mantra: This is not my fault. Just get through it. (Then I realized how awesome that mantra is for much of parenting.)

I have always said childrens’ behavior is affected by the barometer, and meltdown-day was a perfect example of that. The weekend was crazy beautiful spring warm. Then we had two below-30-degree nights. On Wednesday rain clouds were coming, it got humid, and you could actually feel that air pressure growing.

Kids are like horses, forest animals, and Spiderman. They have these weird extra senses that make them act crazy for no apparent reason. Loud airplanes make them cry. A drop in air pressure makes them unbearable. A full moon – fuggedaboudit.

But the best part about a day like meltdown-day is, I know that really, it’s not my fault. I’m not doing anything wrong. In fact, I’m doing a lot of things right. I know which cries to let go, which to challenge, which to hug. I know who wins the toy in the tug-of-war (the boy who was being ganged up on by two girls) but I know to call said boy on his bad behavior a few minutes later when he hits someone.

What’s the best remedy for a day like this? Early nap. (But even then one sleeps for an hour, wakes up, and starts melting down.) Other remedies: patience. Distractions. New toys. Singing, music, and dancing. Sitting quietly and letting them each come to you in turn for attention and hugs. Chocolate.

A few years ago I would have beaten myself up relentlessly for a day like this. I would have felt like I was letting it happen, that somehow I had set the stage for everyone’s miserable mood. Or that all the hard work I’ve put in with these kids was just washed away. That I was failing to entertain them enough, to control their behavior, or just even do the basic job of child care.

Now I’m smarter. I know that when it gets bad, there’s pretty much nothing I can do except keep everybody safe. I know that every bad day ends, and on the next one everything will feel easier and better. You just have to get through the hard ones with the least amount of damage possible.

Thursday came, a new day, and it was beautiful. A perfect sunny spring day. We were outside all morning, everyone having a grand old time. In fact at one point I literally thought: “I am really good at this job.” Then had to laugh at myself, remembering the day before when I had the sneaking suspicion that I was unfit to care for children.

Why UPK is a Bad Idea

Everyone’s all abuzz about President Obama’s mention of universal preschool (UPK) in his state of the union address. I’m totally against it, and it’s shocking all the people who know me as a dedicated early childhood professional.

But Amy, don’t you love the little children? Don’t you think they deserve the best start they can get? As an early childhood educator (ECE), don’t you agree this is a long time coming and should be a natural next step?

As an early childhood educator, I know what happens when government gets involved in education. It’s not pretty.

But before I begin on early education, let’s look at our track record with our existing school system. Which, globally, ranks somewhere in the middle. Just average, in the richest and most powerful nation on earth.

There are a million reasons for this, but I’ll just go on my family’s experience. Like the rest of the nation, my kids are getting a mediocre education. They’re being standardized-tested to death. They don’t have recess so they can have more test prep time. We’ve only been able to keep a music program because the music teacher is also the gym teacher. And THAT’S because my town is down fourteen teachers this year. I’m not talking luxuries here. We haven’t asked for an iPad for every student. We. Need. Teachers.

That’s not an outrageous expectation, is it?

So let’s apply this winning formula to preschool. In the decade I’ve been in this field, the more that “education” creeps into the picture, the less real care for children remains. That’s why I don’t like education reform in the manner it’s done today. Because as an ECE, I know what kids really need to learn, and it’s usually the opposite of what education reformers think it is.

When the regulations come down, they require child care providers to have degrees. I have seen my field be quietly but systematically stripped of some of the wisest, kindest, most sympathetic and caring teachers because they didn’t have college degrees.

These are the women who taught and helped me when I entered the field. I am living proof: you can NOT learn what you need to know to work with children in a college classroom full of adults. As my kindergarten teacher aunt said, “Amy, they’ll eat you alive.” She was right, and I had to learn the hard way, almost not making it past my third year. I had a master’s in education but was totally unprepared to work with children.

Some people are convinced that accreditation is the best route for ensuring quality programs. My kids went to the best preschool I’ve seen in my experience. But the director was forced to close after becoming nationally licensed, only to find out that the amount of work required to maintain that status cost too much to run her business.

Our closest relative to UPK, Head Start, is failing, with 100,000 children being cut out of the program this year. When the budgets come down and my child care friends are shocked at the programs we’re losing, I always remind them: Women and children first!

Add to all this the simple problem of staffing. A child care center is expected to provide nine to ten hours of care for an eight-hour working day. The pilot UPK program now being run in Massachusetts requires the same full-day, full-year services.

Think for a minute about how long schools are staffed. Half of a year, for six hours a day. And we are barely keeping them alive as it is.

So we would be asking our preschools to be something between a child care and a school, but so much more. Where will the staff come from? Child care worker is still one of the lowest-paid professions in the country, making less than minimum wage in some areas.

On top of her normal child care duties (which is enough work to kill an ox), a Head Start provider must do hours of paperwork, plan individual curriculum for each child, perform assessments and plan goals, meet with parents on a monthly basis, and have a state employee review her curriculum and facility every other month. For all this extra effort she earns an extra $8.40 per day. This is shameful.

I don’t even have the space to get into curriculum changes and the impact on programs – and the children they serve – here. I still have some semblance of control over my little world, and I’m holding onto it for dear life.

The fact that I can even let my kids swing is in jeopardy, as I’m barely allowed to keep my grandfathered-pre-new-regulations swingset. I won’t be surprised if they make me remove it after the next round of changes. And then I’ll tell the kids, whose best interests have been served, that the swings are just too dangerous and scary.

We, as a country, have never had the money to back up government mandates. Period. So our schools, preschools, and Head Starts struggle under the burden of unfunded regulations that can’t possibly be maintained. How is any of this, in any way, good for the little children? In fact, I do love them. That’s why I try to protect them from a system that puts their real, true educational needs last.

Many people have pointed out that we can only move forward with a first step, and Obama simply took the first step. That’s great. Of course kids deserve a real education and more than just pipe dreams being used as filler in political speeches. I hope that this will be done the right way someday. But let’s fix the educational system we have now before we drag our four-year-olds into the debacle.