Sunday, October 31, 2010

sexual brain

Boys and girls are different, but not as different as cultural stereotypes would have us think. Moreover, differences caused by genes  and hormones can be compensated for by encouraging appropriate games and activities to kids. That's the gist of Pink Brain, Blue Brain (2009) by neuroscientist Lise Eliot. Eliot takes the reader from the womb through infancy, toddler years, preschool, and the beginning of formal schooling, so her book might be particularly interesting to parents of children in those age groups.

Lilly's now 28 1/2 months, so I found Eliot's recommended toys and activities for toddler girls in particularly interesting:

-       vetstibular stimulation (spinning, swinging, jumping, cartwheeling) "because girls, while they don’t lag behind boys in gross motor skills during the first year, are slower and weaker from the preschool years onward."
-       ball games (balls, darts, paper airplanes) "because girls begin to fall behind boys in certain spatial skills by end of the preschool period."
-       sports (peewee gymnastics, soccer, T-ball, running, kicking, batting) for spatial skills and hand-eye coordination, gross motor skills and mind-body wellness.
-       puzzles, mazes and other visuospatial games (jigsaw puzzles, the refrigerator magnet toy called Gear-a-tion that allows kids to experiment with gear movement in the kitchen while the adult cooks) to encourage spatial and mental rotation tasks.
-       building toys ("many girls love these, but the themes and colors are often not marketed to appeal to them. Look for more gender neutral LEGOs, Lincoln Logs, Marble Works, K’NEX, old fashioned wooden blocks. Translating a series of instructional diagrams into a three-dimensional structure provide excellent practice at the kind of visuospatial skill that is linked to higher mathematic achievement.")
-       hand her a tool and "moms need to tackle more of the mechanical jobs around the house too for good role modeling."
-       visuospatial computer games (particularly those involving spatial manipulations involving three-dimensional objects and virtual navigation) "because this kind of spatial ability shows the largest sex difference of any cognitive skill."
-       music keyboard training (piano or electric keyboard or a xylophone) "which increases spatiotemporal reasoning skills in preschool-age children. Because the musical scale is experienced as a visual pattern on a piano or a xylophone, learning to play such instruments may train the brain to recognize patterns in both space and time, which may be helpful for mastering mathetmatical concepts such as fractions, proportionality, and geometry."

For toddler boys, Eliot recommends:

-       language and literacy enrichment ("boys need lots of verbal interaction to boost their vocabulary and other language skills. Reading to them is probably the best way to do this. Boys often have a strong interest in nonfiction books about vehicles, sports, animals, outer space, etc. Another boy-friendly way of increasing literary exposure is having them listen to books on tape or on CD. It’s amazing how adding Play and Pause buttons and headphones can entice some boys to sit still and follow a story.")
-       ABCs and letter sounds (to improve independent reading skills later). Reading ABC books to them, emphasizing letter sounds, playing games involving rhyming and alliteration, encouraging them to practice printing their names and other words.
-       Preliteracy computer games ("computer time should be limited, but boys are often drawn to them and they can be powerful learning tools, including for practicing learning letters, sounds (phonics), rhyming, and other reading-readiness skills.")
-       Fine motor skills, which are essential for pencil-and-paper tasks in grade school (cutting, stamping, building with small construction toys, painting or drawing standing at easels, typing, clip-boarding as in walking around tallying or charting objects in the environment)
-       More physical movement indoors and outside.
-       Rough-and-tumble time.
-       Focus on feelings ("books like Thomas the Tank Engine stories with trains that have animated personalities and feelings about their jobs and one another can help boys distinguish and give voice to a range of broader their feelings from a young age").
-       Pet care (to teach nurturing skills).

Saturday, October 30, 2010


As a child, I was what's often referred to as a "poor eater." Not always, though. Whenever I'd visit my grandma's, I'd return to my parents' house with what my mom would call a popped belly (struttemage). Why? Because my grandma would make meals so much fun and cozy. She'd bake miniature bread for me which she sliced really thinly, spreading the butter generously, letting me spoon out mounds of her own homemade raspberry jam on top. She let me sleep in bed with her, and then in the morning, after stretching her feet up in the air, greeting each of her toes good morning, she'd talk about what she would like to have for breakfast that day, making a soft boiled egg, some anchovy and cheese sound just heavenly. She'd make hot chocolate for me, warming the milk to just the right temperature and we'd have breakfast by the fireplace.

Back at my parents' house, I'd lose my appetite. All that nagging to eat, the bickering between my parents; meals were the most stressful part of the day.

Over the years, I have regained my appetite for food and the comforts of shared meals with loved ones. I was so excited when it was time to introduce solids to Lilly, but, alas, she was not as excited. At 28 months, she still prefers the boob to bread, at least most of the time (more and more, the Brick Oven Bakery's sourdough bread takes first place, especially if it's freshly baked). But we stuck to our daily meals together, tried our best to make them pleasurable for all, from infancy through babyhood to toddlerhood. And more and more so, she enjoys our meals together. And of course, we're tickled when she downs the tilapia we have on Fridays or whenever she tries something new, like, most recently, mixed spring greens. But more than anything, I'm grateful that we haven't put pressure on her to eat. Rather, we've tried to make it fun and above all as non-stressful as possible (though you know, eating with her has often meant that either my husband or I have had her in our lap while we eat, or shared our chair with her, or played musical chairs around the table throughout the meal). Yet, more and more, she'll sit and eat longer with us before playing nearby on her own. At least on good days (the other days, she's impatiently squirming in one of our laps while we down our food and entertain her).

