The “Whack-A-Mole” of Parenting Three 2E Kids

https://live.staticflickr.com/3289/2651852001_36b5df8a0d_b.jpg (Creative Commons License)

Parenting three 2E kids – especially during a pandemic – is flat-out exhausting, given that they never (okay, rarely) “just do their work”.

The most visceral analogy that comes to mind is playing whack-a-mole:  as soon as I start feeling good about the progress I’ve made with helping one of my three kiddos get more confident and independent with their schooling (“Yes! They’re doing it on their own, without prompting!”), a new or lingering challenge will inevitably pop up with another.

(I don’t mean to refer to my kids’ struggles as pest-like critters needing to be pummeled into submission; this is just how it sometimes feels for me energy-wise, as their mom.)

This past week, for instance, I’ve toggled between the following concerns:

  • Realizing that my 12-year-old daughter C. will receive failing grades in several of her classes next week unless or until I: 1) go through each of her class assignment sites with her, one by one, to see what’s missing; 2) reach out to her teachers for support and understanding (please, be understanding!) that C. wants to do well but is stymied by the challenges of navigating online learning while dealing with pandemic-related anxiety and overwhelm; 3) help C. determine a plan of action for either doing (or re-doing) each missing assignment, and then ensuring that the oh-so-important “Submit” button is actually pressed and her teacher is notified by email of the late submission;
  • Seeing my 10-year-old son D. refuse to turn his video on during orchestra class this morning, then logging out early before coming to inform me he left because: 1) he had his (virtual) hand up for the entire session and his teacher didn’t see or acknowledge him; 2) when he tried speaking out loud, no one listened to him; 3) he already knows how to hold his violin bow; and 4) he wanted to eat his breakfast;
  • Knowing that nothing whatsoever in my 7-year-old daughter I.’s Seesaw Assignments folder will get done until I go in to look through it all with her, one at a time; that each assignment – especially anything involving writing – will involve a negotiation of some kind and a request to do it later; and that there will inevitably be insistent questioning about when she’ll have “done enough Seesaw assignments” that she can get back to her Minecraft world creation.

Okay, so that’s the current slate of rotating challenges with each of my kids. But, here are a few positives – there are always positives! – to balance things out:

  • Seeing the glow of pride on C.’s face when she sees a one-word comment from her art teacher that the “Shadings” assignment she submitted is “beautiful”; hearing the gratitude, relief, and excitement in C.’s voice when I read her an email from a teacher who’s written back to say they’re happy to meet with her one-on-one; sitting down with C. as she slowly works her way through overdue assignments and we watch a fascinating CNN 10 news clip together about underwater habitats with wi-fi;
  • Meeting last week with D.’s awesome team of educators to outline an IEP plan to support him with his socio-emotional learning and communication goals at school; hearing D. logging on without prompting to all his (non-orchestra) Zoom meetings throughout the day; seeing D. sitting up in bed during class time rather than lying wrapped up in a blanket;
  • Hearing I. having fun connecting and laughing with her new classmates during live Zoom sessions; listening to I. practicing her division facts confidently with a classmate; hearing I. proclaim proudly to her teacher how much she LOVES reading.

Although I’m perennially exhausted, I’m also grateful that the Whack-a-Mole of parenting during a pandemic at least allows for breaks. I’ll tackle the next critter as soon as it emerges – but for now, since I’ve gotten my own critical work-work done, I’m going to lie down and listen to a book-on-tape while playing Candy Crush. Self-care is the top order of the day.

 

 

 

“Ideal” Versus “Real” Home Learning

There have been many moments during the past few weeks of remote learning when I’ve been tempted to stop and write a post about a “sample day” – just to give a taste of what life in our household of three twice-exceptional learners is like.

The moment that led to the “Frozen blanket pic” above is what finally motivated me to take the time to write for a bit.

My 7-year-old “I” entered an advanced placement 2nd grade classroom this year, which covers 3rd grade math standards. (I wrote about her math anxiety in a previous entry.) Since she basically skipped 2nd grade math content, we’re working hard to help her feel comfortable with lots of new concepts.

Thankfully – and perhaps predictably – “I” understands the underlying concepts of multiplication and division just fine. However, she still struggles with anxiety and avoidance around both demonstrating her knowledge in writing and memorizing basic math facts. She’ll guess, equivocate, try to flee the room, state “I can’t do this!”, ask for a snack, groan, twist around with her legs up in the air, and basically do anything except “just” sit and “do the work”. It’s exhausting watching her (and, truth be told, supporting her).

Indeed, the picture taken above was preceded by a ton of rolling around on the floor (“I”, not me – though I sometimes resort to yoga poses myself to de-stress); “I”‘s purple dress hovering over her head for awhile; her dress finally coming off (you can see it in the background); and finally the “Frozen” blanket being wrapped all around her as a protective cocoon. Throughout this process, we talked about how many wheels are on 1 tricycle, 2 tricycles, etc., as I filled out several function tables for different items. I scripted all her responses in her hard-copy math workbook, and she then added all the answers electronically to her formal Seesaw assignment to turn in. (Yes, she had to take the blanket off and sit in front of her computer to actually input data. But once the anxiety of doing the actual work itself was gone, this was no problem.)

