Tired of being ignored by your small human? How a to-do list solved my quarantine parenting problems…100 days later.

In my previous life as a nursery owner and teacher of fabulous kids, I spent the majority of the past eight years creating activities and planning crafts for children. But even with that experience under my belt, I panicked when I learned about the school closure. Even though the Wild One is very independent, and often finds ways to keep herself busy…she also has the energy of ten olympians and the curiosity of a mad scientist—any long stint at home makes her stir crazy (there’s a reason I call her the Wild One).

Heck, it makes anyone go stir crazy.

So, when the school closure turned into the government mandated, military enforced quarantine, a little seed of panic firmly planted itself in my brain and started to bloom. The thought of no school, no swimming classes, no gymnastics, no playgrounds, no Menú del Dia deliciousness, no sunday mercado, and no play dates sent me in a bit of a mood. How was I going to expend all her energy if we weren’t allowed to go outside our gate? I spent the first day grumpily slamming doors and cupboards. I sighed and pouted and paced all around the house. I was frustrated and easily irritated, and all around pretty unpleasant to be around. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to spend any time with my daughter…

…it was just that I’d really grown accustomed to my alone time (and now I would have her and my husband with me 24 hours a day!). I realised that I was grieving the uninterrupted moments of time. I was grieving all sorts of things I used to do alone. My morning routine, cleaning the house, listening to my podcasts, watching bad TV, learning Spanish and eating. Not to mention, I had recently found a belly dancing school, and had started some fitness classes. In one television announcement by the President of Peru, it was all gone.

Now we’re on Day 100 of shelter-in-home, social distancing, self-isolation, lockdown, or quarantine (or whatever creative name you’ve come up with, I personally like Groundhog Day) and our days go a little like this: wake up, re-enact scenes from both Frozen movies, eat breakfast while watching Sci-Show Kids, make a to-do-list, brush teeth, get dressed, construct some LEGO, eat second breakfast, look at school work, zoom sessions with teachers, construct with DUPLO, go on a virtual art expedition (Thanks YouTube!), read a book, elevenses, finish school work, make art or do a science experiment, eat lunch, read a book, re-enact the whole story of The Lion King, draw, Disney karaoke, eat dinner, shower, brush teeth, pajamas, brush her Rapunzel length locks, read stories, cuddle, talk about how much we want to travel again, talk about Covid-19 again, supper (Aka “May I have a snack, please mama, I’m hungry” just before I turn the light off. EVERY. NIGHT.) and finally, if I’m lucky she goes to sleep. Only to wake up and start it all over again the next day, like being on a permanent loop.

I never knew staying at home could be so exhausting. I know many, many of you are going through the same existence, dealing with even more difficult situations, and possibly pulling your hair out…and  who can blame you? Chakka Khan sang, “I’m EVERY woman. It’s  all in me!”  I am now firmly convinced she was being  quarantined with small humans who apparently have the same eating schedules as hobbits, and therefore, she had to prepare different snacks and meals multiple times a day, which meant she had to do the dishes and clean the kitchen multiple times a day. And then she had to get them to complete their school work, and plan fun and engaging activities to stave off restlessness, and the inevitable groans of boredom.

So, how are we doing?

Charlie, like most of your children I’m sure, likes to be in charge. She likes the idea of controlling her environment and making her own decisions and decisions for others. And for the most part, I play along, and provide as many opportunities as I can (within reason) for her to make her own decisions—because I believe it’s important for emotional development. I’m a firm believer of children’s capacity to make the decisions that will determine their future as they discover the many wonders of the world by following their own instincts through play and self-discovery. Yet, there are things humans instinctively desire but sometimes the natural environment prevents the acquisition. 

Thus, came my struggle. I had a child who desired to control her environment, and I had me, who wanted peace in this—now ever shrinking—environment, and to make sure it meets the individual needs of the household…all while homeschooling.

