Thursday, February 5, 2015

Accidentally Schooling

I am writing this post for myself, folks. And yes, it's quite similar to another one I've written. But I need the reminder, and maybe so do you!
My 5 3/4 year old son is not yet reading, is in fact fairly resistant to reading-prep activities, and is in my considered opinion not ready to read. I know this. I mentally believe "better late than early," and love the freedom to Not be freaked out about the fact that he cannot yet sound out "c-a-t." And yet emotionally, instinctively, I have this "school = reading" equation going on in my head that has been a real buzz killer as far as this homeschooling thing goes. That, combined with the fact that I am neither creating lesson plans nor setting aside a consistent time and place for school each day continues to drive me to offer the disclaimer "but we haven't really started yet" whenever I tell some new person that we are homeschooling.
And yet, I think we really have. I've no plans to be an "unschooler," and I fully expect to follow a curriculum starting sometime in the next couple of years, but that does not discount what is happening Now.
For instance, I am going to make an attempt to list all of the learning activities that we did today

  • Both older kids practiced the Bible verse they're learning for co-op
  • James emptied the dishwasher while Grace helped collect trash from all the cans in the bedrooms and baths: these are both paid chores
  • Both older kids worked on tidying their own rooms
  • We went on a long drive to visit a friend and her grandsons up in Washington. On the way James asked about 
    • Airplanes that use parachutes (this lead to discussions about momentum, how locked up wheels will make you crash your car / bike / plane, model airplanes, and more) 
    • The Concorde jet: why it's not longer in use, how a sonic boom is produced and whether or not all nearby windows will be shattered
    • How many trees are in an average forest (I have NO idea but told him the questions we'd have to ask in order to find out) 
    • Why the "flammable" hazard signs on a fuel truck have little doors on them
    • The names of the rivers we drove over
    • What the funny shaped attachment on the construction truck was for
  • Grace asked "Do my ears have bones?" I think both older kids were surprised when I said "yes!" 
  • I, ever the optimist, tried to interject a little letter-sounds activity during the car trip. It lasted a few minutes, but he was far more interested in the number of pumps at the gas station, why half of them were blocked off, what a certain truck was carrying, how the cars are loaded onto a car carrier, why another semi had a set of wheels in its trailer area, and at least 700 other things that I tried with varying levels of patience to answer. I, for once, was pretty exhausted by the end, and it wasn't just the traffic! 
  • While at my friend's house, she patiently demonstrated exactly how to use her sewing machine with all sorts of fancy stitches. We also played with play-do and painted some pictures, and made a car out of this weird building set where we ended up making the structure out of interconnected triangles. 
  • At home I announced I was making one of James' favorite dinners and he was desperate to help. He assembled our mini cheese sandwiches, and when Grace demanded to get involved, she used a pastry brush to "paint" each with melted butter in preparation for grilling.  
  • Before bed, Daddy read James several pages from his highly illustrated "How Things Work" book, one of which he was eager to explain to me in detail. Then I finished up "The Horse and His Boy", the fifth of the Narnia series we've read together - although only James is really interested so far. 
And that's just Today! During the rest of the week we've played Math Dice (addition only) several times, attempted Rumikub (James isn't quite there yet), and Robot Turtles. We've also read a couple of Magic School Bus books, and since both older kids were excited to make a chart of the ocean bottom like the one in the book, I went with it.

There is also no end of puzzle building, Lego play, role-play, doll play, and every other sort of play you can imagine, all with little or no input from me. And even, yes, some very legitimate learning from Daniel Tiger and Curious George on TV. (I have Such a love/hate thing with the former! The annoying little ditties are always getting stuck in my head. But they're also getting stuck in the kids' heads, and leading them to, guess what, "Try new foods because they might taste good!") 

So yes, self, I am talking to you. You are (still) not failing your kids. Frankly, you couldn't Stop them learning if you tried - try That on for size if you find yourself getting puffed up! But formal lesson plans couldn't be a worse for us just now. "Delight Directed Learning" may not be a total solution: there will come a time and place where drill and practice, testing and follow through must be part of the day.  That time is not now. Relax. Keep schooling by accident. It's working. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Downs and Ups of a new Soccer Mom

