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.

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!

The Tyranny of Expectation

I recently wrote an article on school choice that I thought would earn me a good deal of backlash. Instead, what people responded to most strongly was the idea that we expect too much of our public school system. It got me thinking about expectations.

Parents are probably the kings and queens of expectation. We want the world to be safe and kind, all teachers to be perfect, all coaches to be nurturing, all drivers to slow down, all bullies to get theirs, and for our children to have the best of everything all the time and total happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Is that too much to ask?

What about the expectations I’ve been given, as a woman and a mother? The debate that women can have it all rages on but I can tell you, we can’t. Did I expect that this job, which is harder, more demanding, and more complicated than any other job I’ve ever had, would eliminate me as a viable candidate for any other job I applied for after I was done? Nope. But it has. I am now “just” a day care provider, my label for life.

However. I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be if I had any job other than this. So I gave up a career to be a mom. Also not what I expected, or what I was led to believe I could have. I could be mad about this, or I could be grateful that I am here for my kids as much as I possibly can be. No “career” job could make me that happy. Though it would certainly pay better.

The very idea of “motherhood” is laden with expectation – no pun intended – right from the start of pregnancy. I was reminded of that by this hilarious (and profane) blog post, “A Letter to My Pregnant, Child-less Self.” Birth plan? How can you possibly control birth? And who decided it would be a good idea to let us expect that we could? Here’s what to expect from labor: a lot of pain, a lot of pushing, elation, fear, exhaustion, and hopefully a healthy mom and baby at the end of it.

Besides letting us down, expectations take us away from a place of gratitude. If there’s anything I’ve tried to teach my boys (in a world full of Joneses), it is to be happy for what they have. When they start envying what their friends have, I remind them of the friends we know who have less. When you can look at what you have and be satisfied, life is so much easier.

The other day I was explaining a “bad” event to Younger Son using the Zen story about the farmer whose son breaks his leg. The neighbors say how awful, but when the army comes and can’t take the boy to fight, they say how wonderful. At every turn, the farmer simply says, “Maybe.” (For the full text, click here and scroll down to “Maybe.”) We can’t see the benefit when we’re in a struggle, and we can’t presume to know the outcome. We need to learn how to accept that what we have may be just fine.

Fifteen years ago my husband took me on a hike to the top of Somes Sound, touted as “the only fjord on the Atlantic coast.” I sat on the smooth rock looking over the harbor below and thought, this is not what I expected. I wanted a dramatic chasm of rock rising on either side with boats like ants in the water below. Instead it was a gentle slope down to a rather wide, average-looking waterway. But it was beautiful, and blue, and breathtaking in its own way.

In a few weeks we’ll go back to that fjord with our sons, and climb the same hill and look out over the harbor. I’ll force them to stand still, pose, and smile for the camera though they can barely tolerate my picture-taking after a few days on vacation. It won’t be what I expected, but it will be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

A Mother’s Fear and Faith

I find myself to be struck dumb when catastrophes happen. It’s hard for me to write about the little details of parenthood and life with kids, and deal with my little complaints, and make all the nonsense seem silly and cute, when I know there are 12,000 people in Oklahoma whose homes just got wiped off the map.

And there are too many catastrophes happening lately, so I find that I can’t write very much. Last week I was focused on how to protect our kids from all the dangers that lurk out there. I decided to give up years of beating myself up for being too worried, and accept that I’m a mother. I’m supposed to be worried. And I’m pretty sure it’s a biological imperative, so I should just stop fighting it.

But the new challenge I have set for myself is to find a way to manage the worry and allow my children their freedom. I have to accept that all of life is a risk. And as Baz Luhrmann tells us in the logo for his production company, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” (We saw Gatsby this weekend, it was decent. Thanks for the advice, Baz.)

I don’t want to be fearful. I want to be that adventuresome person climbing the rock cliffs like we did in Utah over spring break. I want to give my kids all the challenges and freedom they need to grow into healthy adults and have faith that they will be alright. Why is it that we can be so unafraid in the face of real falling-off-a-cliff danger, but the walk to school feels scarier than falling off a cliff?

Usually when I’m in this mode of worry and doubt, comfort comes when I least expect it. I was reading the newspaper (a prime source of disaster stress) and there was an article about our police department hiring a new chaplain to provide counseling for both police and the families involved with incidents.

When asked about the stresses of his job, and dealing with so many people in trauma and crisis, he responded, “It’s been a blessing for me to get this experience over the years and to be able to respond to these horrific events to help people get through it and move on. Because we can’t protect ourselves from all these things, we just have to help each other get through it.”

I was hit by the honesty, strength – and yes, acceptance – in this quote, and it stayed with me. Things are going to happen in my kids’ lives. I can’t predict them or prevent them. I can’t be there for everything and there are things they won’t want me there for. But I can always help them through. Whenever my sons get worried we tell them, “There are always people who will help you.” Today my challenge is to focus on this aspect of the good in people and let go of the fear.