Friday, March 29, 2013

Couch Potatoes

One day last week, I walked in the front door after an outing with one of the boys to behold that the couch in our living room had been moved to the middle of the room (Brent was upstairs working). 

"We want to build a fort!" the girls exclaimed. They were so proud that their extreme strength had combined to overpower such a massive piece of furniture.

I almost spoke, but found myself speechless.

"What a great idea!" I finally said. "You grab the blankets and I'll grab the vacuum. Thanks to you Girls, I can clean behind this big couch before you make your home there. I haven't been able to do that in at least a year."

While they giggled and squealed as they created their new world between the wall and the back of the couch, I had flashbacks of my childhood treehouse plans. *happychills* I watched as they thoughtfully included all the essentials: pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, snack bags, piggy banks, games, journals, prayer rocks, and a sign that read 'OPEN GATE' so visitors would know how to enter.

Then for hours and hours--over the span of multiple days--my young learners busied themselves and built brain power by playing to their hearts' content while I rattled off spelling words, reviewed long division, and edited stories with their older siblings in another world on the other side of the couch.

  When night came, they slept happily ever after...

Monday, March 25, 2013

MaryAnn's Helen Keller Moment

Based on conversations I've had at the park, in parent-teacher conferences, or at family reunions, I think we all agree: kids are each so different. Basic neurological stages are similar (infant, toddler, childhood, teenager, etc.), but millions of brain connections are left to define someone as an individual. They happen in a different order and at a different pace. Uniqueness is a beautiful process that spans a life-time.

At 18-months, Little Miss Cienna was jabbering away in full sentences.  At 20-months, MaryAnn felt content with just a few important words. 'Mama' and 'Dada' and 'bye-bye' and 'no' and 'me' were sufficient enough to make her world go 'round.

Until one recent day...

MaryAnn accompanied Brent and I to an adult-only church meeting while Kenny and Diggy held down the fort with the rest of the troops at home. She and I started walking the halls about halfway through. We entered a small room and she instantly communicated to me using her limited grunts and moans that she had a desire to sit in a big folding chair and get pushed in up near the small table. "Dada," she said as she pointed to another chair, expecting me to join her.

I did. And we sat feeling very pleased with ourselves.

A minute later, she wiggled down and headed towards the door and pushed it closed. She turned to me and smiled some more, her body filled with light because of such an accomplishment.

"Door," I said, acknowledging her actions. "Can you say 'door?'" This wasn't the first time I'd attempted to expand her vocabulary a bit.

"Dada," replied MaryAnn proudly as usual.

I smiled.

Another minute later, we found ourselves back in the hallway and MaryAnn spotted a man she'd never met before. She seemed to want to communicate her discovery to me so she pointed at him and said, "Dada."

"Is that Dada?" I asked, sounding surprised.

Knowing that the man was indeed not her father, I noticed a jolt of shock spring through her body as she said, "No," and continued to stare, suddenly feeling very vulnerable. She seemed to recognize and care for the first time that what came out of her mouth was not at all what she knew to be true in her mind. A new connection was born.

She gulped and licked her lips as she continued to stare, surely taking subconscious note that she'd be much more careful about calling strangers 'Dada' in the future.

Then a younger person walked by and I asked, "Is that Ken Ken?"

Still confused and a bit nervous, MaryAnn replied, "No."

"Where is Ken Ken?' I probed.

This time, and for the first time since learning 'mama' and 'dada' over six months ago, MaryAnn paused to think about what was about to come out of her mouth. Then "Home" slipped out.

This time a jolt of emotion went through my veins. I had just witnessed a neurological victory...the conscious beginning of a new language path that we could now expand out into thousands of new directions.

A few days later, I pointed to Kirsten at home and asked MaryAnn, "Who is that?"

Sure enough, instead of instinctively spouting out "dada," she looked carefully at Kirsten and said, "Ti Ti."

And the next day...when MaryAnn repeatedly urged me into the kitchen to get her a drink by saying, "dada, dada," I gently reminded her of her new capability.

"You said 'dada,' MaryAnn. Do you want Dada or water?" My lips moved slowly so she could soak in the new mouth movements associated with the phonetic sound the letter 'w' makes.

"Wa-wa," she repeated. And a couple of weeks later, MaryAnn uses her new vocabulary word 'wa-wa' like a pro.