It struck me as humorous that the reality of our “working from home” schooling looks so incredibly different from all the posed pictures you see in online articles – like the one I placed as a contrast photo at the beginning of this post. I’m sure there are plenty of households where kids actually sit in front of their computers at a kitchen table or desk, waiting for break time to eat the perfectly ripe bananas in the foreground – but that’s not us. 

During her live Zoom meetings, “I” will either be lying sideways on the floor or huddling in her bed, chewing on hunks of ice. My 10-year-old D. turns off his video (with permission from his teacher) and hides himself in his blanket on his bed while (hopefully) listening. My 12-year-old C. either sits on the sofa downstairs in her pajamas, or stays in her bed surrounded by pillows and blanket and stuffies. They are never at their actual desks (which are too filled with random project items to be much use as working surfaces anyway). 

Posture and sensory needs, however, are only part of the picture of online learning in our household. On the same day I took the above picture, my son D. came by my room to quietly inform me that C. was sobbing in her bedroom. When I headed over to see what was going on, C. was muted and had her camera off, so she was able to say to me in between tears, “I DIDN’T KNOW I WAS SUPPOSED TO DO THE MAP TO BE ABLE TO DO THE BOSS BATTLE! EVERYONE ELSE KNEW! I KEEP TELLING MR. B BUT HE DOESN’T ANSWER!” I checked the chat box in her Zoom class and was mortified to see that C. had sent numerous panicked texts – ALL IN CAPS – to her geometry teacher Mr. B. during instructional time, while he was trying to hold class. She even used the phrase “FLIPPIN’ ASSIGNMENT” at one point.

Yikes.

My first task was to calm C. down enough to get a sense of what was actually going on. She explained, through sobs, that she had no idea a particular assignment was due that day – she didn’t see it in her “Upcoming Assignments” tab, and hadn’t seen an email coming through about it. (C. has a diagnosis of ADHD-Inattentive, so keeping effective track of assignments is an ongoing challenge.) She felt even worse because it seemed that somehow all her classmates had known about it, and she wasn’t able to check in with one of them (like she would in a real-life classroom) because chat between students is disabled during Zoom. I asked her if she had contact information for any of the other students – so she could try texting them by phone – but she didn’t. She finally stopped crying, and was able to focus enough to get back to listening to her teacher. I told her she owed him an apology after class for sending him so many upset chat messages during class, and she agreed. We also talked about needing to brainstorm what had gone wrong in terms of not having the information she needed to be successful.

Eventually she checked in with Mr. B. and was able to get (mostly) caught up. (And I was reminded I need to follow through on setting up a meeting to discuss C.’s 504 plan with him and her other teachers…)

That day, however, my equanimity was shot. Having two of my three kids get so upset over schooling that I had to sit with them to help them emotionally move through it was simply indicative of how hard this learn-from-home reality really is.

With that said, I remain genuinely grateful – on some levels – for the “forced-opportunity” to stay so closely involved in my kids’ learning. Pre-pandemic life was moving so quickly, it was easy to feel like days were simply slipping by. I happily outsourced schooling as much as possible, and was able to get away with not worrying about specifics – but I also wasn’t really clued-in to the details of my 2E kids’ unique learning challenges and triumphs in every subject.

Now, I can’t help but be involved – for better or for worse.

Like every other parent in the world whose kids are learning from home right now, I’m taking things one day at a time, one class at a time, one assignment at a time – and I simply laugh when I see pictures of what things “should” look like.

Not in a million years.

Labor Day “Mini-Lesson”

Still from “PBS Learning Media: Labor Day”

Yesterday was Labor Day in the United States, which means a three-day weekend for families and kids.

When one of my kids asked me a few days ago, “What’s Labor Day?”, I found myself unable to provide a better answer than: “It’s a break for people who work.”

That was pretty lame, and I knew it.

Traditionally, I’ve let schools take care of explaining holidays, figuring they would cover it in some fashion, and I would simply enjoy getting to spend the time off with my kids.

These days, however, everything around learning and understanding the world feels different. Since I’m with my kids all the time – well, not right next to them, but in proximity to – I find myself looking more often for “teachable moments”, a phrase used by teachers for taking advantage of authentic topics that crop up in life and can be the starting point for an interesting conversation and/or investigation.

The truth is, life is filled with “teachable moments” – in fact, you could argue it’s nothing but teachable moments, on some level, both positive and negative.

But in this case, I’m talking more specifically about a designated topic which you (i.e., the teacher or parent) want your child to deliberately consider and explore for at least a little while.

For instance: we saw an adorable baby frog near our lake shore last week, swimming around with its polliwog-ish legs, and landing repeatedly within ripples of the mild current before finally swimming off and out of sight. We talked about how amphibians need to have access to both land and water, and can’t ever become completely dry. We talked about whether it was appropriate to pick the frog up (we did, briefly), and then how long we should hold him before putting him back and resisting touching him again – and why this was important.

