The holidays for me is about time to relax and slow down, and it’s about time with my family. When my husband and I are working and the boys are in school, it seems like we’re always in a rush so time to play and connect are crammed between school, homework, making dinner, putting food into our mouths, and bedtime. If you’re a parent reading this blog, you likely agree there’s not enough hours in a day.
My younger son A., loves to bake. During the winter break I baked with him three times and he baked with his Grammy once as well. We made a gingerbread house from scratch! We also made raspberry thumbprint cookies from Save Room For Dessert. Although A. loved pressing the center of his cookies with his thumb, we should’ve used a bigger thumb to allow for more jam!
As an avid watcher of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country on PBS, I know the term mise en place. This is a french cooking term that translates to “everything in its place”. What it really means is to gather up all the necessary ingredients and supplies before beginning a task. This concept is very Montessori. I was reminded of this concept when listening to episode 95 of the Happier podcast.
When we bake together it’s my job to guide the order of the process. On the cooking shows they have everything all measured out into tiny glass bowls all in a row. My boy likes to scoop things with the measuring spoons and level them off with his fingers, so I just put the ingredients out on the counter for him to measure. He can read the recipe but he needs help understanding some of the terminology and remembering which step is next. Rather than instructing him by following the recipe myself and telling him what to do, I ask him questions, make suggestions, and confirm his decision-making. We have a lot of fun baking together. He dances to the rhythm of the Kitchen Aid mixer and he always licks the spoon.
Dr. Montessori called the classroom together with the trained adult “the prepared environment”. A lot of thought and consideration is put into what goes onto the shelves of the classroom. Every activity is complete with the exact materials needed to complete the task and practice the isolated skill. Just like on America’s Test Kitchen, the Montessorian considers the mise en place making sure everything is in order before beginning a task. Whether it’s the apple cutting activity, or the stamp game, the work should be clean, complete, and as I tell the children “neat and tidy” as it sits on the shelf waiting for the next child to use it.
The first week back from winter break I took a group of 10 older children, ranging from 4 1/2 to 5 years old, to work in our school’s vegetable garden. Before beginning, I sat with the children and showed a group lesson on the life cycle of a plant. We sat on the deck in the crisp afternoon air and discussed seeds, seedlings, which part is the stem, what does a seed need to grow, etc. I told the children how my dad taught me to use a string to make straight rows when planting.
I showed them the materials I had collected:
tongue depressors to mark the rows
a sharpie marker
6 sticks (I had the rarely used white colored pencils)
2 rakes & 2 hoes
After our discussion, we headed to the garden. We dug around preparing the soil, taking turns watching and digging. This was a particularly patient group, waiting for their turn. However, I recommend bringing a basket of gardening and plant books for the children who have trouble waiting their turn to work. There are so many awesome books about gardening and all things related. Gail Gibbons has two great books on the subject: From Seed to Plant andThe Vegetables We Eat. The children enjoyed looking at the broccoli and cabbage that was already successfully growing in the garden as well as giving their friends advice about how to do the task at hand.
We tied yarn to the white pencils and stuck them in the ground. I showed them how to make a little trench all along side the string. Their favorite part was putting seeds in their hand and letting them sprinkle them in the trench and cover them up. We moved the string to repeat the process for the rest of the seed packets, then labeled the planted rows with the sharpie marker on the tongue depressors.
We ran out of time to water the seeds before it was time for a water break and a well-deserved snack. Thankfully, our toddler group took charge of watering the seeds later in the afternoon.
Before setting off to do any task, consider mise en place. By making sure to gather up all the materials and supplies you will need, you decrease the chance of frustration, and increase the chance of being successful and having fun.
Praising your child won’t get you what you want. Praise and rewards create temporary results.
A baby responds to its mother’s or father’s praise. The baby gets excited tries to keep going seeing how pleased the parents are. The parent’s expression relays an excitement that is motivating to the baby taking its first steps. Around 24 months, the relationship between the parent and child becomes more complex. Praise and rewards can become confusing to the child. That’s because children at this age become sensitive to manipulation and inadvertent patronizing, and begin to question their parent’s motivation for praising them. When a parent continues to praise and offer rewards to a child after 24 months, they can potentially damage their relationship with their child as well as tarnish their child’s self esteem without even realizing it.
