How do you keep your cool? part 1: home

You’re my favorite

Of my saviours

You’re  my favorite

Who knows

 

Yes you’re my favorite

Of my favors

You’re my razor

Oh no

 

Hey!

 

And the situation wasn’t quite

As intense as I thought

I need you around

To remind me what not to become

 

Calm, calm, calm

 

Nirvana-”Blandest”

I bet you’re wondering why I haven’t posted in a month. I KNOW! I’ve been over my head busy with school and also with mom duties. I now know what my mom meant when she referred to herself as a glorified taxi driver and short order cook.

I work at a school that is all day, year round. So school is open 7am to 6pm, five days per week,  all year long. In April and November, I meet with the parents of my students. We fit the parent meetings in among my already-busy day with the Montessori work.  I enjoy the time to connect home and school and touch base with the parents of the people I see each day. It is, however, so very hard to intermingle 2 or 3 meetings within an already-full day. May is coming to an end so I am not sure that April parent meetings can excuse me from such a long blog absence! Cub scouts, Boy scouts, gymnastics, Karate, nightly family dinners, allergies.  Excuses and explanations abound.

I just joined the Amazon Affiliate program, which I am hoping will hold me accountable to posting more regularly.  The affiliate program allows me to put links in this blog for products that I recommend.  I personally vouch for every single product for which I provide a link.

***

I asked my husband, my closest girlfriend, and my assistant, who is a young mother of a toddler, what insights I could offer to my blog followers. They all had the same answer: I want to know how you keep your cool. The answer: I work at it every day.  I want to share my journey along that subject in two parts.

 

Part 1: home

In December of 2014, I was the lead teacher of my first classroom. We were still working on Normalization and I was doing my best to keep my head above water.  When I was struggling in those first months as lead, it was pointed out to me that my attitude at home with my husband and my boys was what you may call “less than desirable.” I was stressed and I was taking it out on my loved ones.  I was so focused on problem-solving school dynamics that I was neglecting myself and I was neglecting the needs of my family. My house was a mess.  I lost a lot of weight.  I wasn’t sleeping. My fuse was short and my temper was high.  Work was so taxing that I didn’t have anything left to give when I got home from work.

On January 1st, 2015,  I made the resolution to balance home and work.

I needed to look for triggers.

I needed to get my emotions in check.

I needed to work on yelling less.

Some of the changes I made at home were simple techniques that made all the difference.  

I just took a close look at the parts of the day that were triggering me to lose patience. I scrutinized those times and used tips I had heard here and there to prevent problems.

Prevention was the key.  I needed to be PRO-active rather than RE-active.

I asked my husband to help me figure out ways to get more sleep and more exercise.  He added me to his gym membership, suggesting that I use exercise to “sweat out the stress.” He would send me off to the movies by myself or suggest that I make a date with my girlfriend, Kim, who lives in South Austin. He’d send me to bed at 10 pm each night.  He also suggested I see an allergist recently, thinking that my sleep was disrupted by seasonal allergies.  I resisted the allergist for a long time, like an idiot.  When I finally went, turns out I am allergic to everything! Once my antihistamine cocktail was adjusted, I slept more consistently. My husband  also encouraged me to “leave work at work.” I still struggle with this one, although I would like to think that I am getting better at it.  When my work is people, it is hard to leave them at work when I carry then in my heart and in my mind each evening.

As I looked for times at home that stressed me out, I found one major culprit:

The morning routine was hard.  I felt like I was always yelling because we were always in a hurry.

1: I had to think about food.

  • Pack lunches for the boys and myself
  • Make sure everyone had breakfast
  • Plan something for dinner
  • Is there enough coffee?!?

2: I had to think about clothing and gear.

  • Jackets, hats, etc…
  • Always on the search for shoes and socks
  • Is that homework assignment in the backpack?
  • Library books?

3: I had to think about time.

