Monday, July 27, 2015

Parenting by the Seat of My Pants: Civilizing the Barbarians, Montessori Style

"Veronica, you have the table manners of a wild boar," Isabella informed her sister at dinner one night. It's true. Veronica approaches each meal as though she were trying for the Guiness world record for the most food smeared on one body. She isn't alone in this pursuit. All toddlers do it. Isabella herself, when she was VeVe's age, once managed to destroy an entire outfit with one chocolate chip, a feat that has gone down in the annals of Griffith history. 

Still, it called my attention to the fact that my standards had clearly slipped too far. You know how, when you have a baby, people are always telling you, "Loosen up. Enjoy the ride. They're only little once." That kind of advice, while true, is best aimed at a different sort of mom. I have always been more likely to stop and smell the roses than stop and clean the bathroom. There's only so loose things can get before they come apart. 

I decided to return to my roots. My mother was a legendary preschool teacher, and I, myself worked for a while at a Montessori preschool. I know that kids can be civilized. My older kids are downright useful. 

My first goal was to find nice, kid sized tableware. Something nice enough to elicit careful attention from preschool aged children, but inexpensive enough that I wouldn't cry if they broke it. I hit up the thrift store 40% off sale and bought dessert plates, punch cups, creamer pitchers, tea cups and saucers, pretty table linens and vases, most of them for under $.50 a piece. 

The effect was almost instantaneous. The kids started sitting more quietly. They said please and thank you. They cleared their place when they were done. 

The boys learned how to hand wash and dry dishes, taking care to do a thorough job. 

I bought this Raskog cart at IKEA to store our new treasures and make moving dishes back and forth a less harrowing experience. The entire cart can be pushed from the sink to the dining room, or from its spot by the wall to the table for easy place setting. 

We also bought kid size tools for cleaning. We found a stick vacuum with a telescoping handle at a thrift store tgat, when the handle is down, is the perfect size for a young child. We set up a mop, broom and crumb station in the corner of the dining room, and we have been getting the children to help tidy after meals. 

Isabella quickly discovered that preschoolers need guidance for sweeping or they speak the mess around. She made a sweeping guide out of painters tape to help them focus their efforts. 

Even our resident wild boar is beginning to mend her ways. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Cheap and Easy Sandwiches

As part of our lessons on budgeting and cooking, I am having the big kids calculate the cost of some of our favourite foods. The idea is to amass a list of cheap meals, that are easy enough to be made ahead and assembled by a kid or a mom with more toddlers than arms. 

Sandwiches are an obvious choice for lunch, but lunch meat is kind of expensive and peanut butter and jelly is good, but it would get old day in and day out. 

Some cheap sandwich ideas:

-Egg salad with dill
-Deviled egg salad (same ingredients as deviled eggs, but in an egg salad) 
-Cucumber and cream cheese
-Cucumber and hummus
-Hot cheddar with fresh apple and Dijon mustard (see above)
-Blue cheese and ricotta spread with fresh apples
-Cream cheese mixed with green onion and fresh veggies
-Veggie cream cheese spread (I use Pioneer Woman's recipe) and fresh veggies
-Cheddar roasted garlic cream cheese spread with veggies
-Tuna melt
-Salmon spread 
-Peanut butter and bananas
-Cream cheese and watercress
-Butter, radish and salt 
-Butter and sweet onion (don't knock it until you've tried it. I first had these when my friend and I put on an advent tea. I was immediately addicted.) 
-Peanut butter and apple
-Baba ganoush and veggies on pita
-Skordalia (a garlic potato spread) and pita
-Tomato and cream cheese (really good on a toasted everything bagel) 
-Grilled cheese
-Grilled cheese with mozzarella, dipped in pizza sauce
-Caprese on baguette (cheaper in the summer when the tomatoes and basil are home-grown
-Open face toasted mozzarella with fresh tomato and a mix of black olives, red onion, olive oil and salt (again, good in the summer) 

 An assortment of open faced tea sandwiches can use up this and that in your fridge. These are watercress, cucumber, radish and raspberry with honey butter or cream cheese and honey. I'm not sure which. Cinnamon butter (butter whipped with a little powdered sugar and cinnamon) is good with fresh fruit also. 

I realize that in list form this could seem complicated, but if you make the spreads ahead of time, they last several days. In the end, branching out from the usual ham and turkey helps to stretch the creative muscles and use up what you have. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Parenting by the Seat of My Pants - But, mom, I'm bored!

I had an amazing childhood. The teen years... well, we won't get into that now, but those years before the onset of puberty were a thing of beauty. 