Well, I figured out my problem and now I had to find a solution. It wasn’t easy, especially from my hideaway in the closet…

(Ha! Just kidding. There is no escape!)

For a few days (okay, maybe weeks) I lost  sight of what respectful parenting looked like. And so, we fought. I was short-tempered and we were both stubborn. She is her mother’s daughter, and so we had battles, upon battles, upon battles and I was sick of trying to make her do things. After days of frustration, tears and so much guilt, I picked myself up and reminded myself that I am the adult in this relationship. I can control my behaviour and I can control my reactions to situations. I have learned how to emotionally regulate (I still debate this at times, but let’s just say I have). The Wild One has yet to learn all these skills. She is four years old, and it is my responsibility to help her work through her big emotions by identifying her feelings and find ways to get past the frustration. And in turn, help to keep my sanity… so that every woman in me can work together harmoniously in this crazy lockdown time-loop. 

The solution? Meet her needs. Sometimes I really need a reminder that it’s just that simple.

She wanted control, so I gave her control….with limitations (of course! I’m not insane). Every morning we watch/read all the tasks she has for school. Then I tell her about all the other activities I have planned for the day. Next, we create a To-Do List, and she decides the order that she wants to do all the activities, but with a caveat that the school work must be completed before dinner time. Then she makes her way down the list at her own pace, ticking tasks off as she completes them throughout the day, all while still making time for “non to-do-list play”. Thus, fulfilling her need for decision-making and the need to have a sense of control. It also provides her with a sense of accomplishment and makes her feel very responsible for her day. She doesn’t always complete her list, but she does work very hard at it, which is what we encourage the most, because in our home it’s the process, not the end result, that we celebrate. That said, I’m happy to report she completes all her school work before lunch time, which gives us the rest of the day to make, create and experiment.

And now it’s time for a funny anecdote… 

…A few nights ago I was complaining to my husband about how the Wild One frustrates me when she tells me, “I’m not ready to do that yet. I’m busy.” And he laughed (the nerve!)….and said, “You created this person. You wanted her to be a strong-willed, independent person who stood up for herself and made her own decisions. You gave her the tools and educated her. You created this wild one.”

He laughed. Because it’s true. And I love it (most days!).

Covid-19 & Other Sensitive Topics: How to start the “tough” conversations

“Do we have to leave Peru now?”

The Wild One asked after I told her school was closed as a preventative measure for Covid-19 aka Coronavirus. She remembered our friends were not able to return to Beijing after their holiday and I could tell she was worried.

It’s in our parental job description to answer questions. Often they are really easy. Sometimes they are really difficult, and most of the time they are just plain awkward. Like the time Charlie asked her Nanay, “When will your baby come out of your belly?” My mother was not pregnant. (Oops!) Parents often ask how do you answer all their questions in a way that isn’t going to confuse, upset, scare or shock them.

Start with facts and end with the truth.

Though we limit and monitor what they see and hear about sensitive topics, children are still exposed to them in some capacity. They hear adults or older siblings having conversations, see the news on TV, hear a podcast, and even hear children talking on the playground. They are natural and keen observers and children are often listening more intently than we realise. And to process all the information they are receiving— and to gain a better understanding of the world around them—they ask questions. They are mini scientists, after all, and their purpose at this age is to continually explore and seek answers to their questions.

It’s not enough to simply monitor the things our children listen to, watch, or read. We must have the “tough” conversations about issues that are occurring in their immediate surroundings, as well as current global issues around the world…

…be it be Covid-19, racism, gender equality, women’s autonomy, politics, terrorism, bullying, guns, human rights, LGBTQI, or environmental issues. (The list goes on!)

I urge you to tell the truth. It doesn’t have to be long, or complicated. But it must be honest, and more important, age appropriate. Approach sensitive topics with honesty and without bias. This means being objective. We need to provide accurate information that is factual and without judgements.

A statement like “Chinese people have Covid-19” is highly subjective, because not every Chinese person has Covid-19 (also, a fear mongering, sweeping generalisation!).

