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© Gail Underwood Parker

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Holding My Breath

A while back I wrote about setting the bar.  Today I am holding my breath as one of my kiddos is approaching... maybe at... a major bar.  We are in the place where you hope you are at the bar of success, but can't quite trust it yet.  Are we two steps ahead with a one step back about to hit us?  or maybe two steps back? Has the behavior really stopped?  For how long?  Dare we hope for a month?  Dare we dream forever?

All parents know this moment.  It begins the first time your child sleeps through the night.  It is such a blissful moment of joy... but you don't quite celebrate it full out, knowing the next night may be back to feedings every few hours.  How many nights in a row does it take before you go to bed confident of a full night's sleep?  

With infants it seems somehow infinitely easier to celebrate the small milestones and grant the child a pass when s/he backslides into the old patterns.  No knowledgeable parent expects a child to sleep through the night foreverafter that first blissful surprise.  Sure, there are a lucky few [I've heard of but never met] whose child sleeps through from then on, but it is rare.  No knowledgeable parent expects their toddler to be out of diapers forever after their first successful use of the "potty."  

Yet as our children grow older we [I] seem to expect the lessons to be learned more quickly, more efficiently, with steadier successes and fewer backslides.  It can be a simple task ["Put the dishes away, don't just stack them on the counter."].  It can be a family rule. ["You MUST call and tell me if you are going to go to someone's house after school."] It can be a moral choice. ["Just because you want it doesn't give you the right to take it."] But somehow after the first or second time the instruction is almost always accompanied by my exasperated comment [dare I say whine?] of "How many times have I told you...x,y,z?" or "Haven't I told you before...x,y,z?" or some variation of the rant.

Deep inside I know that no infant will be more able to soothe themselves back to sleep if I scolded "How many times have I told you to just close your eyes and you will go back to sleep?!" So doesn't it follow that no adolescent will be more encouraged or able to fight temptation [of laziness, carelessness, or moral dilemma] with me scolding an instruction louder or more angrily than the first, second, etc. times I said it?   

So now I am holding my breath.  Perhaps this IS the time of success.  But if it is not, then  please can I remember to enjoy the successful moments as they came, to savor them. Like that first night of sleeping through, let me use the unexpected respite to rejuvenate and re-energize, so that I can start again, calmly and quietly, encouraging and supporting rather than whining and barking. It would be better for me.  Better for them.  For all of us, I  am holding my breath and savoring this time. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Setting the Bar

Success is measured differently by parents of children with challenges.  It really doesn't matter whether they are your children, foster, adoptive, or maybe alien children. If you are raising a child [or more than one] with challenges you either learn to adjust your definition of success or you go crazy.  Perhaps both. 

 If you have a child with encopresis [an inability to control one's bowels] then a week withonly 24 soiled underpants is a victory worthy of celebrating.  If you have a child with a history of severe trauma, seeing the child merely jump up to see where the ambulance that went by is headed may be a celebration of the fact they did not run screaming, and hide under something. If you have a child with reactive attachment disorder you may find yourself celebrating a day the child only pinched you instead of hitting or spitting. If you have a child with anxiety disorders seeing only one blanket nailed covering their bedroom window may be a success, or seeing them silent but shyly looking at a visitor, rather than hiding,  may be a huge cause for celebration.  If you have a child who refuses to eat, hearing them ask for an apple is monumental, but if your child is overweight seeing them stop at just one may be equally so. 

Which brings me to a saying for which I am well known... "It's all in where you set the bar."  People who first hear me say that at trainings sometimes become offended, jumping to the conclusion that I am not willing to set high goals for challenged children.  That is far from the truth.  The truth is that I try to understand what IS a high goal for a child with challenges. I offer you myself.  I am [if I stand very straight] almost 5 feet 2 inches tall.  I always say I am 5'2" because I remember when I was 5'1" and always assumed I must have grown another inch.  [All you tall folks out there, stop laughing!] In fact I am more likely 5" 1-1/2" tall at best.  Now, given that information.... if you were to see me try to dunk a basketball and come close would you not feel that celebration worthy?  Perhaps more celebration worthy than a similar result from Michael Jordan [considerably taller..and I might add considerably more athletically gifted than I]? Whether we like to admit it or not we DO set different goals and expectations based on people's genetics and training and natural abilities [or in my basketball example, lackthere of!]

