Lately, though, I’ve been reflecting more than usual on how some of our parenting methods are manifest in our kids’ wants, beliefs, and actions. I’m sure that this train of thought has been brought on by seeing my kids in a school environment with other children that are the products of their own (mostly wonderful, supportive, and loving) families.
I hear a lot about parent guilt and parent worry. (Did any of you catch Terry Gross’s interview with Brigid Schulte?) With a rare few exceptions, I haven’t really experienced much of that so far. Henry and I entered this deal with close to zero experience in the parenting department, but I always knew that we’d all be okay. So far, so good.
In some ways, we’ve been lucky. Our kids were born healthy and haven’t had any major health crises or experienced any allergies so far. We live in a community that is generally a very safe place both in terms of crime and environmental conditions.
In other ways, we’ve taken a few uncomplicated, inexpensive steps to provide conditions for our kids to thrive.
They started out healthy, but we’ve done our best to keep them in good shape. Real food including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, good fats, an assortment of dairy, and some fish and wild or grass-fed/pastured meat and extremely limited amounts of junk food and sweetened beverages (pretty much only when some third party gives it to them, and we’d have to make a big stink to refuse). Plenty of hours for sleep and a somewhat regular schedule. Plenty of opportunities to exercise (even indoors in our tiny space). Limited exposure to chemicals and toxins. Good hygiene but still plenty of dirt and bacteria. Vaccines (I know some of you won’t agree, but you’re not going to sway me here, so let’s just not go there.) Check ups with an awesome pediatrician. Lots of talk about how our bodies work and how we need to care for our bodies so that we can stay healthy
This means different things at different ages, but our kids know that they are safe at home and at the homes of other caregivers. We are as sure as we’ll ever be that the people in their lives are not going to harm them, and we’ve worked to reduce the number of physical hazards they will face in their everyday lives and spaces. Guns are totally unaccessible, and the kids understand that they are never supposed to touch a gun if they accidentally come across one. My mom’s been schlepping them to swimming lessons twice a week for two years partly because they enjoy it and partly because knowing how to swim could save their life in a crisis situation someday. They wear bike helmets when riding or scootering, so when they crash and burn and come crying to me with bloody knees, I can reassure them that they’re going to be okay. Even if I wanted to, I know that I can’t eliminate the risk of injury in their lives, and I also know that letting them loose to face some unpleasant consequences is a healthy part of growing up.
Our house is not big, but it does have character. Our property may be full of knee-chewing gravel roads and poison-oak, but it also has big trees, fresh air, mud puddles, chickens, wildflowers, bird songs, and slugs. The world around them is alive and thought-provoking and endlessly complex.
Some Resources for Creativity and Entertainment
Our kids don’t have every toy their hearts desire, but they do have a somewhat curated collection of things that enable them to play creatively: Legos, puzzles, stuffed animals, basic art supplies, coloring books, and blocks plus a bunch of regular household stuff to wear, glue, make noise with, build with, throw, stack, etc. I’d be lying if I told you that my kids never whined, but it is actually pretty rare that they whine about being bored. With some “tools” and a small amount of space, they are usually able to independently come up with some sort of activity that will keep them busy for a good long while.
We (especially I) tried to enforce an absolute ban on all screen time for Levi and Charlotte until at least age two (as recommended by the AAP). Since as they’ve gotten older, some screen time has crept into their lives, but we still work actively to limit their exposure to electronic media. Except for very rare occasions with friends, they never play games on screens. They probably watch about 2 hours per week of mostly educational-ish/cartoon TV (Sesame Street, Dora, and the like) with an occasional kids movie or smattering of YouTube clips thrown in. Thankfully, they have grandparents who are mostly on board with this plan even if at times they are a little more lenient than I would prefer. We feel like they have plenty of years in front of them to sit with screens, and at this age, we aren’t doing them a disservice by holding it all off for a little longer.
A Team of Loving, Committed Adults
Mama, Pa, five grandparents, a couple great grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, teachers, Henry’s horseshoeing clients, etc. These two kids couldn’t possibly be more loved or supported. It is my hope that as they grow, they will always have their pick of healthy mentors and counselors who will be able to help guide them through troubling times.
a few thoughts about school…
Our experiences with (pre)school last year were mediocre at best. The program we chose, one that was highly recommended by several trusted sources, turned out to be unexceptional and not a great fit for us. Levi made it through the year unscathed, but there were lots of little things about the environment, the structure, the activities, and the vibe that bothered me. I went into the year thinking that I was pretty relaxed about my expectations, but I learned (about myself) that I actually have a fairly strong vision about what school should feel like or at least what it shouldn’t feel like.
This school year has been a million times better. If you’ve run into me in the last six months, you’ve probably heard me gushing about Levi’s teacher and professing my love for Charlotte’s preschool program. Henry and I agree that choosing to place our kids in these two schools is probably the best parenting decision we’ve made to date.
(Feel free to ignore this next part if you’re not in the Philomath/Corvallis area, but I need to name names here because I love them so.)
