Homeschooling Preschoolers in a Multi-Age Setting

One of the things that we love about homeschooling in our family is that the lessons can be customized to suit the individual needs of a particular child.  Yet how does one homeschool several different children in a family - most of whom are too young to work independently - while still ensuring that all of the children's individual needs are met?

It does not always work perfectly for us; sometimes the ideal and the practical do not meet.  When I need to concentrate on helping the only "registered" homeschooled child in our family (the now-7-year-old, Charlotte), I find something to distract the younger children.  There are days when my 2-year-old (James) and 3-year-old (Josephine) are occupied by PBS programs on the computer while I tutor my oldest and nurse Thomas, the baby.   We also have a collection of toys and projects and busy bags that do keep the little ones occupied for awhile.  Further, we are teaching the 3-year-old how to read so that she can do more work independently and eventually read for her own pleasure.  This is not an ideal situation by any means, but sometimes necessary with more than one child.

That said, there are some days - some magic moments - when everything does come together nicely, and all of the kids are learning simultaneously in the same room (while the baby watches or sleeps).  While most of our homeschooling energies do go towards helping Charlotte, I feel that it is critical to keep the younger children involved and "schooled" in their own activities.  Plus, part of homeschooling is about keeping strong family bonds, so getting the kids to work together and help each other is crucial.

We call our preschool portion of the day "circle time" as it reflects how we gather.  Josephine chooses the theme for the week; these lessons are geared towards her, as Charlotte has her own separate curriculum. Charlotte assists or simply participates as much as she wants, and I allow her to choose how she does this.  James participates when his attention span allows, but he always stays in the room to at least be surrounded by what we are doing.

I will give you an example from today, from the "circle time" part of our morning. 

Our theme this week is Fish.  We started by announcing that it is circle time and then doing a circle dance together to center ourselves.  We then read a nonfiction book about the octopus (science) and a fiction book where fish were the main characters (literature).  Charlotte read a book to her siblings.  At this time, James started to lose interest (we got a late start), and so he went over to his alphabet puzzle and began playing with it and checking in with me, which was fine.

Charlotte reading "The Rainbow Fish" to siblings.
Storytime then morphed into an exciting interactive discussion.  We talked about what we learned regarding the octopus, and we remembered what happened when we went to the aquarium and saw some real octopus.  We counted the legs of the octopus with James to reinforce counting concepts.   [I quizzed Charlotte about the names of the oceans, reinforcing our geography lessons from her own curriculum.]  We talked about how the octopus defends itself against predators, and what predator meant.  We talked about how the octopus has no bones, and neither does the shark; at this time, both Charlotte and Josephine then discussed which fish they thought would have bones vs. no bones.  Charlotte then reminded her siblings that they had learned that our bones bend at the joints, and they named some joints together.

We are currently working on writing and spelling with Josephine, so she got out her magnet doodle board to learn her words of the day.  She learned to write "fish" yesterday, and "water" and "shark" "eel" and some other words today.  [Earlier in the week, Josephine had studied words with "sh" sounds.] Charlotte got out the chalkboard and began suggesting other "fish" names for Josephine to practice writing.  This also helped Charlotte with her spelling and vocabulary as we thought of names together.  After this, James started to get cranky, so we ended our "circle time" in order for me to prepare him for a nap.

Josephine writing "shark" in upper and lower cases.
Later this week, we might watch kid-friendly documentaries on fish, and we will read some more fish books.  I also plan to play "Go Fish" with Josephine today in order for us to learn more about counting by twos (math) and keeping score (math).  I also plan to do at least one new writing word per day, in keeping with the theme.  We will also continue to sing "fish" songs and make pictures of fish throughout the week.  Each day will look different depending on our collective mood and time constraints.

Basically, the gist of this is that the older siblings have things to teach the younger siblings, and they usually love doing it.  Even the youngest siblings can be involved, even if they are not active participants throughout.  With most themes, there are many different options that can keep the interest of all ages.


Homeschool update

It has been a long time since I posted something about our homeschooling efforts. Our approach has changed a few times, and frankly, due to time limitations and my exhaustion from the recent pregnancy, our homeschooling has been far less structured this year. A few updates: We joined a fantastic homeschool cooperative for preschoolers. Each month, we study a different theme, such as safety, or the ocean. It has been a wonderful opportunity for all of the kids, especially Josephine, who is three years old, to bond with a small group of peers and learn skills with them. We also have special outdoor adventure days, which gives the kids the chance to have some free play in a natural setting. Charlotte began to take gifted enrichment classes each week at our local public elementary school. She was tested last fall and qualified as a gifted student, and the guidance counselor and the classroom teacher were able to work out an education plan for her. This class has a focus on science, math, and technology education, so the kids do experiments and learn how science and technology connect. Charlotte is the youngest student in the class; she already had friends from our neighborhood there, and the kids made her feel very welcome. We are excited to begin again in the fall! We chose to do our annual homeschool assessment - required by state law - as a standardized test, rather than through a certified teacher. Charlotte took the Iowa Basic Skills Test at the school and had a good experience with it.


Some Truths, According to Melinda

[This should be subtitled: "Things That Change When You Have Four Young Children, One of Whom Is a Newborn, in the House" or something like that.]

Greetings, readers!  Since I last updated this blog, we have added a new person to our household: Thomas John, a precious baby boy.  He was born by a relatively uneventful scheduled C-section.  I promise to post his birth story here sometime, but with that, I would need to also post the very late birth stories of our other children, to be fair.  (For the record, my oldest thinks that they all should be nicknamed: Lottie, 6, Josie, 3, Jimmy, 21 months, and Tommy, 5 days.  Stubborn mama still calls them all either by their full first names, or by "sweetie" or "love" or some other term of endearment.)

In the interest of saving time on this rare, quiet morning (big kids with their father, baby asleep), I will launch into my new post of observations.  These are not Truths, but rather, Melinda's Truths.  In other words, these are strictly my opinions, of course.

1. Recovering from a C-section sucks.  

To be fair, my recovery is actually going well.  I was released from the hospital after two days, and I started to walk around as soon as possible.  (My aunt, a rehabilitation nurse, advises this.)  This week's experience has been much better than my last C-section, which was also my first surgery ever.  At that time, I was thrown for a loop about what "surgery" meant for my body (ouch), and I ended up needing a blood transfusion.  I foolishly didn't take any pain medication afterwards last time, and I don't know what I was thinking!  (I wasn't trying to be a hero; I think I was worried that the pain meds would negatively affect the baby.)  This time, I was prepared about what to expect, and things have gone more smoothly. 

