Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Best Board Books in the History of Ever

When I was a freshman in college (or a sophomore...they all run together) and I set up my first radio station on Pandora, I stocked it with all my favorite bands and titled it, with gusto, The Best Music in the History of Ever. A few months later when I logged onto my Pandora account I found a message from a stranger saying, "Best Music in the History of Ever? Yeah right!" and pointing out several well known, well loved musicians that I had missed and belittling some of the choices I had included. Let's be honest: ACDC was on there. Don't judge. I was 18.

Anyway, point being that whenever I go to make book lists, that experience is in the back of my mind. So here you go:

The Best Board Books in the History of Ever

...except for the silly ones that I like that you don't...

...and except for the great ones that I totally forgot because I'm blonde and have a ton of kids sucking my brain juice away...

But for real: THE BEST BOARD BOOKS IN THE HISTORY OF EVER. (Author is not responsible for any negative side effects brought on by exposure to excess amounts of hyperbole.)

  • Anything by Sandra Boynton. I love Sandra Boynton so much that I bought her books before I even had kids. Seriously. I'm wracking my brains right now to remember if there are any of her books I've read that I hated.. and I'm coming up empty. The best part of reading Boynton is that not only is it entertaining for the kids, but it doesn't leave you wanting to rip your hair out after you've read each book 87,364 times--which is life with kids. If that's not enough of a recommendation, let me put it this way: when I was packing the twins' books for our month long move to CA, half of my selection was Boynton.
  • Goodnight, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann. I have no logical explanation for why this book has been so beloved by my children, but the wear and tear is significant. I blame the Man for improvising the line "THERE'S A GORILLA IN MY BED" which really helped flesh out the text which consists solely of "Goodnight!"
  • Eric Carle's collection. I have a dear friend who maintains that if you've read one Eric Carle book, you've read them all. Which is kind of true... BUT they are classics for a reason. The reason being that the colors are bright, the story line is simple, and everybody loves the Very Hungry Caterpillar. (True confession: this week I've been doing themed story time with the twins: one night was Sandra Boynton, one night was Eric Carle, one night was Beatrix Potter... It was fun.)
  • Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney (author) and Anita Jeram (illustrator). I know. Some people think this book is overdone, but I will never get tired of Littles telling me that he loves me to the Golden Gate bridge and back and Tiny saying he loves me "all the way out of the universary".
  • On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman. The pictures are so beautiful, and I will be honest and cheesy here and say that I read these words like a blessing over my children. Even if my mom doesn't like that the child is referred to as "my friend" and is rigid about changing it when she's the one reading. Picky, I tell you...

  • The Pokey Little Puppy by Janet Sebring Lowrey (author) and Gustaf Tenggren (illustrator). Because it will make you want to cuddle your furry friends, eat dessert, and maybe (just maybe) dig under a fence and go out on an adventure into the wild, wild world.
  • The Monster at the End of this Book (and its sequel, Another Monster at the End of this Book) by Jon Stone (author) and Michael Smollin (illustrator). Honestly, I don't read these to the twins yet because I don't think they would quite get them, but the boys thought they were And I like working on my Grover impersonation.
  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. I'm not going to lie: Mike Mulligan is not my favorite, but oh, do my boys love him. That includes Bruiser who thought the steam shovel was a trash truck.
  • Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (author) and Clement Hurd (illustrator). Another that is not my favorite--I'm sorry, but the artwork really is awful: those two kittens look like rabid squirrels--but it's a classic for a reason (I feel like I've said this phrase before...). The words are slow and soothing, and the quiet repetition is a boon at bedtime.
  • Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy E. Shaw (author) and Margot Apple (illustrator). This is another one I brought along on the trip to CA. I haven't fallen in love with the rest of the series quite as much, but the original sheep in a jeep is great.
  • Anything tactile. Bee's favorite (for several weeks) was Usborne's Touchy-Feely Penguins by Victoria Ball. The words weren't great, but the fuzzy penguins were happiness in a book. There are twenty gazillion of these kinds of books. Find one or two you don't mind your child becoming obsessed with and go from there.
I'm sure I'm forgetting more than a few, but if I don't quit now, you'll all have been bored to sleep (Goodnight Moon can do that to you). One quick honorable mention for the military kids out there, Over There and Coming Home by Dorinda Silver Williams (author) and Brenda Gilliam (illustrator) are fantastic board book choices for young kids dealing with deployment. While the Man was gone this last time, the boys read them almost every single night until Littles could recite them word for word. 

