Monthly Archives: November 2009

Gratitude.

I think –  or at least I am hopeful – that my readers get a sense of my overwhelming gratitude for my life from this blog on a regular basis.  This Thanksgiving it truly abounds.

I’m filled with gratitude about these past few months, when I’ve had the privilege of having successful, fulfilling work experiences and also being with my family so much more.  I’m able to plan for and cook dinners for my family, know when the kids’ gym days are, and remember who has what quiz on which day.  I’m able to practice music with the boys every day and run to the grocery store when they’re at school.  Some years in the recent past I couldn’t even remember what Baxter’s room number was at school, let alone when he had art class.

I want to take a moment to reflect on the fact that my grandparents are well enough to be together in their own home on this Thanksgiving; every day is a gift.  I’m so grateful that at Christmas we’ll be able to see my wonderful family in California, and that our nearby family is incredibly supportive and loving.  I’m grateful for the relationships my kids have with their cousins and the ones I have with mine.

I’m so thankful that Lyle, who can be what my grandmother refers to as a “reluctant dragon”, has started school and is happily engaged there, leaving the house every day with a smile and a “smooch” and usually a few nose kisses.  I love that he’s willing to stretch himself to learn to play the violin, and accept the bumps along the road in the process.  I’m thankful every day for his snuggles and the sparkle in his eyes – yes, even when it’s the littlest bit defiant.  And I’m grateful that he and his brother are so close and have a great time playing together.

My gratitude also knows no bounds for Baxter, whose zest for life has been enormous from the minute he was born, diving into the world with both arms straight ahead like Superman (yes – he did).  Even his teacher used the word “enthusiastic” at least twice in his conference last week.  The fact that his glass is not just half-full, but more like 99% full much of the time brings joy to all of us.  And I will add that I’m thankful his categorizing and memorizing brain has begun to shift from the world of Pokemon to the world of Greek mythology: a welcome respite for us.

I’m beyond thankful for Matt, who keeps me laughing and graces us with the lovely sounds of his guitar as he learns to play.  I love that he comes home at night and manages to correct some of the things I tend to let go with the kids and that he always cleans up the kitchen in the evening after I’ve made dinner.  I’m grateful for his hard work at his job,  his patience with me and my quirks, and his wrestling with the kids.

And last but surely not least, I’m grateful for all of you, Wonderfriends, whether you are a member of my family, an old friend, new friend, or someone I know well but haven’t met in person yet.  Thank you for your support, for coming back here again and again, and for the laughs.

I hope each and every one of you will have a wonderful Thanksgiving tomorrow – a chance to enjoy a good meal and conversation with people you love, and to think about all that you are grateful for in your lives.

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Progress!

We’re having a much, much better week around here.  Lyle has relaxed and seems back to his old sweet self.  And his violin practices have been fantastic!

Here he is tonight, composing a song called “Lyle’s Pichu”.  You can see that he’s written eight notes and has the added complexity this week of noting beneath each note if it’s a quarter note (a “ta”) or a half note (a “la-ah”).  These aren’t really marked in his playing yet, but he’s only had the bow on the strings for two days!

 

…and here he is playing his tune!

Disequilibrium

After the rather alarming incident with Lyle the other night, I made good on my promise to immediately order the book from the Gesell Institute of Human Development called “Your Five-Year-Old“.  (I wrote about these books here after reading the little volumes about ages 4 and 8.)  I just really needed (hoped!) to hear that something about what we were experiencing was typical from these grandmotherly-sounding wise child development experts.

The book arrived yesterday and I started reading it in bed last night.  I admit I was concerned at first, and not just because of the placid subtitle of the book, which describes the five-year-old as “Sunny and Serene”, but also from the opening chapter called “Characteristics of Age Five”.  The description of the typical five-year old caused half my mind to begin a panicked dip into my Rolodex of great local child psychologists and trying to decide which of them I would call about my child on Monday.  Because it did not describe the boy I am living with — at all.

