How to Keep Six Kids Happy

One of the hardest things I had to get used to when I opened my day care was slowing down to kid speed. I mean, really slowing down. While taking care of little ones you can get in a rush pretty easily. But trying to get three toddlers down the front steps without falling and scraping their noses on the pavement can be an excellent exercise in taking one’s time.

Adults are always in a rush. Our heads are always in two (or more) places at once. We have pressures and stress and things to do and events to plan and people to care for and the news and our jobs, and all that noise in our heads makes it very difficult for us to actually be where we are.

Kids are always where they are. They might have some worries or be upset about something, but they’re still firmly planted in this moment. They see everything so clearly. I’m not talking about a life lesson, pay attention to the details, smell-the-roses kind of thing, but finding a way to connect with them, because our heads are in the clouds but theirs are in the now. (Ironic. We like to think it’s the other way around.)

For instance, the other day Mr. E saw the fan icon on the microwave, which spins, and said, “Wheel.” (The boy loves wheels.) From his perspective, that’s totally a wheel. And yesterday one of my girls gave me a colorful fall leaf. We looked at how pretty it was, then I absentmindedly started spinning it between my thumb and finger. This was like a whole new world of awesome. She stared at it for minutes while we both got a little entranced at the sight.

So I’ve found that one of the key aspects of successfully working with kids is seeing what they see. It takes practice, training, and an awareness of everything that’s going on around you. I have to know where everyone is, what they’re up to, and who’s playing with what toy, in case someone comes up and grabs it out of their hands.

When you are connected on this level, and can step in to any argument, and know what’s going on, and how to fix it, and talk for them, and walk them all through the solution, and make sure everyone is treated fairly: you will rock at taking care of kids. (And extra bonus: they will trust and adore you.)

I started a new, young group last month and my head was spinning. I was going in ten directions at once, barely keeping up, something always needing to be done and someone always needing my attention. I felt pulled in all directions and wasn’t sure I could keep up the pace.

Then I got sick. I thought I was doomed for sure. If I can’t keep up top speed, this ship is sinking. But here’s the weird thing: when you’re sick, you slow down. My head hurt so much I couldn’t run around, so I just sat, and the kids came to me. They each got a little fix of my attention in turn, and then they were happy to go off and play.

Instead of being on my feet and missing something, I could watch all that was happening and help them move through the day so much easier. There wasn’t as much attention-seeking behavior (which is our nice professional way of saying “bad”) because I was connected with them much more consistently.

Another trick I used is listening to everyone’s side and not having to “punish.” I have an infant now and while I’m busy feeding or changing her, plenty of other stuff is going on with my wild bunch. An adult may look at a situation and think, this child needs a punishment. When actually the other kid – as long as they get their toy back – could care less.

Children mostly just want to be heard. If I can listen sympathetically to both kids and name their feelings for them, they’re satisfied. By the time they’re done talking to me about what happened, they’ve moved on to the next thing and forgotten about what caused the hurt in the first place. This doesn’t excuse all behavior but it saves a lot of hurt feelings on both sides of a fight. Sometimes being heard is more important than seeing a friend get in trouble.

Another great technique I’ve fallen back on recently is broadcasting. While I’m under that baby (or suffering from a sinus headache) and watching what the kids are doing, I repeat it back to them. “Mr. O’s mowing my lawn – awesome! I needed that done. Wow Ms. G, that was a big jump.” When you verbally connect with the kids – even if they don’t respond or even seem to notice – they know you’re present and you care about them. They eat it up.

I feel better now, but I’m consciously keeping a much slower pace. I’m spending as much time as I can not rushing, not moving around. Sitting right down on the floor in the middle of the kids and observing. Being calmer and less agitated by all the things I have to get done, and finding that some of them I don’t really have to do. Maybe just keeping the peace is the most important one.

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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!

Wallowing in the Winter Blues

I took my kids to see “Rise of the Guardians” last weekend and literally. Cried. Through the whole thing. It’s a good thing I got them extra napkins for their popcorn.

I think I would’ve cried alot anyway, given that the plot is about fighting to keep hope, magic, and fun alive in children, but with current events it just made the notion of innocence that much harder to stomach.

It also didn’t help that recent activity around our house has centered on my children growing up – really growing up. We spent most of the weekend (before watching the heart-wrenching movie) cleaning out the boys room. It’s time for a new paint color, as the baby hues I chose for them so many years ago just don’t fit anymore.

So we cleared out and gave away and took loads of old toys and no-longer-loved stuffed animals to donate. I found the Play-doh factory where I spent hours molding with both of the boys. I still have some old ice cream cone sculptures in my jewelry box, because to a mother, those hard, multicolored blobs of clay are more precious than her jewels.