I am taking Ibuprofen on schedule, and that really takes the edge off the pain.  The heavy, prescription pain medications like Percocet make me feel loopy, nauseous, and constantly sleepy.  I guess that would be okay if all I needed to do was sleep, but with children in the house, I can't really afford to sleep all the time.  I took a nap on my first day back from the hospital, and none since.  I foresee another nap in my future maybe in 3-5 years. (Insert laughter here.)  I just need a drug that will make me feel well enough to move around and not hurt, so Ibuprofen, with its anti-inflammatory properties, does the trick.

I guess my point, though, is to compare a vaginal birth experience with a C-section experience.  A vaginal birth has its downsides (bad contractions, unknown duration, soreness in the nether region, et cetera), but the recovery is a breeze compared to recovery from surgery, at least in my limited experience.  With my vaginal births, I actually went on the subway - and hiked around a lake, for crying out loud - within the first 3 days.  Perhaps those were taking things a bit too far, but it shows the difference.  With surgery, I feel like I've been hit by a truck when I wake up.  My incision hurts badly.  My abdomen is sore.  I have trouble bending, rising, and walking.  I feel delicate all over. 

But this too shall pass.  I made the decision, and things are going as well as can be expected.  I'll deal.

2. My husband is my parenting partner first, and my romantic partner second.

I know: we should make my marriage a top priority.  I covered that subject in the last blog post.  However, my husband and I - technically, with five kids that share our last name, and five birth experiences total - are wise enough now to know that romantic "couple time" will come eventually.  Right now, we're in survival mode.  My football-wise friends have compared it to us playing one-on-one with two kids to playing zone defense with four kids at home. 

Basically, we have to take turns with everything.  I am on baby duty all night, and that is understood.  This is because I have all of the nursing equipment.  He is on big-kid duty all night, and that is understood. This is because he can easily get up to help them, and it currently takes me about five minutes to hoist myself out of bed, and that is only if the baby is still asleep.  I have our big, cushy bed, and my husband has the living room couch.  (With six people and three bedrooms, there is no "spare" room in the house.) 

Just in case you think that I have the harder job, I will tell you this: I nurse the baby and fall right back to sleep every time.  Baby is happy, and I get a full night's sleep.  However, my husband never knows when our toddler might wake up for hours on end (yikes), as has been the case during this transitional week, or when our preschooler might cry out during the night.  On top of everything, my husband is a light sleeper and always has trouble getting back to sleep.  So really, I have the easier job, at least for the time being.

In a sense though, this whole experience is kind of romantic. It's a dance, and we take turns leading.  During quiet moments, we both coo over the baby, or we share a funny story about the kids.  During loud moments (most of the time), we see what needs to be done, and we do it.  If one of us snaps at the other, it's understood: this is a stressful job.  It's okay.  We still love each other.  It would be a bad sign, I think, if one of us were to completely disengage from the process and not understand what the other is going through.  So for all the time that I complain that my husband doesn't do as much as I want him to do (or more aptly, exactly how I want him to do it), I must admit, he's a wonderful dad, and he's great with the dance.  He also makes a mean cup of coffee.

3. Bringing home a younger sibling is a different experience than bringing home one's first baby.

Obviously, by the time you have more than one child, you are more experienced, and you might tend to be a more relaxed parent.  But there are other, more subtle differences.  You have more than just a baby to worry about.  You also have to consider the physical and emotional needs of the older children, and how their need for attention actually increases during this time.  So, while you are exhausted from being the parents of a newborn, you have the daily demands of other child(ren) at home.  They still need to be fed, read to, taken places, seen, heard, and loved.  Children are the cure for laziness, even deserved laziness.  In short, I don't know how the Duggars manage to handle everything.  I am exhausted just thinking about it.

You also know how to distinguish the good advice from the bad.  You also know that it is impossible to completely spoil the children, because they all want all of your attention, and you simply can't accommodate that, so they need to be content and happy with what they can get from you, and from each other.  But that's the exciting part: they do get a lot from each other!  Older siblings have a way of growing up and becoming excellent helpers.  In fact, I think that's the best course of action: make older siblings feel special and wanted by having them know how needed they are.  You are the baby's parent, but you could never take the place of a sibling.  (P.S. The children are also far more likely to copy an older sibling than to listen to what a parent says, so keep this in mind for future reference.)

You also learn that most of the parenting magazines, while interesting reads, are mostly marketing tools for baby products that you don't need.  There, I said it.  They also follow a strict line about what the writers think should be normal, and they are geared toward a sort of average, mass appeal.  So in other words, don't worry if you don't have that piece of equipment that every parent is supposed to have.  Seriously, if you haven't used it, you probably will never need it.  Keep it simple. 

We've never had a crib.  We've used the same baby car seat for all of our kids, plus our two young nephews!  We reuse clothes, even between genders, and get almost everything secondhand.  Some of the baby equipment we had with the first baby - thinking that we might need it - has long been passed on to other homes.  Keep it simple.

4. Priorities really do change.

Sometime around the birth of my previous child, I decided that while my physical health was important, my physical appearance was way down on my list of priorities.  Yes, I will bathe and smile and try to dress myself, but I don't care about looking fashionable.  Heck, if I had time for that, then my house should also be cleaner, my kids should be happier, I should be having more sex, and I should have caught up with all of my correspondence.  We make time for the things that are most important to us.

Maybe in a few years, I'll look cool again.  Right now, I don't, and I am perfectly fine with that.  My husband is understanding, and he isn't going anywhere.  If anyone else makes fun of my socks or my lack of hairstyle or my bad skin, so be it.

I also don't understand the "I am bored" thing.  There is too much work to do to get bored!  Maybe I'm just getting old, but I think that we have enough free entertainment.  There is also not enough money.  We can raise four children on an adjusted annual income equal to 100% of the Federal Poverty Level - with no government or family assistance - because we try not to spend money on stuff that we don't need.  It's not quite as simple as that, but saving vs. spending really does help, and it makes life less complicated when it works.  Emergencies will always come up, and spending money on a whim never feels as good as being able to pay for an emergency without going further into debt. Just my two cents, so to speak.

Well, I could go on about my opinions on controversial topics, or the fact that all newborns look like my late grandfather, but I will let this be.  Many thanks for the gift of a healthy baby and a happy family.

Marriage: How I Stay Married

Okay.  Whew.

Let me just start by saying that I've been divorced before.  (Engaged at 16, married at 18, separated at 19, divorced at 21.  Did you catch all of that?)  My husband has been divorced before.  Heck, my own parents have - technically speaking - seven separate divorces between them.  (Okay, so they were married twice to each other, so maybe that doesn't count.)  All of my grandparents were divorced.  Even a great-grandparent of mine divorced his first wife.  Let's just say that I am very familiar with divorce.