If my husband had been out there with us, he would have been able to provide quite a bit more information, since he tends to be a storehouse of facts about the natural world. And, if I’d been more intentional about turning this into an official “homeschooling” or “unschooling” moment, I could have required or encouraged my kids to do additional research back inside, and/or make some kind of report or poster or drawing.

I didn’t do anything of those things. Instead, I simply mentioned meeting the frog as a definite “high” of the day during dinner, when we all share our “highs and lows” – and the kids all agreed with me on that one. Since then, each time we’ve been out at the lake we’ve skimmed the shore for evidence of another frog. (We saw a cluster of eggs the other day, so we know there are more somewhere.) But otherwise, my approach has been hands off and relaxed.

How does this relate back to Labor Day? Well, in the case of explaining why we all had a day off of school and work, I knew I needed to do more than wait for a frog-like opportunity to appear on our shore.

So, I turned to the internet, and very quickly found this one-and-a-half minute PBS Kids video.  I gave it a watch and was impressed by how much it succinctly conveyed in just 96 seconds.

I set an alarm on my calendar to “show kids Labor Day video” in the morning on Monday, and then when that moment arrived, I asked them to pause what they were engaged with to come gather around me. There was mild resistance from my youngest (who claims she “doesn’t like” PBS Kids videos), but I shushed them and said, “It’s short – just watch.”

While viewing, I paused a couple of times to point something out (it was moving quickly), but otherwise simply showed it to them, then asked afterwards, “So, what did you learn about Labor Day from this video?”

“It’s about making sure we have breaks.”

“Yes, that’s true… It’s important to have breaks when you’re working. What else?”

“It’s about having vacations.”

“Yes, that’s also important, for sure.”

I kept probing until we finally named several of the key take-aways from the video. When it comes to work, we agreed it’s important that:

  • We don’t work too many hours each day or week.
  • We are allowed to take breaks to use the restroom, to eat, and to relax.
  • We get to take vacations.
  • We are paid a fair wage.
  • We work in safe conditions that won’t hurt us or kill us.
  • Kids don’t have to go to work.

There were other important topics mentioned in the video, too – for instance, the “fight” required to obtain better work conditions.

On that note, later in the day – as were driving back home from a socially-distanced visit with my elderly parents, and were about to meet up with friends in our backyard for water time – I mentioned how nice it was to have time off to do this (i.e., to achieve a balance of rest, family, and friends) but/and how this wasn’t always the case. We had to fight for these rights, as my son quickly reminded us.

“What did that fighting look like?” we asked him. “Was it ACTUAL fighting?”

“No… People carried posters and protested.”

“That’s right. And what else did they do?”

This led to a (very brief) conversation about boycotts, unions, and collective bargaining. I’m sure all this went straight over the head of our 7-year-old, but my older two kids have now been exposed to these concepts – so when we bring them up again in other contexts, we’ll have the cognitive “anchor” of this video and our conversations to ground them back into what we hope becomes an ongoing and evolving discussion.

As a close to this mini-conversation, I said:

“Work is much, much better for many of us these days, but not for everyone. For instance, there are still places in the world where kids have to go to work. Can any of you tell us what some more recent labor issues have been here in the United States?”

This led us to talking about COVID-19 and workplace safety.

“Can you imagine having to work someplace where you’re forced to be right next to other people coughing and breathing, and you don’t have a mask to wear to protect yourself?”

Or your employer forbids you from wearing a mask?” my husband chimed in.

There’s so much more to contemplate and discuss.

For now, I’m satisfied that my kids have a reasonable understanding of why we take the first Monday of each September off as a holiday, and why it’s important not to take workplace safety and fairness for granted.

I hope and assume they’ll continue to carry this “unschooling” learning moment with them throughout future months and years. The arc of learning is long, and happens whether we realize it or not. By bringing “teachable moments” to the surface, we can name and highlight these opportunities as key moments for powerful insights. And they don’t take long.

A silver lining of COVID-19 is that it’s made these opportunities more frequent – and I’ll take any silver linings I can get.*

* Even using the phrase “silver lining” with my kids so often during the pandemic has been a “teachable moment”. My language-loving son is fascinated by word origins, so we investigated how English-speakers came to use this phrase, and what it means. We didn’t actually find a satisfactory answer to this – it’s in a poem from the 1600s – so we had to brainstorm and hypothesize instead. Not all questions have satisfying answers… 

Meltdowns During Pandemic: School-Start!

It’s started.

School is here, we’re beginning fully online, and… My kids are miserable about it. 

As highly sensory kiddos who prefer to be bodily engaged in whatever they’re doing, online learning is just about the worst possible choice for them. (Apparently online gaming is different from schooling.)

Of course, what they’re doing is currently safer than the alternatives, and I’m extremely grateful for all the work their school district has put into making this experience as meaningful as possible.

But – it’s just not the same as in-person.

