Contributor Archive

The Family That Cleans Together…

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Children are natural helpers. They love to share our work. But we must slow ourselves down enough to make space for them to work at their own pace and in their own way. They may not do things to our exacting standards the first few years that they are helping us, but with lots of opportunity and encouragement, as well as a healthy dose of acceptance for a job almost done (especially when they are very young), they will grow into capable workers. Teach skills sequentially, gradually adding the more subtle details, and soon you will have children who can see the dirt in a dirty sink and know how to clean!

Once a week, we clean our house as a family. Dividing up the chores, we go through our list and clean everything all at once. Our younger children always have a cleaning partner and are given a small but important job to do. A three-year-old equipped with two paper sacks can quite skillfully be in charge of sorting the trash and the recycling. As long as there is someone in the room with them, my children have always been quite thrilled to have tangible work that is in their care. Each year as we give them more freedoms, we also add to their responsibilities. By the time they are ten, they are capable of doing all the simple chores around the house—dishes, laundry, vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the bathrooms. They still like company when they work, but now their efforts are truly helping. When you clean as a family, no one has to be the “house slave.” More important, children learn that work is intrinsically satisfying and that it takes the whole family to make the home run smoothly.

What’s Your Family’s Trademark Song?

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

For some great family/kids songs, buy Nancy Cassidy's Kids Songs CDs.

Nancy Cassidy's Kids Songs CDs

Don’t be afraid to sing to your children. Our culture has become such a culture of experts; we often forget the simple pleasures of just sharing ourselves. We don’t have to know the perfect songs or have the perfect voice. It is the act of singing that our children will come to love. My husband and I often sing lullabies at our children’s bedtime. Our children are equally accepting of my husband’s renditions of ’60s rock tunes as they are of my obscure lullabies. Just pick a song you love and sing. Your children will love you for it. Three of my four children have adored “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” a song we resorted to one time on a long, unhappy car ride. Ever since then, that song has meant comfort to my children. On the worst of days, we can sing this song and be assured it will bring a smile to our children’s faces. Find your own family’s trademark song. These are moments that become treasured memories long after your child is grown.

For some great family/kids songs, check out Nancy Cassidy’s Kids Songs CDs. Listen to sound clips on our website.

Does your family have a “trademark” song? How do you incorporate music into your kids’ lives? Do you sing lullabies to your kids at bedtime? What’s your favorite lullaby?

Marry the Disturbance

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Recently I went to an evening of brilliant storytelling by Laura Simms. In the midst of this astonishing night, one line stood out above the rest, staying with me for days. Laura was in the middle of telling one of
those classic shipwrecked-sailor stories in which a man must use his wits to overcome obstacles and demons and to somehow find his way out of impossible circumstances so that he may return home. Danger
and peril mark every turn he takes. In the middle of the story (when the man was asked to marry a demon’s ugly daughter or lose his life), Laura paused to say, ”Whenever you are on a journey, you must marry the disturbance.” Marry the disturbance? Wow! Now there’s an idea! What did she mean, exactly? I carried those words around in my heart for a few days, knowing they were profound and wishing to understand them better. The whole idea of ”marrying the disturbance” struck me deeply.

How much of our lives do we spend running away from or trying to otherwise escape the disturbances of our lives? For most people, the answer is ”a lot!” What does it mean to ”marry the disturbance”? My
sense is that it means to take our troubles to heart, to accept what is, to simply be with what is. Instead, many of us try to change others so we don’t have to experience our disturbances. I thought of how easy it is to discount a child’s feelings or try to tell her that she isn’t feeling the way she is obviously feeling, just to move forward with the day. ”Oh, you fell down; you’re okay now.” Marrying the disturbance in this instance would require a different response. It would mean stopping what I was doing and consciously acknowledging what was really happening. ”Yes, Aidan, you fell and it hurts. I’m so sorry you are in pain.” (Even though he has been crying for what seems like an inordinate amount of time over a little thing.)