Yet I love being married!  I believe in marriage.  I remember wanting to be married since I was a kid. In fact, I think that marriage is so awesome that I would wish it for everyone who would want it.  It's a precious gift to be so entwined and committed to another human being in a really genuine - and sometimes an emotionally, financially, and socially messy - way.  It's a gift to grow a family with someone, to grow old with someone, and to be united with someone whom you can count on (as much as you can count on anything in life) to love and cherish you forever.

But the question remains: now that I have found the most wonderful person to spend the rest of my life with, how do I keep that alive?  How do I prevent my marriage from becoming another statistic? 

As if I had all the answers to this.  (You're asking me, who's been divorced?  Ha!)  Well, here's how I do it... I do only what I know how to do.

1. Being grateful for my spouse. 

Rather than complaining about all of the stuff my spouse does or doesn't do, I've tried to accentuate the positive and see what he does do incredibly well.  It's not only the big things ("He's a great dad," "He's responsible with money and works hard," "He's very honest,"), but the little things ("He brings me coffee in bed every morning," "He does chores without being asked,"), or the not-often-noticed things ("He is law-abiding," "He respects women," "He doesn't get jealous," "He never criticizes my looks," and so forth).  Making a laundry list of my husband's good qualities makes me realize how awesome he is.  No, it doesn't mean that everything is perfect or that I should ignore the mistakes, but that, as a whole, I am extremely lucky.

2. Ignoring the small stuff.

So, my husband still leaves clothes lying around, and I am the one always putting away the laundry.  I also am always the one who cleans the bathroom, sweeps the floor, and organizes the closets.  Other than asking/reminding (not "nagging") him to do certain things, I can only shrug.  After all, I am the one who leaves him to cook a decent dinner, to wake up with the children in the morning, to clear out the jungle-like backyard, and to pick up wherever I left off, whether it's with washing the dishes or washing the kids.  If he can ignore the small stuff, then so can I.  The underlying message is: pick your battles.

3. Holding both of us to a high standard.

When I say this, I am not referring to the little things (see above).  I do mean a high standard when it comes to the big things, like being honest and respectful and loyal to one another.  Some things don't deserve compromise.  I wouldn't expect more of him than I would of myself. I think it's a sign of deep respect when you trust someone so much that you would expect the best.  Going along with this high standard: we have to insist on trusting each other to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.

4. Making my spouse my best friend.

Yeah, I know it's a dumb cliche, but bear with me.  I think that my husband is pretty darn neat.  I would admire him even if we weren't a couple.  He's smart, responsible, and kind.  He listens to everything I have to say, even if (I am sure) some of it must annoy him to death.  We communicate pretty openly; this leads to arguments, sometimes, but it also means that we also know where we stand with each other.  There is no guessing, no manipulating, no game-playing with us.  I actually really want to spend my free time with him, though not to the exclusion of other things that I enjoy.  In other words, he is my best friend.  That works well for us! 

The rules we break:

1. Not going to bed angry.

Whoops.  Yeah, that's happened.  We'll have a late-night argument.  He'll go to sleep, and I'll stay awake and pout in another room.  I am not suggesting that this is a productive or mature way of handling things on my part, but sometimes, sleep is really what people need.  The only thing worse than arguing is arguing when you are cranky and full of the burden of the long day.  When you can sleep on it and wait until morning to "finish" the argument, you might then realize how silly it was in the first place.

2. Putting your spouse above your children.

This is controversial because I have many friends who would disagree with me: they say that it's always important to put your spouse first, because after all, you will be with your spouse for a lifetime (and made a vow for that), and if you don't preserve your marriage, it could hurt the family anyway.  However, my position is that children should come first, period.  They didn't ask to be born, and they have very little choice in the decisions we make for them.  They are more vulnerable, and thus, we must always put their needs ahead of ours.  Fortunately, my spouse agrees on this, and never asks me to put him ahead of our children. Yes, my spouse and I still honor each other, but for us, it works best if we remember who needs us the most.

3. Being stereotypically "romantic" to keep the spark alive.

I guess it depends on what one defines as romantic.  If "romantic" means buying gifts for each other or dressing in sexy clothes or going for a weekend away, then we are horrible at being romantic.  Besides my engagement ring, I can't think of a single piece of jewelry that my husband has ever purchased for me, or any gift, for that matter.  However, what I define as romantic includes a good sense of humor, intelligent conversation over a cup of tea, being an awesome parent, and so forth.  Further, he designed and sewed (by hand) our wedding clothes himself, so I have to give him major props.  He also wrote me some really romantic poetry when we were dating.  (It was well-written!  Be still, my heart!)

4. Considering divorce as an option if things don't work out.

Honestly, even in those moments when I am really angry to the point of wanting to break something (rare, but it happens), I've never for a moment thought about divorce.  Really, I haven't.  We've never brought up possibly ending our relationship. Why even threaten something that we wouldn't want?  Things can't possibly be that bad. 

Yes, in some relationships, things have gotten that bad, and for those, it is appropriate (or even necessary) to consider divorce as a possible or preferable option.  (I am thinking of things like abuse, unrepentant adultery, major personality or criminal problems... you get the picture.)  But to divorce a good person who is my best friend?  I can't even wrap my head around that possibility.  In some ways, perhaps the past divorces have actually protected us... we don't ever want to go through that again.  Good marriage is too precious.

So, this is how we stay married: we love and honor our best friend.  We do the Golden Rule thing (or at least, we try).  We remember why we got married in the first place.  We make the best of things.  We listen to each other.  We stop trying to win the game, and just enjoy playing it.  We keep trying.


Fostering Close Sibling Relationships

My three kids - currently ages 6, 2, and 1 - are very close.  They often play, learn, read, eat, bathe, and snuggle together.  The girls share a bedroom, as will the boys (including soon-to-be-born baby boy).  I have homeschooling to thank for some of that, as they get a LOT of time together. 

In addition, I think that each child relishes and celebrates her/his role in the family.  For example, my oldest child loves to be the big sister.  She takes her responsibilities seriously and she will often insist on helping her younger siblings.  It's part of her very identity. That feeling has been passed down to the middle sister, who enjoys helping her younger brother. 

However, that does *not* mean that there isn't conflict, of course.  I can't think of any living situation in any household that completely lacks conflict, much less where young children are concerned.  After all, the siblings must share the attention of their parents and all of the resources of the home; that is hard to do, even for grownups.  In particular, the two little ones of mine are so close in age that they have to compete more for the same toys.

Sometimes, a bit of intervention is necessary.  I can think of at least three major ways in which parents can help siblings can nurture and foster their closeness in a family situation, no matter what the age difference.

1. Have the siblings each contribute to the household responsibilities.  I always say that if a child is old enough to walk, a child can help do chores!  Children should be given special, age-appropriate jobs that show that their role is important. 