Last night, as I was putting my oldest daughter C to bed, she erupted in pent-up frustration that startled me by its intensity (she’s not a  yeller by nature):

“I HATE online learning! Why can’t we just have things go back to the way they were? I was doing so WELL in middle school! Now if I have QUESTIONS about an assignment,  I can’t just go up to my TEACHER and ask them to explain it! I send an email and they DON’T GET BACK TO ME! I CAN’T KEEP TRACK of everything I’m supposed to do!”

She is PISSED OFF (rightfully so) that corona virus is still here, that we’re not coming together as a country to lower rates, and that there’s nothing we can do to impact others’ poor socializing choices.

Her feelings about online learning being hideous were strong enough that she kept listing horrible thing after (creatively) horrible thing that she’d rather go through than start school that way.

She went on for about half an hour non-stop. I tried interrupting her to affirm and ask questions, but really she just needed to vent – and vent – and vent… So eventually I just shut up and let her.

(As a side note, we live in a “pro-teacher” household – meaning, as a former teacher myself, a sister to a current kindergarten teacher, and someone who works with teachers in higher education, I empathize just as much with teachers as I do with students. Teachers are being asked to do impossible work, and this is most definitely not the format they originally signed up for. To that end, C clarified immediately that she didn’t mean to bash her teachers, and that she empathized with their challenges.)

However. 

There’s still the fact that none of this looks anything close to normal – either in terms of what she’s used to from previous (pre-COVID) years of schooling, OR in terms of “human normal”.

Meanwhile, my younger kids are just as unhappy, confused, and depressed. Ever since we went to their physical elementary school site a few days ago to pick up supplies (all socially-distanced, from our car), my 7 y.o. “I” has been confused and thought today meant heading back there with her mask and getting to see the inside of her classroom – and her teacher and friends.

“I like making new friends, Mommy! I want to have play dates!”

(There are so many times during this pandemic when kids have reasonable and healthy requests, and the answer is – no.)

With that said, this morning, we made it through a rough and rocky first day of (online) school:

  • C – ironically, despite her meltdown last night – had the easiest time of it, cycling through 15-minute “attendance meetings” with each of her six teachers within 1.5 hours; she’s done for the day.
  • “I” kept getting booted off her meetings (internet issues), but I was nearby to monitor and helped her get linked back in.
  • D was wrapped up in his blanket and chewing on it during his Zoom meetings, but I decided not to fight that particular battle today.

Now I need to go make the rounds again, and ensure that all is okay – or at least, okay enough.

 

 

 

Quarantine Birthdays

Two of my three kids have had birthdays so far during COVID-19 quarantine.

My son, D, turned 10 back in April, when life-as-we-knew-it had just come to a screeching halt.

My older daughter, C, just turned 12 yesterday.

In this post, I’ll talk a bit about what it’s been like planning parties for kids when the “normal options” just aren’t available.

First Quarantine Party: 10 Year Old Son 

When my son’s 10th birthday rolled around in April, I was still in full-on parent-panic mode:

“What is this #$@&%*! pandemic doing to my kids??!!”

“How can I not hold a birthday party for my child??!!”

However, problem-solving is an antidote to nearly all of life’s – well, problems – so I shifted into this mode, and came up with a bunch of ideas – none of which seemed sufficient at the time.

My ultimate goal was to try out as many ideas as possible and see which ones would stick.

In other words, if you offer 5 activities and 3 are fun but two are “meh”, have you succeeded? I figured the odds were better than otherwise.

So, for my son D, here were the basics of what we did:

  • he opened his presents in the morning;
  • we let him pick what to eat for dinner (Dairy Queen – yay for drive-through pick-up during quarantine!);
  • we let him choose what to have for dessert (an ice cream cake from Dairy Queen with a very specific image of his two favorite cartoon characters scanned on top – thank you Google image search and Dairy Queen!);
  • we let him choose a board game for all of us to play after dinner;
  • we let him pick a movie to watch that night.

The through-line theme – “we let him” – was very intentional. That is, while the world may be in absolute chaos, my goal was to stress that we always do have some choice and control.

Next, I tried to brainstorm what kids really like the most…

Candy.

No question.

Could I do something special with candy?

I decided to create a “candy scavenger hunt”, which started with my husband taking my son (wearing masks) to the drug store  and letting him choose his top ten favorite candies.

From there, my daughters and I figured out ten places inside and outside the house to hide the candy, and I created rhyming clues.

(Heads up: kids love doggerel, so the worse the better – as long as it rhymes!)

Here’s an example of what I wrote:

Look among the Legos
We know there a ton
But if you keep looking
You’ll find some candy fun!

After the hunt, my son got to share his (many, many) candies with his sisters – thus giving him the agency to let him do this as the Birthday Boy.

Finally, following the lead of my older sister (whose daughter had turned 13 in March), I hosted a Zoom gathering with cousins, aunts, uncles, and D’s Mormor and Morfar (Norwegian for “mother’s mother” and “mother’s father”). It was special and unusual to see all his cousins at once, since we all live across the continent, so – score on that point for novelty.

