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.

Jack Frost, I Salute You

I’m a member of several child care provider groups and every winter there’s lots of buzz about whether or not we stay open for snow days. I finally started closing for them a few years ago, and it’s been incredibly liberating.

I know for my parents it can be a hardship (sorry guys), but usually there’s at least a little warning time and they can prepare for the possibility with a backup plan. It’s not like my sick days where they get a call at 5AM with the bad news that I’m not making it today.

I try to tell people my snow day horror stories so they understand why I do it: I’ve had kids stuck here until 7:30 at night because their parents are out in the storm somewhere. I once had to carry a child through knee-deep snow to meet his parents at the end of my street because it wasn’t plowed. That was fun. And really, if the towns and safety officials are saying it’s too dangerous and we should stay in, why push it? Isn’t it better to just be safe?

But there’s more to it than that. Child care providers never get to play hooky. Even my kids don’t really get to play hooky. They don’t get to have sick days at home with mom tending to their icky-feeling-need-lots-of-extra-hugs time, because she’s watching the six other kids who don’t care if you have a headache, and they just keep on screaming and crying and doing what they do.

Heck, I don’t even get to go to doctor’s appointments without having to pay a sub. I can’t just tell my boss, “I have to see the dentist this afternoon,” and then not come back after lunch. So I either neglect my own checkups, or have to go through the trouble of finding a sub, and coordinating her schedule with the doctor, and then paying both of them for the privilege of getting a mammogram.

It’s not fair. So that’s what snow days are to me. They’re for the half day of school last week, when my mom friend posted a picture of lunch out with her kids, and my heart blazed with jealousy while I fought my way through quiet time, trying to keep the after-schoolers settled so the babies could nap. Or girl-day manicures or trips to Six Flags or all the other awesome things that people with normal jobs get to do when they sneak away from their responsibilities and have a day of fun with their kids.

The title of this blog refers to the movie Rise of the Guardians, in which Jack Frost is mad because no one appreciates him. He has to learn why he’s a true Guardian and what his center is. Spoiler alert: his center is FUN. And not just fun, but the kind that comes in the dead of winter when there’s really no good reason for it except that we all need a break.

That’s what snow days are about. No school, no work, snowmen, shovels, cold fingers, sleds, hot chocolate. The thrill when you hear your town’s name in the list of closings, and then you listen again to make sure it’s CLOSED, and not just a delay. And turning the alarm off and pulling the covers back up over your head.

So I ask you to put aside the work for a day. Be the most important person for your kids, not your co-workers. Because these days are short, and fleeting, and you only get to play hooky for a few joyous childhood years.

Big Bird is Saved!

As I was looking around my child care room today I noticed exactly how many ways PBS is part of my life – literally on a daily basis.

Miss S got me started. She picked up my Oscar toy and asked what it was for. I said, “When those men were running for President, one of them said he would get rid of ‘Sesame Street.’ But he didn’t win, so I put Oscar out to celebrate.”

She said she knew, and started speaking quite eloquently about it. I’ve had her since she was two – I forget she’s in second grade now and can comprehend things.

She told me that a boy in her class talked about it because his mother works for PBS. I said, “He must have been afraid that his mother might lose her job.”

She nodded, very serious. Then she asked, “No PBSKids?” Which is one of her favorite things to play on the computer, and it’s one of the ways I entertain her when the littles are napping.

I said yes. Then Younger Son asked, “There’d be no Wild Kratts?” and I was actually a bit stricken.

Through their shows, the Kratt brothers have stoked my son’s love for everything wild. He is obsessed with nature and all its creatures and how to preserve it. In fact one of the things he wants to be when he grows up is someone who “travels the world and helps animals.”

So with this conversation in my mind, I began to pick out all the things I see every day that came from PBS.

This poster came with my “Mr. Rogers Plan and Play” curriculum book. Most of the time I forget it’s there, like everything that eventually blends into the walls, but whenever I do notice it I get a smile.

I made this t-shirt for my sister but she’s not sure she can wear it in public without offending people. It’s a nightshirt now. (For those of you who don’t remember, it was “The Electric Company” teaching us about tolerance. What nonsense PBS fills kids’ heads with!)

I found this gem in a library book sale and as soon as I opened the book I remembered the pictures from reading them as a child. It was a visceral reaction.