So at our house, my 1-year-old helps pick up his toys, or I might ask him to throw something in the garbage can.  In addition, my 2-year-old also puts her dirty dishes in the sink, puts her dirty clothes in the laundry, and might help me wipe off a surface (and so forth).  My 6-year-old does all of the above, plus she might help me vacuum, sweep, dust, put clean laundry away, organize items, and more.  A formal chore chart will probably be put to use someday, but so far, we've handled it casually.

Not only is this helpful to promote the trait of responsibility, this has the added benefit of assuring older children that their younger siblings aren't getting off the hook just because they are younger!  (Equality is everything to a kid.)

2. Have the siblings help each other.  Please note that this is not to be confused with "have the older children parent the younger children" or any situation where any child is burdened with undue responsibility.  While I do expect the older children to help the younger children to an extent, I do not think that it's appropriate to have the older children help to the point of unfairness.  After all, our kids can't help their birth order... we chose to be parents, but they did not choose to be siblings.

That said, I think it's a wonderful thing when siblings choose to help, teach, and encourage one another.  My oldest daughter regularly reads to her younger siblings: an important job that they all enjoy.  She has also taken it upon herself to feed, bathe, dress, and otherwise "take care" of them.  She might also take her sister to the potty or get asked to play with her brother while I get something urgent done.  My oldest takes great pride in these jobs.  I know that if she ever resisted helping, that would be a red flag that she was doing too much or felt that she wasn't getting her own needs met. 

Encouragement is something that siblings of any age can give to one another.  For example, if an older sibling accomplishes something big, have the younger child(ren) celebrate this by cheering for the older sibling.  Model this encouragement and mutual respect, and it will come back tenfold.

3. Play games and do activities that will promote equal roles.  Google "cooperative" or "non-competitive" games to see some of the games that have been done that emphasize the importance of every role, rather than having the most "able" person win.  Given the different ages and talents of siblings, you can see how competition - even casual, inadvertent competition - can pull them apart.

One simple game has variations that can work with siblings from tots to teens.  It involves taking turns to finish a story.  Older children can do this by starting a made-up story and then passing it along to the other siblings (and parents, should they participate), back and forth. The "rules" are that the kids can't interrupt each other or make fun of the other's contribution, and that they need to take turns at a reasonable pace.  Otherwise, the story can take any path it wants!

I recently did this with my two girls using a felt board with story characters, but it could also be done as a chalk picture or a painting (like cooperative art).  They had to take turns, and they couldn't move what was already placed there.  In the end, the game morphed to where my 2-year-old was choosing the felt pieces, and my 6-year-old was explaining their context in the story.  Still, the end result was achieved: they both felt that they contributed to a creative story in their own ways.

You could also have games where the children build a structure together out of blocks, or rhyme each other's words, or make up an obstacle course together, and so forth.  You can also split chore duties - one could wash the dishes, while the other dries.  The possibilities are endless.

As I tell my kids, their siblings are their best friends for life.  They will be the ones to help them navigate growing up and growing older; they will be there for each other when mom and dad are gone.  They have a deep need to trust, love, and help one another.  That is non-negotiable. 

"Those who oppose PRAYER in schools are ENEMIES of America!"

I was in a parking garage this morning, preparing to go to a doctor's appointment, and I saw hundreds of other cars: old cars, new cars, big cars, little cars.  However, one car caught my eye: it was an older-model beige sedan that had on its bumper a single sticker, with black letters on a yellow background.  It read: "Those who oppose PRAYER in schools are ENEMIES of America!"

I scrunched my brow and gave this a moment of thought. It was a shocking message, almost Stephen Colbert-like in its extremism.  I tried to imagine what would lead a person to proudly display a single sentiment like that on his or her car.  The sticker didn't say that those who oppose prayer in schools were "wrong" or "misguided" - no, it called those people "ENEMIES" of our nation. Wow.

Did they mean enemies, like terrorists or seditionists?  For following the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?  *scrunching brows again*

But first, what about the Constitution? 

I first imagined that this person with the bumper sticker was probably a right-wing conservative, but frankly, most of my right-wing conservative friends are libertarians and defenders of the Constitution, and they would be quite happy to keep their government out of their religion. 

In our First Amendment, as we all (should) know, it says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
There are two facets to this: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.  The former is, basically, freedom from an imposed government-established religion, and the latter is freedom of religion, to practice the religion of your choice.  Both have their limitations in different circumstances - for example, I can believe in vampirism all I want, but I can't practice that as a religion if it involves hurting others - but both are explicitly protected in general circumstances. 

The Constitution was meant to be a limit on government, while upholding the rights of the nation's people.  We want a nation ruled by moral, but rational, law that honors the wishes of the majority while continuing to uphold the rights of the minority.  Once the government sticks its proverbial nose in religious practice, all kinds of bad things can happen.  What if the government decided that Scientology or Santeria was the way to go, or that those who weren't Christians were heretics who should be burned at the stake?  (Didn't the "war on terrorism" begin as a fight against a violent theocracy in a faraway land?  Or something similar, I am told?  But I digress.)

It's true that having prayer in the public schools is not exactly the same as having a state-sponsored or state-mandated religion.  However, it comes awfully close, which was why school-sponsored prayer time was taken away in the first place.  When school prayer was first practiced, we lived in a more homogeneous society.  Yet now, the United States of America is, more than ever, a pluralistic nation.  Yes, we are filled with self-identified Christians, and our culture is overwhelmingly Christian in nature.  But think of the many millions of people who do not identify as Christian, or as any other religious faith, for that matter.  Think also of the many different kinds of Christianity there are.  What kind of Christian prayer are we talking about here?  A Protestant prayer?  A Catholic prayer?  Something that talks about God the Father, or Jesus alone?  Who decides what kind of prayer to use - the majority of the community?  But what if you lived in a school district that was predominantly populated by a religious group that was different than your own?

Very interesting map with unexpected results from religious institutions:

U.S. Census data on self-identified religious adherents:

Second, does "prayer in schools" mean that prayer should be allowed in public schools?

Prayer is allowed in schools; in fact, the practice is protected under federal law.  Any public school student is permitted to pray, read scripture, or engage in devotional time or religious study (et cetera) with fellow students in an unobtrusive manner during noninstructional time (such as lunchtime, recess, or after school).  In other words, if your child wants to say grace before snack, read the Bible on the playground, hold hands and pray around the flagpole... all of that is allowed and protected, and is considered the right of the student to do so, as long as the student's practice does not interfere with the rights of other students. 

Extracurricular groups/activities that involve religious content (Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Bible Club, Muslim Student Union, whatever) are also allowed in schools and are to be given equal access as nonreligious extracurricular groups as long as they follow the same guidelines as the other groups.  Schools may disclaim sponsorship of these groups, and schools may not show favor towards a particular group.