We started off the Zoom “party” by doing a quiz about D’s life, seeing who could accurately recall the most details about his childhood.

Then we shifted to a scavenger hunt (an idea provided by a friend – thank you, K!) and the fun really began. My son absolutely LOVED being in charge of sending everyone off to go find various items (he selected the following categories):

  • something fuzzy
  • something sharp
  • something stinky
  • something with every color in the rainbow
  • something with leather
  • something yummy
  • something made of glass
  • a picture of D’s favorite animal (they had to guess what this was)
  • something smaller than a dime; and
  • something totally random.

In Apples to Apples style, D got to judge his favorite from each category, and as family members picked up on this competitive energy, the tension mounted (in a fun way).

All told, while D definitely missed getting to see his two best friends (he spoke with one on the phone), he seemed reasonably happy with his birthday, and I considered it a quarantine success.

In the Meantime… 

After my son’s party, my 7 y.o. daughter started getting invitations to drive-through birthdays. I had vaguely heard of these in the news, but wasn’t exactly sure what they involved – so, after mild panic and discombobulation, I looked it up.

I watched a helpful video on YouTube, and came to understand that the basic premise is having the birthday child out in front of their house while a parade of well-wishers come driving by to honk and wave and yell “Happy Birthday”.

Pretty cool!

My 7 y.o. “I” has now “attended” three drive-through birthdays (with me at the wheel), all slightly different.

The first involved meeting up with other families (masked) in a parking lot, decorating our cars with markers and signs, then parading together single file in our cars towards the birthday girl’s house, where she (M) was waiting with her dad and brother and gift bags to hand out. The drive-by greeting itself was over within a minute, which felt a little odd – but M was getting LOTS of adoration and attention from dozens of people, including neighbors standing outside to look and cheer as well, so it felt like a complete “pandemic party success” from my perspective.

The second drive-through party “I” attended didn’t start with an initial meet-up. Instead, the hosts offered an hour’s window to come by and say hi, which meant we could take our time and not feel rushed by a crowd of other cars ahead of and behind us. We actually got to spend 10 minutes chatting through our car window with the birthday girl, asking how her birthday had gone so far, what she was planning to do that evening, etc. A present and a gift bag were exchanged, and (typical for 7 year-olds) every single gift bag item was cherished and appreciated by my daughter on the drive home.

The third drive-through party “I” attended was a mix of the first two. We were given a specific time to drive by, and there was healthy crowd of cars waiting around for a turn. The birthday boy gave my daughter an ice cream bar using a “Go Go Gadget Arm” tool and this (the ice cream) was literally the much-discussed treat of her day. We left with a honk, as other friends came up for their turn to say hi.

Second Quarantine Party: 12 Year Old Daughter

My daughter C started thinking about her birthday weeks ago, wondering what her options were, and how in the world she could make it fun.

She gave up immediately on coming close to the magic of last year’s birthday, when we took her and a small group of friends ziplining through the forest (heck, that was MY best birthday party ever!) – but she still wanted to find some way to make this depressing year memorable.

Her most recurrent comment to me during our planning time was, “Surprise me. I want to be surprised.” I appreciated that sentiment, but knew I needed to strike a balance to ensure my ideas were close to the ballpark of what she wanted.

I considered hosting a drive-through party for C, since I now had a few templates to build on, but she told me she was less interested in this than getting to see a couple of close friends.

Thankfully, while we’re still in quarantine, life has opened up a tiny bit to allow for “bubble friends” (a.k.a. “quarantine friends” – kids whose families we know and trust and feel comfortable socializing with now and then).

So, her party was an interesting hybrid of approaches.

I started with the most successful idea from my son’s party: the Candy Scavenger Hunt. I made a special date to take my daughter to the store with me (masked), and let her carefully pick out her top ten favorite candies.

(Parents, don’t underestimate how amazing this process alone can be. Remember the days of feeling like your parents controlled everything about your candy consumption, and the idea of picking out not one but TEN candies was like being invited to an exclusively-fun version of Willy Wonka’s Factory?) 

Back at home, I enlisted the help of my two younger kids in finding ten spots around and outside the home to hide the candy, and once again wrote some quick “doggerel” clues:

Just three more left! Can you find them?
Go back inside and head up the stairs.
Check the spot where our vacuum is hidden
And a candy will solve all your cares.

The hunt was once again a complete success, other than ants crawling into the sealed box of Milk Duds that had only been outside for a couple of hours. (Ew! She’ll get a re-do on that.) 

The night before her official birthday, we held what has now become a “traditional” Zoom party with our family members (we had also done this for Father’s Day and another cousin’s birthday in the meantime). This involved:

  • opening the presents everyone had sent C through the mail;
  • showing off the sweet treats C had picked out from the local bakery (see picture above);
  • doing an “All About C” quiz (turns out it’s really hard to guess a 12 year old’s current favorite song, or color, or activity);
  • ending once again with a real-life scavenger hunt (“Go and come back in 10 minutes”), with C assigning points for the most creative items.