I grew up in the 1980s and '90s, so I grew up with most of the modern conveniences. I am the first generation of kids who had the Internet. I had a television in my bedroom when I got older, and a VCR, too. Most of my friends had gaming consoles and cable TV. I say this because, although kids now may have better graphics and better technology, my childhood wasn't as fundamentally different from my kids' childhood as my parents was from mine, or even more so, my father-in-law's 1940s upbringing. It's a difference in degree, rather than a difference in kind, and I am actually a little stricter than my parents were about technology. Surprisingly, or maybe not, technology is not what my childhood memories are made of. 

When I was a kid we spent whole weeks playing beneath the bowers of a group of bushes that grew together on the "shores" of a dry rockbed we called (and I still call) the Rock River. It was our mansion, and the holes between the trunks were the various rooms. In front of it there was a flat-topped boulder that served as our kitchen, and nearby, a boulder with two indentations that functioned as seats for our rock car. I once tried to convince my mother to let me sleep out there for a week. If only she would give me a little money, I pressed her, I would buy myself a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and live like the Boxcar Children in humble, independent simplicity. She was not swayed. 

When we tired of life at the "mansion," we would pack up shop and move to the "cabin," a retaining wall under a pine tree, near the pond, with a manhole cover that functioned nicely as our kitchen table. The view was better, if the accommodations, a bit more rustic, and the elderly German lady who lived on the top of the hill, Mrs. Kovash, would sometimes give us cookies, or invite us in to watch her knit and play with her parakeets, Cocoa and Nico. She knit hats for orphans and sometimes for us, and talked a great deal about her family back home in East Germany. This was before the wall came down. We had a cookie lady at the mansion as well, but she moved to a nursing home when I was still quite young, and I can't remember her name. I only remember that she always had windmill shaped cookies. 

I could go on all day, telling stories of lemonade stands and bike parades, of the time we decided to try jumping off of Gala's second story deck onto some cushions and got our butts handed to us by our parents, or of the epic water balloon war the older boys waged one summer, and let us participate in. I could tell about the time, in high school, when we decided to build a luge track, or the time we stuffed a model boat with so many fire crackers we made glass on the beach. There were the times we spent at the treehouse at Geneva's, or in the canoe, or that birthday of hers when we camped in the basement. In my memory it is like one long, never-ending summer day. 

We had long stretches of time on our hands, and we were rarely ever bored. "Only boring people get bored," my mother used to tell me. My mom did not suffer whining gladly. If we whined at her that we were bored, the whining was the problem she dealt with, not the lack of stimulation. And, as it turns out, she was right. Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of constant entertainment from either mother or electronics, we got busy making our own fun. We got creative and we got resourceful. As an adult, I have never liked television all that much because it simply isn't as interesting to me as what goes on in my own imagination. 
That is what I am aiming for with my own kids, to turn down the noise of entertainment and the demands of life and give them space to think and to be. Make no mistake, I have high expectations of my kids. We are not laying around in our pajamas doing nothing all day. Well, not everyday, anyway. We have work to do, and work should be attended to diligently and thoroughly, but equally as important as a strong work ethic is a strong commitment to genuine leisure. A little boredom is a good thing. Instead of letting restlessness take hold of you and demand ever bigger and flashier entertainment, take the time to tinker with your guitar, or write that story that is floating around in your head. Build an imaginary world and lead your imaginary army in battle against the forces of evil. Catch a fish, plant a seed, Or write a sonnet. Take a nap. (Seriously, kids. Please take a nap.) Design a machine to ship packages from one end of the room to the other. Set up an obstacle course for your brothers and see how high they can climb the walls. 

Oh, wait. No. Don't do that. Just don't tell me you are bored. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Parenting by the Seat of my Pants - Resolution and Evaluation

I am beginning a series of posts I am titling Parenting by the Seat of My Pants, suggested by my friend Sara, as I use this particular phrase often. :) 

A terrible picture of a sidecar. 

So, it's New Years again and I have set myself a resolution. I'm going to drink a wider variety of cocktails. It's good to set realistic goals, right? I devoted the month of December to my old standby, the Sidecar, in preparation for branching out next year. 

The Sidecar is a drink of mysterious origin, claimed, among other tales, to be the invention of the Ritz Hotel in Paris in the early 1900s, around the time of WWI. It's classic and tasty, and easily made. There are two schools of sidecars. The French school is equal parts cognac, orange liqueur (I used Grand Marnier) and lemon juice. The English school is two parts cognac and one part each orange liqueur and lemon juice. I am partial to the French school, myself. 