I know that every time we clean out, I’m letting go, and it’s incredibly hard for me to do. The little toys we used to play with, the old, broken pieces of artwork, the collections stashed in old lunchboxes. It’s hard to give up the physical objects because when I look at them, I remember. I am afraid that without the reminders I’ll forget the time spent.

Besides letting go of the material remnants of childhood, Younger Son’s last illusions are being stripped away by his classroom’s study of slavery and the south. Visions of burning crosses dance in his head at night, and I have to soothe his mind before he can sleep. He talks about how painful it is for him to think of people suffering and sometimes I am at a loss for what to say to make it better.

To top it all off, Older just faced his biggest big-boy challenge yet, a really tough decision that involved the whole family and hours of one of my least favorite pastimes: Processing. But after we got the hardest part over, I am left with my amazement at his understanding of the big picture, his own needs, and his bravery in going through with what has to be done. And standing up for himself to boot. I told him what my best friend told me: The hardest choice is usually the right one.

When you look at it all this way, it’s easy to see what it is about childhood that we cling to. Innocence and hope, yes. Believing in magic and the possibility that anything can happen, definitely. But I think it’s the ability to care for people who you don’t even know, to put others first and be selfless and concerned, that means the most to me. And of course being able to live free, without the hard choices that grown-up life brings.

So this morning while getting ready for work I did what I always do when I’m depressed: I put my iPod on shuffle and trusted it to find me a song that would lift me out of my low. It chose the Pretenders’ version of “Forever Young.”

iPod, you so did not get that one right.

Once again I literally. Cried. Through the whole thing. Next came “Find the Cost of Freedom”?! Really?! “Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.” I’m feeling better by the minute!

Luckily that dirge is short and sweet, and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” came on next. OK. I can breathe again. “All we need is a drummer – for people who only need a beat.” Dance those blues away, baby.

“May God bless you and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay
Forever young

Forever young
Forever young
May you stay
Forever young

May you grow up
To be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay
Forever young

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay
Forever young.”

– Bob Dylan

What Died in My Kitchen?

I took the trash out, so the smell isn’t coming from there.

Ditto the compost.

It smells like something rotten in the fridge but it’s coming from outside the fridge.

Toss the bowl of melted raspberries that was accidentally left on the table overnight.

Check under the baseboard heaters – is it possible a mouse crawled in there?

Under the fridge? The stove? Only the detritus of years: ping pong balls, magnets, cat food, tumbleweeds of dust. Dang I should really clean under there.

The fruit bowl? Fruit flies: check. Rot: no.

Was there a perishable in the pantry?

The In-sink-erator? That’s always a good culprit.

Ohhhh. Eeeeeew.

It’s the cantaloupe, purchased only three days ago, which looks deceivingly innocent on the top, but has gone moldy on the bottom and is mating with the chopping block countertop below. I actually have to scrub the stain.

And now the compost smells again.

Curse you, grocery store produce department!

This One’s for My FCC Ladies

I was having a great little chat with Famous Carol the other day about the state of family child care. She subs for several other women and shares my worry that home day care providers are a dying breed.

Between us we know several home day cares in the area that are closing. Maybe more parents are choosing centers. But it might be that for some people the workload is starting to outweigh the rewards. Carol pointed out how sad it is that we’re becoming more and more institutionalized.

It really hit me hard when she said, “It used to be like dropping your kids off at Grandma’s house for the day.”

That just sounded so sweet, and I would love to have that kind of house. It’s getting harder to maintain that family atmosphere with all the requirements we have to meet. I have to admit that I barely skate by as it is, especially since I just started a four-month-old who needs to be held a lot (as all babies do).

So I got into my usual funk of comparing myself to other providers and coming up short. Carol told me to stop being hard on myself (she knows this is what I do). She tells me if the kids are happy I’m doing a great job. Well, they’re happy a lot of the time…

But then the very next day a funny thing happened. My after-schooler went to girl scouts, two kids stayed home sick, and another got picked up early with a fever. I was left with just three girls for the afternoon and quickly realized I had a lot of time on my hands.

As we came home from the school pickup (I still had my own son to get, don’t forget about him) I said, “Instead of me making a snack for you guys, how about we bake our own together?” YEAH!!! They ran in the kitchen. “Amy remember when it was Miss A’s birthday and we make cupcakes?” “Remember I got the egg on my hand and I cried?” “Do we still have the halloween holders?” (Cupcake wrappers. Yeah, it’s been a while since we baked.)

And in a strange twist, Older helped us while Younger played video games. It was delightful for me, first to see him bonding with the kids instead of being annoyed at them (his usual state), but also because I don’t think he’s made muffins with me since he was about five years old.