But then I discovered that the chapter was divided in half and that there was a completely different section on the five-and-a-half year old.  Now, my child is a few months shy of that age, but there isn’t much benefit to being quite so literal about timing in child development (stages yes, timing no), especially when something describes a shift in your child so incredibly well.  To give you the idea, the section begins, “So here you are, sailing along, happy as a lark…it can be more than a little disconcerting when all of a sudden things aren’t so rosy anymore.  That little angel who responded, oh, so easily, with ‘Yes, I will,’ now is quite likely to say ‘No, I won’t.'”  (Gee, I hadn’t noticed!)  I snapped shut my inner Rolodex and read on.  Because there was also this: “…the child of five-and-a-half shows an all-too-great readiness to disobey, to go against what is asked or expected of him. And he doesn’t always do this gently. ‘Brash’ and ‘combative’ are adjectives that mothers use in describing this child, and all with good reason.”  Other words used were “overdemanding” and “explosive” and one of my favorite lines, “…the child may be extremely shy one minute and then extremely bold the next; very affectionate, and then almost without warning very antagonistic.”  (Insert “Hallelujah Chorus” here.)

I read that emotionally at this age, Lyle may seem to be in an “almost constant state of tension” although he will probably be calmer at school than at home (100% true – he’s a dream at school). They also mentioned chewing on loose clothing.  Check!  Seriously, it all started this past week.

It’s useful to be reminded once again that no matter what it looks like in any given child, a period of equilibrium is going to be followed by a period of disequilibrium and that the end of every easier stage “must come before the child can attain a higher and more mature stage of equilibrium”.  Maybe he isn’t fully entering this phase yet but we are getting a serious preview of what’s to come that was triggered by his tension around Baxter’s birthday.  Either way, it would be hard to describe how much better I feel.  I can’t wait to read the rest of this book.

Goggle Man

Lyle arrived at the dinner table tonight wearing purple goggles.  He’s been asking for glasses for a few months now, sad that he’s the only one in the family without any (and no, sunglasses haven’t really done it for him).  He didn’t take them off until it was time to go to sleep, although he did switch one pair for the other after dinner, because he’d smeared one lens with his taco-coated fingers.

I bring you the source of much entertainment for me this evening – from the dinner table to violin composing and practice to bedtime: Goggle Man.

Happy Family Jamboree

Tough Times: Being Five

Right around Lyle’s fifth birthday in August I was organizing the kids’ books.  I came across our copy of “It’s Hard to Be Five: Learning How to Work my Control Panel” by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell, and I did a double-take.  Five?? Really?  I asked myself, thinking of Lyle who was quite mellow at that moment.  Five is hard? I mean, we all know ages 2 and 3 can be tough, and my vote for hardest year (not having raised teenagers yet) is age 4, but somewhere along the way I forgot about five.  When I stopped to think about what prompted the purchase of the book for Baxter some years ago, I shuddered and pushed it to the back of the bookshelf, telling myself, That was just because it was the year we moved here – you know, all that life upheaval he had to handle It was out of the ordinary.

Well, this past week with my five-year-old has been just a bit challenging, my friends, and I’m ready to say that perhaps I can’t attribute all of Baxter’s former five-ishness to the transitions he went through that year.  Lyle’s been cranky and ornery, controlling and weepy.  He’s excruciatingly jealous of Baxter’s 9th birthday, which was last weekend, and handled each and every gift and card that wasn’t for him like a dagger to the heart.  (This when he’s got a brother who shared every gift with him immediately and even let Lyle open a couple of his presents for him.)  On multiple nights afterward, Lyle cried at bedtime because it hadn’t been his birthday that day, and then sobbed at breakfast when he awoke because there were no gifts for him on the table.  He did, in fact, receive a gift from us on Baxter’s birthday because that is a family tradition, and he even got a $5 bill here and there from kind relatives who stuck something in Baxter’s birthday cards for him.  His needs have been quite well tended to.  Furthermore, he has a full understanding of just how far away his own next birthday is; this pining for each day to be his special day is all fantasy, a way to relieve himself of his jealousy towards Baxter on all of us, an outlet for the tears.

But, oh, the drama!