While I am on the subject of realism I want to say a thing or two that has been on my mind about resolutions and evaluation.  Maybe it's the Christmas season (it's still Christmas, people) but I hear a lot of my friends coming down pretty hard on themselves lately, as they take stock of the year that has passed and evaluate their goals. I've heard the word "failure" thrown around a bit. 

Self evaluation is a good thing. It should be done often. We are fallen people and we live in a fallen world. It's totally realistic, and very healthy to look back on what we have done and see where we might do better. That is how we grow and how we learn. That said, I think there are a few pitfalls we can fall into that can be very discouraging and destructive. 

My to-do list is not my God

My to-do list is a random assortment of things I thought I could get done today. It's an estimation. I will be the first to tell you that when I look back on my day and I have accomplished everything on the list, I feel like a rockstar, but a to-do list is a tool for organizing data, not a tool for evaluating people. I don't know, when I make my to-do list, that this is the day the baby will decide not to nap, or the day my oldest daughter will need to have an hour-long talk about her friends, or that my Kindergartener will decide to jump down the staircase in one go and learn why that was a bad idea. 

Life is an adventure, and adventures never go as planned. There is no sense beating yourself up that the day took an unexpected turn. Think of yourself more as the captain of a ship. You are navigating an unpredictable sea. It's good to be prepared, but the point is to deal with reality as it exists, not sit around lamenting how much farther you could have gotten if everything had been perfect. Battle your squalls and your sea monsters and revel in the great story this will make at next year's Christmas dinner.  It's a better story than "I got the floors mopped," by far. 

Separate Self Evaluation and Situational Evaluation. 

Some people are overly self-evaluative and see every imperfect situation as a case of "if I had just done better, I could have avoided this." Others are prone to overanalyze situations and never see their own contribution to them. Both of those are a form of pride. I, personally, tend towards both of those bad habits. I have sat around feeling like a failure because I had the stomach flu and my house was a wreck, and I have conveniently ignored the two hours I spent on Pinterest and blamed it all on the half hour I spent unclogging the toilet. Neither one is a helpful option. 

Sometimes, I need to have a come-to-Jesus moment with myself. As a Catholic, I find a daily examen to be helpful with this. It's good to look back over my day and be honest with myself about where I dropped the ball and where I did well, and find the places in my day where God was speaking to me. 

On the other side of the coin, it's also good to evaluate my work flow. Are there things that just aren't working for us right now? For example, now that Veronica can stand, I need to do another round of baby-proofing. If I've taken on a few extra activities, do I need to reevaluate my meal plan? Those sorts of things tend to sneak up on me, and I can "should" myself all day long about them, but it won't fix anything. Fix the holes in the ship, don't beat your men for not bailing water fast enough. 

Think about the long term

In general, are the things we are doing making us better people? Are we growing in wisdom and virtue? Often we judge how we are doing by how happy or peaceful things are in the moment, but that can be a misleading standard. I'm aiming to raise people who can be calm in the midst of the storm, and have a peace that mere circumstance cannot take away. Some days, that means sucking it up and dealing with unpleasant things. It's easy to lose sight, in the moment, and feel like a bad day defines us, but those are going to happen. It's the general trajectory of things that is the bigger concern. 

So pour yourself a drink, tell your tales of the year that was and set your course for the new one, with whatever it may bring. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pretty, Happy, Funny, Real

I'm joining in the link party from Like Mother, Like Daughter


We have had an unusual warm spell this week. The temperature climbed to nearly 50 degrees. I imagine that this is what winter is like in a lot of the country. I forget that winter isn't the frigid, six months of constant snow and ice we have here in Minnesota or the sunny, non-winter we had in Southern California in most places. I wasn't cut out for that. To a Northerner, sunshine is an obligation.  When it's warm enough to do stuff, you do stuff. That's exhausting when the sun is always shining. 

I decided to go for a walk by the pond. It was glorious. It wasn't even jacket weather. I listened to the audio of a class I had missed when we were sick and I got lost in the quiet. Heaven.


Our Knights of Columbus group had its first annual St Lucy Day party. Our friends, who hosted, had moved into the house the week before. A week after I move, I'm usually hiding from my unpacked boxes and overstimulated kids in the bathroom with a glass of wine. Hosting a lovely party with homemade cinnamon and saffron rolls wouldn't even be on my radar screen. My friend Arika is a superhero. Speaking of superheroes....


Yes, that is a batman costume, and yes, it is hanging from my bedroom chandelier. 


