Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ockham's Razor

In logic and scientific thought, Ockham's Razor is the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.  We use it as the basis for a silly, creative talking game.  I usually do the set up, but sometimes the kids will volunteer.  We imagine together a situation and then brainstorm as many wild explanations as we can for why that situation might exist.  After we've exhausted our ideas, we use Ockham's Razor to determine which explanation is the most likely.

By way of an example:

Imagine V can't find her snow boots on the shoe mat.

Maybe she didn't put them away last time she wore them, so they're by the door instead of on the mat.
Maybe a terrible monster was sad that it didn't have any snow boots, and Dad felt bad, so he gave the monster V's boots.
Maybe malicious fairies stole them.
Maybe she walked home in the snow without her boots on, so they're actually still at church.
Maybe a hungry dog crept into our house and ate them all up.
Maybe they got so wet that drying out caused them to shrink.
Maybe there was a tornado while we were sleeping and it blew the boots away.
Maybe Dad was careless cleaning up, so he threw the boots into the recycling bin.
Maybe Z was vacuuming in his sleep, and he vacuumed the boots up.
Maybe they were biodegradable boots, so they just dissolved.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A list of jobs

These jobs only take 10 minutes each, or maybe 15 on a bad night, so I should just get them done after the kids are in bed.

  1. Empty and reload the dishwasher.
  2. Wash the pots and pans.
  3. Clear the dining table and kitchen counter work space.
  4. Sweep the kitchen and dining room floors.
  5. Take out the compost (this is less than 10 minutes, even, except when it's 30 below!).
  6. Tidy up the living room.
  7. Put away the hats, coats, gloves, shoes, boots, backpacks, and dirty laundry that somehow clutter around each entry way of our home despite near constant reminders to all occupants of our home to be responsible for their gear.
  8. Tidy up the music room (which is also a dumping ground for outer wear.  There is so much outerwear here!)
  9. Gather up and carry misplaced and out of place things upstairs, downstairs, and to the basement.  Put them where they belong.
  10. Tidy up the play room.
  11. Sort the dirty laundry, transfer the laundry in the washer to the dryer, and start a new load in the washer.
  12. Sort, fold, and put away a load of clean laundry.
  13. Wipe down the upstairs bathroom, just really quickly.
  14. Wipe down the downstairs bathroom, just really quickly.  
  15. Organize lunches, breakfast, coffee, whatever else for the next morning so it's not so chaotic.
Given that my kids are all in bed and quiet by 8:30 at the latest, I should be able to sleep when I'm dead.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"All they need is love"

I get that a lot, especially from well-meaning older folks with grown kids of their own: "Foster kids just need the same thing as every kid needs: they just need love.  That's all."

Short answer: nope.

Think about it like this: if I had a child who fell out of a tree and broke his leg, and I decided that all he needed was love, I'd be a terrible parent.  A kid with a broken leg needs a visit to the doctor, an x-ray, a cast, and a pair of crutches at the minimum.  He might also need a visit with a specialist, some surgery, a wheelchair, or some physical therapy.  Yes, this child needs love.  He also needs specific interventions to address the damage to his leg.

Foster kids are not in the system because of some single tiny problem.  Especially where we live, there has to be clear threat of imminent harm to children before they are removed from their homes.  Because of this, any kid in the system had experienced some pretty terrible things.  Those terrible things, unfortunately, cause kids brains to develop in problematic ways.

For a comprehensive overview of how neglect and abuse influence child brain development, here's a brochure from the federal child welfare agency.  Briefly, though, inconsistent care giving, neglect, or abuse creates an environment of toxic stress.  Children can respond to this stress by becoming hyper-alert, easily upset, or over-sensitive to sensory or relationship stimuli.  Alternately, children can respond to this stress by withdrawing and becoming under-responsive to their environments.  They may not develop the ability to form strong relationships.  With inconsistent or inappropriate input, children develop unevenly, fall behind their peers, or fail to meet developmental milestones.

To put it bluntly, the situations that land kids in foster care are situations that cause brain damage.  Yes, a foster child needs love.  He also needs specific interventions to address the damage to his brain.

Love is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Monday, January 11, 2016

How to Stay Home with Preschoolers and Stay Sane at the Same Time

Let me be totally, brutally honest about something for a second here: I love to watch my kids play, but I get very little out of playing their games myself.  With that, then, my number one tip for staying sane is to teach your kids to play independently.  I'm not exactly sure when in the last few decades "homemakers" became "stay-at-home moms," but I seriously think it's a disservice to our kids for us to entertain them like it's our job.

I'd like to suggest that the actual job of a stay-at-home parent (if that's how you'd like to style yourself) is to manage the home.  Part of that, certainly, is helping keep littles happily occupied.  I would argue, though, that I personally do that by setting up the structure that helps my littles learn, grow, and thrive as part of the larger institution of our home, rather than by actually spending hours every day on the floor playing.

That all said, here are my thoughts on how to set the structure so that you and your littles can stay happily occupied at home together, more often than not, anyway.