With heart in mouth, I signed my little boy up for an indoor soccer class last week. It seemed like a great idea - for him! As a classic oldest child, he's been having some significant struggles at our unprogrammed gym time at our Homeschool co-op. Everyone is, in his opinion, "mean to me!" Mommy, however, is pretty sure that what he really means is "Everyone isn't playing the game that I want exactly the way I want to play it!" Of course, at 5 1/2, it would be nothing short of miraculous if he could actually understand, let along act on, that advice from his loving mother.  Suddenly I am in such sympathy for my father who told me literally for Years to ignore the kids who were teasing me at school - only to have me figure it out like it was a brand new idea when I started 9th (!) grade.
Anyway, I figured a structured class / game might give him the help he needs in interacting with his peers, not to mention some good physical activity and training. The class in question is specifically for home schoolers age 5-8, and while he's at the bottom of the age range it's not a terribly broad one, and no fewer than 4 of his friends from co-op would be in the same class.
And then as I was telling someone about this new adventure, she said "Annette, you're a Soccer Mom!" I did a double take and realized that I have some significant baggage about this! Aside from the culturally loaded label, the pure logistics are complicated. It's 20 minutes away, and I was not looking forward to the "keeping Grace and especially Lucy out of trouble in a small space" aspect, at All.  Food and drink have to be packed; toys and games provided or - more likely - made up on the spot - it's a pain! More to the point, I spent years attending my brother's little league games, and while I honestly can't say that I resent them, there were certainly many times that they were inconvenient. Suddenly I feel like I'm staring down the barrel of a decade of pee-wee sporting events, most of them probably in the mud and/or rain, dirty uniforms, busy evenings, and committed weekends.  Then there's the single season of softball I played as an awkward, shy, nonathletic 12-year-old with an unsympathetic coach. Let's just say it didn't go well! So it is only with some effort that I am yanking myself back mentally and emotionally and promising myself that a single 8-week class of soccer is not a signed commitment to keep the kids in sports year round 'til he's out of the house.

As is so often the case, in the event the problem was not the one I anticipated - although I probably should have. James balked. Hard. Having taken a wrong turn and then had trouble locating the proper warehouse, we ended up about 2 minutes late and the kids were already huddled on the field. James ran out willingly enough, but lasted about 5 minutes before running back to me in tears and what can hardly be described as anything but terror. I didn't react as well as I could have. OK, I didn't totally screw it up, but there's no doubt that my irritation with his sudden fear came through loud and clear. 'Cause I was embarrassed. A dozen home-school parents watching My kid alone from the whole crew have a melt-down and refuse, even with pushing and shoving, to go back on the field?  By the grace of God I was able to take a step back, calm down, say a prayer with him for courage, and let him just sit on the bench for a while. (One of the moms I didn't know also helped by letting me know she'd been there too!) Finally I hit upon bribery. The tiny candy bars I had with me were no help, but the promise of ice cream if he actually played for 15 of the remaining 30 minutes turned out to be the trick. It helped that the instructor sent the kids out for water about every 10 minutes: On the second or third visit I was able to enlist one of his friends to help to get him out there, where he assigned himself as goalie with another of his friends. Five minutes after that he was chasing the ball with everyone else, and by the time the buzzer sounded he was proclaiming it the "greatest thing ever," and making plans to keep going his whole life long.

Meanwhile, I was having little or no trouble with the girls. Lucy had to be redirected a few times, but Grace happily traced her alphabet cards - doing better than I knew she was able, honestly - in between bites of the apples I'd packed. So honestly, from the low 25 minutes into the class, I was on a pretty good high by the time it was over and we were headed towards McDonald's.
There, I had another good surprise in store: when I returned to the play area where I'd parked the kids, a little black girl who turned out to be just Grace's age had seated herself at our table - apparently to play with Lucy. In typical introvert fashion I tried just ignoring her, figuring she'd either get bored and walk away, or that her parent would notice and reel her in. As it happened, neither of these things came to pass, and as James rudely asked what she was doing there, I decided I'd better be the grown up and make introductions. Madison was perfectly polite and we had a nice little chat for several minutes, until her grandmother (seated just behind us) finished her phone call and noticed what her kid had been up to. By that time it was clear that there was no problem with the arrangement, and within a few more minutes the grandma and I were chatting. (Yeah, this is So not like me!) She turned out to be a mother of 7 (!), all grown except for two adopted teens. She is also a pre-school Sunday school teacher and English teacher at the Korean church just up the street from us. We had quite a nice conversation, which she proclaimed (and I agreed) as we parted was a "blessing." With luck (OK, with God), we'll meet there again!
It could have gone so much worse. I could have given up, let my emotions and especially embarrassment get the best of me, and retreated from the class in disgrace, writing my $50 off as a loss and spent 3 more years before considering another attempt at extra-curricular activities. I could even have done my typical "pretend there's no-one else in the restaurant" routine at McD's. God's Grace saved me from my instincts, though, and at least for now, I'm perfectly happy to be a Soccer Mom.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why it's hard to let kids (and husbands) help