I always feel like a kid explaining myself to a parent when I take the kids to the ER for an injury. "Well, you see, doctor, there was this handbell and this toddler..." Poor Cheyenne got beaned in the face by her two year old sister and had to get stitches. Zach couldn't come for about an hour and a half, so I took all six kids to the emergency room. Travis tried bravely to save his sister from the evil doctor's needles by shooting him with fake hand lasers, but the doctor won out. Apparently, Travis has inherited his dad's sensitive stomach. The sight of the stitches caused him to get sick, all over Charlotte, and partially on James.

Turns out the only spare clothes I had with me were some clothes I was dropping off at the Goodwill for my 90 year old grandma. Whatever. It's warm. We made a quick stop at Costco for dinner before I got the entire evening off for my class. We all lived. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Real Math

Fifth grade math has gone well, but we have been hitting a bit of a dry spell lately.   Staring at fractions and decimals, factors and least common multiples was starting to seem, to the eldest child, like a sea of useless drudgery that brought up the timeless question, "what do you use this for?"

It's a fair question. It does seem to me that we like to divorce arithmetic from its context in real life applications. It's easy for kids to see the purpose of learning language, because they use it everyday for their own purposes. Math seems, from their perspective, less relevent. 

Cheyenne and Bella have expressed an interest lately in learning more about cooking and budgeting, so I decided to suspend my planned curriculum for the month and refocus on some practical life skills. 

We started with price comparisons. The night we began this study we were making tacos, so we decided to start by having the girls compare the cost of the individual packets of taco mix with the cost of the Costco bottle and, once we get the prices on the bulk spices, the cost of the mix recipe from The Tightwad Gazette. It's some good, solid mathematical thinking. How do we find the price per unit using the information printed on the package? What is the basic unit, for our purposes? If we use 3 T per pound of hamburger with one mix, and 4 with another, do we compare by teaspoon, or by one pound batch? What makes the most sense? If the amount on the package is given in in teaspoons, how can I convert that to Tablespoons? How about cups? If I'm making the homemade mix, how do I scale the recipe up or down? Does any of this look familiar? Fractions? Decimals? Factoring? 

Next up, I'm having them make a price book comparing prices of our most used items at different grocery stores, again taking into account units in a package. When it's all done we will have a taste test of some recipes using different products in which quality might make a difference because, after all, price is not the only factor to be considered in evaluating a decision. There are other, non-quantitative factors that make a difference too. 

This "break" from their math homework seems to be putting a little more steam in their learning engines. Suddenly the math problems have purpose and context. They are a language that expresses something meaningful. If nothing else, they'll leave home someday knowing how to make good use of their money and evaluate data for decision making. You could do worse. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A 50th anniversary

I live in a really lovely place. This is the view from my kitchen right now. It's winter, so it's not as nice at the moment, but wait a second. Let me show you. 

Some of our gardens in summer

The walk by the lake

The dock in summer

One of our pools

I could go on all day. My neighbourhood was designed as an experiment in landscape design to enhance the building of community, and it has worked pretty well. We have our conflicts, to be sure, but it's the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and people take pride in their neighbourhood. We have cooking groups, book clubs, groups that get together at ethnic restaurants and potlucks. We have a group that keeps an eye on older neighbours who might need help, and a group that brings meals, flowers, cards, etc. to the sick, post-partum and grieving. This year we are reviving the community 4H group for the kids, and will be working on creating a monarch sanctuary in among our many shared gardens. This is a place where things are happening. 

I was very excited to be asked to be part of the group putting together our 50th anniversary celebration. It's going to be amazing. We are going to have an entire year of events; food events, art shows, wine tastings with poetry readings, music from our own musicians, family events, a photo gallery of our neighbourhood's history, a tennis tournament, a book... again, I could go on all day. In a world where people are often very disconnected from their neighbours, we have somehow managed to    preserve, or perhaps create, a fun and supportive environment. I am so, so grateful to have grown up here, and to have the chance to raise my kids here. I have been blessed, since I moved here on my first birthday, to get to know people of all ages, races, nationalities and backgrounds, that are more like family than friends. I've been blessed by their wide range of knowledge, talents and experiences. I've been blessed by their love and their support. Where else do your neighbours read about your bad day on Facebook and bring you over a bottle of wine? That is what it means to love your neighbour. I am really hopeful that this 50th anniversary year can be a year where we pull together even more, and invest in the future of our community. 

As this is my Year of Poverty and Simplicity, I'm reflecting on all of this abundance. I think this is the key, this abundance of blessing, beauty and love instead of an abundance of things. These are the real riches.