1) Cultivate interests that you find personally satisfying that are also related to or compatible with caring for your littles and home.  Personally, I like to cook made-from-scratch dinners, read books, make music, and take photos.  Some other options include organizing, cleaning, or decorating your home; arts or crafts that can be done with littles present; gardening, raising animals, or other homesteading activities; writing; or running a home-based business.

2) Organize your space and your day so that there is time for the things you find satisfying.  I don't mean just fitting in some blogging during nap time, either, although you certainly could do that, too.  Read Jane Austin aloud at the breakfast table, do a science project every day until you exhaust your library of experiments, make art together, or put the baby grand in the middle of your tiny living room.  Choose to reflect the fact that you are a whole person, and this shared time together is your life, too.

3) Have a routine.  Maybe the idea of a schedule is too constraining for you, but littles thrive on predictability.  Nobody says you have to watch the clock, but kids will be happier and the day will be smoother if everyone knows the general order of events for the day.

4) Schedule an activity during your biggest block of free time every day. I plan an errand, a messy project, a playground trip, art time, or something that will take a decent chunk of time after breakfast and before our morning walk every day.

5) Take a walk around the block.  Preschooler walks are endless.  Literally walking around our suburban block never takes my brood less than 30 minutes.  If you've got way too much time to kill, do it twice a day.  We take a walk before lunch in rain, shine, snow, or scorching heat.  It's just part of the routine.

6) Read books. We hit the library just about every week and get at least 10 unfamiliar picture books. You could start a blog or goodreads account and write reviews, if that makes you happy (see #1 above).  You can feel virtuous because everybody in education recommends reading aloud to little kids.  Moreover, you can relax a little, because as long as a paid author is developing entertaining plot-lines you don't have to think of any dialogue for Barbie.

7) Give littles the opportunity to help you with household work.  It will take longer if they help, but think of it as learning life skills.  They will also do a terrible job nine times out of ten.  Assign work you don't mind being done terribly.  My kids sweep, wash mirrors, put away laundry, and tidy up.  They are not allowed to help clean the bathroom.  Yuck.

8) Set up something fun for the kids, and then step back and let them play.  I'll put out the blocks, build a road with the littles, then excuse myself to get my camera. After that I can take pictures instead of playing blocks.  Similarly, I'll put out an invitation to play (toys or materials presented in a new way or in new combinations) and leave it for the kids to discover on their own.

9) Rotate toys. My kids will not play with anything if there are more than 10 choices. The research suggests there's a sweet spot for optimal engagement, and it's usually between 6 and 12 options.  I try to put out between 6 and 10 kinds of play items (sample 6: doctor kit, metal cars, farm puzzle, scissors/paper/glue/crayons, juggling balls, monkey puppet).  Every other toy and craft supply is stashed in the utility room. When we get something out of there, it's fresh and new. And nobody's overwhelmed. There's also the bonus of easier clean up when there are fewer toys to strew.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Family Math

I have always wanted what modern Americans count as a "big" family.  I grew up as one of four siblings and loved having that number of playmates and companions built into my life.  I used to joke that Husband wanted three kids, and I wanted four, so we were compromising with three and a half, rounded up, of course.

With the plan of four children firmly in my mind, I asked a lot of women with bigger families for their perspectives and experiences on raising four or more kids.  Each and every one agreed that the first child completely changed her life.  Probably 75% said the second child required another huge rearranging of family life, and the third child fit right into the new normal without much transition at all.  The remaining 25% said adding the second child wasn't much different from just having one, and the third child resulted in major upheaval.  Each and every one agreed, however, that after three children, her family's patterns were firmly established, and each new baby fit right into how they were already doing things without disrupting the general enterprise of family life.

I counted on that math all the way up until last month.  G and B went home the week of Christmas, and after I took a few days to breathe, I realized foster families don't add up the same way.

In retrospect, it seems silly to me that I never considered that my assumptions based on families with only biological kids might not apply to families with foster kids.  Moreover, how nearsighted that I didn't think to ask any foster parents in my initial conversations.

Of course I wouldn't change my decision to have my biological children.  I adore Z, V, and L, and am so glad to be blessed with each of them.  I also know that we will foster parent again.  It's such important work, and the fact that it's difficult only underscores for me how well equipped we are to handle it.

Clearly, we are still going to have a "big" family.  However, I have to make this just as clear: the words I have been saying for eight years now about family size are utterly wrong.

In a family with only bio-kids, three is the same as four is the same as seven is the same as twelve.  After you have three biological children, you might as well keep going.  In a family with foster kids, though, each set of children gets added separately.  Parenting G and B along with Z, V, and L was not like parenting five kids.  It was like parenting two kids and three kids.  G and B never fit right into how we were already doing things.  Because of their pre-existing patterns, needs, and behaviors, and because of the requirements of the state surrounding kids in foster care, G and B required a complete re-engineering of the general enterprise of family life.  So much of what required change, too, wasn't accountable for in advance, so there's no good way to plan ahead for the next set of kids to join our family.

In the end, though, I suppose I'm only surprised about how surprised I was that the math is just different for foster families.