In the Montessori classroom, we do not praise the children. Rather, we celebrate their growth and accomplishments with them. We also don’t believe in rewards or punishment, only the consequences of one’s own actions. Dr. Montessori teaches us four important elements that work in place of praise and rewards:
Emphasis on effort
When my son was two, one of the things he said the most was, “My do it, Mama! No, My do it!” Children want to do things by themselves. They want to do what we do, and deep down they want to please us by being successful. In the Montessori classroom, we watch the children all the time to see what skills they are developing. We present them with activities that appeal to their interests as well as to their capabilities and developmental needs. Then we get out of the way to let them practice.
Pay attention to your child’s developmental level. Allow her to do what she is capable of doing. And be patient. A child’s process is soooo much slower than ours. Letting your child do things by herself, at their own pace, will help build self confidence, and your child will trust that you have her back without taking over. Help without getting in the way. “Help” by supporting rather that doing it for her.
A three and a half year old girl in my class, I’ll call her Maria asked me to show her how to do a complex, 4-layer puzzle depicting the life-cycle of a frog. I showed her how to turn over all the pieces so that she could sort the pieces by number first, stacking up the ones, the twos, etc. I sorted one or two until I could see that she understood the concept, and then I sat quietly while she sorted. When she was ready, I turned over the ones and told her to do those first. There was only 2 pieces so it was easy for her. I pointed to the twos and told her to do those next, the rest come later. She pulled the pile of twos pieces toward her but she only turned one over. She didn’t even look at the image on the puzzle piece. She asked,”Where does this one go?” She wanted me to tell her. I suggested she turn over the rest of the twos. I suggested looking at the image, maybe start with the face of the frog. Maria started to lurch out of her chair, flopping back into it with a grunt, her eyes welling up. I turned over the pieces of the twos and pointed to the face of the frog and pointed to where I thought it went. Maria was still grunting and flopping, ready to throw the puzzle. I suggested she take a break and get a tissue and come back when she was calm. This scenario went on and on. We took deep breaths, I pointed, she worked the puzzle. She cried, she flopped and grunted, she would get a piece in and it was calm for a second as she looked at me. I would nod and smile. The cycle continued! I have no idea how long we were there together in her struggle. She did it. We high-fived and I said, “Phew! That was tricky! You struggled, and you did it.”
That WHOLE thing happened with Maria for the next two days in a row. Each time, I celebrated her effort and her perseverance. Now she does the layer puzzles without my support.
Dr. Montessori designed didactic materials that were self-correcting. The materials have a built in control of error. That means that after the initial lesson, the child teaches himself. The Montessori materials “tell” the child when he has succeeded. Failure is inevitable. The child works alone, doing and re-doing the activity until he gets it right. Failure is part of the lesson. Each time he repeats the activity, he is lengthening his attention span, improving coordination and independence which leads to improved self confidence.
Montessori philosophy emphasizes process over product. Philip, a four and a half year old in my class, struggled and toiled day after day to push through and complete a booklet of addition equations In the Montessori classroom we focus on celebrating or acknowledging only the traits they have the ability to change like strategy or level of effort rather that intelligence.
Phillip took FOREVER to stay focused to work the addition strip board to manage the 15 equations. He worked at staying organized (my version of encouragement sounded like “ooo, look how organized you are today. Yesterday, your strips were all over. Not today!”) He worked on staying on task (My assistant and I would intercept the best friend who would often come over to distract Phillip). He worked so hard for several days, a bit at a time on that booklet. And yet the actual booklet was abandoned. The little stack of papers, stapled together was less important than working the addition strip board and experiencing addition.
Studies show that if you over-praise a child, they actually LOSE motivation. It makes sense when you dig into it: if you get praised for lots of little things, or things that are easy for you, the praise loses its power. An alternative outcome of a child that is over-praised may result in a child that seeks excessive amounts of verbal commendations. Zach is three and a half and he loves to draw “pictures for my mom” every day. When he was ready, I showed him how to make the shapes of some letters with chalk on a green chalkboard. I did a few examples of an “e” and said, “eh eh, like elephant”. He did one lumpy “e” and looked at me. I smiled, raising my eyebrows, “keep practicing.” The next one he did was perfect. “I did it!” I told him he could practice “eh” for a while and then switch to another letter, and that I was moving on to help another friend. Zach did another “e” and another and another and after each time he came over to me seeking my approval. To add a little context, Zach does this for all kinds of activities, not just this one cool thing he’s done for the first time. He expects praise after every accomplishment. He doesn’t look to himself for validation, he looks to the adults, and to his best friend and truthfully to anyone passing by.