Well done, MaryAnn. When you're old enough to analyze this triumph in a bit more detail, I'm sure you'll agree with Helen Keller who said:

"When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me".1

A bit of history: Helen Keller's monumental day occurred about a month after meeting Anne Sullivan on the morning of March 3, 1887.2  Nearly 126 years later on the evening of March 2, 2013, my little MaryAnn received her spark of linguistic understanding. It thrills me to think that sparks of recognition and rays of sunshine occur for little learners somewhere in the world at a constant rate of ongoing intelligence. If we could measure it and see it with our natural eyes, I wonder what it would look like from the moon. But I think inspiring moments are more of a light that burns in the bosom. I know Helen Keller felt it because she also said, "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched--they must be felt with the heart."2

Quotes and facts:
Photo courtesy of

Friday, March 22, 2013

Attachment Lesson #2: You Belong

Before the world gets a piece of MaryAnn's mind, we desperately want to ingrain Attachment Lesson #2 into her brain: I belong to a Family. I don't just exist under the same roof and eat at the same table as the people around me. I belong.

Babies naturally yearn for love, comfort, and affection. They join us on earth wired and ready to connect. And they are innocently and completely vulnerable to whatever kind of human (or non-human) connection they can get. It is therefore very humbling to ponder on the fact that my children chose to come to me. They chose to receive the comfort that I could give them (or not). And I have a sense that they humbly knew my connections would not always fulfill their needs and maybe even lead them astray at times (because let's face it...I'm not perfect). But I sense that they also knew I would try my best.

After a few babies, I've come to learn that one of the first and most important lessons we can teach our children is that they belong to us...forever (no matter what).

With this foundational lesson in mind, our current top parenting priority with MaryAnn is to help her feel included.

I grab two pens whenever I'm taking notes. I pull up a chair and reach for an extra measuring cup when I'm cooking. I'm getting really good at typing one-handed. I plan for a few extra minutes of coats-boots-hats-mittens when it's time to jump in the van to drop-off/retrieve another child (even if beloved babysitters are home...still can't believe I have children old enough for that!) because I know I can count on MaryAnn to notice my movements toward the door and exclaim, "Me! Me!" while beating her chubby hand on her chest.

She naturally wants to spend nearly her entire day within a few feet of me. Her radar for my presence (ie attachment) is mind-boggling. Even when I think she's not paying attention, I can't leave the room without her instantly noticing and calling out, "Mom. Mom!" It's music to my ears (assuming I'm in a good mood and have a present mind).

Hearing my name called out so frantically and so frequently used to feel completely overwhelming when my older ones passed through this stage. I wasn't used to it and I regularly dodged their calls and dreamed of the time when that constant burden would go away. It felt like it would never end. Every resolved issue led to another problem to solve.  Though of course me and my older kids had many wonderful moments when they were little, I was worried back then that my children would become "too attached", which seemed it would only prolong my exhaustion. Comments about my babies naturally rejecting friends and family while clinging to me stung my insides and left me wondering if we were on the right track.

Now I know better. (because I've studied brains and prayed a lot).

Now I know that their natural connection to me is a gift...and therefore worth celebrating.

That very connection that my children so intensely and so consistently try to make with me (especially during the first three years) is the very thing that will lighten my future burdens (and theirs). I can freely teach and lead and guide them through any subject I want (except maybe sewing) when we are connected. I can't when we aren't. I've experienced both extremes. And with a strong attachment, my children are emotionally grounded in a secure feeling that allows them to freely explore the world without defensive walls holding them back. We can feel a difference with a secure attachment. It's like a breath of fresh air.

Right now, MaryAnn's brain is in the middle of developing it's primary definition of emotional security. I'm thrilled that I'm IT. It will make life so much easier for both of us down the road. Though it appears now that she may never leave my side voluntarily for the rest of her life or ever like anyone else but me because her love for me is so focused and devoted, I know her brain is simply laying an emotional foundation on which to build on. A new area of her brain will soon dominate her attention (and often does for brief moments each day), but a feeling of deep mother/child fidelity will remain forever and liberate her future.

When I hear MaryAnn's call, I'm usually in the bathroom, or emptying clothes from the dryer into a basket, or sitting on the couch correcting grammar. I answer quickly. Then she exerts extreme effort to wobble her way back to my fill up with my love before her next round of adventures. So inspiring.