At any rate, I didn't think it was fair to write about reading to your babies without at least pointing you in the direction of some books that won't make you feel like bashing your head into the wall repeatedly (other than possibly Mike Mulligan but that's only after intense repetition).

One final word...I am a huge proponent of making use of your library system. In fact, the kids and I are heading that direction any moment now. But when it comes to board books, skip the borrowing and buy. The point of board books is that they can be chewed on, drooled on, carried around everywhere, slept get the point. Library just never know how many other grubby kids have done that before your kids got to them. Just saying. I'm not germaphobic, but everyone will enjoy their board books more thoroughly if they're not also enjoying the passing on of viral illnesses. Clorox wipes only go so far.

Okay, wait, one more final word: you will be seduced by all those beautiful lift-the-flap board books. Your children will love them. You will find them so cunning and fun. But they are another case of defeating the purpose. Those little flaps...they are so fun to rip. They are so impossible to reattach. The story line is inevitably so impossible to understand once said flaps are irrevocably destroyed.

So, anyone want to add any to our obviously completely exhaustive list of board books? ::there are no board books worth reading unless they have been mentioned in this specific blog post::

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Seven Best Ways to Read Your Baby's Brains Out

Today, let's talk about reading to one year olds. Or babies. Or two year olds with short attention spans. You know, anywhere in that age group. But before we begin, let me tell you why you should trust my advice in this area. Quite simply this: last night I used the handles of the mop and the broom as chopsticks to recover the laundry that had fallen behind the washer and dryer. Not only that, but: today I extricated a lego from Tiny's nose.

So obviously, I now qualify as an expert on pretty much everything. Including, ahem, reading to extra small children. I say "extra" because not only have I read to extra-small children, but I have also read to extra... small children. Before there were my own four, I worked as a librarian at a pre-school, and before that I worked at a day-care-like thingamajig with one year olds. Don't ask me to explain the "thingamajig" part. It's top secret.

Here we go. The Seven Best Ways to Read Your Baby's Brains Out:

  • Board books are your friends. Until your kid is past the ripping stage, don't waste your time with paper. You'll be more concerned about saving the printed page from your little savage than savoring the experience of snuggling with your little bub.

  • On that note, keep it short and sweet. This is not the time to bring out Dickens. Once your kid is mobile, they can easily escape from your well-intentioned attempts to intellectualize them. Board books are great because by necessity they are pretty short (although I do have a set of Beatrix Potter board books that were a bit on the longer side). Hold off on the lengthier books until the idea of your child sitting still doesn't make you snort with hilarity. And even then, make the change gradually.

  • Busy hands are happy hands. And idle hands are the devil's workshop (or something like that). Kids move. They're just made that way. Work with it, not against it. My current way of dealing with this is to bring at least three books for the twins' bedtime reading. That way they have one for each hand and I have one to read to them. Then we trade. Works like a charm. Which brings me to my next point:

  • One-on-one time makes everything more special. See, in case you didn't catch that above: I read to the twins' separately. Both babies (are they still babies when they're running around getting into everything?) get their own solo reading time. It's their time with me that they don't have to share with anyone else. Sure, I read to them at other times during the day when they're together and the big boys are around, but every night they get time with just me and some books. What could be more fun? Honestly, I don't know, because I dream of time with just me and some books...

  • Books work well with physical touch. Bruiser likes to sit on my lap when we read. Bee likes to sit next to me with my arm around her. When I read to the big boys now, they're still cuddled up against me or draped over my lap. There's something about the written word that encourages snuggling. And I think it's a good thing that, in our family, books evoke a feeling of closeness. All kids love to cuddle. Combining cuddling with reading is a winning combination.

  • If all else fails, strap 'em down. I used to read to Littles while I fed him dinner. He was stuck in his high chair and couldn't escape. Similarly, when Tiny was a baby, I'd put him and Littles in the stroller, we'd walk the dog and then sit on a bench and read before we went home. They were comfy in the stroller, and I was comfortable on the bench, and everyone's brains were expanding. In fact, I remember, years ago, strapping six adorable one year olds (who weren't mine) into a massive bus of a stroller, taking them to the campus library, and reading to them with the book propped high so they could all see the pictures.