  • What time do I wake up?
  • What time do I wake the boys up?
  • Am I allowing enough time for independence?
  • Is there enough time for transitions and travel?

I reluctantly set my alarm 15 minutes earlier. I started the coffee maker first! Priorities! I love coffee.  Summer Moon Blue Blazes is one of my favorite coffees right now. I consider it a treat, however. My standard every-day coffee is Ruta Maya. If we’re really feeling fancy, we go to Texas Coffee Traders and get honey process coffee beans from Costa Rica…

While the coffee was brewing, I got dressed and then lined up  lunch boxes and filled them with food I hoped my kiddos would eat. It was so much better to make the lunches BEFORE waking everyone up for the day when the kitchen is quiet.

As the morning routine became our typical rhythm, I realized I enjoyed getting up earlier. It wasn’t a big deal. I felt no more or less tired. After awhile, I began to express my urge to be creative by incorporating some bento box style ideas in the boys’ lunches.  I would spell the boy’s name in cheese with these cute little cutters.  I separated the ingredients with colorful silicone cups.

IMG_8265
the Pop-Chef is the strange-looking orange thing on the right

 

Instead of forks, I’d send adorable animal picks. I cut the sandwiches and watermelon with this neat thing called Pop Chef. I wish I had taken more photos of my creations, but I didn’t know I’d be blogging about it one day! Back then, the process was just for me to have a bit of fun with a creative outlet, by myself, early in the morning.

Finding this little bit of fun just for me was an eye-opener: I needed to take care of myself so that I could take care of others. (I am still CONSTANTLY working on this one!)

When lunches were completed, I set them by the front door. If I had enough time after preparing the lunches, I would put 2 cups of water in a saucepan with 3 TBS salt, 2 TBS sugar, 3 cloves of garlic, and a dozen peppercorns on to boil before I headed to wake the boys.

I tried to make the wake-up part of the routine the slowest and the most playful of the process.  I would come into the room the boys share singing the words, “morning smooch patrol.” I would gently wake each boy with loving kisses, waking up different parts of their bodies. “Good morning kneecap. Good morning earlobe, good morning shoulder blade.” My younger son, with eyes still closed, would pucker up and scootch to the edge of the bed for a kiss.  

IMG_8261
“morning SMOOCH patrol”

Most days,the gentle approach worked (if they went to bed on time). If, on some days, they were less responsive to a gentle approach, I would firmly say their name, tell them to wake up, and ask if they wanted my help by picking out their clothes. Sometimes, after several minutes of the gentle approach, if they were still falling back to sleep, I would use a friendly, lighthearted, and yet firm warning. “I’ve allowed time for you to wake up slow.  Get up and get dressed.  I know you’re tired, but I am afraid it’s time. I’m going to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. I expect you dressed and in the kitchen in 10 minutes.” If they struggled a lot, once they were awake and in the kitchen, I would tell them they’re showing me that they may need an earlier bedtime when they have such a hard time waking up and then I would set myself a reminder to move bedtime up 15 minutes. It’s rare nowadays, but occasionally, one of the boys is behind schedule and he’ll have to walk to the car barefooted with his shoes in his hands.

IMG_8272Here’s a great article by one of my favorite parenting authors, Dr Laura Markham,  about why routines are so important for children. She says, “While helping children feel safe and ready to take on new challenges and developmental tasks would be reason enough to offer them structure, it has another important developmental role as well. Structure and routines teach kids how to constructively control themselves and their environments.” My boss and I are constantly suggesting Dr. Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. It helped me understand my children’s emotions. Dr. Markham also offers strategies for getting your own emotions under control.

 

 

IMG_7739
reading at breakfast 

While the boys ate breakfast, I would take a few minutes to prep for dinner. I would pour the brine from the stove into my favorite prep container. It fits a whole chicken with room to spare! I would add enough ice to cool the brine before adding a roasting chicken. I would snap on the lid and put it in the fridge. Having a plan for dinner relieved the stress that comes in the evening.  I would put the chicken in the oven when I got home from work and fix a few sides while it cooked. Nightly family dinners were a priority in our house when I was growing up and they are still a priority now that I have a family of my own.