However, as is to be expected, the teacher or administrative authority figure is not allowed to lead the students in prayer in public schools, to require particular religious adherence, and so forth.  Interestingly, the teacher is allowed to lead studies in religious scripture for students (such as the historical significance of the Bible), as long as it is in a prescribed academic manner, rather than for devotional purposes.

Obviously, one of the controversies involves prayer led by sports coaches, principals, or graduation speakers while at public school-sponsored events.  When is public prayer a matter of decorum, and when does it run afoul of civil rights?  This is a question still being addressed.

More info:
Third, prayer in what schools?

Only the public schools are affected by the "no (state-sponsored) prayer" laws, as public tax dollars pay for them to operate, and those schools are open to all.  However, a private religious school of any faith or denomination is allowed to lead, promote, or mandate prayer in any way that it sees fit.  In addition, any parent who wishes to homeschool his/her children in any of the fifty states is allowed to do the same, of course.  As a parent, if you choose to educate your child(ren) or hire someone else to do it, then you can have your child pray and practice any religion of your choosing at any time of the school day. 

So, really, there is absolutely nothing that would limit a student's right and prerogative to pray.  For me, as an advocate of personal prayer and a student of the Bible, I like how there is no prayer in schools.  We homeschool, but even if we were to send our children to public schools, we would still have family prayer and devotional time outside of school. 

But I've heard this message before.  More than one elderly relative has cried, "Since prayer was removed from the public schools, look what a mess they've become!"  Er, what about social dislocation, family issues, lack of investment in education, and a whole slew of factors that have negatively affected schools?  Or what about those things that have made some aspects of the schools much better in the last century?

I have a prayer for our nation: it's that we honor the rights of others to practice their faith (or no faith) how they see fit.  We spread our religious faith not through state-sponsored mandates or through the rule of the authority of the majority, but by the good example of our actions.


How to Teach Your Preschooler to Write

A few things, right off the bat:

1. This post is for all parents, no matter what form of education they choose for their children, though homeschooling parents might take a more formal interest.  I usually don't write homeschool tutorials because, frankly, there are oodles of fantastic blogs out there written by parents with lots of great, creative tips, and I think they've covered almost everything.  It's like writing a cookbook: unless you have a special niche, your knowledge has probably already been shared before.  Not that I shouldn't share this anyway, of course, but I don't feel qualified to reinvent the wheel.

2.  This post doesn't mean that your preschooler will learn how to write all of the letters in a week or a month.  Every child has his/her own pace and style of learning.  This is just to give parents a few ideas if they want to encourage their child to learn to write, assuming that the child is ready.

3. I am not a professionally trained writing teacher.  If you know of a better way, then by all means, use it!  Share your thoughts!  I also want to stress that I don't think that preschoolers *should* learn how to write at a very young age, but if they are ready and eager, they should be able to have the option to try.

Okay, all of that said, the first question: Is your preschooler ready to learn how to write?  The following things should be in place before trying to write:

1. Child can easily recognize all of the letters of the alphabet.
2. Child has developed an array of fine motor skills, such as properly holding a fork or toothbrush, putting pegs in holes, and so forth.
3. Child shows an interest in writing, such as wanting to copy pictures or pretending to write.

When my oldest child was three, she was in preschool full-time.  The teachers were telling the children stories about why each letter had its unique shape.  (A clever idea!)  However, my daughter didn't want to sit down and learn how to write her name until the older girl whom I mentored had shown my daughter how she wrote her name.  Seeing the example of another child was enough to make my daughter want to learn more... which is often how these things start, of course.

Writing is learned like most other things: by being interested in learning, and through practice.  Just like my older daughter doesn't learn her piano songs until she wants to learn them and practices playing them, my younger daughter doesn't learn to write letters until she wants to learn them and then practices writing them.  It's that simple.  If one of those elements is not there, at any age, then the child is not ready.  My 2.5-year-old (a lefty) can now write most of the letters of the alphabet, but that was because she showed an interest and wanted to be a big kid, like her sister.  It takes me sitting down with her and practicing when we have some free moments... and patience from the both of us.

As a mom/teacher, it's up to me to encourage the child's interest and frequency of practice, and if necessary, to alter my approach.  For example, as I've written before, my older daughter seems to be more visual in her learning style.  She needs to see (or now, read about) something to learn it.  However, my younger daughter seems to be more kinesthetic in her learning style: she needs to touch it, feel it, experience it.  The two styles are not mutually exclusive, but for me, it's easier to know my child's strengths in order to teach them in the best way.  

Okay, so how do we go about actually teaching the writing?  If you're starting from the beginning, I would do the easiest stuff first.  In a fun, stress-free environment, I would have the child start copying the basic shapes on a piece of paper: a circle and a straight line, and then a half-circle.  If the child can easily write a circle and a straight line, the child can learn to write capital letters such as: I, L, O, and T, and then branch out to A, C, E, F, G, H, Q, V, and X.  Once those are mastered, then try the more complex straight-line letters, like M, N, W, Y, and Z, and then save the "curvy" or combination letters for last: B, D, J, P, S, and U.  I personally found that K and R were the most hard to get right, but that might not be the case for all kids!  Writing diagonally takes practice and strong motor skills.

Once many of those have been mastered, then you can start on the lower-case letters.  The child should easily be able to write o, l, i, and t, and then the "smaller versions" of the capital letters if they are similar.  Pay special attention, of course, to the b, d, p, and q, as these are often confused. 

You can begin by writing the letter a few times to show the child how you would write it, and then let the child try.  The child might want to copy over your letter or just free-style the letters on the paper.  Give a little bit of correction if needed ("The L has a straight back," "The G stays open," et cetera), but mostly, don't interfere.  We're not looking for perfection, just practice.

This magnetic slate with examples of letters was a thrift shop find!

To keep the child's interest, I would use a variety of different media to practice the shapes, including paper, chalk, paint, a magnetic slate (particularly useful tools for the visual learner), and even sand or flour (particularly useful for the kinesthetic learner).  Tracing paper could also be a huge help for some children.  Also trace letter puzzles, cookies, magnets, and so forth with fingers.  For auditory learners, try making up stories about the letters ("B has a big belly!") or using sound effects ("Wee goes the C!") whenever appropriate.  Invite your child to do the same.  For those who watch videos, Sesame Street seems to be the gold standard when it comes to describing letter shapes.  Verbally reinforce the unique letter shapes when you read a story or see an interesting sign. 

In the meantime, strengthen those fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination with dot-to-dot puzzles, lacing cards, sign language, and all of those cool learning toys your child got last year.  Then practice a little at a time.  Before long, your child will probably start writing letters on his/her own time.  Just don't push it.  If your child starts to fidget and lose interest, put the lesson down and do something else. The last thing you'd want is for learning to be a chore for the child.  Good luck!

