Friday, September 30, 2016

Bueller?

I've got nothin'. You probably already guessed this from yesterday's post. Life is feeling as though it is back on keel. The doctor's appointments have slowed to a slow trickle. School is going quite well and the schedule is working far better than I had hoped. Life is looking pretty normal and average and everyday-ish. I really don't think it is that different from other families.

While crises, new children, new pets, disasters, and dramatic breakthroughs are excellent blog fodder, it's nice (really, really nice) to be in a more average moment in life. It does make it a little more difficult to come up with things to write about, though. I've been mentally planning a huge post about why I think computer-based education is a mistake and why it seems as though it is the educational equivalent of snake oil. I'm not ready to write it yet, though. G. and L. are perpetually giving me good material, but I'm also aware that ones children are far more interesting to the parents than to the wider public. I can always come up with something to write in regards to homeschooling or adoption, but it also feels as though much of that would be a rehash to what I've already written somewhere else on the blog.

So what do you want, you faithful few who read every day (or at least regularly)? I'm sure this moment of quiet won't last (though I'm enjoying it while it does), and more interesting things will present themselves to write about, but in the interim, I'd rather not spend too much time gazing at my navel. (I've given birth to seven children, trust me, I don't want to gaze at my navel.) I'm open to suggestions... questions... topics...

Of course, my secret fantasy is that some person will decide that sending all of us on a 'round-the-world trip which I would then document with probably hilarious results would come true. That doesn't seem terribly likely, does it? (Fall is a great time to travel, by the way. Hint. Hint.)

In the interim, though.

Help.

Anyone?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cozy Fall

I have lived with changing seasons for over thirty years now, but I spent my childhood in Arizona, growing up in the desert. I've decided that early imprinting does something to a brain. Even after 30 years, I still think the weather should warm up at the beginning February. I still miss the sun in vaguely depressive ways when it has been absent for several weeks. I still don't quite expect to see masses of leafy green trees out of my windows. And I am still surprised by the arrival cooler weather. Pleasantly surprised that is.

I adore fall. I love the cooler weather. I love sweaters and flannel. I love the whole atmosphere. It makes me want to curl up in a blanket with a good book in front of a fire, with a cup of tea. OK, in truth, I'm not sure what doesn't make me want to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea, but during the summer I don't need the blanket and fire.

Because fall coincides with the beginning of the school year, I also have an overwhelming urge to study something. That, I think, is directly related to studying in my university's huge, Gothic-style music library when I was in college, followed by studying in graduate school in the University of Chicago's Gothic-style library. (I didn't attend U of C for grad school, J. did. I just drove down to Hyde Park to study with him on my free days.) Anyway, it is what the change of seasons tells me I should be doing.

At the beginning of the season, even the shorter days don't bother me so much, they just feel cozy. And that is the word that seems to sum up the season for me. Cozy. (Yes, I actually think studying can be cozy. I've read too many British mysteries set in Oxford, I think.) Fall lends itself to cozy things... knitting, sewing, baking, reading, taking walks through the changing leaves, bonfires, warm and comfy clothes, hot drinks, comforting foods. I could go on and on.

It also makes me think it's time to change the picture books for the season. It's time to say good-by to books about beaches and warm weather, and bring out the cozier titles. I also want to dig out one of my favorite books to read to children... The Cozy Book by Mary Ann Hoberman. It's the perfect book for the season.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Birds in the mail

The mail doesn't always bring bills and junk. Sometimes it bring birds. Today we received not one, but two bird-related items. The first was our packet of material from Project Feederwatch.


Here we have our bird identification poster, a tally sheet (for counting birds), and the instruction manual. Have you ever done this? It's actually pretty cool. When M. and B. were little, we did it for a couple of years. Essentially, you hang birdfeeders where you can see them, and then on designated days you keep track of what and how many birds you see at your feeders. You then submit your numbers to Cornell University, where they use the data to track all sorts of things regarding bird populations. It's not often that children have a chance to do real and valuable science, but this is one way they can.

The other thing that arrived in the mail was a gift from J.'s aunt and uncle. It is a Bird Bingo game and it is beautiful and perfect.


Everyone was clamoring to play it right away, so we did.

Y. needed to use the couch since the AFO's make it uncomfortable to sit on the floor.

Kenzie was good until almost to the end, when he ran through the game causing us to have to redo several bingo cards. Next time we'll play at a table.



There was much jockeying at first to see who would get the bingo cards with barn owls on them. Our teatime read aloud right now is Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O'Brien. Everyone is a little in love with barn owls these days as a result and wanted to have a barn owl on their card. There are a lot of cards in this game, so it worked out.

P. took the pictures for me, but what she didn't get was R. playing, too. This turns out to be a style of game that she can handle on her own, with little outside help. That is a big, huge deal around here. Thank you, thank you!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

It's the little things

Take a look at this.


That would be my desk. Notice how you can see actual desk surface there on either side of the computer. Notice that there are not ridiculous amounts of papers and books of all kinds piled in not-so-neat piles across the entire thing. You probably can't notice, but that file holder on the left is holding only paperwork that is current and needed, as opposed to things such as financial aid paperwork for children who graduated from college nearly two years ago. Notice the file folder on the right. That is my working to do list, where I write the things I need to take care of and which holds the papers I need to do those things. You can also see the checkbook next to the computer which is currently up-to-date.

And that noise you hear is my happy deep breathing every time I look at it.

It was starting to feel as though my desk represented what my brain looked like. It wasn't pretty. And it really wasn't functional. Every time I looked at my desk, or thought about it, or pondered the things it contained that I needed to do, I could instantly feel my body kick into anxiety mode. It's not a terribly pleasant way to live. Sunday I felt as though I could finally tackle it... needed to tackle it. I spent the entire afternoon sorting out. J. made dinner so I could finish.

I don't think my desk has been this clean and organized for over a year. It's amazing we were able to complete two adoptions, because I spent nearly a year in a panic that my cluttered desk and state of mine was going to cause some important document to go missing.