Why should it be different for children who happen to be autistic, mentally retarded, anxious, compulsive, traumatized, etc...  even short?  Each person's bar of success is different, and each bar should be ever mobile, always moving up to reflect each success.  Look at your children, with or without challenges, as individuals with different bars.  Set the bar to fit the child. Set it at a place that is achievable with moderate effort. Then you have two wondrous opportunities...1- To celebrate with them a moment of success, of achieving a goal. 2- To teach your child that when you achieve a goal you enjoy the success, you set a new goal, and you start toward that one, etc. etc. always growing, always achieving, always celebrating, succeeding.  Teach them to live by their own bar of success, and to celebrate each success with a new setting of the bar. 

We all need successes to celebrate.  We learn from failures but we are motivated by success.  Look for ways and places to set the bar for your children so that they and you can celebrate together. You might even try it for yourself. 

It's all in where you set the bar. 

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Short Rant on Grammar

I hate pronouns. I seem incapable of teaching my cherubs pronouns.  As a veteran teacher I know the age that most children acquire the use and understanding of pronouns as part of language.  It is the transition from language to action that I can't seem to impart.  Towels go over the towel rod, not under the rod. Put the dirty clothes in the hamper, not on the hamper or beside the hamper. Hang your clothes up, don't lay them down. [I won't even touch the issue of up versus down regarding toilet seats!]

Other directional words are difficult concepts for my tribe.  The difference between open and shut, for example, is particularly challenging. I have found this especially true when trying to teach the concept regarding drawers, cupboards, and doors. 

Nouns can be part of the problem also.  The nouns "sink" and "counter" are easily mixed up if put in a sentence with "put" [as in "Put the dishes in the sink, not on the counter."] When taking care of clothes the confusion is generally between the noun hanger and the noun floor. [Well, actually the noun hanger is almost diabolical.. easily becoming confused with almost anything.... floor, desk, couch, chair, bed..anything!]

Even some verbs [such as stop] can be misunderstood and exchanged [one more time]. Which leads me to numbers, where 1 [as in the previous example] is interchangeable with almost any larger number!

Oh well... I need to stop, stand up, close my computer, watch just 1 television show and go to bed!


Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Melancholy Day and Foster Care

Ten years ago today my mother died.  I try to celebrate her birthday [which is in three days] rather than the anniversary of her death, but I can't seem to escape a moody melancholy as September creeps toward Sept 24 each year. Maybe if she had died three days AFTER her birthday it would be easier to keep the focus on the positive day.  Tonight I will go to a church meeting, not because I want to... I would rather not.  I would rather reread my mother's letters or go to her favorite restaurant, or something. But my mother was no stranger to church meetings that fell on days she wanted to do something else, so in a strange way it is fitting. Who knows.  I think about her and all that she gave me, taught me, showed me. I sometimes try not to think about her.  I try little tricks to distracts myself.  I try little acts to celebrate her.  I mourn her. 

I had a wonderful mother.  She had some habits for which she was teased, some of which she has handed down to me.  She had some habits which I admire and strive for, some of which I almost manage.  It makes me feel guilty sometimes that I have such good memories of my mother and father and yet as a foster parent I know how many children in this world do NOT have that wonderful bank of memories. I suppose some psychiatrist would guess that some of my push to caregive is connected, but I of course would say phooey.  Nonetheless, what are we to do [as a society] about all of these children.  These children who are growing up without a good role model of what a mother should be, or a father should be.  These children who mourn for a family they do not have, never did have, and yet want so desperately.  These children grow up... some of them.  Many of them grow up unsuccessfully.  The statistics about children who are homeless who have had contact with foster care are frightful.  The statistics about the percentage of incarcerated prisoners who were once in foster care is even more terrifying.  

Foster care is not as simple as having space to share in your home or even in your heart.  It is hard.  It does not come with guarantees of a good outcome.  But all around us there are children who have been robbed of a childhood, of a loving and caring family, who don't have a clue about unconditional love.  It is too big a problem for me to even wrap my head around.  Today I feel the loss of my mother in every cell of my body.  And yet, I celebrate that loss.  For I had something wonderful to lose.  And I weep for all of those children around my state and my country and my world who will not be gripped in sadness as a date approaches.  I weep because they never had much to lose, never received enough from their mother or father to miss.  You should miss your parents.    I am blessed because I do. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Two points and three cheers for fiscal planning

It is a tradition in my house to go out to dinner as a family on the first day of school. It began when I was teaching school full time and was a single parent with fiver small children. By the time I got my classroom ready, my kids ready , me ready and all of us up, dressed, fed, bags packed, and through the school doors on time, I felt spent ..and the day of teaching had not even begun. I could barely make it through the afternoon of each first day. My exhaustion left me totally uninterested in fixing a nice dinner for the kids who had also survived their first day of school and deserved a good meal. So, making lemons of lemonade, a tradition was born that continues deades later, even now that I am no longer teaching school and the children that began the tradition are now sending their own children off to school.