If a child perceives your words of praise to be insincere, he will likely dismiss the praise altogether. And if the praise is perceived as manipulative, the child can begin to question if you’re trustworthy which may cause a rift in your relationship. A child is more likely to behave in the way that you request or suggest if he trusts you and if he thinks you trust him. I like this article from Parenting Science about the effects of praise.
InNurture Shock, the authors relay the study done by Carol Dweck in which she studied groups of 5th graders and the effects of performance when their intelligence is praised and alternatively when their effort was praised. The children who were praised for their intelligence didn’t work as hard on the second test. The children who were praised for their effort tried just as hard, or harder on the second test.
When you celebrate with your child
State the facts, rather than opinion
Focus on their effort and their strategy
Set them up for success
Don’t compare them to anyone else
Focus on the process and not the final product
The Self-esteem of a child is a delicate thing. We want our children to grow up to be self-confident adults, therefore we need to celebrate with them in ways that have long lasting results.
I put the needs of others before the needs of myself, and I have for as long as I can remember. I take care of my home, my husband, my two boys, and my students. I know that old southern adage, “if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” and yet I constantly struggle to refill my own cup.
In February of 2015 my friend and coworker, Christina from www.montessoriishmom.com told me about the Happier podcast and I started to learn more about Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies. The Four Tendencies is a personality framework that classifies you based on how you handle inner and outer expectations. If you want to know more about this framework, follow this link to take the quiz. I ordered my copy of her book on The Four Tendencies here.
I could talk about the Four Tendencies all day long. I’ve been obsessed with understanding them since I first heard the Happier podcast. The main point for this post is that I found out that I am an Obliger and by making a few changes in how I approach my own needs, my life changed for the better. I found out that in order to DO for MYSELF, I need outward accountability. Otherwise, I will always put others first.
After listening to the Happier podcast for a year, I finally bought her book The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It has helped me on my journey to find time for ME. Similar to Rubin’s story in The Happiness Project, I have everything that I need. I have a happy family, a great job, we’re all healthy, and yet I still felt like I could be, well…happier. In order to find what I was looking for, I used outer accountability to take care of my body, embrace my hobbies and my need to be creative, and to take time to be spontaneous and fun.
I started a bullet journal. It has changed my whole life. A bullet journal is an empty book that you customize to be a planner and then some. It’s not only a way to keep track of the family calendar and work tasks, it is also my outer accountability as well as a creative outlet that I didn’t realize I was missing.
I plan out the nightly dinners. Writing the dinners that are planned is critical when time at home is at premium. I have a page where I write down cute or clever things my boys said. I have a page where I list movies or books that I want to remember. The list goes on. The part of the bullet journal that gives me outer accountability is so simple: I get to cross a task off the list! I have a goal tracker. I track if I exercised, if I drank enough water, if I took my vitamins.
If I get to cross it off the list, I am more inclined to do it. Also, I write down all of the mundane things I am required to do both at home and at work so I get a happiness boost when I check them off the list. If for some reason I can’t manage a task using my bullet journal as my accountability, I look for that accountability somewhere else. Which reminds me, I need to get my car inspected and it has migrated forward week by week through my bullet journal nagging at me. I need to ask for help outside myself. For example, if I make an appointment with the mechanic, the mechanic expects me on a certain day, which is my outer accountability.
Rubin also suggests that I should think about what I enjoyed doing when I was in the third grade, and that it’s likely that I will still like to do a version of those things now. It’s kind of true! “Third Grade Me” liked:
camping and being outside
coloring, drawing, and being crafty
and playing school.
Drawing out the next pages for my bullet journal, using washi tape, stickers, insightful quotes and cool markers fulfills a creative bug for me like coloring in coloring books did when I was in third grade.
I didn’t realize that being creative made me feelhappy until I started with the bullet journal. I even enjoyed taking notes at my CPR and first aid class, because it felt creative! (I’ll be honest, I doodled a little.) I have started several sewing projects for myself. I was a professional seamstress, and yet, my skills have been used for my lovely classroom and my sweet family. I made an octopus skirt, that took little more than an hour to make, and it is awesome. Football season is coming up, so I am contemplating a knitting project to enjoy while I sit and watch the Texans with my husband.