This feels good. Really, really good. If you have a likewise disastrous spot in your house and psyche, I highly recommend deciding to tackle it. I slept so well last night, I think the neat and organized desk played a huge role in that.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Our new world of abbreviations

Y. and I have had a big day driving hither and yon to get her set with her new AFO's. For those of you who are familiar with this particular term, you can move along because this will be old hat. But I also know that I have many readers who do not live in the assistive devices world, and it's always good to learn something new. It is also a bit self-serving in that at some point those of you who know us will see Y. wearing her new AFO's and it will perhaps save us from answering repeated questions. (Not that I mind answering questions, particularly when my children are not present, but I will admit the same question over and over does sometimes grow old.)

AFO stands for Ankle Foot Orthosis, or foot and ankle brace. Here is what a pair looks like.


These are the pair which were made for Y. and which we picked up this morning.... bright and early at 8 am. ("You know I'm not a morning person," Y. reminded me.) They seem to fit pretty well, though they are not making her happy. It turned out to be great accidental timing in that this afternoon Y. already had a physical therapy appointment on the calendar. I was thrilled to be able to bring in the AFO's, new knee socks, new sneakers (because these things do not fit in all shoes, and I'm not entirely sure what we will do for dress shoes), and let the PT help get things sorted out.

These particular AFO's are adjustable in that they can either have a hinge at the ankle or it can be fixed to be rigid. This is also something the PT was able to adjust and make sure it was correct. What they do is to help hold Y.'s legs at the proper angle while also providing a little more support than she has standing alone. The therapist was pretty happy with what she was seeing when Y. walked with them. Y. was not terribly happy, but they are not the most comfortable of contraptions. We will slowly work into her wearing them most of the day, adding an hour each day until we are there.

What the people who know about these things are hoping is that the AFO's will help train and build up the appropriate muscles so that eventually Y. will not need to wear them at all. In the meantime, we will try to make the process as palatable as we can for Y.

So there you go... you now all know about as much as I do with the new world we have entered.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The blessings of hard

I just wrote to a friend that I believed that every family should be blessed with a child that struggles, whether because of physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges. I know that sounds crazy in a world that strives for perfection and ease; a world that is so focused on outward appearances. Where does the idea of being blessed by something hard fit in?

I've been thinking about this idea a lot recently. I've written before about how certain parenting challenges have changed me. In the words of E. Nesbit, these challenges have rubbed off some of my rough edges. They have made me a nicer, more understanding, more accepting person. (I fully realize that there are more rough edges that need to go.) I thought I was compassionate and understanding when life was easy. I was wrong.

Here is the root of the so called Mommy Wars. Too many people think they're compassionate and understanding, but they are wrong because they haven't lived through hard. One of the most compassionate places I frequent on the internet is the group for parents who are parenting hard children. You might think that these people would be so worn down by their experiences that they would have little patience or time for anything but the raw emotion that comes with living through your nightmares. And sometimes that's true. But more often than not, what this group of parents excels at is compassion and understanding. It is a place where people can share the worst... the kind of thing that you don't share with anyone because it sounds too bad... and instead of making the parent feel worse, they rally around and support that struggling parent.

If more of us had more of our rough edges smoothed, the world would be a nicer place. It would mean that a struggling mom would have just a slightly easier road, because worrying about how she is perceived by others just wouldn't be a concern.

If you have ever wondered how a special needs parent does it, understand that we are different. We are different from parents who do not have this experience. But also please understand that we were not different before we began this journey. We didn't think we could do it. We didn't understand how others did it. For many of us, our first experience parenting a child who struggles was not our choice, but came in a child who arrived that way; a child we were expecting to be typical. And we were changed. We began to see things differently. We began to see people differently. We began to see life differently. Things that used to be important, suddenly weren't, and little things we used to take for granted became big deals. Sure life was in some ways harder, but it was deeper, richer, and paradoxically easier. When you stop living your life to impress others, there is incredible freedom, and for many parents of children with special needs, worrying about impressing others was quickly jettisoned. There just wasn't time.

Yes, we are different, but only because we became that way through our experiences. The experiences came first.

Back to that struggling mother, for whom this is all so new and hard and scary. You will get through it. Your children will get through it. And you will be changed. While much of raising hurting children is hard, the unexpected gift is the new compassion and freedom which will be yours.


Friday, September 23, 2016

Autodidacts you should know

I have a soft spot for autodidacts. Those somewhat compulsive learners (and in my experience compulsive learning is a definite trait) who cannot be defined by degrees or schools attended. This could be because I count myself among their number, but also because to my mind, autodidacts exhibit the best of human learning and education. It is self-directed, done for the sheer knowledge gained and not for grades, and is egalitarian. You don't need an exclusive school, a library card will suffice.

Unbeknownst to me, I included two pretty amazing autodidacts in our school schedule for the year. I'm not sure how fascinated my children were with them, but I am. I've already found one adult biography on one, and would love to find one for the other. Because I really need to know more about both of them.

Who are they?

Well, the first is Margaret Morse Nice. Bonus points to any blog readers who know who she is before you read the rest of the post. It's a shame that she is not better known, because from what I've read, she was pretty darn amazing. I only happened across her because in my book addiction, I bought a discarded library book about her one day at the library years ago. There it sat on my library shelves, and amazingly it survived a couple personal library purges, because I don't recall ever having read it to any child. As I was planning the school year, I came across it again, and since the title was Bird Watching, it seemed like something that would fit in with our bird study. Last week was the week I had it scheduled, so I read it to everyone.

Wow. Just wow. This woman was ostensibly 'just a housewife'. She had a bachelor's degree in French, but then married and had five daughters. But she always loved birds and always enjoyed studying them. So that is what she did as she raised her girls and kept her house. Over the course of her life, she managed to do important research, often making important scientific discoveries that changed the course of a species' wildlife management plans. By the time she died, she had published 7 books, 250 journal and newspaper articles, and 3,133 reviews of other scientists' work. I find her inspiring.