Who am I to determine how long is enough for someone else to cry over his pain? Is not my job as a mother to be there as a kind witness to the pain and a source of comfort; not lending undue attention,
mind you, but offering just simple comfort? How long would he really cry about a little owie if I held him close on my lap and didn’t say anything, if I just listened to his woes and offered him my heart? Would it
take all day? Can I do this without reserve?

(more…)

Creating a Daily Rhythm and Routine

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Creating a Daily Rhythm and Routine

Creating a Daily Rhythm and Routine

When creating a rhythm for your days, think of this rhythm as if it were a rubber band. The rhythm is there as a pattern to hold something in place, to add stability to your day. Yet it’s a pattern quite capable of stretching, of being flexible to meet the needs at hand. Like a rubber band, our daily rhythm can only be stretched so far before it loses its structural integrity and everything falls apart. So, nurture a rhythm that allows for both stability and ease. Stability provides the boundaries that small children need to feel safe. Stability creates a comforting sense of predictability, of knowing that naptime always follows lunchtime. A rhythm with general predictability deeply reassures a child’s soul that all is well. At the same time, we must avoid the trap of being too rigid by creating a rhythm that allows for ease. A rhythm that is gently flexible makes room for the unpredictable and helps children learn to be adaptable. Flexibility encourages a comfort with life that allows people to flow from one experience to the next, even when things don’t go exactly as planned, which, in these radically changing times, is a highly useful trait.

Real Super Heroes

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Sakura (Ali's daughter) as firefighter

Sakura (Ali's daughter) as a firefighter

Children need heroes. If we fail to give them real heroes, they will gladly seek out their own in the form of rock stars and superathletes with questionable morals. One of the most powerful things we, as parents, can do (besides be living examples of what we hope to teach) is offer them stories of real heroes. Offer them stories that will give them a model of courage so that when it comes time for them to be heroes in their own lives, they will have the inner fire and fortitude to do so. Stories of saints, freedom seekers and ordinary people doing extraordinary things all feed the soul fire burning in our hearts. This is what makes us strong in times of adversity and keeps hope alive.

Sourpuss Hats

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

When children get grouchy, it’s a powerful thing to help them gain the self-awareness that they are in a bad mood. Sometimes a touch of humor helps them learn this. When Heidi was young, she and her dear friend Emily used to play “Sourpuss Hats.” I think the game started because one day Emily’s mother had asked Emily if she had put on her sourpuss hat because she was so cranky. Emily (and then Heidi) quickly adopted this idea. They found real hats that became their official sourpuss hats, which they donned whenever being a sourpuss was warranted. With hats on their heads, they stomped around the house with dour looks on their faces, making various grumbly c omments. It was hilarious for all concerned.

But the best part was the holdover for when they really were grouchy. All we mothers had to do at this point was say, “Do you need your sourpuss hat? You’re acting mighty grouchy right now.” And the girls would giggle and somehow the grumpy mood was magically transformed. They started this when they were two or so, and still to this day, nine years later, if they are in a grouchy mood, they both break into a smile at just the mention of the words “sourpuss hat.” It’s astonishing what a little good-hearted humor can do to save the day!

Power Struggles

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

If we keep our eyes open, we find inspiration in the small moments of our life with children, even on the worst of days. Sometimes we must slow down, take a few breaths and regroup to find it, but the wisdom is always there, hidden in the shadows of every moment if we take the time to see it. One of my all-time-hardest parenting lessons—and the eventual wisdom that came with it—involved power struggles.

I used to feel so completely helpless in power struggles. How could this small child, whom I loved so dearly, produce such extraordinary levels of frustration and even rage in me? There were such strong feelings over whether or not she could have another cookie. Weren’t two cookies enough? Why couldn’t she see the reason in the situation? Why couldn’t I? The intensity of my feelings (not to mention my child’s feelings) astounded me at times. Why won’t she bend her will to mine and just make this easier? Doesn’t she know I’m the parent!? Does this really have to be so hard? (There is nothing like arguing with a two-year-old in public to humble a person.)