But, “Covid-19 is made up of germs and they are spread from people to people by coughing or sneezing. That’s why it’s important to always cover our mouth and nose when we cough or sneeze”, accurately describes the situation by providing factual information without judgement.

Covid-19 is scary! Judgement only adds unnecessary stress and panic. Admittedly, I found myself tracking its progress from country to country (not-so-secretly hoping that it would never reach Peru). Not to mention mass media hysteria, racist sentiments, hand sanitizer theft and people starting brawls over toilet paper (I’m looking at you, Australia!)

The world has indeed gone mad with fear!

But there’s no need to bring fear into our homes. We just need to tell the truth using open and honest conversations, because children will ALWAYS be curious about what’s happening around them. It is essential to show young children that we acknowledge that they possess the capacity to understand even the most difficult sensitive topic.

So, to answer her question. “No, I don’t think we need to leave Peru. But you can’t go to school right now because we are trying to prevent Covid-19 from spreading to more places.

Here she is explaining what she knows about Covid-19. We had a calm discussion and I provided facts that she could process. She didn’t panic, she didn’t get scared and she wasn’t upset. In the end, having more information has helped ease her anxiety.

As Dr. Montessori said,

“The child has a mind able to absorb knowledge. He [or she] has the power to teach himself [or herself].

Creating positive communication fosters trust and demonstrates that you recognise your child’s capacity to be their own teacher. They gain appropriate skills that will enable them to engage in conversations about other sensitive topics. Giving them the confidence to continue to explore and seek answers, which encourages their intrinsic curiosities that feed the inherent scientists within them. Thus, helping them to think critically, which will help them make educated decisions.

Once you get through the first sensitive topic, the rest of them will be just as easy to navigate—thus, fostering a stronger bond with your child, which will last a lifetime. (You’ll be extra thankful when your child is a teenager!)

USEFUL LINKS :

For more information on Covid-19 download the World Health Organisation’s situation report.

Here is a great read-aloud to share with your children about Covid-19.

NPR’s A Guide: How To Prepare Your Home For Coronavirus

The Incredible Communication Learning Machine: A tale about a parenting obsession

Who remembers the PC game called The Incredible Machine?

If you were raised in the 90’s, and had access to a PC, you mostly likely played this game. Most probably at school during “computer classes” when you were supposed to be doing typing exercises, but instead had a separate window opened with the game in the background. This game’s purpose was essentially to create a series of Rube Goldberg Machines.  If you’re not familiar with a Rube Goldberg Machine it’s a contraption that performs a simple task in a very complicated way. The game provided endless hours of fun!

Anyway…you’re probably wondering why I’ve taken you down nostalgia lane. Hit play. (I promise it’s worth it!)

I love watching this video of Charlie explaining her Rube Goldberg Machine (which she constructed all on her own. So proud!), because it’s hard to believe that a mere four years ago I thought her only form of communication was through a series of cries and squeaks. Quite a difference from the mile-a-minute chatty girl she in the video. I laugh at myself sometimes because I was so worried about her learning to communicate. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but parenting leads to obsession…

…and this was my parenting obsession.  

From the moment Charlie was born I had a goal. (Keep the tiny human alive!)  My goal was to develop language and communication skills instantly. Tall order, I know considering she was literally a minute old. But this thought had been brewing in my head for nine months and it stuck. I was obsessed. I wanted to start communicating with her as soon as humanly possible. I wanted to know EVERYTHING about her. What she was thinking. What she was feeling. What she wanted. What she needed. What she liked. What she disliked. Why she wasn’t sleeping. What was making her cry. What was making her smile. What was fascinating on the ceiling. What was going through her mind. 

Did she dream? What did she dream of? Does she know who I am? Does she recognise my voice? Does she recognise my face? Could she really tell me from another person?

Yep, I was obsessed with my child.