Having big sister teach little sister how to write...

...makes little sister an eager learner!


Beauty and Body Image (AKA Embrace the Dinosaur)

I hate having my picture taken.  There, I've said it. 

I went from being a camera-mugging child to an attention-seeking young adult cheesecake model to someone who hates having her picture taken.  I mean, if I happen to be very well-rested and well-groomed and not pregnant, and looking from a certain angle with the right lighting, I can look halfway attractive.  In a picture.

Now, now, I know what you are thinking.  My polite friends will respond, "No, you look wonderful!  What are you talking about?  You glow!"  My realistic friends will respond, "Well, you don't look perfect.  But you're pregnant and tired right now.  So what?"

While I love my friends to death, I am not looking for reassurances or flattery.  I am looking for permission: I want to be told that I don't have to look "beautiful" (whatever that might mean) and still feel great about myself.  Because I do feel great about myself.  I am happy, reasonably healthy, extremely fortunate, and probably more confident now than I have ever been before in my life.  The older I get, the less I feel that I have to prove to everyone, at least when it comes to outward appearances. 

I must admit, when my husband took me out for our anniversary, I felt beautiful that night.

But what does my inner voice say about the "negatives" of how I look?  I'll list a sample of complaints:

1. I have a belly, butt, and boobs that have now been pregnant five times in six years... with huge weight gain, weight loss, and breastfeeding.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what that would make my body look like.  Copious stretch marks are one thing, but the flabby, toneless skin and wrinkly belly?  I will never wear a bikini again.
2. Put that on top of a body that was pasty and fleshy, with spider veins and cellulite before the pregnancies ever began.  (A homeless man at a bus stop once stopped to tell me, "You need to get a tan!")

3. Almost constant acne blemishes that I've had since childhood.  Plus, chicken pox scars, moles, wrinkles, and ever-so-lovely excess facial hair.

4. Toenails that look ghastly.  You will never see me in a pair of sandals, flip-flops, or open-toed heels.  (Twice, dear friends have taken me to a salon to treat me to a pedicure, and I was so embarrassed that I refused and got a manicure.)

5. Tooth problems, including crooked front teeth that cause me an inordinate amount of embarrassment.

Things could be worse, but let's just say that I won't be winning any pageants anytime soon.

I want to feel like the dancer on the right.

Sure, there are things that I could easily do to make myself look better, if I tried them.  I could get more sleep, get more exercise, drink more water, eat better foods... and actually condition, cut, and style my hair one of these days!  I could also wear stylish clothes that matched and fit me well.  Heck, I could shave my legs, tone my skin, and wear makeup.  I mean, even if I didn't personally care how I looked, everyone knows that people - even nice, nonmaterialistic people - judge appearances.  It's just a fact of life.  If I look less attractive, people might unconsciously perceive me as being older, poorer, less competent, less popular, and less desirable.  (Plus, I am a woman.  This counts more.)

But the truth is, I don't care.  No, I am not depressed.  No, I haven't "let myself go" like the stereotypical housewife label said would happen.  (So don't go feeling sorry for my husband, who is satisfied with me, thankyouverymuch.)  I've just weighed the alternatives, and I don't think that those things are worth spending time and money on right now, even at the risk of being perceived as less attractive.  I mean, I have daughters and sons who will be looking up to me to find out about what women are like.  Should my example be that I spent a lot of time on my appearance?  As if it really counted?

Not a glam appearance, but a happy one.
I also don't want to be lectured on how I should feel beautiful from the inside, or be told that there is womanly power in my stretch marks, or that gray hair and wrinkles are a sign of wisdom.  No, I don't want this.  Like I said, I don't need reassurance or flattery.   I don't always feel beautiful, not to society or to myself.  But that is okay.  I don't get my self-esteem from that.  

How do I want to feel?  I want to feel respected (and liked, I'll admit) by others.  I want to feel that I am kind, honest, generous, friendly, hardworking, and all of those good things.  I want to feel smart and capable of doing things by myself.  I want to feel like I am a good wife and a wonderful mother.  Is there a kind of beauty in that?  Okay. 

I've had some friends who have had cosmetic procedures done (some surgically), and I must say, they do look great.  They look beautiful - fresh and confident and sexy.  That is great!  If they feel better, then I am very happy for them.  However, those procedures are not for me.  I am what I am.  If, in twenty years, that means turkey waddle on my neck, a head full of gray, frizzy hair, a bottom like the side of a semi, and teeth like a picket fence, then okay. 

I still feel sexy.  Frankly, a lot of that has to do with the maturity and love of my feminist husband, who wants a kind, responsible, intellectual equal, and not a gorgeous, lusty co-ed.  (At least, this is true 99% of the time, and I don't fault him for the other 1%.)  Who else should find me sexy besides myself and my husband, who is the only one who has to sleep with me?  Why should I bother looking sexy for strangers, friends, men at large?

There was a time in my life when I did not feel this way.  In my late teens and early twenties, I was eager to look desirable to everyone.  I put a lot of money into making myself look good enough for auditions and any old classified ad modeling job, sketchy or not, that I could find.  I wanted to look as sexy as I thought Marilyn Monroe looked, and so I put a lot of money into my looks to become - you guessed it - a Marilyn Monroe impersonator for hire.  I thought that perhaps if I looked like her, then people would like me like they liked her.  I was seriously insecure about myself... so much so that it wasn't even good enough to look like myself.

For a very brief time, I almost pulled it off.  But I still didn't feel any better about myself, because obviously, I could only keep up the beauty charade for so long, and it wasn't me.  (I bleached my hair every week for a year!)  Plus, the concept of beauty is a fickle thing, isn't it?  For everyone who thought that my version of "Marilyn" was great, there were others who didn't like her looks, or who thought I looked nothing like her and wondered why I was even trying.  For every modeling gig I got, there were 100 girls who looked far better than I did, and I hated myself for stooping to try to get paid when it was all a joke.  Same with pageants: the only pageants I ever won were those "achievement" pageants that had no score for beauty.  I couldn't win on my looks.  Call it genes or call it laziness.  It was just reality. 

But someday, age will catch up with all of us.  We are either old, or we're dead.  There is no shame in that.

If my butterfly thinks I am beautiful, I am cool with that.

I still don't like having my picture taken, but I am worth more than the sum of my pictures.  I want people to know that I have a great laugh, complete with an unladylike snort.  I want people to know that I dance with wild abandon when I am hugely pregnant, and I look like a crazy fool.  I want people to know that when I get out of the bath, I am smiling. 
Let no one ever say that my smile is not big enough.  It matches my joy.