This year I was in Nashville at the conference on the kids' first day of school. I expected the kids to ask if I could leave money for the sitter to take them out that night. Instead they came to me with a different proposal. They suggested that since I had expected to take them out but couldn't... perhaps there was "extra" money in the food budget for that week. They proposed that the money I would have spent on dinner be divided among the children and put toward the cell phones they are trying to maintain. Mind you, I pointed out that I am not willing to trade all family events for their simple dollar cost. I reminded tham that not everything's value can be measured in dollars and cents. However, I agreed that this was a unique situation and I agreed to their proposal. Score one point for fiscal planning on their parts!

They also suggested that since I was going to be away, instead of the babysitter masking the meals, perhaps they could earn extra money by making the meals themselves while I was gone. Now, in the cold harsh reality of that week, not every child actually made the appointed meanl and earned their money. But that wasn't what made me happy. What pleased me was noticing with great joy this second sign of fiscal planning. This was the first time they have initiated a plan to earn money for a goal. Setting goals and breaking them into realistic plans is a crucial skill for future independence... especially in budget terms! Wooo hoooo..Score two points for the kids!!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Budding Chefs

I don't think I have ever mentioned one of my most successful parenting strategies... my first effort at teaching real independent living skills to my tribe. Years ago I suddenly found myself a single parent of five children from kindergarten up, a working mother with a full time job, and several part time job efforts. I didn't even have time that I could lose by being depressed, heartbroken, or even angry. I didn't have time for anything. Exhaustion was a constant state of being, reminding me of the years spent doing lesson plans in my head while doing late might and early morning baby feedings. None of my children seemed very interested in doing chores or housework, which was not terribly surprising since at that point, neither did I. Long story short, I began to be very deliberate abouot teaching my childrn to cook specific meals. My children may have missed out on some things, but they reached adulthood able to feed themselves and be competent in the kitchen. They were ecomfortable fixing full dinners as most of their friends were at baking brownies or rice krispie squares. I don't know if that had anything to do with two of the five becoming committed vegetarians or not, but that may have helped motivate them.

With my latest charges I began deliberately teaching them kitchen skills when the youngest was about 8. I began with makineg each child their own cookbook. I used 3-ring binders and my trusty [very low end] digital camera. Whenever we began a new recipe I would teach the child how to make it step by step and would take a picture of him/her doing each step. [I always include the first step of washing their hands and went through washing their hands when done, serving it to a happy crew and cleaning up the kitchen afterwards!] The next time we fix it the child follows the printed and photo directions while I watch [assuring success]. The third time the child makes it alone while I am at home in case I am needed. If it works the recipe goes in their "cookbook" binder and on their list of things they can cook independently. Now even my fifth grader can now cook at least five complete dinners totally by herself, and her brothers now have a repertoire of almost ten. [The older ones also track how much each meal costs in groceries and what you can make from the leftovers.] This helps with family responsibility sharing, teaching budgets, earning spending/saving money, and much, much more I can talk about another time.

If anyone readin wants a copy of one of the photo/direction recipes, send me your email and your kid/s age/s and I will send you one. Teaching each recipe takes time, but it is a great chance for one-on-one time and kids often open up more when cooking with you. Your children will have a great sense of accomplishment, will love cooking and showing off for their friends, and will be one giant leap forward towards successful independent living one day. And, trust me... the next time you are down flat with the flu and the kids can take over the meal duties, the time you have spent will be more than worth every minute!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cell Phones and Utility Bills

I have been told that I am the last remaining parent in the United States who has not given their children cell phones. I have been told that for quite a few years. Sadly I confess that as of this week I have surrendered. Not happily, but nonetheless, all of my cherubs will head for school with cell phone in hand. I am slightly bitter because I feel the world [scratch that… the society here in America] has made it almost mandatory. It became clear when I drove all over the town where I live and discovered that there is no longer even ONE pay phone or public phone available in the entire town. Needless to say shop-owners do not make their phones available to my cherubs or anyone’s cherubs. Their friends are unhappy using their minutes to let my guys call me when the soccer bus is delayed beyond the planned pickup time. The field hockey coach has no interest in letting my kiddos call home on her cell to let me know the game has been moved to a different field than where I am waiting confused. I certainly don’t want them going up to strangers asking to use their cell phones! The tipping point has been reached, at least for me. I need to be able to know where the kids are. The community no longer provides public phones. Like a painful geometry proof I am left with the conclusion that cell phones are the only realistic, safe, and practical solution.