  • And of course, remember, please, that there's no pressure. Books are awesome. Your kids are smart. They will figure this out, sooner or later, and no amount of you freaking out about how you kid hates story time will make that happen any faster. If your kid walks off in the middle of a book, stop reading. When they meander back, pick up where you left off. Soon enough, they will be more interested in whatever you're reading than in that piece of lint that was formerly so distracting. It just might take a little while. Reading is an acquired taste. Keep at it. And cut yourself and your kid some slack.
And there you go. Go forth and read unto your tiny offspring!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Watch and Pray

"Prayer was never meant to be magic," Mother said.
"Then why bother with it?" Suzy scowled.
"Because it's an act of love," Mother said.
A Ring of Endless Light, Madeleine L'Engle

When I was home during high school and college breaks, I'd go running with my dad. I'd be running along, trying not to pass out or potentially die, and he'd be prancing along beside me like a magical, middle aged unicorn making me look bad.

Sorry I compared you to a unicorn, Dad.

My dad loves to talk while he runs, and I have always welcomed the distraction. Plus, sometimes I learned really interesting things. I even learned a few things that are applicable now as a parent, including the Model Assist Watch Leave method.

The concept is fairly simple. First, you model what you want to teach. Then you assist the student as they try it for themselves. Then you watch them do it on their own. And finally, convinced that they have learned the material, you are able to leave the subject and move on to something else (or let your little bird spread his depends on the situation).

Now, when my dad was talking with me about this, he was speaking in terms of discipleship, but something about it has lodged in my brain. I think about it a lot now as a parent.

I model a lot of things for the kids. The Man does too. Sometimes I model things I wish I didn't. This is hard. I'm home with the kids all day, every day, so they see all my ugly on display, and I hate that. Thankfully, this is a chance for them also to see God's grace in my life and for me to model my extra awesome skills in the apology arena.

This last month I dug deep and hit the assist phase with Tiny and potty training. I let Littles do most of the modeling for how to go potty although, unfortunately, I modeled for Littles the phrase, "Can you please let me pee in peace!" and he busted that out a few times along the way. He's handy like that. Anyways, after toilet usage was appropriately modeled, I assisted Tiny by reminding him of when to go and, occasionally, helping hold him on the toilet. I also assisted with a few clean ups, but that's beside the point. Now mostly I'm watching, making sure he's going when he needs to. But more and more, I can leave him alone and trust him to make it to the potty on his own. Model-assist-watch-leave. Easy.

I'm not going to get into all the intricacies of modern parenting here, but I've been thinking that part of the problem with how so many of our kids are turning out is that so many of us parents get stuck in the model and assist phases. We either do everything or we help with everything until we (as parents) are burnt out and exhausted and just give up, finally leaving our kids to do it on their own without bothering to even supervise.

That watch phase is important. When we skip it, our kids, having never done anything on their own, are left floundering, unsure of how to handle these incredible lives they've been given.

I read a Little Critter book to the kids before bed the other night. In the course of the story, Little Critter goes by himself to a store to buy a piece of candy. In our day and age, that wouldn't happen. Similarly, I read a few weeks ago that one of the pre-requistites for first grade used to be the ability to walk 2 to 3 blocks unattended. We don't let our six year olds do that any more either. It's not that we don't trust our kids (although some of us don't), but because we don't trust anyone else.

We don't trust that we can let our children play outside, unattended, because we don't know our neighbors and they may be creepers at worst or just not willing to keep an eye out at best. We don't trust that we can let our children play unsupervised with other kids because we don't know their parents and we don't know how they've been raised. We don't trust our schools any more or our police force or our hospitals. We don't trust our politicians. Sometimes we don't trust our spouses. And some of us barely trust ourselves.

We have lost our trust, and with it, we have lost that crucial "watch" phase.

I'm not talking about the watch phase that occurs when I teach Littles how to tie his shoe or Tiny to go potty. I'm talking about the watch phase necessary so that Littles and Tiny (and Bruiser and Bee) grow up to become decent human beings. How do I know who they're going to be as adults if I never give them the chance to discover who they are without Mom and Dad holding their hands but while they still have the safety net of home?