Unfortunately, the crankiness has extended beyond our family at times (but only when I’m around, he’s been just fine elsewhere, I’m told).  He was so nasty to the girl we carpool with, pushing her aside and shouting that he had to get into the car first after school because THAT’S JUST THE WAY IT IS, that, well…let’s just say that quickly became the way it WASN’T.  He’s lost immediate, highly-desired privileges left and right for being mouthy and rude to others since Saturday. Which happened to be Baxter’s birthday.

Fast-forward to this afternoon’s violin lesson.  Due to his general mood, Lyle walked in without his usual sunny smile for his fabulous teacher.  She couldn’t get much eye contact or a real answer about anything from him.  And remember, she is that magical combination of early childhood teacher every child dreams of and incredible music teacher.  But there was my son, responding to as little of it as he could get away with.  His mood actually turned aggressive when it was time to do some games that he perceives as more challenging for him.  At one point, she happily sang something to transition them to a new activity, sat down, and asked him to sit with her on the floor; Lyle stood at eye level with her, sent a cold, steely gaze at her, and said cruelly, “You know… you’re not very funny.”

Yes, he did.

I’m not positive if this was before or after the time when she asked gaily if they could put his puffy coat on the floor between them as a “cloud” in case one of them dropped their violin bows in the game they were playing.  I could tell he didn’t understand what she wanted to do with it, they’d never done this before, and so he became wary.  He stiffly refused, pointing to her coat and saying in a rude tone, “No. Yours.” And then proceeded to step on it with his boots on when she laid it on the floor.

Yes, he did.

I know there was at least one other really awful moment but I’ve already buried it in my mind.  I was beginning to feel like I was in a live episode of “No, David!” Wicked, wretched child.  If there’d been a hotline to a child psychologist in the room, I’d have been on it.

It seems to me that the majority of young children get extra shy and quiet when they feel anxious in a new situation; Lyle sometimes does the exact opposite.  Normally a quieter guy, he goes on the offense and attacks anyone who makes him feel even slightly threatened.

I’m not going to say there were no good moments in this half hour, but I was having trouble getting past these mortifying, where-can-I-hide moments, so I’m not sure what they were.  Of course, I seriously reprimanded him in the moment and she didn’t take his nonsense either, but nothing felt like enough.  And, honestly, without being able to transport him ahead 9 months to August 27 and letting him have a birthday all his own, and erasing all challenging tasks from life, I guess there isn’t really a way to do enough this week.  This appears to be one of childhood’s struggles that has to play itself out.

And so after a lot of conversations about expectations, kindness, and Santa’s elves (so sue me!), and a pretty sweet apology card (posted above) that is going into the mail to his teacher tomorrow (to which he added “I love you” all on his own at the end), we relaxed into a normal evening and I no longer wanted to throttle the kid.  Not much at all.  He sat with me after dinner and asked to do some great fine motor work on his letter and number writing.  He focused and listened and was proud of himself.

When he went down to get ready for bed, I pulled the book about being five from the corner of the bookshelf where I’d stuck it a few months ago, and brought it to his room with me.  He’d never seen it and was intrigued.  He loved listening as it shifted from pages about anger and difficulty controlling one’s mouth and body to the pages celebrating all that’s wonderful about being five.  It acknowledges the ups and downs, the complexities of being bigger, and the greater adult expectations that go with that.  And it helped me, as well, to read phrases like:

It’s hard to be five. Just yelled at my brother. My mind says do one thing, my mouth says another.

and

At five I can lie down alone in my bed and dream of my past and my future ahead. And when I mess up or do right, it’s a start, ’cause I have my own mind and I have my own heart.

I need remember that it’s only one day in one tough week – just one part of a day that had many high points, too.  But there is no doubt: it’s hard to be five.

Excuse me while I go order this now, because as you may remember, I’m a big fan.

Nine!

Happy Birthday to the sweetest of sweet 9-year olds!  You’re the coolest ever.  I love you, Baxter.