Then this past week, we read about Benjamin Banneker. I am now embarrassed to admit that while his name was marginally more familiar to me than Margaret Nice's, I'm pretty sure that I couldn't have told you why his name was familiar. I planned him into our school schedule because on my giant list of books from various time periods, he was there.

Have you heard of him? Once again, it's a shame that more people don't know him. He was an African-American man who lived during the time of the American Revolution. He was born into a free family who owned a 100-acre tobacco farm. He had limited formal schooling, but over the course of his life he taught himself an amazing amount. He built a wooden clock, copying and carving the gears from a pocket watch which a friend had loaned him. He taught himself mathematics and astronomy, as well as surveying. He was one of the surveyors who helped to lay out Washington D. C. Possibly his most notable achievement was to publish his own almanac. He did all of the calculations for the sun rises and sunsets, moon phases, eclipses, and tides. Eventually a Quaker publisher agreed to print the almanac. Mr. Banneker also wrote a letter to then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Banneker was extremely interested in current events and in the Declaration of Independence. In his letter to Mr. Jefferson, he asks the writer of the Declaration why, if all men were created equal, was slavery still allowed in the new United States. Mr. Jefferson did reply, but in the children's biographies I read, were only small snippets of his reply. I am curious as well, how Mr. Jefferson worded his answer.

In many ways, Benjamin Banneker reminds me of Nathaniel Bowditch. (If you haven't read Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, you really, really need to!) Both were brilliant mathematicians who were self-taught. Not only did they learn math, but they branched out into other subjects as well.

I love to share people who love learning for the sheer joy of it and who don't let anything stop them in the quest for that learning. People do not need to be coerced into learning. Discovering the world is something that should come naturally to all of us. If any educational system steals that joy and makes learning drudgery, then I think we need to seriously reconsider that educational system.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

In which P. gets some high school credit hours... or why it's always a good thing to read your car manual

P. and I had a little adventure yesterday. I headed out to pick her up at the stable after her riding lesson, thinking we would easily have enough time to stop by the store and pick up some cat food before I needed to teach a piano lesson. And we would have, if the temperature gauge on the van would have behaved itself. I'm tootling down the road when I notice the gauge is heading toward the red. Even I know this is not good, so have the internal discussion of what to do about this. Stop and not get P.? Then how would I let her know to take the bus. (She had my phone, which meant I didn't have my phone. But it turns out it wouldn't have mattered since it was out of money. Yes, we live in the dark ages over here.) Do I keep going? Am I going to wreck the engine? Of course, I'm still driving as I ponder all these possibilities, so in the end I decided to continue on the stable and revisit the problem then. (I know, all you car people out there are just smacking your heads at the moment.) As I pulled into the parking, the gauge was very definitely in the red and I was happy to be able to stop the van and turn off the engine.

I am not a car person. (You probably already guessed that.) I have no desire to learn about cars. None. Zero. Zilch. I'm quite happy to not have any idea how they work, other than how to make them go and how to fill them up with gas. That is what AAA is for. And husbands. And children. Which is why J. received my first phone call after arriving at the stable (after refilling my phone with money), asking him what we should do. He coached us through opening the hood (P. took care of that), and filling the coolant reservoir with some water we got from the stable (P. took care of this as well.) When I started the car again, the gauge seemed to be hovering where it normally lived, so we decided to head for home. The cat food could wait.

This was great for about four blocks. By this time we were on a fairly busy road, at a time of day when the only thing traffic does is get heavier and heavier. I'm sitting in the van, watching the gauge climb higher and higher, knowing that this was not good. And then I started seeing a new light appear on the dash board. One I had never seen before. This bright red light said something along the lines of, "ENGINE LOSING POWER!" or maybe it was, "HEY STUPID, YOUR CAR IS GOING TO DIE WITHIN THE NEXT TWO MINUTES!" Whatever it was, we were very clearly not making it home and I began to think we wouldn't even make it off the very busy road. At any moment I was going to become that person whose stalled car is responsible for a miles long traffic jam as people tried to get around me. I had just enough presence of mind left (and a lull big enough in the traffic) to get to the right hand lane, hoping to make it to a side street. That seemed reasonable except there was a red light up ahead and though I could see the side street, we weren't moving towards it. Meanwhile, the engine sounds more and more as though it has signed its will and merely has to take its last breath. The small part of my brain that is not panicking decides that turning off the car at this light might just forestall the engine's inevitable demise just a few minutes longer. It worked! I had no idea whether or not the engine would start again once I turned it off, but it did, and we inched along to the side street and were able to park.

Phew.

Lucky J. got another phone call from me. Poor guy, being the first person I spoke with after this little episode, he got the not-so-happy wife for a moment, but since he is also the calmest person I know, he managed to talk me down from the ledge. (The UN just doesn't know what they are missing here. I think J. would be an excellent negotiator for them.) Thankfully, B. was in J.'s office because he needed to borrow the car to go teach a swimming lesson. The pool was very close to where we were parked, so he agreed to stop and pick-up some coolant and drop it off to us before heading in to work. J. also made sure that my piano student knew I wouldn't be making an appearance.

Through all this, P. was completely calm; you would have thought such things happened to her everyday by her demeanor. She is completely unflappable. While we were waiting for B. to arrive, she decided to clean out the front of the van from all that accumulates up there. She threw out garbage, organized my first aid kits into one, and straightened everything up. Once she had done that, she moved on to the door well where she happened across the manual for the van. (Imagine. I sort of knew it was there. I just don't think about it.) I've mentioned before that P. actually likes cars and is interested in them. In fact, she is working on an automotive course that I found for her. So she sat and read the section of the manual about the coolant system. By the time B. arrived with the coolant, she had figured out what needed to happen and how to do it. My contribution was turning on and off the van and making a funnel for her out of a cup that was in the garbage. (These were incredibly vital and important tasks, I'll have you know.) Once she had gone through all the things she found in the manual, we let the van idle a bit, and once P. checked some tubes that were supposed to feel like something, she pronounced it good, slammed the hood, and we went home.