I get the concept behind free-range parenting. At the same time, I'm also married to a cop. If you've heard horror stories on the news, I've heard them from the Man when he gets home from work. There are evil people out there, and we know it. So how can we open our hands and let our children risk enough that they can learn and grow and blossom...without being hurt?

I'm not sure I know the answer to that completely. But I know that when we run our lives and the lives of our children based on what we're afraid of, we err greatly. So I think my new game plan is prayer. Seriously, I'm not joking about this.

Sometimes we feel like we pray when there's nothing else we can do. And maybe this is true. But I think about what Madeleine L'Engle wrote in A Ring of Endless Light: prayer is not meant to be magic, but it is an incredible act of love.

When we learn to release our children from our sometimes smothering desire to keep them safe, when we love them enough to face our own fears and open our hands (wisely and in the right time and the right ways), we pray. We still watch from the sidelines for a while, and we pray.

And we hope that God is worth trusting with the most precious gifts He has ever given us.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Savouring Self Care

My cell phone slipped out of my hands last week and landed face down on our driveway. Its screen is now covered in a filmy spiderweb of cracks, and I can't even blame the kids. The irony is that I spent the last week thinking, "I really need to get a case for my phone. I really need to talk to the Man about getting a case for this phone." But I didn't get a case for the phone, and I never talked to the Man about it, and now...well, let's see if our insurance works in my favor.

Self care tips from the kids:
Get a massage, though preferably not from someone who pulls hair and drools.

The phrase "self care" has been cropping up a lot in my reading lately and in my life. The Man has to get on to me fairly regularly because in my attempts to take care of everyone else, I sometimes forget to take care of myself. Inevitably, that doesn't end well. Last week, for instance, I ended up with a mini-meltdown of despair, which was quickly cleared up after the Man and I realized that I just hadn't slept for about two weeks because I had stopped asking for help with the middle of the night wake ups. No lie.

I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes I treat myself like I do my cell phone. I wait and wait and wait to take care of myself and before I know it, one small slip up has left me feeling shattered. All I needed to do was buy a phone case. Or ask for help. Or take a run. Or go buy clothes that fit right. Or slip out for an hour at the beach. These are not huge things. Sure, huger than nothing, but if I'd done them, I would be left with a smooth cell phone screen and a saner, happier, healthier me.

Do some seasonal decorating and maybe a little artwork with someone you love

But here's the problem: it is so easy to make poor choices in the name of self care. You know what I'm talking about: I sit down to mindlessly surf the internet or stay up late binge reading a novel or watch "just an episode or two or five" of a TV show, because I'm tired and I deserve some rest, and self care, people.  And I'm happy--in the moment--so I think it's a good choice. But this is not self care, not really.

I confuse it with self care, but it isn't, and you know it, and I know it.

Enjoy the view from your window


We need time to relax and decompress. That matters. So how do we differentiate between a walk on the beach and a night on the couch watching four episodes of The West Wing in a row? What is the difference between savouring a few chapters of a well written book and downing the whole thing in one sitting?

Maybe the idea of self care is wrapped up in the word I just used: "savour".

Drink something tasty.
Enjoy it all the way down.

To use a different metaphor, in order to survive, we have to eat. If we don't eat enough, we starve. If we eat too much, we're gluttons. We must feed ourselves, not just our stomachs but our souls, in healthy ways, ways that allow us to savour what nourishes us.

There is such a thing as both too much and too little of a good thing.

Smile and let your mom take your picture.
Making her happy will make you happy.
Smiling will make you happy too.

Let's get specific and go back to the idea of the Man helping me with all the middle of the night wakings. I needed to ask him for help. This is obvious. But what if I then went to the opposite extreme and refused to help him with any of the night wakings, instead demanding he cover them all? While physically that may be a fun choice for me (yay, sleep!), the selfishness involved in choosing to do so would inevitably take its toll on my inner life.

Self care is not supposed to be an all or nothing thing. It is not a case of feast or famine.

When we practice self-care the right way, we learn to slow down, find our rhythm, and allow our soul to be fed. And more than just fed, but well-fed with food worth savouring.