I read textbooks and articles on baby cues. I downloaded child development apps. When she was two months old, I hauled her for an hour in an Uber to the other side of Beijing to take an introductory baby sign language course. I baby signed and signed and signed as much as I could, teaching her “Mum”, “Milk” and “More” I devoured anything written about child development—they all said reading aloud is key to promoting language. This is something we had been doing since she was two hours old. I remember drifting in and out of sleep in the hospital the first night she was born and seeing my husband reading her one of his sci-fi novels. It was the sweetest moment ever.

Until one morning when she was about five months old I heard “Mum-mummm-ummm-mumm!” THIS WAS THE SWEETEST MOMENT EVER. I was feeling groggy from the millionth hour of having broken sleep since, well, pregnancy. But this sound, this utterance…it woke me. It shook my core with excitement. She was talking! My baby, the smooshie blob that my husband and I created, was TALKING! (Ahhh…new mothers, gettin’ excited about literally anything their new child does, amiright?)

I picked her up and inhaled her scent, as I always did every time I was near her. It was glorious. I loved her new baby scent. “Good morning, little Pipsqueak! Are you calling for me?” I beamed at her and she looked at me with those beautiful, big eyes and I melted. She was a human and my human’s first word was “Mum!” I obviously took it as a clear sign of me being the favourite (Ha!). My husband will argue that she was simply babbling, but I was not accepting this. She said “Mum” and that was that.

But then she didn’t say it again for a really long time. Instead, she developed what my husband and I called the “Doon, doon”. It didn’t matter if we were asking a question, making a statement, playing with her, or being stern…all her responses were “Doon, doon”. She would play with other kids and have conversations with them saying “Doon, doon, doon?” When we traveled (this child has traveled a lot!), flight attendants would find her so amusing, “Hello there!” they would greet, and she would reply, “Doo-oooon, doon!” with a wave. She would even have conversations with herself  while playing alone or looking in a mirror, and her intonations changed depending on what she was trying to express. She would mimic our words and translate it into “Doon”. It was her own private language. After a while we found it adorable, and in her own little way she was expressing ideas and exploring emotions. She was our miniature, cuter version of Hodor (without the horrible Game of Thrones backstory and magical body possession, of course).

While “Doon, doon” was great, it still caused many, many frustrations because she was clearly trying to tell us things but we would still have to guess what exactly she wanted. Then when she was 10 months and finally signed “Milk” our lives changed…This was it! We had a way to communicate where we didn’t have to guess what she was trying to say. She signed “milk”. I  gave her milk. She drank it. Everyone was happy. I started signing more and more words with her, and soon pretty much everything we did we incorporated baby sign language. Songs and chants were even more fun!

It was also around this time that the “Doon, doon” started to wane. I was surprisingly really sad about this. With every new phase your child enters, you say goodbye to the baby. My husband and I decided from the beginning we were one and done…and so this was it—our only chance to enjoy the infant stage. It was coming to an end and all of a sudden it felt as if it only lasted a few days. But I knew we were about to enter a new phase. I was so excited for this phase. I had been working at Kids’ Planet Hutong for years learning valuable skills, tricks, and researching resources. I had also been studying to become an early childhood teacher, but really it was impromptu Mama Training. Toddlerhood was going to be where I shined as a mum.

So, toddlerhood was upon us and that meant a new phase of language development (among a series of other developmental gains, of course). This was my goal after all. She was about to develop a voice and along with this voice was emergent self-awareness, agency and independence. It would mean that she would start recognising her likes and dislikes and form her own opinions. She would start recognising if she felt uncomfortable, frightened, or frustrated. She would start recognising her family and gain a sense of belonging and security. And of course, she would start understanding what the word “love” truly meant—not only would she begin feeling love, but she would feel us loving her. Thus, helping her to develop into a resilient and confident young girl, because she would feel secure and self-assured. And with that, always feel comfortable to use her voice and express her ideas. More important, she would begin standing up for herself.