The trip home was uneventful. I like uneventful. And I still have no desire to understand how a car works.
________
I wanted to share one more thing with you from this morning. I decided to try another activity with R. that I had tried last spring and then put away again. It was just beyond her ability and understanding. We had seen some gains recently and I thought it might be worth a shot. Here's what she did.


I know this doesn't seem like much, but truly, R. could not manage this six months ago. Today, she was able to follow the lines without lifting her pencil and be pretty darn accurate with her tracing. Six months ago, this totally baffled her. Today, she spent 45 minutes tracing lines on different activity sheets that I had.
___________
Edited to add... J. took the van in today to the car guy, having to stop every little bit to let the engine cool off on the way. Turns out it was the water pump. We now have a nice new water pump and driving should go back to being uneventful.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Let's talk about the Migratory Bird Act

I know, it's an odd thing to write a blog post about. It's also an Act that I never anticipated bumping up against. I don't go out and collect wild birds or their nests or their feathers, so why should I even think about it, right?

Let's back up and take a look at that osprey that is currently living in our front hall.



He's pretty cool, huh? Many of the children are completely enraptured with him. He also happens to be one of the few birds who is not covered under the Migratory Bird Act, and is why he is allowed to come to visit our house temporarily. I wonder how he feels about being one of the few birds left out? I don't know the actual number of birds not included in the treaty, but going by the exhibit birds available for check-out through the Harris Loan Box program (256 birds, by the way), there are exactly 12 which we can check out. We can check them out because they are not covered under the Migratory Bird Act. Evidently, unless an institution is public, such as a public school (or a Magnet School, which is a bit fuzzy in my opinion), these birds or anything related to these birds is not available. Yes, even though they are owned by the Field Museum and we private schools are merely borrowing them.

I did clarify with them. More than once. In fact, sometimes I feel more akin to Minnie Driver's character in the new TV show, Speechless, than I want to admit. (You need to watch it. I've already seen the pilot thanks to Amazon Prime.) There is one scene where the character is informed that the new school has already had a meeting to discuss how they will 'handle' her. I felt just a little bit this way when I went to pick up our bird. When I said my name, there seemed to be one of those pauses where the person I was talking to mentally says, "Oh, you're the one." And I did ask my private/public school question again. The answer was the same, for better or worse. No, not even a chi-chi private school can check-out birds and related items covered by the Migratory Bird Act. It probably also tells you a little about my general cynicism level that I still have trouble believing that a school, say North Shore Country Day or the Latin School or Francis Parker would be turned down if they came knocking. Because here's the thing. In Illinois, we have some pretty excellent homeschooling laws, and we are all considered private schools in the eyes of the government. I was all set to create my own set of school documents so I could bring home some of the experience boxes and birds, which, I might add, was the whole reason I paid for a Loan membership this year.

It just seems to me that this was not the intent of the law. I am not a lawyer so I do not have any idea what kind of flexibility this particular act allows in regards to something like this. I know that it is probably a windmill that I can tilt at all I like and will never fall, but still, it sticks in my craw a bit. (Yes, pun intended.) I think what peeved me the most is that the Harris staff didn't seem particularly concerned that this was a problem. A little less of  the too-bad-so-sad attitude and a little more genuine sympathy would have helped.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fear and Learning

You would think things like this wouldn't surprise me anymore, but either it's just surprising, or I have significant short-term memory loss. Let's just go with surprising because the other doesn't sound fun.

Today, H. and R. had an appointment with the neurologist to go over the results from their EEG's and MRI's. A brief digression. The short explanation of their appointment: their brain's are very weird. I saw the pictures. They're weird. The doctor was actually amazed at what they can both do having seen the pictures of their weird brains. But that's neither surprising nor what I'm going to write about. I want to write about something that happened before we even left for the doctor's appointment.

We had told the girls the night before that they had doctor's appointments today. In my adult brain, this was hardly news. It was the neurologist which is a sit-and-talk appointment. The only reason I even gave it a second thought was that the office was an hour away, so it would take a chunk out of the afternoon. I think this is why I was so blind-sided this morning during our school time.

There were a couple of instances where I had a conversation with H. that just seemed off. She clearly was not tracking with what I was saying, and was just 'off'. This feeling continued when we sat down to do work during her time with me. Things that were easy and enjoyable last week, were suddenly completely baffling and upsetting. It was so bad that at first I thought she was having seizures, but that didn't seem to be quite the case and she could still communicate with me. Having learned long ago that trying to do anything productive when she is in this state is fruitless at best, I opted for a completely different exercise I knew she could do. Once we had done this a bit, I started to ask her questions again, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

After much coaxing, H. was finally able to identify what was bothering her. (And do not dismiss the hugeness and importance of her being able and willing to verbalize what is wrong. It is a new found skill.) She took a deep breath and blurted out, "I don't like surgery!" and burst into tears.

The light bulb (finally) went on in my head. We were driving to a doctor's appointment and she was suddenly fearful that it wasn't just a doctor's appointment, but was a trip to the hospital for surgery. Yes, last night we assured her this was an easy appointment and involved no needles, but clearly she did not believe us. So we talked for a while and I assured her once again that this was an easy appointment and no surgeries were even scheduled, much less in the plan for today. We practiced her touching her nose, which was the hardest thing which would be asked of her at the appointment, and I could see the fog lift from her brain.

The only thing wrong with her brain and cognition this morning was that she was afraid. Terrified, in fact. This feeling was so overpowering that nothing else was working and to her it didn't matter. I could have brought in trained monkeys to illustrate the lesson and it wouldn't have mattered because that would not have dealt with her fear.

Fear is an extremely powerful and overwhelming emotion. It is also pretty irrational. At no point did we even breath the word surgery, but the fear was there, none the less. It makes me wonder how often a child is considered slow or oppositional or lazy or any other negative description for a child who does not grasp something quickly or tow the line. There was nothing wrong with the functioning of H.'s brain this morning, thought that is what I thought at first because the behavior was so extreme. The only thing wrong was the fear that completely took over and consumed any rational thought.