I took some screen shots during the “party” – including, of course, a “funny face” one – and sent them to everyone as a “party favor”.

Finally, C had a sleepover with two close “quarantine friends”. They went swimming in the lake, had a dinner of C’s choice (yay for Trader Joe’s mini chicken tacos and potstickers!), ate an array of delicious (bakery-made) pastries, opened presents, and watched a movie (actually, two) before spreading out in sleeping bags on the living room floor and conking for the night.

This last part of her party – i.e., actually hanging out LIVE with FRIENDS – is the biggest indication that we’re in a new and different phase of this seemingly interminable pandemic. It’s a risk, but a calculated one, which all parents (aaaaaakkkkk!) are required to make these days.

Speaking of quarantine, one question on C’s Zoom birthday quiz was: “What are you MOST looking forward to doing once quarantine is over?”

Her response: “Having all my friends over for a huge sleepover!”

That can’t happen right now. In the meantime, we’re settling for the Next Best Creative Compromise.

And that process alone – coming up with viable alternatives when life hands you an avalanche of lemons – is undoubtedly a valuable one for all my kids to be living through.

 

Summer “Uncamping” During Pandemic Time


This has been an unusual summer, to put it mildly.

Prior to the pandemic, we very happily sent our kids off to fun and enriching summer camps each week, driving them all over town and a bit farther to allow them opportunities to play outside in unexplored spaces, wade in streams, make friends (both kids and counselors), learn about animals, tell new jokes, play games, construct glass art, sing songs, climb trees, and so much more.

This summer – other than one experimental day of outdoor art camp for my 7 year old (I was too nervous to continue) – we have been camp-free; or, as I’ve coined it, we’re “uncamping”.

So, my kids are at home – very occasionally hanging out with a few select quarantine-friends and family; biking and swimming; and spending a lot of time getting better at online gaming and virtual world construction.

I’m keeping our “schedule” (i.e., our “non-negotiables”) simple, flexible, yet semi-structured:

  • go to bed and wake up at a “reasonable” time (so far not a problem, given their ages; I anticipate more challenges with this as they enter their teen years);
  • eat three meals a day – including sitting down for a family dinner, which involves sharing “highs” and “lows” from the day;
  • get at least a little bit of exercise every day, in some fashion (ideally outdoors);
  • read for 20-30 minutes a day during DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time;
  • treat each other kindly and help each other out when appropriate.

    I’ve experimented over the summer with trying to add even more structure in:

    “Let’s do some art!”
    “Let’s do some math!”
    “Let’s do some music!”
    “Let’s do some science!”

    But, the minimalist schedule outlined above seems to be as much as I can manage without pushing on everyone’s nerves (including – and perhaps most importantly – my own).

    So, the art my kids do is on their own time and initiative, typically related to whatever online game they’re playing (i.e., designing new “skins” for their Minecraft avatars). The math they do relates to calculating how much online money they have left to spend on their games, how long it will take to save up for a certain coveted item.

    Etc.

    It’s hard to blame my kids for wanting to spend time in virtual worlds that allow them maximum flexibility, autonomy, and interaction (not to mention flying and magic!), when the real world has severely curtailed that to an unnatural degree.

    In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be back at work (thankfully, at home) while simultaneously overseeing my three kids’ online school schedules. Life will feel – and be – intensely exhausting and full once again.

    For now, I’m appreciating this chance to sit and stare out the window, reflect on life, and know that my kids are managing their pandemic time in a way that makes sense to them.

A Day’s Reading in Our Household

During these weird, semi-structured COVID-19 summer days, without summer camps to fill the time, my kids are expected to read for 20-30 minutes a day (depending on their age) during DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time.

Yes, I wish the amount of reading they did each day was more. And yes, it’s hard for me as a book-loving adult (and a voracious former kid-reader) to understand why this amount is even negotiated or questioned to begin with.

(Then again, when I was a kid during long summer days in the 1980s, I didn’t have a personal tablet or computer to distract me. I’m willing to bet a significant amount of money that I would be equally distracted by such amazing devices. )

So… What does this daily “required reading” look like for my 2E kiddos? I’ll share a bit below about the challenges and strengths for each of them, with the emergent theme that “gifted” does NOT necessarily translate into a kid quietly sitting and reading by herself for hours on end. (Well, that was me… but not my kids.)