Now, we fast forward to four years old. Gone are the days of trying to guess what she’s trying to say. Again, it seems a bit silly now to have been so obsessive about Charlie learning to communicate, because I realised (well, I learned through the brilliant Dr. Montessori) that this Wild One has always communicated with me, even in utero. Because I have always communicated with her. When I was pregnant I sang songs and if I stopped she would kick rapidly. I shone a flashlight on my belly and she would wriggle towards the light. I would eat something delicious and she would wobble around (kinda like she does now when she eats ice-cream). I realised that communication has always been solid between us. 

According to Dr. Montessori, the way in which parents respond to babies cues in the early stages of infancy translates to emergent communication skills later in early childhood. As parents, it is imperative that we do not assume what our babies need when they cry, because this tells them they are not valued when their cues are misunderstood. It’s been well documented that babies communicate by crying, and each need is signified by a cry that differs in tones (Just in case you needed a reminder because parent-brain is real.) I’ve heard time and time again, “Babies all sound the same when they cry”, but my time as a nursery teacher at Kids’ Planet Hutong has given me a special super power that enables me to recognise a (most!) babies’ specific needs. 

Don’t panic!

You will also gain this super power. You simply need to watch and listen to your baby and respond positively. You will learn to recognise your baby’s cues, and how you respond to these cues will determine the progress of your child’s language development. So, the point here is…respond positively and in a timely manner to your child’s cues and it will foster feelings of value and self-worth.

But fostering communication skills is a double-edged sword.

On one edge, I’m not going to lie, sometimes I wish I hadn’t encouraged her to voice her opinions quite so loudly, because it’s often a struggle when she has an opinion on everything. I just want her to eat her dinner, or put the jeans on, or put sunscreen on, or let me use the red crayon without argument. But that’s Fournado…it’s hard, so, so hard. The days and nights can be long difficult. But the method remains the same. Respond to her cues positively, and she will remain positive.

But on the other edge, her communication skills show us that she definitely possesses value and self-worth.

She shows us every day that she is confident and self-assured. From the way she speaks, to the things she says, in the way she confidently retells stories she’s heard, read, or watched. She enjoys making her own stories and creating worlds. She sings constantly and dances the day away. She definitely walks to the beat of her own drum—sometimes very literally. She loves The Lion King, science, Frozen and queens, in that order. As you can see, she loves to build. Everyday she builds something new. She’s industrious and resourceful, and anything and everything has the potential to be constructed. Language is always present in her play—that is, there is always a story, a reason, a purpose to each creation. 

I truly believe this edge is the sharper edge. 

It’s the edge that gives her a voice. A big, loud voice. That enables her to speak and be heard. We all know that it is very important to let children explore and communicate their emotions, as well as explore the things that make them feel comfortable or uncomfortable. Because the sooner they recognise these feelings, the sooner they can develop agency and start advocating for themselves. They will understand what it means to be respected, and be respectful. To steal a quote from Sven of Arendelle, “You feel what you feel and your feelings are real.”  Don’t deny your children of learning that they are allowed to have bad days too. So, let your children have a voice and always encourage them to speak up. 

If Charlie has something on her mind I want her to say it. And if it’s wrong, impolite or just strange, it doesn’t matter, because that’s how she learns. My husband and I will always be there as her moral compass and guide her to make good decisions…”Just do the next right thing. Yep, that’s from our good friend Anna, also of Arendelle! (We really love Frozen. And yes, I broke out into song when I wrote that! Click on the link, you know you want to.)

So, here we are at the conclusion of my parenting obsession.

Much like Charlie’s Rube Goldberg Machine, I metaphorically jumped over the fire, aka newborn phase, and headed straight for obsession, then knocked over the proverbial ball of, the sometimes confusing and frustrating, baby cues, which rolled and rolled and rolled into the baby sign language phase, and then crash landed into the sensitive period of language pit, and got hit with a drumstick of realisation…

…I took a series of long, and at times, complicated steps to perform the simple task of helping my daughter foster effective communication skills.