Love, Mommy   xoxoxo

Lyle’s iPhone – er – Violin

Hey, Wonderfriends, remember that awful violin lesson I wrote about here last week?  Well, I am so happy – no, ecstatic is more like it – to tell you that we found an amazing teacher who manages to combine learning with FUN and teaches in a completely developmentally appropriate way (I KNOW!).  Lyle loved her from the first moment he met her, and at the end of his lesson whispered to me, “Violin is actually pretty fun!  Miss Heather is really fun!”  He learned an enormous amount in his first half hour alone and even, get this, got to compose his first piece of music.  On the easel, Miss Heather made little lines for him to fill in the names of each string and said he could arrange them any way he wanted.  She also encouraged him to name it.  What a great way to get kids started early with reading music!  (So far, his compositions in lessons have been called “Lyle’s Pizza” and “Blue and Red Mouses”.)  Since he is almost-but-not-quite yet at the point of actually getting that bow on the violin strings, he is plucking the songs.

Tonight at home he asked if he could write a song when we were practicing – who could say “no” to that?  I know he was proud because he let me videotape it; lately he doesn’t want his picture taken at all (only he’s allowed to take them, apparently).  And, yes, I do know that we need to work on getting that instrument up onto his shoulder, but I wasn’t about to interrupt the creative process tonight!

So, without further ado, here is my sweet, stuffy-nosed and tired but deeply-into-it guy composing a little ditty (you’ll love what he names it!) – and I apologize profusely in advance for my coughing fit in the middle:

And then, here he is, playing it for the first time:

I don’t think it would be possible for me to be more pleased.  I’m so proud of this little guy for persevering after his first awful experience and doing such a great job!

Left? Right!

The conversation around our family’s dinner table tonight was very much like a long answer to the joke that starts with,

“What do you get when you cross a linguist with a speech-language pathologist?”

Lyle, kicking things off with a random deep thought: Mommy, of the side-to-side words (gesturing from left to right and holding out his hands), which do you like better, “left” or “right”? I mean, the words, not the directions. Which one of those words do you like the best?  I like “left”.

Me, surprised: Hmm, I never thought about that.  I guess I’d say I like…

Baxter, interjecting quickly: Right.  I like right.

Me, finishing: …”left”.  I think I’d say “left”, off the top of my head, just because it seems more unique and interesting than “right”.  I guess I’m thinking about how common it is for people to be right-handed and fewer people are left-handed, so “left” seems kind of cool to me.  That’s the first thing I think of.

Lyle: I like “left”, too, because “left” only means one or two things, but the word “right” can mean lots and lots of different things.

Baxter: Yeah, like when you get something “right”, or correct… I like “right” because one time in Amelia Bedelia, Mr. Rogers told Amelia to turn left and she said, “Left?” and he said, “Right!” and so she turned right! [This retelling was a lot longer but I couldn’t follow its winding roads well enough at the time to reiterate them for posterity here.]

Matt: I like “left” because it makes me think of leftovers...

Me, laughing: But I think many people have a negative connotation when they think of leftovers!

Matt: Well, I’m thinking of pizza leftovers… (all three of us were suddenly on board)

Baxter: Then there’s also getting “left” in the dust, and that’s bad...

And so it went, on and on.  We also discussed our preferences for “up” v. “down” and a variety of other oddities.  This has just got to be in their genes.

** Edited to add: At breakfast this morning, Baxter taught Lyle what vowels and consonants are.  The boys spent half an hour giving each other words and naming the vowels in them.  (I made Lyle a cheat-sheet.)  They both found this endlessly entertaining.  After this posting of  last night’s dinner conversation, I did, too.

Bad Fit

Lyle recently expressed an interest in playing the violin.  Having played violin and viola myself growing up, I was absolutely thrilled.  I signed him up for some private lessons and rented violins for both of us.  For a few weeks, I’ve been relearning to play some simple pieces of music and he has loved listening and learning the little things I can teach him while we waited for our class to begin.

His first lesson was last Monday, at a reputable folksy music school here in Chicago.  I sat in and observed.  His teacher moved fast.  She was intense. She wasn’t “mean”, but there was no small talk, no friendly chatter.  She moved right into work on posture  – holding the instrument properly – and told me that he wouldn’t pick up the bow for at least 2-3 weeks.  She spent the full thirty minutes on a sequence of movements required to move from “concert rest position” to “playing position”.  Each time Lyle moved his arm into a correct position he moved one of his feet a step and had to start over from the beginning.  It was hard to watch but I was so impressed that he stuck with it and cooperated so beautifully.