Being anything but happy is still an ongoing learning process for H. Even after her little breakdown about surgery and my reassurances, there were several times when she wanted to clarify something. "You still love me when I cry, right, Mommy?"

"Yes, of course, I do , H. Very, very much."

"I love you, too, Mommy."

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mid-Autumn Moon Festival 2016... a little late

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival was last Thursday, to coincide with the full moon. Thursday just didn't work, so we postponed it to Saturday. It also meant we could invite another adoptive family who had brought home their child this past year to join us. 

We had a lot of food, and then made lanterns. Because I never made it to the dollar store, we used real votive candles instead of the battery ones that we've used before. Real candles do put out more light.


Y. and R. - Y. is complaining about the brightness of the flash.


There was one lantern casualty,

but it was over the sidewalk, so no large neighborhood fires were started.

The moon was still pretty full and cooperatively rose as we walked around the block with our lanterns.

Of course there were moon cakes. These were all gone within minutes. All of my children have developed a real liking for the ones filled with bean paste.

K., enjoying his moon cake.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Teaser

Here's some things I'll be blogging about next week. You just get pictures today, because that's all I have time for.

There's some pretty paper and some string.


See the cool pattern?


And there is also this guy who is visiting for a month.


He's an osprey. Doesn't everyone have an osprey in their front hall?


Friday, September 16, 2016

It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how

"What is the link between neural growth and play? Why do play activities seem to go hand in hand with brain development? What difference does play make? the truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create himself.

Why do I say this? Consider the fact that there is no exact blueprint for creating the brain. The information in our DNA is far too sparse to define exactly how all the neurons should connect up with each other. Instead, the brain wires itself up. It does this by creating far too many neurons, which in turn make far too many connections with other neurons throughout the brain. Following rules of interaction laid down in the DNA, the neurons send signals through the circuits, strengthening those that work and weakening those that don't. ...

Play, which is more prevalent during the periods of most rapid brain development after birth (childhood), seems to continue the process of neural evolution [after REM sleep which is a critical part of organizing higher brain function], taking it one step farther. Play also promotes the creation of new connections that didn't exist before, new connections between neurons and between disparate brain centers. ... These are neural connections that don't seem to have an immediate function but when fired up by play are, in fact, essential to continued brain organization."  -from Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown. (pp. 40-41)

I'm currently on a jag of reading about the science behind play, and this is my current favorite book. It was this part, where the author outlines how play structures and builds the brain in positive ways that really struck me. While this is important for children who have always had stability in their lives because it will put them on good footing for later learning, this is vitally important for our children who have experienced trauma. By now I hope you all know that experiencing trauma, no matter if it was in utero, as an infant, or as an older child, reshapes the brain in negative ways. If you combine this with the fact that the vast majority of our adopted children came from places where free, imaginative play wasn't allowed or even possible, then you begin to realize how much our children are starting with a deck stacked against them. We cannot undo the trauma, but we can allow them the space and time to experience play.

If only it were as simple as setting aside a few hours a day, providing the appropriate props, and letting them go at it. Anyone who has brought home an older child will know instantly what would happen in this scenario. Nothing. It is not enough to provide the time and space, because most of our children, having never had the chance to play, have no knowledge of how to go about it.

When H. first came home, we spent a lot of time teaching her to play. Thankfully, I had G., L., and K., master players all three, who were my 24/7 living, breathing example of what play looks like. We read storied to give her a beginning for making her own. We acted these stories out. We pretended. We had to demonstrate nearly every single toy in our house. It was time consuming and took several years to see any results. What was most disturbing and most interesting about this was her seeming inability to create anything unique out of her own head. I had lived with children who developed alternate universes and unique ideas at an astonishing rate, that a child who could not do this was a little unfathomable. I had a sense that the inability to play was somehow responsible for the lack of unique ideas.

"Play is nature's greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties. The abilities to make new patterns, find the unusual among the common, and spark curiosity and alert observation are all fostered by being in a state of play. When we play, dilemmas and challenges will naturally filter through the unconscious mind and work themselves out." Play (pp. 128-129)

It becomes rather a chicken and egg question. If play helps to develop creative thoughts, but you need to creative thoughts in order to play, where does one begin? We decided to begin as we would with an infant. Play is all initiated by the parent and joined in by the child. This is what we did with H. Slowly over time, she joined in more and more. Now she can play with the best of them, and is beginning to start to generate her own stories. I don't think it is a coincidence that at this point, where we are seeing more imaginative and light-hearted play from her, that we are also seeing an incredible burst of intellectual abilities.

This is all heartening to know and remember with R. home. R. has her own challenges, but in some ways is similar enough to H. that I feel a little more ahead of the game this time around. Reminding myself to take the long view is a constant challenge, though. I do know that we are starting in on the play training much sooner with R. Here's a little example from yesterday that illustrates why this is so necessary.

We have a preschool box that I made which has blocks that one person makes into a pattern and other people then try to copy.




I tried using this box with R. last spring and it took us quite some time for me to coach her to recreating the design I had made. We put the box away after that and focused on other things.

Yesterday I decided to try it again. I am thrilled to report that there definitely has been some growth. R. was able to copy my designs with very little help. It was heartening. I decided to be the fun mom and let her make a design for me to copy. She made the first design I had when we started. No matter the level of coaching, she could not make a design different from the ones I had already made. It was time for me to move on to working with another child, and I usually have R. continue to play with the activity we had been doing together during this time. I knew that she would just sit there staring at the little blocks without anyone helping her, so I called K. over. I asked him to just sit there and play with the blocks so that R. could watch him. He played exactly as I had hoped he would, moving them around, trying different things, just seeing what they would do. After I told him to go back to what he had been doing, I asked R. to keep playing. She did do a little more. At this point she was a least willing to try moving the blocks around, even if tentatively. She has a long way to go, but it was a start.