The Horrors of Child Abuse - and the System's Abuse

What I am writing now is one of the hardest things I've ever felt I had to write.  It stems from circumstances from my childhood that have been reignited by the recent experiences of some of the very good, loving families that I know.  A little background information is in order.

First, I think it's critical to say that I think that child abuse and intentional neglect of any kind is absolutely morally repugnant.  Obviously.  Few things are worse in the world than a child suffering, especially at the hands of someone who is supposed to be that child's caregiver.  As an industrialized nation, we've done a lousy job of taking care of children in vulnerable situations.  Way too many children have "slipped through the cracks" when a call for help to the authorities was issued.  As a result of this derelict of duty, countless children have died - or have had lifelong scars, literally and figuratively.  As a society, we have failed our children.  We have turned a blind eye.

Incidentally, the BBC did a mini-documentary on child abuse in the United States (available to stream on their website).  It is horrifying, but worth the watch to get some of the truth of what a bad job our nation is doing of taking care of its children in these circumstances.  More general info:

Unfortunately, there is also the "flip side" of this horror, one that is the result of unmitigated, unwarranted vigilance that does not prevent children from being abused or neglected, but rather, tears loving families apart, ruins the reputation of good parents, and promotes instability and pain in the lives of children who should have never been involved in the first place.  I am talking about the investigations of the Department of Children and Families (sometimes known in some states as Child Protective Services, or by a similar name).  Why are they doing this?  Well, after all, no state wants to be seen as "not doing enough" to prevent the epidemic of child abuse and neglect, so any investigation could easily be turned into a win for the prosecution with some exaggeration, hubris, and trick of the tail.  The height of this was in the child abuse hysteria of the 1980s, which came almost as a backlash against all of the horrible denial of actual child abuse that happened prior to that time, when children's cries were not heard and the allegations were not believed.

A famous example of that hysteria, in case we've forgotten:

Now for my own personal history with this. When I was about my oldest daughter's age, a good friend of the family - a Jamaican immigrant who was an auto mechanic - was accused, by his estranged wife, of molesting their daughter.  My grandparents, knowing what they did of their friend, could not believe that he was capable of doing such a horrible thing.  What actually happened at their home, I frankly do not know.  I wasn't there.  However, there was strong reason to believe, based on other factors, that the friend's ex-wife was being vindictive.  After all, if you hate your ex and don't want your ex to see your children, what better way to punish him than to accuse him of child abuse?  Unfortunately, the family friend was only functionally literate, and did not understand the nature of the charges against him.  He also could not afford a good lawyer who was willing to fight for him.  My grandmother, who worked as a paralegal, did her best to file briefs, testify on his behalf, and so forth, but it was the friend's word against his ex-wife's.  The friend went to prison and, to my knowledge, has not seen his children in over 25 years.

My grandparents discovered that there were parents everywhere who had endured very similar investigation and prosecutions by what was then called, in Florida, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.  My grandmother, ever the advocate, founded a nonprofit organization in the late 1980s called Citizens for Reform of Child Abuse Laws.  (Very little online presence of this organization remains, but I did find this:  It was designed as a support and advocacy group for adults who felt they had been falsely accused of child abuse or neglect, or who knew people who had been.

I went to these meetings as a child, and I remember some of the horror stories.  One single mother of three had the authorities called because her youngest child - who was born premature, and remained very small for her age - had a "Failure to Thrive" diagnosis due to a slow growth pattern.  This is supposed to implicate neglect, despite the fact that the little girl was well-fed and otherwise healthy.  Other people were falsely accused of abuse or neglect because the child liked to play doctor, talked excessively about "caca" or other bodily functions, or fell down off a bike and broke an arm.  Not a joke.  You name it, and HRS had the reason to investigate and take your children away.  An allegation was almost equal to the truth.  What's worse, the abuse hotline was completely anonymous, even to the authorities.  Thus, if you had a beef against someone for any reason (a gym teacher, a next-door neighbor, whomever) you could call the hotline, state a few suspicions, and have the authorities knocking at someone's door at any time.  One of the bumper stickers they made read "HRS: Florida's Gestapo" - and that wasn't far from the truth.  (Please understand: I recognize that most caseworkers are overworked and underpaid, and that they really want to help children.  I don't mean everyone involved.)

I remember reading the brochures from HRS about the signs of abuse.  One sign could be that the child was too dirty... or too clean.  Or that the child was very quiet and withdrawn... or too outgoing and attention-seeking.  Anything labeled "out of the ordinary" was supposed to arouse suspicion.  Then when it came to the investigation stage - well, forget the edict that one is innocent until proven guilty.  Instead, for most people accused of abuse, the process was adversarial and frightening.  One got the impression that the authorities came like big game hunters, looking for a prize to take home, and it was up to you to act cool and play dead.

Some high-profile cases got the attention of the media and of lobbyists, and some of the more ridiculous laws were indeed changed.  Now, it is a crime in Florida to falsely accuse someone of child abuse.  It is hard to disprove good intentions, but at least the law is on the books. The abuse hotline (1-800-96-ABUSE) is also no longer anonymous to the authorities.  The accused won't know who called, but the authorities are supposed to be able to trace the caller in case the allegation turns out to be patently false.

In addition, unfortunately, some of the vigilance died down simply because the budgets shrank.  I say "unfortunately" because it meant that fewer caseworkers were assigned to cases that truly needed attention, and some of the genuinely abused and neglected kids did fall through the cracks in the system.  Plus, the way that I understand it, at least, the federal government provides about half of the funding for child abuse prevention in most states.  The federal government's position is to generally try to get help for families and keep the families together.  On a practical level: if all of the children were removed from their homes for minor cases where the parents could clearly rehabilitate/rectify the situation, the number of children in foster care would skyrocket, and the country could not financially afford it.  The awful result is that some kids stay in situations that are NOT good for them because there is no money to further investigate.  However, there are exceptions.  In states like Florida, there seems to be a continued effort to go after families, even when common sense says it's not warranted.

Several friends have been in these shoes.  One person - who is an incredibly loving mom - was in the mall with her two young daughters.  In a moment of defiance for not wanting to leave the play area, one of the daughters briefly ran off out of the mother's sight, so the panicked mother immediately sought the help of a security guard and police officer to find her daughter.  The girl was found safe in a store just minutes later, and she was afraid that she was in trouble.  This case was automatically deemed a "runaway" situation by the officer, and thus, the DCF authorities were called to investigate.  The parents had to endure the scrutiny and indignity of having someone come over to ask them and their children all kinds of questions.  (Parents, do you ever feel under pressure to get your house clean for guests?  Multiply that by ten when the authorities come over.)  The case was closed, of course, but it was enough to terrify the parents into thinking that their kids could have been removed from the home, even if only temporarily, for basically the mom trying to do the right thing.  But this was very mild... the parents got to keep their kids.