So… I considered having a spare family cell phone that would be available for whoever seemed likely to need it most that day. But, I opted instead for an alternative plan that I hope will both solve the communication problem and teach some fiscal responsibility. I used some old cell phones so that no one got a new phone, therefore no new contracts to sign extending my family plan. Therefore the only cost to me is $9.95 per phone per month. So, sitting my cherubs down [the youngest is 11] I explained that they could have a phone with a few strings attached. String #1- They needed to understand that any misuse of the phone would result in losing the privilege of having their own phone. String #2- Before they could have their phone they needed to pay me the first month’s fee [$10]. String #3- They would have to earn the $10 each month and give it to me BY the first of the month or they would lose the phone for that next month. Having signed a phone contract with me for those terms [which I showed them was similar to the phone contract I have with AT&T for the family plan] as soon as they paid their first month, they were good to go.

How has it gone so far? Well, all of them have paid their first month and have in fact earned the money and paid for the next month early. Yes, there have been a few wrinkles on phone etiquette [“No, you may NOT call you friend’s mother at 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning to see if they can come over and play!”] and lots of conversations I did not enjoy [“Nana, what is this sexting thing they were talking about on the bus?]. But I have had them calling in to check in after school, and perhaps best of all, they now have their first real “utility bill” to learn to manage, to perhaps mismanage, and to learn consequences when they are still safe at home. Laying those tracks toward successful independence with fingers crossed firmly and prepared for the bumpy ride….

And aware that the "last remaining holdout in North America" has fallen.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When you have to go away.... Loveys

One of the challenges of going out of town as a single parent is how to keep the little and not so little ones from feeling abandoned, especially if that is part of their past. I've tried framed pictures of me by their beds, little pics tucked places with notes from me for them to find, daily phone calls, an envelope-a-day for them to open from me. Books to bond are plentiful. The Kissing Hand and Love You Forever are two favorites of my kiddos. How about yours? Send me your kids' favorite comfort books and maybe we can get a list going? Anyway, given the anxiety my kids often experience when I leave, you name it, we've tried it. All of those have helped at various ages and stages.

Here's an activity I like that the kids really surprised me by loving year after year. Before I leave we do a craft project, making what we started calling "Loveys" when they were younger. Using felt or fleece you cut out two hearts or even just two squares. Gather cotton, some glittter, a few trinkets and some pieces of paper. Together write little notes on the paper ["I love you" "Your smiles make me happy" "I will be home soon" etc. ] Have the child pick out some trinkets [beads, shapes, mini-animals, whatever the child likes and picks]. Using yarn sew up three sides [or 3/4 of the heart]. Then very lightly stuff the shape with the cotton. Then fold the mini-notes and put inside the cotton [My guys like me to put a kiss on each note before I put it in]. Then add in the trinkets. Finally sprinkle in the magic glitter. Stitch the Lovey closed making a mini-pillow filled with love, messages, and kisses. They can keep it under their pillow, in their backpack, even in a pocket, while you are gone. Sometimes having something tangible to touch and remember the two of you sitting together making it, makes all the difference.

So, that's my strategy to offer today. Try it and let me know how it works.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Back home from Nashville

Well, I made it. I had my choice of morning wakeup calls by Travis Trit, Carrie Undewood, and quite a few in between. Certainly a far cry from my usual morning wake up..... "Nana, get uuhhhhpp! Now, Nana!" Another difference is that at the hotel I could program and choose the time for that recorded musical wake up call. Not so the paintive Nana wake up call from my little gremlins. Those tend to come before the sun is fully up. But home I am, Nana wakeups and all. It was a good conference although not quite what I had expected. I had misjudged [read failed to ask] the percentage of kids vs adults and foster parents vs agency staff. Nonetheless I met some wonderful people and some amazing kids.

For any of you foster parents out in blogdom.. there are more agencies than you can imagine that specialize in the transition to independent living... often referred to as "age-ing out" of the foster care system. I learned much that was new to me about that area of foster care, things that I am more than willing to share if there is any intetrest out there.... just sing out and let me know!

Over the next weeks I plan to sprinkle in more about the conference, but for now I am content to be excited that I have finished unpacking, have caught up on the mail, have filled in all the crinkled and creased parent papers that were sent home for me while I was away, and spent some quality time with the at -least-momentarily-cherubic gremlins. I guess they really did miss me... a very good sign! Time to tiptoe down, check on their sleeping status and plant a kiss on each head. Then I will head to bed so I can be ready for my not-so-Music City wake-up call tomorrow morning and for the race to be ready before the school bus arrives. Good night!