"Play can become a doorway to a new self, one much more in tune with the world. Because play is all about trying on new behaviors and thoughts, it frees us from established patterns." Play (p. 92)
____________
I have a new article published: Making the Grade: Why We Homeschool

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Animal tales

I need to write about something funny.

A week or so ago, the children noticed that Kenzie was particularly obsessed with an old drain pipe that was lying underneath our back porch. He would bark and bark at one end of it and didn't want to leave it. Kenzie also feels that every squirrel in the world in personally insulting him, and as a result h needs to be ever vigilant and bark at any squirrel that happens to set foot in our yard. (My personal theory is that is it solely because of  the large barking dog that squirrels enter our yard. It is a form of squirrel entertainment to hang on the side of a tree, just out of reach of the frenzied barking dog. If squirrels could stick their tongues out and chant, "Nya-nya-nya-nya-nya-nya," I would think this is what their doing.)

When you put those two things together, it seemed like a simple logic problem to figure out that Kenzie had trapped a squirrel in the drain pipe. So, J. and TM go out to the back yard to see if they can release the trapped squirrel.

J. and TM spend a lot of time looking in the drain pipe and poking the drain pipe with a stick trying to move the squirrel forward. During one of these forays, TM looks in the drain pipe one more time. He sees something unusual. This squirrel seems to be oddly colored. This squirrel seems to be more of a black... and... white... color... "This isn't a squirrel. It's a skunk!"

The brain does funny things when confronted with a not-so-happy skunk trapped in a drain pipe underneath a porch. But then, there is really no good response to such a situation. You don't want to leave the angry skunk under your porch, yet you don't really want the angry skunk to come out of the drain pipe and start walking around, either. I think J. chose the only really rational option, picking up the drain pipe and carrying it out to the alley.

The not entirely rational thing was when TM suggested that J. swing the pipe around to see if the skunk could get dislodged. Which he did. And for the curious among you, yes, a skunk will fly out the end of the drain pipe. And yes, the skunk will not be happy. You can figure out the rest.

It took a while for the stench to dissipate.

The moral of the story is to not mess with skunks. A few days later, though, we learned that Kenzie had yet to learn this moral. He was outside and came up to the back door, where he was pawing at his face and whimpering. We opened the door and realized exactly why he was behaving this way... yes it was another skunk. Upstairs he went where J. and TM (I think... or P.... or both) helped to clean him up. For several days, though, he smelled like skunky shampoo.

And those are my skunk stories.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

New skills

Over the weekend we had some people learn some new things.

First, L. learned to ride a bike! She had been getting closer and closer, and then on Sunday she spent a long time pushing herself along as she finally figured out the whole balance-thing. Once she had that it was a very small step to actually pedaling. It made school yesterday a little difficult for her, because having learned her new skill it was very difficult to wait to practice it some more. Yes, I know I could have just let her go ride her bike outside, but what she really wanted to do was to go a couple of blocks away to the elementary school which has a lovely track just made for bike riding. It was hard to wait.




Next, R. learned to really, really ride the training wheel bike. A while back I might have mentioned that R. really wanted to ride a bike, but for the life of her could not figure out how to pedal. The round and round motion that her feet had to make to go forward baffled her. She would push half-way around and then stop. The other half of the circle just didn't exist. Not being able to move forward, she would then shriek and want someone to help her again. We did this for a little bit, but regardless of what you all think, I am not a patient person and soon tired of the helping every thirty seconds, so told her that she would have to figure it out.

Well, take a look at this.


Not bad, huh? This is pretty darn amazing in my book. (That's K. how zips through at the very end. And please, don't kvetch at me about the non-helmet. When she goes fast enough to warrant one, we'll put it on her head.  She's in more danger from a head injury just going up and down stairs or even walking down the sidewalk than she is on this bicycle at the moment.)

Now, not to be left out, G., who is still not quite ready to conquer the bicycle, still wanted to have something shared. She's rather good on a scooter and as a result sees no need to do scarier things.


I have one more thing I wanted to share. I don't have a video to show you, but I wish I could have had someone with a camera just making one in the corner to have it on record. Here's my huge news for the day. H. read. As in really, really read. Yesterday I decided to try her out with The Cat in the Hat again. We tried this last spring and she just wasn't able to get past the first page. If words are short, behave themselves phonetically, and there aren't too many of them, she can read them. She's been able to sound words out individually for a few years now, but putting them together fluently... assembling that string of words into a meaningful sentence and story, just hasn't happened. After our little debacle with The Cat last spring, I was wondering if I should just face up to the fact that perhaps reading was not in her future and ponder all those implications.

Then we had a summer break. Her brain rested, and when we started work last week she seemed fresh and on top of things, which is why the thought of trying that darn Cat book again even crossed my mind. I put the book in front of her and took a deep breath inside my head and we began. There was a brief moment of stumbling over the word 'was', but it didn't completely sidetrack us and we were able to keep going. And going. And going. She read the first eight pages of the book in as many minutes! This is more than she has ever read in one time in her entire life. And not only that, she UNDERSTOOD IT!

But wait, there's more.

Today we pulled out the book to keep reading. She read the page we were on...

and...

SHE LAUGHED!

I nearly cried. I don't think there is a more beautiful sound than a child laughing over what she has read and understood for the very first time.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Birthday fun... or where I officially cement my title as the cool mom

Remember how I mentioned that P. had a mohawk, but didn't wear it up? Well, since my children's goal is life is to constantly make me eat my words, here is what she did yesterday.



Impressive, huh? It used a lot of hairspray and took a lot of time. It won't become a daily hair-do. She left it in to celebrate her birthday. There was a candle, but we didn't sing, as she requested.


The gifts looked a little on the thin side because they weren't exactly things that could be wrapped up.



If you're going to buy your child a new instrument, it probably makes sense to take them along so you can get the one that fits them, in both style and sound. So that is what we did today. Here's the not-wrapped birthday gift.