As I peruse the blogosphere I every once in a while come across articles encouraging me to get the kids involved in chores from a very early age. "Stop doing those things for them," they shout. "Kids have got to learn to work!" And like the downtrodden, Pinterest-abused Mommy I am, I bow my head in shame once again as I remember all the clothes I've folded, toys I've picked up, floors I've swept, and dishes I've dealt with and think "OK, I've got to do better!"
But then... there's real life!
Tonight I am getting my 20-month-old ready for bed and notice that, as per usual, the store of diapers in our room has been depleted. I'm trying not to wake the sleepy toddler any more than necessary, and my five year old son is on his way up the stairs. I stop him and say "Quick, go grab me some diapers." Happy to help, he heads down to the bathroom at the opposite end of the house and... nothing. I've got the baby entirely undressed, cleaned, and her PJ's half on, but still no diaper. I stick my head out and see my husband walking past. "Help James find the diapers!" I call. A minute later, James returns triumphant with a handful and I am able to complete my task. Success, right?!
Half an hour later I come down stairs and notice that the bathroom light is on, the cupboard where the diapers are usually stored is open, and the Costco-sized box of wipes is pulled out and on the floor. An empty wipes box is on the floor in the hall way. In the adjacent laundry room - which is where the new box of diapers was Actually hiding - that box is turned sideways so the closet won't close, there's a washrag jammed in the track, and both sliding doors are derailed. (This last bit was at least mostly my husband, who has about as much concern - at least in the heat of a search - for "neat" and "tidy" as any of the kids.)
Total amount of time "saved:" -5 minutes.

I risk elevating this little occurrence far beyond its actual importance by blogging about it. Nothing was broken and I rather exaggerate when claiming even 5 minutes for clean-up.  But it's indicative of the core problem with kids - even husbands - "helping" with the housework.

And yeah, it's mostly my fault. The bathroom cupboard Should contain diapers, and probably Shouldn't contain the giant box of wipes. But it's pretty disorganized and it wasn't even on my radar to proactively move the new box, or at least some portion thereof, into it. Similarly, I could probably assign someone like my son the chore of consistently replenishing the diaper stack in the bedroom. The laundry room closet isn't overstuffed, but there's always bits and pieces of recent loads on the floor, or rags that have escaped their box just waiting to get trapped on the rails.

But this is not a Martha Stewart house with a Good Housekeeping-worthy organizational system, and it never will be. It is only reasonable to expect that I will Always be the single person who actually knows where (nearly) everything is, and moreover can extract it without dislodging a shelf-worth of other things, which of course will Never actually be put back by the person who did the dislodging.

Cleaning is even worse: I recently spent at least 15 minutes coaching my son through a sweeping job that I would have completed in about 3. He was very frustrated by the end of it (or what I decided to let stand as the end), despite my best efforts at calm, informative direction.  There is no doubt in my mind that he will strongly resist the next time I ask him to do this chore.  Remembering back to my own childhood, I distinctly remember deciding to surprise my mother by cleaning the main bathroom while she was taking a nap. Having neither access to nor, I expect, inclination to use the cleaning chemicals, we "washed" the mirror using plain water and paper towels. I remember how hard she tried to be properly grateful...

Dishes? We eat most of our meals at an elevated breakfast bar. The kids can barely reach it, meaning any leftovers on their plates are likely to tip onto the floor if I ask them to clear them. They can also barely reach the sink, and I'm not thrilled at having them simply toss them in sight unseen. The dishwasher would be ideal - IF they could actually reach the sink to rinse before placing them inside and IF the thing didn't have an obstinate tendency to contain clean dishes at mealtimes. A step-stool at the kitchen sink would be a constant tripping hazard to yours truly; in fact I don't want one anywhere near the kitchen because it will be used and abused by the toddler!

What I'm getting at is that if and when one decides to get kids involved in the household chores, one must be fully committed to the larger goals of self-sufficient, willingly working children. And one must furthermore admit that these goals are - especially at the beginning - basically antithetical to the apparent goal of having a reasonably clean, well ordered house. They're two different projects that should not be confused with one another. Moreover, what sort of "help" can be tolerated is going to be very different from household to household based on your kids' ages, compliance, and abilities, and just as importantly, what you can stand to have done wrong.
While I Will be teaching my kids to sweep, vacuum, wash dishes and clean bathrooms, I'm also giving myself a "get out of guilt free" card as pertains to achieving these goals at any particular age. I'm not going to follow the chart and beat myself up every time I clear the table. And neither should you!