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.

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.

Winter Break: A Providers-Eye View

Any provider knows school vacation weeks are extra challenging. In my case, it’s the usual number of little kids plus my two boys plus my after-schooler, and various friends dropping by here and there.

On top of an unusually warm and sick winter. Every child has had some illness, and I’ve had them all. So I’m at the end of my energy. Wait, maybe if we could use the amount of germs to convince people that global warming is a problem! You don’t want to be sick? Vote for wind power.

While I was making lunch…wait. While I was making lunches: one for the smaller kids, one modified for the after-schooler (Miss S) who didn’t like the first choice, one each for Older and Younger Son, who will never eat the same meal, one for the visiting friend who didn’t like any of the other choices, and one for me – I got tired of being pestered for seconds by Miss S. I said “You’ll have to wait. I’m making lunch for nine people here.”

She looked around herself at the day care table and said, “No, only five people.”

I said, “There are nine people in this house and they all have to eat.”

She counted all the kids again and said, “Oh, you mean eight.”

So that about sums up my feelings during a week like this. No, I don’t actually exist or have needs, I am simply here to meet yours.

The weather’s been mild enough to get outside a bit, but still cold enough to chase us back in after a few minutes. I can’t do a proper circle because Miss S wants to be me, my sons continue everything they’re doing regardless of my circle (i.e. Wii games, wrestling, and interrupting me to ask for second breakfasts), and I can’t really read or sing anyway because of my sore throat.

So in an effort to entertain all the kids I did one of our fairly easy but fun crafts – I Spy jars (old water bottles filled with rice and fun little things to find). While I gathered the supplies I opened the giant box of rice to let the kids play with it (this is an awesome tactile activity btw).

I can predict what happens with these projects as easily as I can predict that – well, that I’ll be sick in February. Every child is ecstatically thrilled with the rice for about four minutes. They are engaged and enthralled, freeing me up to gather all the fun little things that go in the jars. Then the giggles get louder and the rice starts flying around the room. Miss S is following me while I gather the supplies, asking 100 questions and starting the project without me by filling her bottle, which is still wet on the inside.

Mr. R, after tossing some rice, is done with the project and is banging on the glass French doors in the living room. After I bring him back to the project, he dumps what I’ve put in his bottle all over the middle of the table and everyone’s work. While I recover from this disaster, he heads over to the desk and starts touching my computer.

By the end of the activity, it’s been over an hour of impatience, pestering, fighting over who gets the kitty cat or the purple flower, and my “helpers” abandoning me. The morning is summed up when I look under the table and find the entire dumped-out box of pom poms which I left out of reach. I’m cleaning rice from every surface in the room and trying to re-sort all the pieces back into their homes while the kids are using their now-complete I Spy jars as weapons.

And Miss D is sobbing and screaming because when she wailed Younger Son in the back with her bottle, it split open and everything poured out.


Still, the jars came out awesome. And I look to next week with mixed feelings. I’m happy to know I’ll have my quiet time back without having to entertain big kids who don’t nap. And not having to drag everyone back and forth to school is heaven. But other than that, I’ll miss my boys. They were nice to have around, despite the trail of food wrappers and dirty clothes that they leave in their wake. They were considerate and helpful, and they’re at the point where I can yell out “Older – get Mr. R away from the French doors,” and – he’ll do it! That’s a miracle right there.

As always, the stress of the week is balanced with something nice, which happened Friday morning around the snack table. Everybody was getting wound up: our newest big sister is having a hard time adjusting to life with a baby. Someone touched someone else’s snack. Another was crying because no one would give her a chance to talk uninterrupted. I said, “I think everyone is just in a cranky mood today.”

Miss D looked at me and said, “That’s OK, because Amy’s here.”

My heart melted, as it always does when one of the littles looks me in the eye and gives me back some of that love. So maybe I do more than just meet everybody else’s needs after all. I am a calming presence. A leader who sets the tone. Or as Dave would say, “Yeah yeah everyone knows you’re a saint. What’s for dinner?”

I’m the Boss!

Here is part of an email that I sent to my provider friend Dee:

“The kids are pushing me around – you know when you get sick and you don’t have the energy to fight the battles all day, and then they start to try to take over? I was so sick on Tues. I had to close – throwup bug. And I haven’t been at full strength since….they sense weakness.”

Hence, a few days later, we had to have an “Amy wears the pants!” day. I hate Amy wears the pants day. I like it much better when it’s all sweet and easy, we can all just hang out and get along and follow the routine. Wearing the pants takes far too much effort for me.

My day care mentors, women who’ve been at this for years and take no lip, are just firm all the time. That way they don’t have to have a wears-the-pants day, because they’re always in charge. But I get lazy, so I admit I set myself up for this.

I’m more of an, “OK, you want to jump on the couch today so go ahead, but tomorrow when somebody bumps their head I’ll make you stop” kind of provider. This is clearly not the best plan, but hey – it’s fun to jump on the couch.

On Amy-wears-the-pants-day three kids came in tired and it showed. They were cranky and quick to melt down. There was a lot of fighting over toys (why is it always fighting over toys? Can’t they come up with something else to fight over?).

We were also having some bigger issues. The first was opening the front door. The older ones like to come in the porch, go right through and shut the house door on the younger ones, who wail in psychic pain.

It’s not just the danger that the little ones might get their fingers pinched, but the big ones go in with their shoes on and they’re not allowed to do that (shoes and socks go in cubbies!! I won’t find them ditched around the house all day!).

And well, you know what, I’M the grownup and it’s MY house and I say when we open the doors!!

I had an ingenious solution to this problem: I finally put a child lock on the damn thing.

The other big issue was with keeping food at the table and not walking all over the house with it. I have three who are in the process of graduating from high chairs to big kid chairs and I’m not afraid to tell you – it’s not going great. Peanut butter hands here, there and everywhere.

So it got to where we weren’t really having any fun, I was just walking around bellowing orders and repeating rules. And I knew it, and there was nothing I could do about it.

On a day when I’m not coming off a stomach bug, I would have the energy to turn it around. I could sing a song, play a game, use my happy voice and invented characters and distract them into having a good time.

But I didn’t have it in me today, and that’s OK. It’s hard to reign them in once they’ve gotten a bit loose with the rules. And sometimes this happens and life goes on. Tomorrow is another day (and by then I might have been able to eat more than a bowl of white rice for dinner).