I love volunteering for Cub Scouts day camp. I spend a lot of time working with the Boy Scouts, too. I still love camping, cooking and sleeping outside. H and I went to sleep-away camp for a week this past July with his Boy Scout troop. It was super HOT. We slept in tents for a WEEK. It was super-duper triple digit hot, and I still had a blast.
Finding time for friends gives me a happiness boost. My former college roommate Kim lives on the other side of town with her husband and three kids. We try to alternate playdates, usually meeting at a restaurant halfway between our locations, and an evening hanging out with just adults. As corny as it sounds, my husband is my best friend. We make it a priority to have date nights. Now that our boys are older, we have ventured out into new territory: happy hour. Once in a while we indulge in a margarita at Chuy’s on a Friday after work. There’s nothing like getting chips and queso out of the trunk of a car at Chuy’s.
The hardest part for me on my journey to pursue happiness is to splurge on myself, to be spontaneous and to have fun (even to let myself be fun). In The Happiness Project, Rubin says to “be serious about play.” I am not really into sweet treats or desserts, so I often forget to splurge on a trip to Amy’s Ice Cream with my boys. Making memories and bonding over ice cream makes me happier, so why do I say “no” more often than I say “yes”? I started a “Tasty Tuesday” tradition this summer. Even if I’m tired from working at Montessori School, I try to make dinner particularly fun like a spontaneous trip to the pool, cooler in tow, with sausages on sticks, watermelon and those yummy two-bite brownies.
My 11-year-old, H, is less and less into playing with mom so when I asked him to play with me he looked up something really cool on Pinterest, if you can believe it. He and I started making a geodesic dome out of cardboard. Instructables is an awesome website! We need a few more boxes to complete it, making it tall enough to get inside. It is going to be so super cool! It’s like an upgraded box fort from third grade. I can’t wait to crawl in with my younger son and take turns reading Encyclopedia Brown.
It’s been a challenge to find ways to play that feel authentic to my growing happiness. When I started this work on myself, I didn’t want to “fake it til you make it”. Although this is still a work in progress, at 43 years old, I feel like I am finally figuring myself out.
As I started to feel more centered at home, naturally I was able to feel more calm in the classroom. Although, yelling wasn’t really an issue at school, staying calm and centered was.
I observed myself through the day.
I watched for triggers. What was happening when my jaw would tighten or my voice would change tone? When my shoulders would tighten? Here’s the short list:
When a child doesn’t get what he wants and so he throws a loud, emotional “tantrum.”
When a child chooses to ignore or disrespect either an adult, or another child.
When a child interrupts me when I am speaking to either an adult, or another child.
Analyzing the emotional triggers allows me to look at the whole picture. Once I have identified the trigger within myself, I am often able to let it go before it comes up.
Let’s break it down.
How do I stay calm when a little kid throws a tantrum when she doesn’t get what she wants?
The first thing that is important to understand about tantrums:
All of the child’s feelings are important.
All of the child’s feelings are ok. (even if we don’t like how they are reacting)
Here’s a list of a child’s fundamental needs from the lobby at work.
I don’t know if it’s new, or if I just noticed it for the first time while waiting for my lunch to warm up in the microwave. I like it because the list describes what every human wants. I think people sometimes forget that children are just tiny humans trying to navigate the world just like we adults.
If a child is expressing his or her feelings loudly and disruptively, as adults, we often get triggered. We feel embarrassed, frustrated or angry, maybe out of control. Typically the child wants something and we want something different.
Here’s a mental checklist that guides me:
Check in with myself
Remember that today is a NEW day
Listen and acknowledge the child’s feelings
State the expectations
Allow the feelings
It’s not personal
It will pass
When you check inwith yourself, it’s helpful to have a mantra or maybe a visualization to help you stay calm. What children need when they’re feeling out of sorts is a calm, confident leader. Children don’t know what to do with all of those big feelings, and so you need to be the calm and confident one. Believe me, children can smell doubt, so be strong. My mantra comes from one of my favorite child care authors, Janet Lansbury:
In fact, the title of her podcast is my go-to mantra: Unruffled. I recommend the podcast to assistants in my classroom. When attempting to help or redirect a child who is freaking out about something (usually because the child is wanting to do something that he’s not supposed to and needs to be redirected) I imagine myself wearing a pretty white cotton sundress. I take a deep breath and as I exhale and put my shoulders back, I imagine all of the wrinkles falling out of the dress. I try to relax into a calm and confident place before approaching the child.