I used to struggle with these questions until one day I had the revelation that the very thing I was battling against in my child was a trait that I honor greatly in adults. I love adults who persevere against all odds to manifest their dreams. I love adults who have the strength of will to stand up and speak their truth. (They know they want that third cookie and aren’t going to let anyone stop them from having it!) Nevertheless, here I was arguing with my child when she was directing these identical traits toward me. Like a bolt of lightning, insight dawned in my heart. I realized that I didn’t want to squelch these traits in my child, but merely to help her channel them toward more appropriate situations. Suddenly, it became my job to teach when to use willpower and when to be flexible. This enormous will that I had battled so mightily against had many important uses. Why would I ever want to subdue it?

Once I could step aside and see my child’s will for the powerful, remarkable trait that it was, it lost its power over me. My anger magically dissipated with this new understanding. Suddenly, it wasn’t about winning anymore. It was about honoring this magnificent trait in my child and helping her learn to use her will wisely in the world. In honoring my child’s tremendous will, I mustn’t let it rule her life and yet, without the strength of her will intact, she might never reach her soul’s destination. In the end, it’s all about the intention in our heart and the words we choose to use as we reinforce our message. “Yes, sweetie, I know you really hate that you can only have two cookies, but two cookies are a reasonable amount. Asking again isn’t going to change my answer. Let’s read a story instead.”

Respecting the power of our children’s will allows us to transform our feelings about it. We no longer have to conquer it. Like a tai chi master, we simply redirect the flow. Respecting the power of my children’s will didn’t make those times when I knocked heads with my children go away forever, it just transformed how I felt about them and how I responded to them.

Tips for Having Enough Energy to Survive Daily Life with Small Children

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

• Be sure to get enough rest. It is so easy to stay up late after the
children are in bed to have a few precious hours of solitude. But if
this time comes at the expense of your sleep, you and your family
will eventually pay a high price for these few hours.

• If mornings are hard for you, make sure you get up before your
children. Allow yourself a few minutes to adjust to the day before
you are inundated by your children’s needs. Have time to take your
shower, or drink your morning cup of coffee. Do whatever you need
to do to say “Good morning” to yourself. Once you’ve greeted the day, it is much easier to face the unbounded enthusiasm of a cheery toddler first thing in the morning.

• If your children nap, take that time purely for yourself. Parents need
downtime, too. Read a book, take a nap, do something creative—
anything to nourish yourself. Don’t feel as if you have to make that
the most productive hour of the day. Think of this time as your time
to renew your batteries, not as the hour to get everything done
that hasn’t been done all day.

• Eat regular meals. It is so easy to ignore your own needs. When
things get hectic or children become overwrought, it can be a challenge
to remember to feed yourself. Even if it is just a five-minute
break to eat a peanut butter sandwich and drink a glass of milk, sit
down. Show your children how to take care of themselves by taking
care of yourself.

• Remember to drink plenty of water (not Coke, not coffee—but
water). It’s amazing how much energy proper hydration provides.
To figure out how much water you require, divide your weight in
pounds by two and drink that number in ounces of water. So if you
weigh 140 pounds, you need 70 ounces of water, or just about nine
eight-ounce glasses. If that sounds like a lot, you probably aren’t
drinking enough. Try it for a couple of weeks and see how you feel.
You might be surprised. (more…)

Cultivating the Imagination

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

Imagination lies at the heart of being human. Without imagination, life has no meaning and no sparkle, problems remain unsolved and life becomes flat. While giving lip service to the importance of imagination,
our culture does much to dampen our children’s imaginative abilities. Toys that have only one answer, prepackaged entertainment (i.e., television, videos and many computer games), schooling that involves too
much rote memorization, and even the negative, fear-based attitudes that pervade our culture all deaden our children’s ability to live in the imaginative world. If ever we have needed imagination, it is now. Imagination is the key to solving our world’s problems. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” All the knowledge in the world won’t fix anything unless we have the creativity to imagine new solutions and new ways of living.

As parents, we have so many ways to foster our children’s imagination. I guard my children’s imaginations like a jealous hound, for I know that the more we encourage our children to exercise their creativity, the stronger learners they will become. Allowing our children the time to experience hours of fantasy play and hours of outdoor play with a minimum of toys, and even giving them plenty of opportunities to be bored without rescuing them, fosters our children’s creative abilities. When we fill our house with the materials to make things (and it is remarkable what they will create out of string, sticks and boxes!), and we allow our children the freedom to make messes and mistakes with these materials, their imagination will lead them to amazing heights. The more tightly we structure days and close off the opportunities for openended play, the harder it is for our children to strengthen their imaginative muscles.