I will not illustrate any further case beyond that one in order to protect people's privacy.  Many cases have been worse, where the parents have temporarily (for weeks or months) lost custody of their children because of, basically, a house that wasn't clean.  These are children who are obviously very happy, nurtured, and well-loved.  It makes absolutely no sense to disrupt these children's lives and put them into a situation where they are confused, frightened, and cared for by strangers when nothing bad actually happened to them. Why is the state spending time and money on these cases when there are children who are actually being abused and neglected?  Where is the state then?

With that, here are some of the ways that parents can prevent DCF from being called to investigate.  Here we go:

1. Don't be labeled weird.  (It helps to look like a politician's family, but if not, then just look like you're always going to a job interview or a Gap commercial.  Conformity rules!)
2. Be an active part of a community organization, such as a church or a respected group.  (Regrettably, live-action role playing groups are not deemed worthy enough for DCF's standards.)
3. Be good friends with people who can help testify on your behalf, including doctors, lawyers, clergy, law enforcement, and people who are DCF employees.
4. Keep your house clean at all times.  (I don't care how many children or pets you have - that house needs to be immaculate.  Now is the time to start worrying about dust bunnies, piles of laundry, and that junk mail stacked on the table.) 
5. Keep your house full of food at all times.  (I mean, look like you are stocking up for a Thanksgiving meal.  God forbid you are caught out before grocery day.)
6. Don't have your young child run around naked or pantsless at any time.  (After all, a child's desire to be free of clothing is akin to sexualization of a child.  Of course, everyone knows that.) 
7. Take your child to the doctor regularly.  (Are you neglecting the regular checkups?  After all, what do you have to hide?)
8. Don't take your child to the doctor too much.  (After all, are you making your child sick or something?)
9. Make sure that your child is independent, skilled, confident, and well-educated.
10. Make sure that you hover over your child and make your child depend on your constant supervision (or else you are a bad parent).

If this makes sense, then you're safe. 


Just What Makes a Child "Difficult"?

Not wanting to have her picture taken.

Just what makes a child "difficult"?

I've been around kids all of my life, and I've pondered this question many times.  Some kids would be labeled "difficult" by some people, like elementary schoolers who spent more time with the principal than at their own desks, or kids who were aggressive and hostile to the point of being criminal.  There were also the so-called whiners, the spoiled brats, and the hopeless, and all of the other terrible labels that many children have endured over the years.

Then there was my little brother, twelve years younger than I.  Some would have labeled him as difficult.  He was also labeled "gifted" due to his high IQ score and "ADHD" due to lack of attention in the classroom.  My brother was restless, active, impulsive, fearless, defiant, aggressive, and seemed to be born angry.  He once threw his bottle from his crib so hard that he broke the window.  He would run and jump into anything dangerous, with no account for the consequences.  He would knock children down on the playground, and hit, bite, and kick adults - even strangers in the store.  He would throw wild, screaming, fists-wailing tantrums with plenty of profanity if he didn't get his way.  The cops were once called on him, at age nine, for pulling out a knife on another child.  It didn't help that he was huge for his age, and could intimidate other children with his size alone. 

It was like he had taken steroids and then was shot out of a cannon, or that he was a lion starving for prey.  Then when he realized that he had hurt someone and was getting called on it, he would break down and cry, saying what a horrible person he was.  He was incredibly sensitive, and yet it seemed challenging for him to be empathetic toward others.  It was a hard thing for his family to watch, and obviously it was hard for him to endure this pattern, day after day.

Yet I noticed that he was actually attentive, thoughtful, and downright sweet when you just spent one-one-one time with him and listened to him. Paradoxically, he also seemed to appreciate firm boundaries.  In other words, he would respect adults who were kind but who didn't put up with his bad behavior.  It was sometimes hard for him, and you could tell when he was making an effort.  We spent some really nice time together before I left home.  I gradually began to see beyond the labels for him... the labels that extended into his adolescence... the behavioral traits that greatly intensified after puberty and got him into major trouble.

This label of "difficult" followed him around for years.  I think that if we are assigned labels at a young age, we tend to live up - or down, as the case may be - to those labels. 

It did not help matters that my little brother had me for an older sister.  I was gentle, charming, cheerful, and people-pleasing.  The most trouble I remember getting into as a child was when I was seven, and I absentmindedly walked away from my afterschool program with a friend, and we went down to the corner store for some candy without telling anyone.  That got the cops called to the school, and a big spanking for me!  But it must have been hard for my brother to live in my shadow, even years after I'd outgrown it.  Even when adolescence was difficult for me, and I had my own pejorative labels assigned, it was still harder for my brother, a boy with a reputation for being difficult. 

I was reminded of labels recently when my grandmother witnessed the behavior of my younger daughter (2 years old) and compared it against the behavior of my older daughter (6 years old).  My younger daughter, scared of falling out of the tree that she'd managed to climb up, began crying for help.  My grandmother called her a "crybaby" for doing this.  I feel that part of my grandmother's reaction was because my younger daughter is admittedly more adventurous, demanding, independent, and outspoken than my older daughter, and thus has the reputation for being "difficult" in my grandmother's eyes.  My older daughter, on the other hand, has been labeled as cautious, responsible, and "easy" by my grandmother.  So, therefore, any behavior that would reinforce the image/label that my grandmother already had for each great-granddaughter would serve, in her mind, as further proof that she was right in her assumptions.  My grandmother has even said, on other occasions, that my younger daughter was mischievous for doing something quite age-appropriate and normal, and that my older daughter (who is her favorite, apparently) would never do such a thing. 

I don't believe it, obviously.  All of my kids have their good days and bad days, just like I do... like anyone else does, for that matter.  Some things are easier for them than others.  I sometimes wish that my grandmother could see the nurturing, maturing, and incredibly sweet nature of my younger daughter, who is neither mischievous nor difficult for me, whatsoever.  Truly.

My precious little elves!  They are best friends.  Just ask them!
  But again, I ask: just what makes a child "difficult"? 

Is it because a child is different when compared to other children?  Because the child can be heard?  Because the child is misunderstood?  Because the child doesn't learn as fast as we would like? 

Is it because we, as parents, just want to be left alone to get some sleep or keep our plans, and this child announces, "Here I am!  Pay attention to me!"   Is it because we, as parents, feel guilty for not disciplining our children better, or for not spending more time with them? 
Is it because we live with the labels from our own childhoods?  Because we want to fit people, children and adults alike, into neat, convenient categories and stereotypes that reassure us about our assumptions?  Because the child doesn't fit the mold that suits our desires? 

I answer that parenting can be difficult, period.  But children aren't.