Thursday, November 18, 2010

Owning Turf vs. Making an Entrance

Why are teachers so hell bent on everyone getting to school on time? Also, as we recently learned, there's "on time" and there's On Time. The difference can be amazing for some kids (er... like my kid.)

At our house, morning dropoff is a finely calibrated machine. Nuvy's school has a car line between 8:00 and 8:15. Van's school, 10 minutes' drive away, has an early-drop off time of 8:30. (why so late? It's a co-op, which usually means at least one parent--or the au pair girl--is at home with the kids in the morning. Families with two early morning workdays and no nanny need not apply.)

My habit, until recently, had been to get Nuvy to school at the tail end of car line, then swing around and be the first kid to show up at Van's school. Sounds good, right? Like clockwork. Then we had parent-teacher conferences with Nuvy's teacher.

Nuvy, it seems, was very interested in socializing during morning worktime, and less interested in working. Further, she seemed a little insecure about challenging herself at school, and tended to need an audience to support her and motivate her, which disrupted the work of her friends. She had trouble finishing assignments (witness a stack of unfinished picture stories). In teacher speak, this roughly translates to, "your kid is bright and sociable, but unmotivated, and is disrupting our class." Her teacher and I discussed various strategies for motivating and supporting her, including language that demonstrated how much we value her choosing challenging work. The teacher seemed genuinely perplexed, as was I, about how this smart, engaged child could be so academically scattered.

Then I thought about her mornings. Was she eating the right foods before school? Was she adequately prepared? Was it all that TV? Then it occurred to me--she is a latecomer. Every morning she misses, not just 15 minutes of playtime in the morning, but the chance to ground herself at school before worktime begins.

I am, sadly, a habitual latecomer. I am not early for many things in life. I push deadlines, meeting times, theater curtains, everything. I often enter rooms filled with people who are already doing something when I arrive. I am used to making an entrance--being greeted by a crowd--and transitioning into whatever is already in progress. I realize now that this dynamic is not working for Nuvy. So, I have started taking her in 10-15 minutes earlier, and arriving at Van's school annoyingly early.

She is, by all accounts, a new child. She greets her friends in the morning, one by one as they arrive-- whereas before, she came in to a gaggle of children and seemed to behave in an outsized way to announce herself. This more measured approach to social life seems to be carrying through for her during the day. She is still sociable, but seems more confident at school, and more open to academic challenges.

Amazing what 15 minutes can do!!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

12 Steps to TV Freedom in Real Life Without Becoming a Sanctimonious Jerk

More on TV. I know. It's just so immediate for me right now that I can't stop talking about it!

I know there are many parents, probably many of you, dear readers, for whom this is not a problem. Either you watch and don't mind, or you just don't watch. Waldorf-ians have already pledged to eliminate TV (this is for the cheaters). Montessori schools often don't require such heroism, but they do whisper about us--we with our Disney princess sneakers and Lightnin' McQueen lunchpails. Well, this is not about appearances. This is about freedom.

I am here to tell you how to get free of your TV without putting a "kill your TV" sticker on anything you own, or telling anybody else that they can't let your kids watch the Wiggles at their house. We can be conscientous parents without being obnoxious--even a little bit. (That is, unless we decide to blog it all for everybody to see--but I'll accept the label of "passive agressive" from my immediate family--it beats the usual just plain "aggressive", and I might deserve it, anyway.)

1. Recognize the problem. If you wonder if your kids watch too much TV, they do.

2. Understand the limits of your control. If grandma wants to have movie night, or let them watch a fun show, who cares! They don't live at grandma's so they aren't going to become TV junkies by watching at her house. If your neighbor kid's mom doesn't mind them begging for TV as soons as they hit her front door, it's no skin off your back. This is between you, the kids, and the idiot box. If you try to involve persons of authority who do not share your enthusiasm, what you get is civil disobedience or worse, subterfuge.

2. Sign up for something they have to "go to". School is obvious, but if you aren't doing that yet, some other activity you have to show up for will also break up the day, and make it feel a little less daunting.