Take a warm bath.

We accept help, but we give it also, because both are good. We work hard, but we also rest, because both are necessary. We learn when to slow down, but also, alternatively perhaps, when to speed up, because both encourage growth.

This is challenging, learning what we truly need and then working towards it, but it can be beautiful as well, as we walk towards the wholeness that allows us to better love ourselves and consequently better love others.

No really, take a bath. Baths = happiness.

{The "He is risen" printable hanging out with my homemade watercolour-speckled bunting is from Jones Design Company. And while you're over there, go read this piece on self-care that helped jumpstart some of these thoughts. And if that's not enough on the subject, you might treat yo' self by reading this post by the Nester and then watching some Parks and Rec.}

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Growing into New Circles

Littles, while painting: I think when I grow up, I want to be an artist like Aki.
Tiny: When I grow up, I want to be a dolphin.
Littles: Maybe you could be a whale!

There is something in us as human beings that thrills to the thought of who we could be. As a child, all that hope is wrapped up in one question: what do you want to be when you grow up? It's fun to answer that question as a kid, and it's fun to ask it of our kids as parents.

But I think for many of us, we don't grow out of that fixation on who we want to be. I know at least for myself, I spend a lot of time thinking about it. I want to be back to running regularly. I want to spend more time writing and pursuing art. I want to be able to find time to volunteer. I want to be more patient with the kids and better with doing crafts. I want to be version of together, that is.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that I've said about at least a couple of my awesome friends who seem to have things a little more together than I do, "I want to be you when I grow up."

It's not bad to recognize areas where we could use a little work, and it's not bad to hope and dream about the future. The problem is when we get stuck there, fixating, instead of acknowledging who we already are in Christ. It's easy to get tripped up psychoanalyzing ourselves, questioning ourselves repeatedly (Is this really who I want to be? Is this really what I want from life?) and miss the greater picture. I'm learning to be more purposeful about celebrating the areas where Christ is already shining instead of guilting myself about the things I just can't pull together, at least not right now.

I talk about seasons a lot these days, and it comes up a lot in company as well. I'm often told how quickly these days will go by. It's true. All my kids are walking now. When did that happen? Self-entertainment is becoming a real thing in our house, and we actually cut back on our diaper bill this month. It's amazing. The babies are not really babies any more, and the big boys are getting for real big. Things are changing.

With change comes new opportunities, new openings in time and availability to pursue different things and make other choices. This is good. This is as it should be. But that doesn't mean that all those areas where I feel lacking need to be tackled immediately. It's a gradual process that takes time.

I got two emails this month talking about hopes and dreams that weren't for right now. In one of them, my friend said she knew that the timing for her dream wasn't right, but she hoped that in another season it would come to fruition. For right now, she was acknowledging its existence and letting it rest at that.

The other email was from my sister who used the training circle analogy from The Mask of Zorro. You can watch the clip here, but the important part is this bit of dialogue:

Don Diego de la Vega: This is called a training circle, a master's wheel. This circle will be your world, your whole life. Until I tell you otherwise, there is nothing outside of it. 
Alejandro Murrieta: Capitan Love is... 
Don Diego de la Vega: There is NOTHING outside of it. Captain Love does not exist until I say he exists. As your skill with the sword improves, you will progress to a smaller circle. With each new circle, your world contracts, bringing you that much closer to your adversary, that much closer to retribution. 
Alejandro Murrieta: I like that part.

My sister said that she hoped at some point that a new language she was fascinated with would "move into her circle" although she had no clue when that would be. But until it came into her circle, she had to focus on where she already was.

I was so grateful for that visual aid. Sometimes I get so frustrated when my dreams seem to be impossible to attain in the foreseeable future, but the truth is that my foreseeable future is full of wonderful things that may just not be for right now. And my present is pretty wonderful to, once I let it be what it is.

I have to remember who I already am, who Christ has already made me, and rejoice in that. And let the rest come when it will.

There is often a disconnect between who we are and who we want to be. Maybe that's just Jesus reminding us that He has something greater in store for us later on. But how I hope to learn to rest in the now while I wait for a chance to bring these other dreams to reality, how I hope I don't crush my own dreams by grabbing for them too soon.