However, the instant she told him he was finished, he rushed across the room, fell into my arms, and sobbed.  She didn’t address this, simply let the next student into the room and pushed us quickly out the door, Lyle still crying.  He cried all the way to the car, raging at me, saying he never wanted to take another lesson, never wanted to go back.  He asked if he could keep his violin, but I told him we couldn’t keep the rental instrument if he didn’t take lessons.  I assured him that we could find another teacher, however, if he wanted.  Much to my shock, by the time we got home he told me determinedly that he would go back.

All week I grappled with this.  Was the teacher too harsh? – or is this the way you teach a young child a challenging instrument like the violin? I don’t remember starting out that way, but perhaps I’ve forgotten.  Shouldn’t she have established some sort of rapport with him first, made a connection with the child? – or was I applying what a good therapist does to a different situation, one that doesn’t require it?  She was teaching him skills and he was capable of learning them with repetition, I saw that.  But was it meaningful to him? No.   Was he motivated to learn from her? No.  So how could it be that different from a negative therapeutic situation, then?

In fact, although he was determined to continue so that he could keep his beloved tiny violin, I watched my son struggle more and more as the week went on.  His anxiety grew more with each day, and his behavior became extremely controlling and defiant.  He wanted to be in charge of every conversation and everything anyone asked him to do.  The closer we got to the second lesson, the less tolerable his behavior.  On Saturday morning, we had to leave a Halloween festival we’d invited friends to because he was acting downright nasty.

I could see it quite clearly.  He was turning the tables on us, acting out exactly what he felt the teacher had done to him.  She had controlled every move he made for thirty minutes straight.  He’d never seen an adult act like that with a child.  Each time I tried to discuss it with him, he waffled painfully; on one hand, he never wanted to go back to that teacher again. “I HATE violin,” he shouted angrily, many times.  On the other hand, he was asking to go back to her rather than another, unknown, teacher.  He didn’t want to give up that violin.

And I still wondered: Can he do it?  Should he do it?  Is this how he needs to learn?  Will he just get used to her style?  Should he?  After all, we need to be able to learn from different kinds of teachers, don’t we? Do we pull the plug this fast, or give him one more week, especially since he says he’ll go back?

But I watched my kid and saw how incredibly dysregulated he was becoming, and decided to cancel the lessons.   I realized suddenly that this is exactly the kind of thing I talk about at work all the time with families.  The violin teacher did all of the things I warn against in therapy:  she sat a brand new child down and started drilling discrete skills (e.g., posture and movement sequences) without establishing any rapport whatsoever, without placing those skills into a meaningful context (e.g., music), moving too fast, and talking too loudly (not adjusting pace and volume to a child’s developmental level and temperament).  There wasn’t a word of praise. When he had a negative reaction to the session, she did not address or acknowledge it even for a moment.  And, thanks to these missteps, my child’s behavior took a huge turn for the worse in a matter of only 5 days, even with me processing it with him every day.  (Imagine a child with a classroom teacher or aide who behaves this way towards him all day?  Think about the “naughty” behavior we’d be seeing!  What if a parent didn’t see it, and so didn’t know what accounted for his behavior at home?)

Maybe that is considered to be an optimal way to begin this particular instrument and some kids can learn that way, but my kid clearly isn’t one of them – and I can’t feel bad about that.  A good teacher or therapist of any kind doing a private lesson is going to assess a student long enough to figure out who this child is and meet him right where he is developmentally in order to move forward.  I don’t think that would’ve taken more than five minutes in this case.  This is exactly why I always do a free initial session with a new client to make sure that both the child and the adult are comfortable with each other.  No therapist or teacher is going to be a good fit for every child.

Now that Lyle knows he’ll never see that teacher again, he has started to relax.  I have a couple other violin teachers for us to meet with this week and he’s happy about that.  Maybe one of them will be a better match and we’ll continue on this road, and maybe not.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  But one thing is for sure: we are not going to suffer through 8 weeks of lessons with the wrong teacher.  Lyle showed us very clearly how he felt about that.

This parenting stuff?  It’s just not easy.