She's pretty happy with it, and I think she sounds darn good, considering that she's only had about six months of lessons.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Happy 16th Birthday, P.!

Today is P.'s 16th birthday. One of those big milestone birthdays she has been looking forward to. It means as soon as she gets enough practice hours she can get her driver's license and it also means she can look into volunteering at our local animal shelter. Both are things that she has been waiting a long time to do.

P. is my child is who always doing the unexpected. At least it is unexpected to me, but probably not to her. She adores muscle cars and horses, alternative music and acoustic guitar lessons, and animals of all sorts. She is quiet and thoughtful and has the driest sense of humor around. She is also a fantastic writer (though I have yet to convince her of that), and a great critical mind. There is so much going on inside that head of hers. The head with the mohawk, I might add, though it is long, so not necessarily noticeable at first.

We'll celebrate tonight. Whether we get to sign Happy Birthday to her  is yet to be decided. Did I mention she doesn't like attention?

Happy Birthday, my darling daughter! I love you so much and enjoy your company. You always keep me laughing and you are full of surprises. You make our lives so much richer than they would otherwise be.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Schedules, Chores, and Homeschooling

Life is starting to feel on an even keel. After the craziness of the past eight months, it is a great relief to everyone. Let's just say, having a parent die, adopting two children with vastly different needs, losing two pets and gaining two new pets, a 2000-mile car trip, dealing with the fall-out from having been out of the country for three weeks, some post-adoption baby blues, some house remodeling, and one of your very best friends for the past 18 years moving away all happen in an 8 month or so time period is not recommended and difficult to navigate. You can see why any sort of schedule or routine fell by the wayside.

The trouble is most of us need a routine to function well. It's how our brains are wired. When you do things regularly, you stop having to consciously think about them. The brain power used to do these tasks get moved to a different part of the brain and that part of the brain just takes care of them without any effort. It's why doing things outside of the usual, seems a little harder. We have to think about them. Without a schedule, everything has to be consciously thought of and decided upon. It is fatiguing and not terribly productive. And that's for us adults. It is even more taxing and disregulating for our children. Children really do like to know what comes next. As tiring as having not routine is for adults, it is even more tiring and taxing for children. Tired and overwhelmed children find it difficult to regulate their emotions and actions, so their internal chaos translates into external chaos, adding to the fatigue of the adults. It becomes a vicious downward cycle.

I think this all explains why our first days of school this year have been so incredibly smooth. Far smoother than any other school start we've ever had. I think all of us are breathing a sigh of relief that we don't have to think about what we are doing, we just have to look at the chart and do what it says. Some years I have made more detailed schedules and some years I have made less detailed ones. This is a more detailed year. We have visual timers to help us keep track of time, and everyone now knows what they do in each segment. I also have plenty of play time built in, though it too is slightly structured. Up until the last half an hour when we all come back together to do history and science, I divided all of our cool learning activities into different categories. For a certain time period, a child is allowed to choose from a certain list of activities. This helps keep them fresh and solves the problem of too many people wanting to do the same thing. It seems to be working.

I've also made new and detailed job lists. There are our usual Saturday morning cleaning jobs, where each child is assigned a task and they keep that task through the whole year, and then there are daily tasks which rotate depending on the day. The beauty of having so many children who are all now older than preschoolers is that the job list for anyone person is pretty light. There are just more hands to help. Cleaning one bathroom (if that is what you were assigned) is pretty tolerable if you know that is your only major cleaning job.

(And for the curious, even my preschoolers have always had jobs to help, just jobs more at their level. Sweeping stairs, feeding the dog, dusting baseboards, etc. are the types of things they would do. By five or six, they can do more. The trick is, it might take a bit of time to teach them to do the jobs right, and you just have to accept that they will never be done quite as well as you would have done them yourself.)

This not to say we are slaves to our schedule. Life happens. Some days you just have to throw up your hands and head to a park.... or people are sick... or any other number of unexpected interruptions happen. It's not the end of the world, and sometimes it's fun to ignore the schedule. But there is a peace of mind that comes with not having to think every single minute about your day, even if you sometimes take a break from it. I even have an ideal schedule for my afternoons, after school is done, for myself, just to help keep me on track, so I don't forget what it was I wanted to do.

For instance, right now, my ideal schedule is telling me to get of the computer and make a meal and shopping list for the next week. So that's what I'm going to do.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Budding artist

G. in the past two days has been drawing pictures that I am totally in love with. Here are a couple.

You may need to click on this to make it bigger in order to see it. 

G. wanted to be in the picture, too.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Why I'm not always giving warm and fuzzy adoption support

We all survived our first day of school. It was relatively calm and peaceful and drama-free. My incredibly detailed and convoluted schedule looks as though it is going to work, since we got through it today, even with having to do explanations every twenty minutes. I can't even begin to tell you what a huge hurdle this was, especially after the school nuttiness of last spring.

While that was going to be the bulk of today's post, I realize that it isn't what I want to write about at all. Today, I feel as though I need to explain something, whether the intended audience ever actually reads it or not. Facebook groups are often a breeding ground for taking self-offense whether the intent was there or not. They are also a poor way to explain oneself afterwards. Thus...

Dear New Adoptive Mom,

I'm so sorry if you took I wrote to you the wrong way. I do mean to be supportive. I do know that the early days of adoption can be difficult. I do know that our new adopted children can surprise us with behaviors we weren't expecting or quite know what to do with. I know because I've been there.

I've been there with that new adopted child. The one who isn't falling into line as I thought he should. I was a good parent. I knew what I was doing. I had five other terrific children. Clearly I had the right stuff and was on top of my game. My husband and I were consistent in our parenting, took a long view and knew that what was cute or easy now, may not look so cute or be so easy when the child was older. We were willing to make the tough calls and the unpopular decisions. And then that new child joined our family. Of course, we knew the transition would be difficult. It's a big change, after all. But we also knew that starting out right, setting appropriate boundaries, making the child feel secure that we were in charge were also important.

