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!).

Why there is still value, even when you struggle to keep your child interested during an activity?

Click. Rattle. Plink. Click. Rattle. Plink. Click. Rattle. Plink.

It’s Week Seven of the “Shelter-in-Home” government mandate. This is what I’ve heard for 43 days. 

I promise I haven’t gone mad. 

(Yet…)

I lost the coffee table among hundreds of sharp, shiny, tiny clickable pieces of plastic. Every day is hours of listening to click, rattle, plink, and me trying my best not to sweep up a Disney Princess head, or a stormtrooper, or one of those minuscule dog bones. I don’t even have to tell you what I’m talking about now. You already know. Because you’ve most likely cursed loudly at least once today, because you stepped on one.

It drives me absolutely insane sometimes. But I can never stay mad. How can I? It is the source of hours and hours of joy (not to mention all the other great benefits of playing with them). And many of the fleeting precious moments of alone time I get is because the Wild One is clicking away, constructing a complex, great masterpiece with elaborate designs. It’s impossible to stay mad when the kid loves them so much. 

The BIG KID loves them a lot too. He’s a high school IB Language and Literature teacher and, therefore, spends a lot of his time working or preparing for his classes. Any spare time he has is spent building all sorts of things (sometimes it’s not even with the Wild One). Many Daddy-Daughter Dates are spent building. It’s their time, and I enjoy watching and listening to them bond over a shared interest. I rarely join them. Not because I don’t want to, it’s because they have so much fun together, and it’s so meaningful for both of them—it’s become their special thing. (Also, that’s MY precious alone time!)

We have our thing too. We explore STEAM projects, crafts, artworks and science experiments—and of course, being the feminist that I am, I love introducing the different women in history that have excelled in these fields. I am not an expert, and admittedly, I learn about the different concepts and skills as she learns them. It’s a lot of fun! Needless to say, I try to find different ways to bring up inspiring women in a way that will fascinate and spark her curiosities. So, when  Left Brain Craft Brain featured the Story Time LEGO Challenge, I thought it was perfect…I could introduce another inspiring woman, AND engage her in LEGO play (Also, I really, REALLY love a good activities challenge!)

The challenge is simple and fun: read a story, and then use LEGO to create something inspired from the story. Perfect, indeed. She chose Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty. We’ve read this book countless times and it never, ever gets old. It has provided many play-based, learning opportunities: we have explored what it means to be an engineer, and the different machines and inventions, and gadgets and gizmos that they create. We’ve explored the importance of being resilient and possessing positive dispositions, such as perseverance and self-confidence, and always following your instincts. We’ve explored the importance of family and how we will always support and encourage her endeavours. And of course, we’ve explored the strong female characters in the story. (Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack in this wonderful story.)

I directed her attention to the page with drawings of various  airplanes, which were piloted by pioneer female aviators. She was always attracted to the Lockheed Vega 5B airplane, “Red is my favourite colour,” she would explain. So, I told her the story behind it. In 1932 a woman successfully flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean in that red plane. Making her the first female to achieve such a feat. Of course, it was the amazing Amelia Earhart

“Let’s make the Lockheed Vega 5B out of LEGO!” I suggested. She looked puzzled for a moment, because as I’ve said, this is usually her thing with her dad. But then, wide eyed, she ran to the LEGO table and started collecting all the red bricks. I switched on the Disney karaoke and we started “engineering”. But alas, as soon as Into the Unknown came on, my Wild One ‘magically’ transformed into Elsa…and she was off, wrapped in a blanket shooting ice crystals from her fingers.

At this point, you can probably guess that I finished the rest of the Lockheed by myself. (Note to self: save the Disney karaoke for after the activity). I sat there on my own and clicked the bricks together (and it took waaay longer than expected!). And I just kept wondering. “Why couldn’t I keep her engaged in this?” She spends hours doing this with her dad. I felt a pang of jealousy (just a teeny tiny bit).

I finished the airplane. Placed it on the table and waited for her. Even though she lost interest in building the airplane with me, her reaction was still satisfying. She was so happy. I looked on as she placed a princess mini figure in the cockpit and zoomed around the room with fervor, “Yay! Amelia Earhart is flying across the Atlantic Ocean. BY HERSELF. That’s so awesome!” She continued to zoom, spin and skip dizzyingly, as I watched her narrowly missing obstacles in her way.

LEGO brings much joy. For most all of us.

Just before she went to sleep, we read the Amelia section of the book HerStory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook Up the World. She was thoroughly fascinated, “Can I be the first to do something science? Amelia Earhart really liked flying, but I think I like science more than flying.” My heart skipped a beat. It happened. She was inspired. A breathed a sigh of relief and I tucked her into bed.

I reflected on the day and what had transpired. I realised that it’s not that she didn’t want to play LEGO with me, it’s just not our thing. She stayed engaged while we were reading stories, and played happily being a Disney Queen, she demonstrated her learning through play using something I built for her, and more important, she was inspired by a strong, feminist icon. These things are OUR things. And I am so, so happy with that. 

So, whenever you’re spending time with your child, remember: there is an opportunity to learn with every story, with every game, and with every playful moment. And Even if they don’t seem interested, it’s just their own way of processing what you are teaching them. Just keep on doing what you do. It is definitely worth your time. And it’s time that they will treasure forever. As Amelia Earhart said…

….“The most effective way to do it, is just to do it.”

You never know—you might be raising the next, great pioneer!

Happy 10th Chinaversary to me!

Today marks my tenth Chinaversary. It’s no secret the most significant event I’ve experienced throughout my decade in China is motherhood, but second to that is the journey that led me to working with infants and toddlers and Montessori.

“I don’t know how you do it…I wouldn’t last a day!”

I hear this all the time and I always ask, “why not?” Often people have never really thought about it, nor asked themselves what exactly it is about young children that is so baffling or scary that they would never dare consider working with them. They just believe they do not have the patience for it. I hate to admit it, but once upon a time I was absolutely that person. Seven years ago if you were to ask me if this is where I saw myself in the future, my answer would have been a resounding NO…

…but here we are.

In 2011, I worked for a young, expatriate couple who had a two year old daughter and they changed my whole perception of family life. The parents were smart, beautiful, and both had successfully climbed to the top rung of their respective journalism ladders. But perhaps the most amazing thing to me was how much and they travelled and how easy they made it seem with a two year old—who was inquisitive with an energy that never slowed [I was exhausted just looking at this child, seriously]. I had always been told that children and travel do not mix and so, I said I would delay having a child for a few years. But I found myself being more and more curious about children as I continued to work for this couple. And so, I began to study child development.

While studying, I had the good fortune of witnessing for myself the wonderful milestones and the developments of infants and toddlers. It was so fascinating to observe all the transformations occur in their physical, cognitive, socioemotional and language skills. I began to understand children and I started to recognise the different ways they learn and the different ways their minds perceive different situations. It was also satisfying to successfully apply the skills I had acquired through the studies. It changed the way I interacted with children. I found myself becoming more empathetic, patient, and generally, just happier to be around them. I had gained an understanding of children that made it a pleasure to work with them—even on those really difficult days, when the cries would cut through you like a hot knife on butter, there was always something to be thankful for because I began to view the world through their eyes; I had gained their sense of wonder.

Now we fast forward seven years and I have devoted many years to studying children. I continue to practice my craft and I continue to find new ways of understanding them and so when people ask me, “How do you do it?” I simply say it’s because, “I want to.”

Thank you, China, for letting me discover what it means to truly love your work.