I added today is a new day to my checklist a few months ago, when I saw this video from the Association Montessori International (AMI) website. In it, the woman suggests that, as parents and teachers, if we hold on to yesterday’s drama and conflict, not only is it a disservice to the child, it may also cause the conflict to continue. So saying “ugh, here we go again! He always does this…” could be making it more likely to continue. Holding on to something—some behavior a child did yesterday—could potentially perpetuate the undesired behavior. So let yesterday go and treat the moment as the first time.
When a child disagrees with you (aka throws a tantrum) you must remember that all his feelings are ok. His feelings are normal.
Now, what the child does with his or her feelings, that’s another thing.
In the photo series above, I told Helen, “It looks like you’re done with this map. Your pencils are all over the place and you keep walking away.” Helen threw herself on the floor and yelled at me, telling me “no.” I held the line, reminding her that she could put the work away and do the rest in the afternoon or tomorrow. When she’d finished expressing her displeasure with me and she had purged her “emotional backpack,”aka tantrum, and she was calm enough to hear me, I calmly and confidently asked how I could help to put part of the map away. She’s so fiercely independent, which I love, that she said I could help by just watching.
When a child interrupts me I feel, what? Annoyed. Rushed. Disrespected. The strategies I use in the classroom for interrupting are the same ones, basically, that I use at home.
If I can, I start with a proactive approach. I tell my assistants that I will be giving a lesson to someone and therefore I will not be available for a bit. (Likewise, if I am at home, I tell my two sons that I will be on a phone call, for an example, and won’t be available for however long.) My assistant knows to protect my lesson presentation by intercepting any children who appear to need help from me. Next, I have some hand signals that I use to let people know the status of my availability. If I am working with a child and someone comes over, saying, “Ms. Natalie, Ms. Natalie!” (or rather, “Miss Nat-O-lee!”) without taking my eyes off my work, I will put up one finger near the child about to interrupt. One finger up lets the child know that I will be with them in a moment if they are able to wait a minute. Alternatively, if I put my whole hand up, that indicates that I am gonna be a while and the child should find another adult for help if possible. My assistants also watch for these signals and intervene when necessary.
If I feel myself being interrupted a lot/more than usual, it is a red flag that I need to re-teach the children what my hand signals mean and why they are important. If I focus on it for a week, it usually improves dramatically.
If two children are having an argument in which one or both of them are feeling dismissed or disrespected that appears to be escalating, I step in and act as a mediator. Let’s say Helen and Connie are in a disagreement over who had the red pencil first.
Both girls have their hand on the pencil and neither one is willing to give in. I would step in and ask what’s going on or some such thing, at which point both girls would start to explain that “I had it first, no, I had it first!” I would remind the girls that we have to take turns to talk. I would ask one girl her side of the story and reflect back what she said, then do the same thing with the other girl. Then I would state the facts without judgment.
“So what I hear is that Helen was using the red pencil and she wasn’t done. Connie saw the red pencil on the table beside Helen and no one was touching it, so Connie thought it was available. Is that what happened?”
After both girls feel heard, the next part is the tricky part. Helen, would you be willing to tell Connie when you’re done with the red pencil? She REALLY wants to use it next.” Usually the child complies at this point. (The tricky part comes when Helen says,”NO! I’m never going to be done with the red pencil!” At which point I would offer to help find Connie an alternative that is available, hoping she goes along with the suggestion).
Here’s the key: If a child is disrespecting me or another adult, it doesn’t feel good. Respect is a foundation I firmly believe in. If the adult treats the child with respect, the child will typically reciprocate. If a particular child is not responding to my requests or instructions, often it means I need to take the time torebuild a connection with that child. Sometimes the child is being such a turkey that the last thing I feel like doing is sitting down and spend extra time with him or her. I know from experience, though, that it works like magic to just be there, listening to a child who has recently been acting out of sorts talk about how many snails or rolly pollys he counted on the way to school or whatever. When the child feels heard and respected, he will feel more calm and will act more respectful during tense times.
I always try to remember, it’s not personal. This moment will pass.
Next time I want to post about an ongoing struggle of mine: taking time for me.
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 singleproduct 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?
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.
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.
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.
Here’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.
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.
When we all pile into the car to head to the elementary school, I do the check:
“Everybody have shoes?”
“Everybody have a lunchbox?”
“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.