3. Don't put the TV and food in the same room. If your TV is in the living room, throw away your TV trays and don't eat there anymore. If you have a TV in the kitchen, get rid of it. Everybody knows the one about TV in the bedroom, so I don't even have to go there, do I?

4. Ban sippy cups inside the house. Nobody needs to have a drink while they build a block tower or read a book in a temperature controlled room. The only reason for a sippy cup in the house is to walk around with a drink in your hand, and the only reason to walk around at home (unless you're entertaining) with a drink in your hand is if you're cruising for a TV to watch while you have your drink. Baby teacups by the bathroom sink suffice at our house for thirsty kids in the playroom, and otherwise, they drink from a glass at the table.

5. Organize play areas, and display toys attractively. This is sort of key, as far as I'm concerned. If your kids walk into the living room and everything is put away in a drawer, and the TV is off, they will look around the clean room and not see anything they want to do. Likewise, if they look at a heap of jumbled toys in a corner, nothing will call to them, saying "come play with me!" If they walk into a room and there is no TV, and there are attractively displayed activities, it's as natural as breathing for a child to go and start to play with them. Why do you think they are always after your curio cabinet?

6. Turn some music on. It doesn't matter what it is. You will get different moods from singalong songs vs. Bach on the cello. Thrash metal will produce a different reaction than, say, Barry White songs, but use whatever you like. I find that music helps children move smoothly from activity to activity, providing nice little "buttons" for the in-between moments (sort of like NPR's musical segues) and, even if it doesn't promote very deep concentration, provides a nice rhythm for the mind to tap its toe to. It also provides passive sound, which I find to be a kind of "TV methadone" for hard-core junkies.

7. No pronouncements. Don't say, "we aren't watching TV in our house anymore" to your kids. It's enough, when they ask, to say "it's not time for TV right now." Take a one-minute-at-a-time approach. That way, if you give in once or twice, you haven't caved.

8. No arguments. You don't need a reason. If the kids pitch a fit, change the subject, or just go do something else. I have found that it is perfectly ok to let their anger at being denied TV just hang in the air until it goes away. It will go away--right before the magic starts!

9. Do your own thing. Let your kids see you reading a book, or knitting, or dusting. Let them "help" you work, or "help" you with a jigsaw puzzle, or just ignore them and let them do whatever they find to do. At our house, at least, they pretty much busied themselves around and were no more or less a pain in my ass than they had been when sitting in front of the TV, hollering for more juice or for me to change the channel.

10. Let yourself be a little absent. They can play with no guidance from you, but they won't do it if you get involved. I don't mean that we should never interject ourselves into our children's play--that's one of my favorite hobbies--but I recognize that my involvement changes the experience for them pretty dramatically.
11. Make your own rules. If you want to have "movie night" on fridays, great! if you want to let the babysitter use the TV, fine! If you want to make the babysitter bring her guitar and felting wool, and tell her not to turn on the set, more power to you! Find a level you can live with, and set about the task of living with it. It's all adjustable--you made up the rules anyway!
12. Keep quitting until you've quit. Ok, so everybody gets the flu, or you're 11 months pregnant and you can't move, so you cave. So what? It's never too late to rein it in, and it's never a hopeless task. Go for it!

Confessions of a Recovering TV Abuser

I knew better. I knew exactly why I didn't want TV for a babysitter. I knew as well as anybody could, and it still happened to us.

It started so innocently. We started watching wholesome "Baby Signing Time" videos. The kids were learning sign language! Van was signing all over the place!

Then there was nap time. Nuvy, for all my efforts to make her self-directing, could not entertain herself while I was putting Van down for a nap, which was causing me considerable unrest--so I plopped her on the couch and put in a movie. Baby Signing Time became Disney princess movies (with some interim steps) and she was hooked.

Of course, when Nuvy watches TV, Van watches TV, and Van cannot get enough. We started in with the really hard stuff. Nick-Jr. On Demand, Sprout, endless reruns of Yo Gabba Gabba (I can see how that show got made---but WHY!!!?). Kent and I began following cable drama series, comedy series, watching the MSNBC triumvirate of time wasting (Hardball, Countdown, Maddow) for four solid hours of a weekday evening (they rerun them the same night!)--the 2008 election season was particularly riveting for us. Then, the winter olympics. Unmissable TV events all.