  • C (my ~12 y.o. daughter) chooses to read weekly graphic novel serials on a site called Webtoons. She found this site herself, and loves it. The upside is she can get completely absorbed and read for hours (far beyond the minimum required daily reading time). The downside is that these stories aren’t vetted by anyone other than the website. The other day she stumbled on a new series that intrigued her while also scaring her. (Let’s just say… it involved death and killing in an unpleasant way.) She had a rough evening. BUT – we used it as an opportunity to talk about how there is a lot (a LOT) of deeply unpleasant stuff out there on the internet, and she will have to learn for herself when to turn away. This is an important life lesson, one I’m guessing most parents (including myself) would prefer to put off as long as possible, but… for us, it’s here.
  • D (my 10 y.o. son) is a neurodiverse kiddo and tends to prefer either factual books or series with a predictable format. For the past number of months, he has chosen the 39 Clues series as his go-to favorite. This is a perfectly fine choice, but I suddenly realized a few weeks ago that only being mid-way through the 6th book in the series, when he started the first one back in January meant… Wait, how much is this kid actually reading (or not) during his reading time? He loves timers, and I know he was actually setting one each day, but without me doing any kind of progress monitoring, there was – shall we say – a disconnect. A happy solution is that I recently talked with him about a schedule for getting through one book a week. We agreed he would split each book up into chapters, divided by 7, and he would commit to reading that many chapters each day. Lo and behold, he’s suddenly on track and reading what feels like a semi-reasonable amount! I still don’t know what kind of a shift this triggered in his head, but it worked and he’s happy, so – win/win.
  • My 7 y.o. daughter can read chapter books but has regressed (I know that’s a loaded term; I’m using it intentionally) to reading primarily pictures books and easy-to-read books during COVID. She adores Mo Willem’s awesome Elephant and Piggie series, and otherwise lately has been re-reading the same easy-to-read chapter book – Diary of a Pug: Pug Blasts Off (2019) – multiple times a day, many days in a row. As a kid, I myself obsessively read about a book a day, eagerly looking forward to how many new books I could check off my mental list. I considered an unread book an exciting mystery to be explored, with re-reading happening occasionally – but only for my most beloved books, and never as a default. But honestly – who am I to judge my daughter’s reading choices? I need to check that tendency. [UPDATE: I bought her the two sequels! She’s similarly obsessed.]

The other sustained reading in our household occurs at night, when my husband and I each read either to our son or our two girls (youngest, then oldest) every other night. Being read to before bedtime is a cherished memory from my own childhood, and is also a beloved ritual from my elementary school teaching days, when I would rarely let anything get in the way of reading a chapter or two to my students as they sat (mostly) rapt at the rug, listening and quiet (ah, quiet).

Read-aloud time at night with my own kids is a chance not only to engage in literary worlds with them, but to expose them to slightly more demanding or complex books they otherwise wouldn’t necessarily choose for themselves. My husband and I can talk them through challenging sections, and use the stories as a bridge for other topics that come up throughout the days and weeks and months.

Here’s what I’ve been up to during read-aloud time with my kids recently:

  • I just finished reading Beverly Cleary’s beloved Ramona Quimby series to my 7 y.o., who was instantly engaged and could relate to so much of what Ramona goes through, both struggles and triumphs, as she ages naturally throughout the books.
  • My 10 y.o. son and I just finished (finally! they’re long!) the fourth book in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time quartet, called Many Waters (1986). It goes in some unexpectedly adult directions, and I had to read carefully and cautiously between the lines at times – but he insisted on sticking with it, and it allowed us to continue our ongoing discussions of space, time, and existence, all as creatively conceived by L’Engle.
  • With my 12 y.o. daughter, we recently read The War That Saved My Life (2016) and The War I Finally Won (2019) (its sequel) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. These were significant not only for allowing her to discuss the brutal realities of World War II (war and violence have been a major trigger for her anxiety in years past), but to be able to compare a life of restriction for kids in WWII-era England with life now in COVID. We are obviously so much better off now, but she doesn’t know that from her own lived experience – and I sense it helped her to hear about other kids dealing with less-than-ideal (to put it mildly) life circumstances. These books also gave me an opportunity to talk with her about Hitler, genocide, and Resistance movements, including the fact that her own grandfather was a small boy on a farm in Nazi-occupied Norway when his dad was hiding Resistance fighters in the forest behind their house. She took in this information carefully and seems to be considering how it all relates to the fictional stories we just completed.

So, that’s a snapshot of reading in our house. All told, with DEAR and read-aloud time combined, each kid gets about an hour of “book reading” in each day.

It may not be as much as I’d prefer, but we’re making it work for our unique household – and as I put it into writing, I realize it’s more than it seems.

Meddling with Middle School: COVID 2020

In my last blog post, I shared a bit about what my (almost)12 y.o. daughter C is up to these days: basically, watching YouTube, playing Minecraft, and staying cozy in her room (with breaks built in for reading, eating, exercise, and socializing with her family). I’m glad she’s learning to self-regulate, especially knowing she most definitely struggles (like presumably all kids are these days) with feeling sad, lonely, and frustrated.

Middle school was going great for C last year as a sixth grader. I can confidently say she was thriving, in her own fashion. While it was a challenge to stay on top of work expectations for so many classes (one of her 2E designations is ADHD-Inattentive, meaning she struggles with executive functioning), she enjoyed biking to school each day, making new friends, getting to know her teachers, and feeling independent.