My children's natural attachment beckons me to examine my own childlike yearn for my Eternal Father. I am part of His family. How often do I call out His name? How determined am I to reach His embrace? He doesn't get weary of my needs. He has a vision for who I can become. Every time I wobble my way to Him, He gently takes the time to wrap me in His arms, fill me up with His love, and lead me on a path that will bring me joy.

I think that's why I care so much about establishing a strong attachment with MaryAnn (and all the others)... because ultimately I wish to teach her and show her even just a sample of what it feels like to exist as part of God's family. I want her to feel that same peace I feel in my relationship with Him...especially when she's old enough to venture beyond my reach. That time is not far ahead. It has already started with her older siblings. But my children will always be within His reach.

So with each scribble, scoop, and car ride, MaryAnn and I (along with all the others) are building a foundation together that teaches her about her family both here on earth and in the Heavens. She belongs to both.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Lesson #1: You Have a Body

At age 21 months, MaryAnn is my only child that is deeply embedded in the Attachment Stage. My other children, though happy to come and cuddle occasionally or kiss us good night, spend most of their time further along the path, learning and exploring in their individual realms.

So I'm soaking up these attachment lessons like MaryAnn's my last child (because who knows at this point if she will be). It is such a joy to see signs of MaryAnn's progress. Kids grow way too fast.

Before I start tearing up, here are a few recent examples of MaryAnn discovering life lesson #1:
I have a Body. It is mine. It is unique. It is beautiful. It brings me joy.

Before joining our family, MaryAnn's existence didn't include a body. Now it does. She is so pleased with every new connection her body makes and with every new piece of knowledge she gathers along this path called life.

When older sibs are busy with their studies, MaryAnn naturally wants to join them. Right now she's pretty sure that 5 x 2 = scribble scribble. And she's also learning...

I have a right hand...

and a left hand...and I like them both.

Not too many months ago, MaryAnn paid close attention to us when we pinched our noses and said, "pee-yew!" She grabbed her nose, too...and scrunched her face and grunted. We took her cue and pointed out that she has a nose just like us...and eyes...and ears. Since she loves us so much, she's pretty thrilled that we have some similarities.

Over several weeks we remembered to point out body parts whenever MaryAnn seemed in the mood for it.

Now when we play "Can you point to your...", she's feeling pretty smart these days:









and because she has older brothers...nostril (it's her favorite one because she notices the ripple of giggles that circulates the room when she gets it right)

MaryAnn has a body that itches...alot. So many foods and things cause her immune system to over-react and create bumps and sores that drive her (and mom) crazy. When it gets really bad, she scratches so hard, she bleeds (quite regularly this occurs for an hour in the middle of the night). She and Mom (MaryAnn still nurses) have eliminated dairy products, nuts, high-sodium foods, and sometimes eggs from their diets to tame her eczema a bit. It's helping, but sometimes she sees others eating some of her favorite foods: pizza and ice cream and milk chocolate and feels quite envious.

Despite these personal challenges, she's still learning, "I can taste! (even though this body of mine gets itchy mom is determined to find a few goods things for me to homemade cookie dough w/o chocolate chips)."

Every body is unique and special.

We'll keep celebrating (and learning) this all important lesson #1 for years to come.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Pyramid and Education: A List of Lessons to "Teach"

An infant's brain contains more neurons than an adult's brain. It is prepared to be wired in countless directions...and to efficiently dispose of extra neurons it doesn't use. (I'm pretty sure I have very few German language or back hand-spring neurons left...oh well.) But this "wiring" doesn't happen overnight or even in a year or two. The brain naturally takes over 20 years to fully develop. Then it can begin to be "completely" useful.

So that means my kids are walking around with lots of potential, but only a portion of the rosy brain connections they'll hopefully end up with as adults. That explains any of their volatile, wild, obnoxious, and immature behavior...they've progressed past the blank-slate-stare-at-the-ceiling-adorable newborn stage, but still have a loooonnnngg way to go...and that's okay. (This also explains some of my crazy imbalanced reactions to their immature behavior. I'm only kind of mature. Luckily 'complete' adult brains are still changeable as well...improvement just feels like a more painful process for older brains...but I'm working on it.)