 

 

I played around with the amount of time we needed in the morning. It turned out that the boys needed one full hour to wake, dress, eat, gather their gear and head out the door. The boys had fun picking out the alarm tone on my phone that would signify that it was time to go. The playful robotic ringtone they picked once made me crazy; however, it made them giggle and then walk like robots to find their shoes. I observed that both boys should NOT go to get socks at the same time.  They will start to play and NEVER come back! Send them one at a time, and they are more successful. If the alarm goes off and they “don’t hear it,” then it’s time to pick a different ringtone.

Carrie Contey is someone to follow. Her blog and her lectures have helped me to understand how young brains work, and how to acknowledge and control my own emotions when interacting with my children. She often suggests that laughter and being playful during transitions helps re-frame typically stressful times of day.

Just observing and changing the morning routine helped me so much to balance work and home, and to be proactive rather than reactive.  I have since used the same strategies with other hectic parts of my day with success. I recently added a backpack corral so that the boys have a place to put their school gear, jackets and shoes when they come home from school. We’re still getting used to it.  I regularly have to walk my 2nd grader through the process of putting his stuff where he will be able to easily find it when the alarm goes off in the morning.

IMG_8260

This is the backpack shelf with drawers underneath for shoes. Clean karate uniforms sit on top ready to go in. Hooks for coats hang above.

 

When we all pile into the car to head to the elementary school, I do the check:

“Everybody have shoes?”

“Everybody have a lunchbox?”

“Backpacks?”

“Does everybody have pants?” (hoping for backseat giggles)

“Did you remember your smile?” (met with sarcasm from the 5th grader)

“Anybody need a smooch? You were so fast today we have time for kisses!”( the little one always falls for this one)

 

I think it’s important to “catch” kids doing the behavior you want.

When we acknowledge children for doing what they should be doing, they are more likely to do it again. Sometimes I acknowledge my own successes too, like, “hey, that was pretty good. I was worried that we were behind schedule and still, I didn’t yell even once.”

I found my resolution to yell less a success (and still going strong!). I am human, however, and I still occasionally raise my voice when it looks like I am going to be late for work .

But by looking for emotional triggers, as well as by working on self-care, I am able to more successfully balance home and work while staying calm and centered.

Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

"They are much to be pitied who have not been given a taste for nature early in life." —Jane Austen:

I had the most wonderful garden outside my kitchen door when I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  H, who was four at the time,  was a painfully early riser (still is).  He and I would make our way to the kitchen super early in the morning, open the sliding glass door and let in the cool mountain air.

Image result for kitchen garden public domain
I would brew my coffee as H would go in and out the back door, eating green beans he’d just picked.

We grew many things in our sweet little garden, including several varieties of peppers. I remember once, we had a houseguest who was so concerned that A, a toddler at the time, was clumsily tromping between the tomato plants and touching the jalapeños. She hovered over A, following closely behind him, uttering a constant stream of warnings and words of caution:

“Don’t step on the watermelon vine…”

“Don’t touch the peppers…”

“They will burn your hands and mouth…”

“Put that spade down, it’s sharp …”

“Don’t pick that tomato, it’s not ripe yet…”

 

Our well-meaning houseguest wanted to prevent A from injury. I know her heart was in the right place. However, it seemed to me that most of her interactions outside in our garden were  peppered with fear and negativity.

That’s when I realized that I am a believer in natural consequences. I don’t think we should rescue our child every time they are uncomfortable.

 

I know what it feels like to eat a jalapeño. They’re really spicy. When I worked at a Mexican restaurant in college, I experienced a capsaicin burn from a jar of pickled jalapeños that went all the way up to my wrist. Now that hurt!

moments before she missed the nail and hit her thumb

As I watched A explore the fruits of our garden, I knew that he may try to pick something under-ripe, taste or touch something spicy, or bring me something sharp. I knew that if he did, he might cry or be uncomfortable.