When making decisions that affect our children’s day, do we keep imagination in mind? If we send our child to day care, how much time does that facility dedicate to open-ended play? If we are home with our children, are we home long enough each day for them to fall into the land of make-believe deeply enough that they almost forget about the real world? When we buy toys, do we look for toys that engage our children’s imaginative capacities? The simple choices we make over and over again will facilitate or dampen our children’s relationship with the imaginative world.

[Reprinted from Under the Chinaberry Tree with permission from Random House Publishing.]

This is for the Birds: A Midwinter Tree

Friday, December 26th, 2008

Making a feast tree for the birds and small woodland animals that live by our home has always been one of my children’s most treasured holiday activities. They love the whole process—making the food, decorating the tree and then watching through the kitchen window as the little animals eat their treats. We usually make our tree for the birds out of our own Christmas tree after we have dismantled it, but most any tree will do. We drag it outside to a sheltered spot in the backyard where we can unobtrusively observe the animals’ doings and then decorate it with all kinds of yummy bird and squirrel treats. This is a fun activity that preschoolers manage with ease. In case you are interested in trying this out for yourself, here are a few ideas on how to decorate your tree.

  • Strings of Popcorn—All you need to make this welcome delicacy is plenty of freshly popped corn (omit the butter and salt) and a needle and thread for each person. Knot the thread and then carefully push the needle through the popcorn. Some young children have trouble making these, as the popcorn needs to be threaded with a light touch or it tends to crumble. You’ll have to judge your child’s dexterity level. Some enjoy this activity greatly; others find making popcorn strands tedious. Our family has found that if we appoint one person to read aloud and have the rest of the family stringing, our popcorn strings grow much longer with much less effort. We have tried stringing cranberries but the animals in our area, anyway, don’t seem to care for them.
  • Peanut Butter Pinecones—This treat is always the first to be eaten by the birds at our house. They’re simple to make and a big hit with the preschool crowd. Be forewarned, these can be a bit messy to make but are always worth the effort. You’ll need pinecones (most any kind will do, the more open the better), string, peanut butter, birdseed and sunflower seeds. To begin, knot a string loop on the cone so it is easy to hang the finished product on the tree. Next, mix the seeds together and pour them into a shallow pan (a pie pan or a small roasting pan will both work well). Slather pinecones with peanut butter, using a knife or your fingers to gently push the peanut butter into the cracks. I tend to assign this task to the oldest child, if she is willing, since it is the messiest and small children have trouble getting enough peanut butter on the cone. If there are no older children available, an adult might want to do this. And last, roll the cone in the seeds, trying to get as many seeds as possible onto the peanut butter. (Many two-year-olds are fabulous at this messy task!) It should look like one big blob of seeds when you are done.
  • Fruit Strands—Slice apples and oranges in rounds and string like the popcorn.
  • Suet Balls—For this nutritious tidbit, ask the butcher for suet. You will need to have a few empty paper egg cartons on hand, as well as some birdseed and a bit of yarn or string. To begin, melt the suet over low heat (be very careful with the hot fat and young children). Add in an equal amount of birdseed and stir. Gently stir the suet-birdseed mixture as you pour it into the egg holes in the egg carton. Make a loop of yarn or string and place it into the melted suet mixture. (This is a great job for three- or four-year-olds.) When the suet cools, the yarn will become the handle with which you hang the suet on the tree. Some people like to add some peanut butter to this mixture for extra nutrition. Allow the suet to harden and then gently peel away the egg carton to hang the suet balls on the tree.
  • Once you have gathered enough goodies to decorate your tree, make it an event. (For inspiration read Night Tree by Eve Bunting. After you decorate your tree, don’t forget the ground-feeding birds. Leave a few peanut butter pinecones and some extra birdseed on the ground for them to nibble, too.