As I've researched brain development and observed my own children, I believe there are definitive phases of development controlled largely by chemical reactions in the body that are set to take place at roughly the same physical time frame across human culture...the most obvious example is puberty. The brain/body acts very different before and after the chemical processes of puberty take place. (feeling anxious/excited about observing that process a bunch of times around here in the next few years) Different personalities (coupled with different genetic make-ups) respond in a variety of ways to these chemical changes, but all people seem to transcend from one phase to the next throughout life.

Therefore, certain educational and disciplinary goals are unrealistic (or emotionally damaging) before corresponding developmental milestones have been met. A baby can't learn to walk before leg muscles and brain balance are developed enough to accommodate such a task. And once a first step is taken, many more months and years of motor learning still wait patiently on the horizon. Expecting a 3-month to walk sounds pretty ridiculous. Expecting a walking toddler to jump rope or do cart wheels is also on the unruly side. Learning to read/write/multiply/etc requires certain neurological connections as well. Same with learning to independently manage conflicts or personal time and resources. Too early or too late feels unnatural. Teachers must be in tune.

Thus, Brent and I developed The Present Parenting Pyramid to use in our family as a guide on how to educate and discipline our children according to the natural stages their bodies take them through. If you are a fan of TJEd (see Phases of Leadership Education) or Erik Erikson (a diagram of his theory is here), The Pyramid will feel very familiar to you.

To accommodate a child's developing brain, educational techniques and disciplinary styles should technically change as well according to the child/adolescent's developmental phase. Each phase "looks different" from one another. For our family, the academic learning that is often associated with the word 'education' is secondary and centered around higher level goals that support the natural stages of our child's growth. When we prioritize our highest hopes and efforts on a traditional academic goal (like learning to read or memorizing math facts), we might accomplish that goal, but our children tend to slide backwards emotionally.

By focusing our teaching attention on the primary "lessons" listed below (I like to think of them more as 'celebrations'), learning in all other areas of life, including the academic learning that most people think of as education, comes very naturally.

Here is our list of primary lessons that set the stage for all other areas of learning throughout our child's life:

Attachment Stage (ages 0-3)
1. You have a body.
2. You belong to a family.
3. When your body gets out of balance, you are not alone.

Following Stage (ages 1-8)
1. Your unique body naturally absorbs and processes energy, both physical and spiritual.
2. The world is full of inspiring people and things to explore.
3. To find peace and happiness, follow positive leaders.

Accountability Stage (ages 7-12)
1. You are responsible for how your body acts. You can control your body.
2. Natural consequences accompany your choices.
3. You can recognize and accept your strengths and weaknesses.
4. Repairing wrongs promotes progress.
5. Choosing to set and accomplish goals brings joy (and because kids are pretty logical at this age, they notice, of course, that the opposite is also true).

Self-Discipline Stage (ages 11-18)
1. You can plan for the future and choose your destiny.
2. Focused attention improves talents and skills.
3. Self-reliance, coupled with humility and grace, feels fulfilling.
4. Living personal values increases integrity and self-worth.
5. Seeking for and following Eternal Truth provides a life-long compass.

Independence Stage (ages 16-20+)
1. You are capable of obtaining new skills and providing for yourself.
2. You can find emotional, physical, and spiritual balance.
3. Being true to yourself and your God gives you strength and Light.

Leading Stage (20+)
1. You can see the people around you as they truly are and as they can become.
2. You have Light that can benefit others.
3. True charity adds to world peace.

In general, if stages are taught out of order (like if we focus primarily on accountability with our 4-year-old or independence with our 2-year-old or 9-year-old), when chaos comes along, it doesn't get resolved and coping patterns increase (see Natural Defense Immaturity). Therefore, we don't move on to another stage until we feel a strong sense that our child has naturally internalized all the lessons in a particular stage, which doesn't typically happen until he/she chemically and neurologically transitions to a new stage (like in puberty).  As they get older, we talk openly about this progression with them (see the Green Side of the Pyramid). They like it.

And of course we have a host of 'secondary lessons' as well (I've pasted a handy starter list below). BUT (and that's a really big but)...All secondary lessons must assist us in teaching the primary lessons. If not, these secondary lessons will be postponed until a later stage because a particular child needs more brain balance and development (like motor skills, analytical skills, or prefrontal cortex growth) before learning in a certain area truly progresses. And some secondary lessons can get tossed aside completely depending on the child. Each child is different.