 

I also knew that if he did, he would survive the whole ordeal and come away with the new knowledge of what he should avoid in the garden.  

 


A few years later, I learned that I was parenting in a way that seemed to be aligned with with the Montessori philosophy.

H with his Grandfather and a tiny goat


Montessori is a
way of being that is respectful and collaborative. Dr. Montessori taught us that children are scientists collecting data with their five senses. Children need to collect experiences and feel feelings with a minimum of interference.  

 

It is naturally important to guide a child to prevent any real harm.  But we do not need to rescue children from all things.

We can support them through a hard or uncomfortable moment by listening, and with words of understanding, allow the child to feel his or her feelings without judgment. This way, adults can “help” a child who is struggling without actually doing anything!

 

That is what we do in the Montessori classroom.  We do not help children with things they are capable of doing themselves.

 

Here is a glimpse into a Montessori work period. Watch as the boy in this video struggles to put away The Bead Chain. Notice the adult is nearby the whole time. Take note how the adult helps.

He had a few tears when told, “You got this! Take your time and count every bead” and left to try on his own. He was able to count the last chain alone.

The video reminds me of a boy who joined my class at age 3 (I’ll call him Frankie). He had a very strong sense of order. Frankie had to have his clothes just so. He called all athletic shorts, no matter the color or style, “my favorite shorts.” It took me forever to realize it was a type of shorts Frankie preferred, rather than an individual pair of favorite shorts.

 

This guy struggled daily with his socks. You know the seam across the toe of the socks? He wanted that seam to sit perfectly across his toe in a certain way. He would sit and struggle, taking his sock off and on again, over and over until he was satisfied that it was right.

Image result for a boy putting on socks

If it was wrong, he would throw up his hands, cry out and start again. So here’s how I used a minimum of interference with him:

  • The first week he was in my class, I would go to him and say, “I see you are struggling with your sock.” And he would tell me he just couldn’t do it.
  • I would offer to show him “how” on one foot and let him try with the other.
  • After showing him how to put his sock on a few times, I would let him work at it on his own, let him struggle.
  • If his cries of frustration seemed like they were escalating, I might’ve gone over and said a word of encouragement like, “I know you can do it. I saw you do it yesterday.”
  • I would sit nearby.
  • I might offer open-ended alternatives like, “I wonder if the blue socks in your cubby are easier,” or “I wonder what it feels like to put shoes on WITHOUT socks.”

and the bottom line:

  • I would only help if he actually said the words, “Can you help me? I tried and I still can’t get it.”

 

Frankie struggled with putting on his socks for the better part of a year.

He pushed through the feelings of frustration, feelings of failure, and feelings of disappointment.

***

If I had rescued Frankie, I would have robbed him of his work. He needed to have those feelings. When he learned his new skills, he learned what success can feel like.

 

If we come upon a hurdle in life that is barely out of our reach, rather than having someone swoop in and rescue us, isn’t it better to struggle and get that sense of accomplishment when we succeed?
Using a minimum of interference means offering your child support when they need it. Listening. Acknowledging feelings without judgment. Staying positive.

In this way, struggles become more about perseverance, and how to deal with frustration or anxiety.

***

UPDATE:

Just after I posted this, Marie Aragon, a sweet woman with whom I did Montessori training, shared a well-written article from the Huffington Post titled “The Most Valuable Thing You Can Do For Your Kids”, that supports what I have expressed here in this post. Click here to read it.

Also, I want you to check out a podcast called Unruffled by Janet Landsbury. She is Awesome! She often reassures parents that all of the feelings that children express are okay.  Even the loud, expressive, unpleasant feelings. She gives specific tips about how understand children and their behaviors. The episodes are short and packed full of helpful information.