We live within the Philomath School District, the same district that I attended school in for 13 years of my youth. The majority of the students in the PSD attend Philomath Elementary, Philomath Middle, and Philomath High schools. There’s also a small charter school (Kings Valley) in the district, and an even smaller k-4, two-room, rural school in Blodgett. Our house is, time-wise, about equidistant from the three elementary school options, and originally we had planned to send kids into Philomath, but last summer we changed our minds and decided to opt into Blodgett.
Blodgett Elementary School currently has around 27 students enrolled split between two classrooms, kindergarten-first-second and third-fourth. Levi is among five kindergarteners who attend school everyday from 8-11. He’s in a class with six first graders and five second graders who are in school through the afternoon. The building also has a little library, a nice gym, and not much else. If you’re thinking this sounds kinda Farmer Boy, you’re not far off.
Levi’s teacher, Mrs. Priewe, is pretty much a saint. She’s been teaching for 27 years (My older brother actually had her for the third grade.), and at this point, there is no upset, miscommunication, infrastructure failure, or snafu that could faze her. She is patient, kind, knowledgable, and infinitely flexible. Knowing she was out there was one of the biggest draws in our decision to choose Blodgett, and it’s a good thing we really like her because our family will be pretty closely involved with her for the next four years in a row (because Charlotte will start kindergarten in the fall).
Though tiny, Blodgett Elementary is not what anyone would consider elitist. The students are a rag-tag bunch of country kids who know how to get dirty playing in the woods at recess. I’m sure that no one cares or even notices when Levi shows up for school with jam on his cheeks and stains on his jeans. The students’ families are pretty diverse in their politics, professions, and income levels (though most probably fall into lower and middle classes), but there is a community mindedness at the school that extends well beyond the students to younger siblings, parents, grandparents, etc. I am always so pleased to see how nice everyone is.
Levi started the year with an voracious love for books. He already knew all his letters and the sounds they make, but six months ago, he was not reading in any significant way. Today he reads whole picture books with hardly a hesitation or stumble. I don’t know exactly what happens at that school everyday, but something they’re doing is very very right, and we’re all so thrilled about it.
Charlotte has been attending the Old Mill Center preschool two mornings a week since September, and I really can’t say enough good things about this program. First off, the facility is gorgeous. The classroom is roomy with lots of windows and a little bathroom area built in on one side (so bathroom activities can be monitored and taken care of without removing a teacher from the room). The kids go outside every single day no matter the weather, and the playground (with a big covered area) is super nice and fun. Apparently Charlotte rides one of a selection of bikes and trikes around a loop of sidewalk every day she’s there, but there’s also a great climbing structure, swings, sandbox, etc.
Secondly, there are numerous adults present at all times, many of whom are highly qualified to work with children both typically developing and those with special needs. Each child gets tons of individual attention, and there is always someone readily available to assist with children’s needs or squabbles. Alicia and Donna, the head teachers, are amazingly easy to get along with and will often recall very specific observations about Charlotte that demonstrates to me that they genuinely care about my kid.
All of the activities in this classroom are so much fun, but underneath the fun is almost always an intentional skill-building exercise. Last year, Levi brought home lots of finished art projects from preschool, the kind where a kid glues some construction paper circles to cardstock and then adds some pipe cleaners and glitter to make a fully formed snowman (or whatever). This year when I check our take-home mailbox, I’ll find things like scraps of printer paper (“We were practicing using scissors today!”) or papers completely covered in green paint (“It’s grass!”). The finished products might not be as pretty, but the process is so much more relevant and thoughtful.
One seemingly small practice that’s employed by the preschool teachers and volunteers is this interesting and specific use (or non-use) of language and particular words. All the students are referred to as “friends” as in, “All my friends need to wash their hands now!”, “Look at the beautiful paintings our friends made!”, or “Some of our friends like dogs more than cats.” It’s a really subtle thing, but I can see how seamlessly it instills a sense of belonging and acceptance in the children. Charlotte will sometimes tell me that so-and-so is not REALLY her friend, but other times, she’ll get caught up in it with “my friend” this and “my friend” that. I would imagine that some of the kids who struggle more with social relationships must revel in the fact that they have 15 friends to play with at school every day. Similar to the insertion of the word “friend”, the teachers have expressed their intention to limit the use of the word “no” at least as a mandate from authority figures. I often hear “I expect to see…” and thoughtful explanations of guidelines. There’s also a considerable amount of time each week and each day devoted to collaborative problem solving, developing empathy, and recognizing one’s feelings and acting on them appropriately.
The larger organization, Old Mill Center for Children and Families, in which the preschool is housed, is an amazing community resource that serves children from birth to 18 and their families with a wide variety of services. Counseling, therapy, custody mediation, parenting classes, and more. Basically there are many many professionals in the building doing really important work for kids. If there’s room, the preschool program accepts any child ages three to five, even if the child has special needs. There are also a couple kids in Charlotte’s class who have serious allergies and/or dietary restrictions, and those issues are handled with seriousness and respect.
If you’re shopping around for a Corvallis-area preschool, I would definitely schedule a visit at Old Mill.