We used to stubbornly prioritize other such secondary lessons in a way that actually jeopardized our relationships with our children (like when we "trained" our highly sensitive 9-month-old to sleep independently or when we isolated our 18-month-old in time-out until she stopped fussing or when we required x-number of completed workbook pages from our 8-year-old before playing outside). Back then my happiness as a parent depended on how well my "teaching" was received. We were a relatively pleasant young family, but misery built up over time until dramatic changes became necessary.

When we discovered the beauty of putting a secure attachment at the top of the list of lessons to teach, happiness returned. We had some "undoing" to accomplish with the older ones (their bodies had grown, but their emotional state was stuck, confused, and in no fault of their own...they had just been defending themselves). When we started our older children on this new system a few years ago, we started at the bottom of the pyramid with them as well. It was challenging for me to learn new attachment patterns with them and challenging for them to truly trust that I was willing to form a stronger, more secure attachment. But we persevered at the bottom of the pyramid for a few months and then started to ascend upward. After several years, the undoing is mostly complete.

With the youngest few, we've started working on secure attachment education from the very beginning. After attachment lessons are well-learned, moving upward on The Pyramid (and adding in various "real" academic lessons) is a much smoother process...and very fulfilling.

I'm feeling the itch to write a separate essay about every single one of those primary lessons listed above because my bosom burns just thinking about how much joy my children and I have experienced as Brent and I have prioritized our "teaching" around these main ideas. But for now, my computer time is through. (I have an amazing, supportive, capable husband who makes an awesome 'mother' as he generously takes over feeding, bathing, diapering, taxiing, and piggy-back riding our brood for a few hours here and there. He's very conscientious and nurturing...but I must be careful not to let my passion for brains, research, and writing bury me...I don't want to miss out on all the life-moments that are pitter-pattering around me. That would be sad.)

Sample List of Secondary Lessons 
(bits and pieces of how we teach these lessons will emerge as I continue to post about the more important primary lessons. For more ideas on specific secondary lessons, check your local has shelves full of a million parenting/education books that give loads of different opinions on how to teach these various classes) 

How to sleep
How to eat
How to walk
How to say 'please'
How to clean up
How to share
How to take turns
How to count
How to read
How to write
How to add, subtract, multiply, and divide
How to sing
How to dance
How to dribble
How to play the piano
How to use the toilet
How to clean the toilet
How to get dressed
How to say sorry
How to budget
How to organize a closet
How to manage time
How to study
How to cook
How to pass chemistry
How to take the ACT
How to fill out college applications

How to whatever...

Saturday, March 9, 2013

2 Cents and a Million $$ Smile

A box of 100 generic band-aids costs about $2 at Wal-mart. That's...2 whole pennies each.

When I was little and my parents kindly reminded me that I was wasting my dad's money whenever I didn't finish my food, I used to envision dollar bills swooshing right out of his wallet that sat on top of his tall dresser at the very moment I cowered at the kitchen sink and secretly dumped my soggy cereal down the drain...I was terrified.

Since those days (even though my imagination is much more tame now), I still tend to notice when pennies disappear...and try to avoid that experience. It keeps me in my comfort zone.

So, naturally when my older children were younger, there had to be blood gushing out of them somewhere in order for me to cough up a 2-cent band-aid from the first aid stash. Band-aids don't grow on trees, ya know. 

But then I started to study brains and such. As I gained a clearer picture of emotional health, I started paying closer attention to my simple interactions with my children. And I recognized a need to identify a few of my personal "issues" (like severe penny-pinching, eh-em)...and work through them so I could have a more balanced mind for my children's sake.

I think I'm making at least some progress because...I was bustling around the kitchen one recent evening when Cienna (child #5) entered and asked for a band-aid...a small circular one to be exact. I saw no signs whatsoever of even a pretend injury and quickly and quite naturally dismissed her pleas. But when she politely asked a second time, I paused and sensed a spirit of adventure about her. I decided that $ 0.02 was worth investing in her growing mind, and I became quite curious to discover what her imagination would choose to do with that band-aid.

A few minutes later, I heard Cienna happily carrying on a complete conversation between her and an imaginary friend. Then a camera flash caught my attention as she posed for a few self-portraits:  

I don't think I could put a price tag on that.