At least we thought we knew.

We were wrong. Oh, so very wrong. If I am extremely truthful, our son's current issues are in part due to our own lack of understanding and compassion and patience in those first months. We were so afraid of doing something wrong; of having an ill-behaved child; of being thought bad (or worse, push-over) parents that we sacrificed our son on the alter of obedience and rules and 'good' parenting. I would give just about anything to go back and get a giant do-over for those first months. I know I can't be guaranteed that it would change the future, but I think it would, and it would let me ditch the guilt that still lingers.

There's the back story to why I might sound harsh or not-so-understanding or even pleasant. We made mistakes. Some big ones. And we are still paying for them. I so wish that someone would have come up beside us and told us that being compassionate and patient and not worrying about the future would be the better parenting option. I don't take advice well, especially if I am sure I'm right, so I probably wouldn't have paid attention at first. But things do linger and I ponder them and it might just have made a difference in the long run. That person would not have been popular with me at the moment, but the cognitive dissonance that was begun, might have changed the course of our trajectory with our son. Later on, I would probably come back and thank that person, and call them blessed, for the role they had in our lives. But no such person appeared, and frankly, way back then, people just didn't know as much about trauma and the effect it has on children's brains as they do now. I can't tell you the number of parents from that time who have said to me, "We just didn't know."

And we didn't know. The best adoptive parenting advice out there was not connected, but extremely consequence-based. Everyone would learn over time that this is possibly the worst form of parenting for children hurt by past trauma. It was a very difficult lesson for many of us to learn, but we have all seen such healing in our children because of our new, different, and odd parenting methods, that we cannot keep silent.

I will not stand by and watch other people repeat my mistakes if I can help it. I will say something, because that is what I wish someone had done for me. Even if I didn't like it or them at the time. This may not make me the most popular person, especially on Facebook groups, but that's not why I frequent them. I caused my son untold pain by not understanding what he needed; by not starting out on his side and helping him through all the hard. Instead I wanted to be sure I had a well-behaved child, one who listened, who did what was asked and ate what was in front of him. Instead of being a coach, I was a dictator and not a terribly benign one at times. When I see the same type of thinking and behavior in other people, I am afraid for that family. I know all too well what the future may hold if that type of thinking and parenting continues.

I'm all for being a cheerleader for parents. It's a hard job. But I can't sit back and cheer when there is nothing to cheer about. One month home is still too early to care about anything other than making the child feel loved and secure. The child is still in shock. The parents are still in shock. There is not a whole lot of rational thinking going on. If you ever wonder how to react in any situation, think about this: Imagine if your child... the one you gave birth and have raised... were suddenly visited by a couple from another country who didn't speak English and took that child away with them. Forget your own grief over this at the moment and imagine how your child feels. If he is young, is there any way you can explain to him what is happening? You know this child well. You know what he understands and what he doesn't. How will he feel with these new people? Will he like their food? Will he sleep well? How long will it take, this child of yours, to feel comfortable in an entirely new culture and family. A couple of weeks? A month? I hope you are saying to yourself, "That's crazy! It would take a long, long time for him to feel comfortable. Heck, it takes a month just to adjust his sleep schedule for Daylight Savings Time." Now look at your new child. It is the exact same thing for him. The fact that he was not living with his biological family does not change the enormity of how he feels about what has happened. In fact, it makes the change that much harder because adding in a family is also a completely new experiences as well. Treat him as you would want your child to be treated in a similar situation.

Go slow. Expect little. Be kind.

You will not ruin your child by doing these things, and you might just prevent a lot of hurt.

Signed,
The mother who wishes she could go back in time and give herself a good lecture


Tuesday, September 06, 2016

In which we don't go back to school

As is our tradition, we don't start back to school on the day after Labor Day. Instead we take advantage of enjoying the near emptiness of a local museum. We decided on Museum of Science and Industry today, and we had a rare treat that J. was able to rearrange his schedule at the last moment and join us. He very, very rarely gets to come along on our outings, so this was a treat for everyone. Our visit became a sort of highlights tour, as the children showed J. some of their very favorite things.

Up on the second floor is what my children all call the giant hamster wheel, and it is probably their single favorite thing in the entire museum. But before you get to the wheel, you get to pass a bunch of other fun stuff. Such as... Mindball.

TM and D.

And a machine that delivers very mild electric shocks.

P.

And a table where you play some sort of game all together. I see the table taken up by my family, so I ask, "What are you doing?" Without pausing, they all say, "We have no idea!"


And then there is the hamster wheel.

L.

Y. (It is excellent for the hamstrings. J. and I briefly wondered if we could get the insurance to pay for a home version.)

I don't know what these two are looking at, but I always thing from the back, they could very well be twins their builds are so much alike.

Y. and K.

Then  we headed out the corner to another favorite place... the airplane. You also get a great view of the giant train layout on the first floor, below.


Yes, this is a full-sized airplane mounted there next to the balcony. I remember when they brought this plane to the museum along Lake Shore Drive.


G.

TM and D. - You can't usually do this in a plane engine.

Lunch was next, with the requisite search for Pokemon.

P.

And the viewing of the Jolly Ball.

G., R., and L.

After lunch we headed towards the Omnimax theater, by way of the farm... one of the K.'s personal favorites.

This series of pictures cracks me up. R. was not sure why, exactly there was a cow, but did agree to pose near it, There were boys hiding behind them, though, poised to photo bomb.


R., H., and Y.

With TM and D.

L.

K. and L.

Y., G., and P. - They're driving a combine. Well, driving should really be in quotes based on the number of circles that were happening.

We ended at the Omnimax to see a movie about great white sharks. It was a good day.

Tomorrow we really do start school, much to my children's great relief. I have endured a week of multiple people whining at me that they really wanted school to start nnnnnooooooowwwwww. Yep, I'm the only mother in the world who has spent the week telling her children, "No, you may not start school. You have to wait." More on that tomorrow.

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