I had excuses, and they weren't too embarrassing. It's too cold out. It's too hot out. It's raining. It's a beautiful day, but I'm so busy--there'll be another pretty day tomorrow. We'll go out after nap. We'll go out all day on Saturday. I'll just run this load of laundry/dishes/answer this email/make this phone call and then turn it off. Turn it off in the middle of a program? They'll go nuts! Watch another one? It's only 25 minutes, right? It's an educational show, right? No? Ok, but there's a lesson in everything right? Right???

My two-year-old knew more sign language than I did, more spanish, chinese, even!! But then I noticed his pincer grasp wasn't all that solid, his toys were dusty, his tricycle buried in the back of the garage, he asked for TV from sun to sun--I was raising a TV junkie!

We cut the cable cord. That saved us a few bucks a month, but it solved nothing. Who needs it? You can download anything you want, plus there's PBS! Good-for-you TV, right? SuperWhy! Dinosaur Train! Charlie Rose! Sesame street! This was TV that admonished you to get off the couch and go read a book or play outside--but there we were, watching the world go by on TV.

I was disgusted, yes, but so busy. I have a business to run! A house to maintain! A life! When Kent brought it up, I said "Well, you're always plopping them in front of the TV, so what are you complaining about? Why don't you do something about it?"


People do this. A lot of people make this choice. A lot of people I know do it.

The Waldorf parents sign a contract promising to do it. We can do it, too.

We turned it off. "Mommy, TV!" from Van. "Can we watch Toy Story 2?" from Nuvy. "Please, Mommy?" All the sugar of a can of Nehi Grape in her voice. "No TV, guys. Go play."

Howls of protest. Disbelief. Anguish. Rage. Oh, God, this is never going to work. Shouldn't we ease into this?

No, we would not ease into it. We went cold turkey. No prononouncements, no threats, no lying that it's "broken" (then magically "fixed" for the evening news). No lectures. We just turned it off. Radio silence.

Ok, radio silence was too radical for me, but I have music! I hit shuffle on the old iPod and the household just switched gears. I found I didn't need to entertain them. They cried, but they did not die. They did not run away. Eventually, they just found something else to do. We started listening to a lot of music. I love the shuffle function, because you can get Edith Piaf, Neil Young, Erykah Badu, Bach, and Tibetan Monks chanting "Om mani padme hum" for 25 minutes--all in the same sitting. The monks generated a lot of conversation, but I think that's for another post.

After a week or so of rediscovering old toys and re-reading the old board books, we got some jigsaw puzzles. My girl is a jigsaw puzzle wizard! Who knew?

Kent and I are both mostly just amazed at how easy it was. Nuvy is almost 5 now, she doesn't need Walt Disney to occupy her while Van goes down for a nap. She can look at a book, or do a puzzle, or dress herself up, draw, any of a hundred things she can find to do of an afternoon. I did have to give up a little screen time myself, but how much of that was I spending reading The Daily Dish anyway? I find that, now that we just quit TV, it's not any harder to entertain the kids than it was WITH the TV. They can play by themselves, they sometimes fight, but unless they're killing each other, they are learning to negotiate--sort of chaotically--something that is hard to tolerate when you get used to TV-induced quiet.

However, I found that I can and should accommodate myself to a little more noise, and stay out of it a little more, which I also have to do now that I can't keep them still long enough to do housework or make phone calls. This is their "homework".

One thing I learned is that it was the dutiful control-freak in me that made me vulnerable. "Helicopter parenting" of little kids is exhausting, so it's easy to give in to that beguiling boob tube. It gave me time to breathe, and to think about something else for a minute.

The big news is that by stepping back a little, and allowing a little inter-sibling chaos, everybody at our house is happier and more productive. We even gave up "ambient TV" (the news) and watch our news programs after their bedtime, through the wonder of streaming video. The only TV our kids see at our house is when the babysitter is here, which makes them happy to see the babysitter, so it works out for everybody.

Anybody got a TV thought to share?