So when I don’t have a four-month-old plus five other kids plus an after-schooler plus my own two kids, I am really damn good. And it’s not that hard.

Today I was down to one at the end of the day with half an hour before her dad came to pick her up. I asked if she would be scared if I vaccuumed. She said yes but I tried it. She covered her ears and watched me. I said, “Do you want to try it?” An old trick to get kids over being scared of the monster.

She jumped at the chance. Of course it’s too heavy for her to push so I took the hose off and showed her how to magically suck up the cracker crumbs and popcorn pieces. She was delighted.

While she sucked up the snack detritus from under the table, I used the dustpan on the hardwood floor. We knelt side by side and she giggled hysterically every time the vaccuum hose sucked up her dress. It suddenly felt a little old-fashioned to me and I thought, this is like grandma’s house.

Until she thought it would be fun to see if the vaccuum would suck up her sock. That thing was whipped off her foot and up the hose faster than I could even blurt out one word in response.

It was kinda funny.

Then it was more like Grandpa’s shop than Grandma’s kitchen, and the boys were back to see me doing surgery on the vaccuum, and then they all played jumprope with the hose (which I had to remove), and Older showed me how they learned about waves in science class by sending jolts of different size and speed down the length of it, and Miss M had a chance to use the screwdriver, and I had to stick my fingers into the bag to fish out the sock. (Gross.)

But we got it straightened out. And the whole scene was something I don’t think you’d see in a center. Hang in there family child care providers – the children of the world need us.

So How’d You Spend YOUR Saturday Morning?

Saturday morning, it’s quiet, I’m having some coffee, reading the paper, and I think, the boys are totally entertaining themselves. In fact lately they often choose that over hanging out with me. They’re growing up a little and it’s both great and really sad, so I ponder that for a minute or two.

Then I start to daydream. I could actually get something accomplished before the soccer games begin. I start going through the list of projects in my head. I could tidy up the basement. Dig out their summer clothes. Dust? Then Younger asks me if he can have a bath with “the squishy stuff.”

We got this stuff as a gift:

Don't try this at home

Damn you Squishy Baff people! You are liars! Liars all!!!

And – I have to admit it – I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Totally up our alley – weird, messy, something that changes into something freaky when you add water. I couldn’t wait to get the boys in the tub and try it. So I said yes, and up we went.

It was really cool, and weird, and all those things we thought it would be. Younger loved it. Older sat in it for a few minutes, then suddenly realized it was creepy and had to get out immediately. Younger stretched out and enjoyed a nice hot squishy bath all to himself.

Now, the instructions said to simply add the magic dissolving powder and it would – well, magically dissolve.

Are you at all shocked to hear that it didn’t dissolve ONE BIT?! Well maybe the three square inches where Younger dumped it, though it said “sprinkle evenly” so I stirred it REALLY well, but maybe that just wasn’t enough. Perhaps that was our fatal mistake.

The tub was quite filled with squishy stuff that was clearly not magically dissolving and had no intention of doing so.

So I did the only thing I could think of to do. I went and got a strainer from the kitchen.

I swished it through the water and it came out completely FULL of stuff, without making a dent in what was still in the tub. It was quite heavy and I had to hold it for about a minute to drain the water out. Wasn’t sure what to do with it (pour in on newspaper? Into a plastic bag?) but once I felt the weight of it I thought the garbage can might be the best idea. Turns out, it was.

After about twenty minutes and eight strainerfuls, I asked Older to go get me another strainer. No sense doing this with one hand. I got quite a good little system going, sweep, strain, switch hands, dump, sweep, etc.

At some point during the bailing I realized that this stuff had been in the cracks of my kids’ bodies. I threw up a little in my mouth, then made a mental note to throw the strainers away as soon as I was done.

After another 40 minutes, the tub was pretty much empty. And my garbage can was full.

This was in my tub. Eeew.

Oh sure, it just magically dissolves.

And that’s a big can, it’s not your average little bathroom mini-can (not in this house). I knew darn well if I tried to pick up the bag the thing would explode all over the floor, so I grabbed the can to haul it down to the trashcan outside. And I pulled a muscle in my back. Wet Squishy Baff is heavy.

And I was running late for preparing the boys’ pre-game snack.

So, in short, that’s why nothing ever gets done in my house. I suppose I jinxed myself by even thinking for a moment that something could possibly get done. And why I never have time to do anything, and why I’m always busy, and giving all my friends lame excuses for never being able to go out and have fun or get anything accomplished.

Friends, don’t be like me. Don’t be the cool fun mom who lets anything happen in her house, mess be damned. Don’t let your kids play with chemicals because you think it will be a cool educational experience. Just don’t do it.

And oh yeah. I have to run to the kitchen store to buy some new strainers.