COVID-19 changed everything. (I wonder, if one were to Google that phrase, how many times would it come up in blog posts and articles from the last six months?) Suddenly, she was learning exclusively from home, in an uncertain format, with expectations severely curtailed. She had “problems with Zoom” (another common searchable phrase!) and quickly grew to hate it. She was uninspired by her science classes, which had shifted away from fun, hands-on experiments to reading about cells; frustrated about not being able to watch her math instructor give an algebra lesson in person; and sad about missing out on all the fun activities her beloved Social Studies teacher used to routinely engage her class in. (Yay, Ms. W! You are awesome!)

In the periphery of C’s 11-year-old life were two other siblings also dealing with the shift to online learning, a stressed-out mom, and daily bad news about a global pandemic. Needless to say, she was far from happy. I caught her staring out her window, sitting by herself, scrolling guiltily through her phone (she knows I get triggered by seeing too much of this), and sometimes struggling to fall asleep.

The photo I’ve included in this blog post is from the day we went biking to her school back in May. I figured it might cheer her up to take her old familiar route through the woods, see her school building, and say hello to the trees there. My plan was a nice try, but didn’t work; it just made her feel more sad for what she’s lost “thanks” to the pandemic.

We still take bike rides out in that general direction, but don’t go quite all the way – we stop before we can see the school. It seems that if school’s not in session, she’d rather not be reminded it still exists, in its skeletal (i.e., uninhabited) form.

So – cycling back to my previous post on what C’s currently up to, at the moment she’s in her room, a lot. (We’ve convinced her to mix things up by moving around the house into different rooms, and thankfully, she willingly does this.) I’ve reconnected with her former therapist and am so excited she’ll be having sessions again for a while! (Remotely, yes, but still…) C has concerns she doesn’t want to share with me – and, rightfully so. I just want to ensure she has support, somehow.

She occasionally draws (her latest creation is a Puppy Girl, a human-animal hybrid), but mostly seems to appreciate escaping into creative online fantasy worlds, sometimes with her siblings, sometimes alone, sometimes with new online friends she’s carefully vetted according to our discussions and guidelines. (More on that in another post.)  

Parenting is challenging under the best of circumstances. I got my Ph.D. from a top-tier university in 2006 and can honestly say that learning to become a parent in 2008 was much harder than the four years it took to get that degree.

Parenting during a pandemic has (for all of us) simply honed our skills that much more, whether we were looking for that challenge or not. I take solace in knowing, as Sebastian Junger (2016) writes regarding PTSD in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

“Shared public meaning gives [individuals] a context for their losses and their sacrifice that is acknowledged by most of the society. That helps keep at bay the sense of futility and rage than can develop…” (p. 97)

Although Junger is writing specifically about soldiers returning from combat, the comparison to the collective trauma we’re all experiencing (albeit differentially, yes) during this pandemic remains apt.

My hope is that we can collectively help acknowledge for kids that what they’re going through right now isn’t “normal”, reasonable, or something they need to suck up and accept – rather, it just “is”.

If my 12 y.o. daughter emerges from COVID-19 having retained  her sense of self and sanity, I’ll be a happy mom.

References:

  • Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: On homecoming and belonging. HarperCollins.
  • COVID-19 Memories? (“No, thanks, Mom.”)

    Today at lunch time I told my kids I wanted to help them fill out COVID-19 time capsules. (Like this one.) I’d been wanting to do this for months, and now seemed as good a time as any. We’re still here; COVID-19 is still here.

    I explained to them that time capsules are packets of information telling what their lives were like during these unique times, and that they would probably appreciate looking back at them years from now.

    Both my 7 y.o. daughter (I) and 10 y.o. son (D) essentially said, “No, thanks.”

    (Me): “Are you sure? You might want to be able to remember back on this weird time and what it was like. It will be over one day.”

    (Them): “No… I don’t really want to think about what life is like right now.”

    This was completely reasonable, and I had to respect their choice.

    My 12 y.o. daughter (C) wasn’t interested, either, but was willing to be the experimental “guinea pig” and report back to her siblings. I promised to actually do the work of writing down her answers, and just let her respond orally.

    As soon as we sat down in her room to get started, C gave a big yawn – no offense meant to me, but this just wasn’t her cup of tea.

    She immediately asked if we could do just one page a day.

    I countered by saying no, but we could definitely break it up into several days. We settled on this compromise, and got to work.

    My favorite response from her so far (from “Words to Describe How I Feel”) was her made-up word of kerplunctious (no idea how to spell this!). She immediately clarified for me: “That means meh or blobby.” Other words she offered up in this category included weird, angry, excited, nervous, and happy.

    In terms of what she’s learned the most from this experience (so far):

    “Some things that you take for granted may look even better when times are bad.”

    So true. She appreciates our family, our house, our neighborhood, and the lake we’re lucky enough to live by.

    Now that I’m done interrogating her, C is back to simply getting through the day, which for her means watching YouTube videos of people playing Roblox, playing with new friends on Minecraft, and staying cozy in her room.

    While these aren’t ideal ways to spend the summer, I’m glad she’s safe, healthy, and knows how to take care of herself during challenging times.

    This is a marathon. She needs to pace herself.