OK I’ll just say it. I was screaming at the book sale and embarrassing my children.

On Monday of this week we listened to “Songs From the Street” while we were using Play-Doh. I used the Frontline website to research an education article the other day, and recommended a Nova documentary about doctor-assisted suicide to a friend. The list is practically endless.

I don’t know if the President even has the ability to eliminate PBS. But I’m just so glad we don’t have to find out.

By the way. Best children’s book ever?

Snapshot of My Day

The second grader, Miss S, is hiding behind the big garbage can, crying. One dad is trying to put his screaming son onto the buggy to go to school. Three others are already in there waiting to go. Another dad arrives, apologizing for being late, and I’m waving at him to just please put his two kids in the buggy without my help. Younger Son is standing by with his backpack, ready to go to school, surveying the chaos.

I am on the phone with Miss S’s mother, and we are both trying to devise a way to “talk her off the ledge,” as mom put it. Miss S left her backpack in the car and it was driven to work, 40 minutes away. When we discovered this she seemed fine, and I told her I’d give her some lunch money so she would be able to buy one.

That was the moment when it all went wrong. She went absolutely ballistic and wouldn’t let me help her at all. I called mom to ask if the backpack happened to be left at home, in which case I could swing by and grab it. Nope – in the car. She finally said (as she could hear me trying to console Miss S, and her wailing in the background), “Let me talk to her.”

Ah, brilliant – mom to the rescue!! I gladly handed Miss S the phone, briefly said thanks and goodbye to the dads, and started pushing the buggy down the street. At this point we were in danger of being late to school. Miss S followed me reluctantly, and I could hear her yelling, “I can’t hear you!!! I tried moving it!!!” into the phone. I – gently…carefully… – moved the phone a little lower on her ear and finally mother and child were reunited.

They talked halfway to school and Miss S gave me the phone back. Mom said she’d bring the backpack after she finished teaching her first class (ah, the life of a mother). Miss S straggled slowly behind us, stopping to hide and cry every ten or fifteen feet.

I tried to figure out why she was so upset. “I just want my backpack!” she shrieked. I said, “Are you afraid people are going to say something mean to you because you don’t have it?” NO! “If you’re worried about your homework I’ll tell Miss Johnson what happened.” NO! “I know you’re upset but it’s OK, you’re not going to be in trouble.” GET AWAY FROM ME!!!

Hmm. As there was nothing I could do and Younger was going to be very late, I just kept walking (and turning around to make sure Miss S didn’t at some point run screaming down the road). When we got to the school she didn’t want to cross the street and started crying all over again. I was already halfway into the street with the giant buggy, so I had to – again, gently – nudge her closer to me as she swiped my arm away.

I told her I’d talk to her teacher and she stormed to the line that was already forming because the bell rang three minutes ago. One of the wonderful aides at the school saw her crying and went over to her. I heard her say, “You forgot your backpack?” and I whispered to her, “Mom’s bringing it at 11:00.” She took it from there.

Thank GOD for that woman. I didn’t know if I’d even be able to get Miss S into the building, and was considering just taking her home with me.

Later on Mom called me to let me know she’d dropped off the backpack and to deconstruct what had happened. She explained that Miss S hates the school food, has never bought lunch, isn’t quite sure how, and hates to stand in the line. Ah-haaaaaaa…..

It just goes to show how little you can know about a person no matter how much time you’ve spent with them. I’ve had Miss S in my care for FIVE YEARS – from the time she was two! But I had no idea she hated school lunch so much. If I’d known that I would’ve made her a lunch. Of course it was time to LEAVE when she discovered the backpack was missing, but I could’ve finessed it a little better and avoided the breakdown.

By the way. While Mom and I were on the phone, I heard a crack and a crash, and turned to see that her other daughter had fallen through the front of one of the toy ovens and was now trapped inside of it.

My big boys had moved all our outdoor toys into a giant pile so they could play wiffle ball. I was in the middle of putting them back in place when mom called. The oven was laying on its back and for some reason Miss D thought it would be fun to climb on it.

Mom could now hear the cracking plastic and me asking her other daughter, “Are you OK? Are you bleeding? Nope it looks alright, no cuts.”

She laughed and said, “I don’t know how you handle this constant chaos!” I said simply this: When you expect constant chaos, nothing phases you.