All this said, I've surprised myself lately by recycling some of my parents' tricks to encourage her to eat. Like, "does baby Millie [one of Lilly's baby dolls] want some oat meal?" [Spoken with baby voice]: "Yes." "Do you want Lilly to give it to you?" "Yes." Upon which Lilly does a little seated dance in her chair before she takes her spoon and pretends feed baby Millie before feeding herself. So cute. Bite after bite.

Just the other day, I said something that shocked me even more. "Can you eat one bite banana for your friend Anna?" Gleeful bite. "Another for Elias?" Another one. And on and on. The fact that it worked??!! Astounding.

So, I guess my parents' weren't completely off the track, had they just stuck to the fun parts and dropped the negativity, they might have nailed it.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Today I felt, I'm losing her. She'd told me this morning she'd been sad last night when I wasn't there the way I always am for bedtime, and then all night she'd spent doing her best making sure I was right there in bed with her, kicking me, squirming around me, sleeping on me. Still she told me this morning she was sad.

And then on top of that, it was the weekly morning she spends with my friend and her daughter, today also her older son who was off school because of MEA. And she didn't seem to mind at all; in fact, she was excited about it. She barely remembered to give me a hug before I left. And then when I returned to pick her up, she was gone. All of them were gone. In the meantime, the house had been decorated for Halloween and I figured it was a haunted house surprise for me. So I opened the door and walked through the house, but no one was home. I called my friend's cell, no response. I called my husband's cell, he had no clue.

My friend had said something about going to the pumpkin patch and maybe the farmer's market and to check my cell before picking up Lilly. There was no message, but after rummaging through their house, I drove to the market.

(Captured at the pumpkin patch with my friend's cell phone camera)

Driving back into town from my friend's house in the countryside went from me feeling like I was the one the joke's made on in a comedy to me fretting my friend was in the emergency room with one of the kids. It was a feeling like no other. On a gorgeous sunny final Indian summer day, the corn acres being plowed around me on both sides, cows grassing, sheep feeding, and all I could feel was that this is a day like no other.

And then of course, when I arrive at the farmer's market half an hour later, they're all there, playing happily at the playground next to the market, snacking on freshly baked market bought quiche and cupcakes. And Lilly didn't even notice me. Or at least she didn't care or run towards me. My friend smiled and waved, did I not get her message? But no, my ten dollars worth stupid cell phone, which I got since a) it's a bargain and b) it has a long battery life, it being such a basic gadget free phone, had neither rung when she called (because the ring tone has mysteriously disappeared) nor received the picture of Lilly and my friend's daughter at the pumpkin patch (because it never had that picture function). And Lilly kept addressing my friend, in English. "Want to slide down." "Take my hat." "Where's my pumpkin?" And so on and on. It's not like Lilly doesn't have English comprehension, but after another morning with my friend, it was all she would speak, all these English phrases.

I'd feared I'd lost her for real. Relieved to see her on the slide, I was still tortured by the realization of slow loss. I'd lost her attention. I'd lost her physically. I'd lost her verbally. While I've used to love how she'd run to my friend,  I know felt somehow jealous.

It was a beautiful day, but I just wanted home and escape from the day. To nurse her. Remind her of our bond. Have her full attention.

So I grabbed her in my arms; she didn't want to leave. Back at the house, she wanted to gallop around in the yard like a horse, jump down the porch stairs, admire her new pumpkin on our front stoop, and not go inside.

I got her in. And all of a sudden it was an onset of many needs: hungry for boob, need to pee, want to wash hands, get in pajamas. In a circus, we got around to them all. And then she contentedly sat down on the floor, arranging and playing with her toys while I made lunch. And she'd snack and eat in between the chit chat with her toys.

I saw her this way so peaceful and content at home, like there's been no business. And while I felt slightly ashamed by my earlier pitiful reaction, I could feel my heart slowly warming, my feet finding their way to connect with the floor, my breath catching up.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

why we read to our kids

One thing my mom did right, was that she read to me. A lot. And whereas my dad would not only tend to skip pages but also kept his voice dead flat when he on occasion read for me at night, my mom seemed to take tremendous delight herself in the activity, reading with great impersonation.

It's one of my fondest memory, sitting on her lap in a big cozy armchair in the living room for quiet time and she'd read to me. Big beautiful leather bound books with classic tales, colorfully illustrated and with beautiful letters. Series of books she ordered through a children's book club, stacking the bookshelves in my bedroom. Text heavy books, or animated books. Bags of books from the library. Some that were challenging, others a breezy read, and some that were right in between.

My mom always had a stack of books on her night table as well, and when the kids were older and she'd get some to herself after dinner and cleaning up, she'd sit in her armchair and read. (I understand now why she to the question "what do you want for Christmas or for your birthday" would always respond: peace and quiet and good children (fred og ro og snille barn).

According to What to Read When: The Books and Stories to read with Your Child -- and All the Best Times to Read Them by Pam Allyn, founder and director of LitLife, an organization that trains K-12 teachers in literacy education, my mom did everything right. She shared her love for books with me. Not just the stories and illustrations, but the way the books were bound, the fonts that were used, the layers of meaning. She introduced me to a range of genres and I would take it all in, devouring books at night myself as my reading skills improved. And she kept reading to me, even when I was fine on my own. I grew heavy on her lap, but she held on to this ritual too.

Even with my mom's role modeling, my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, and years of experience teaching literature to college students, I found Allyn's book a compelling read. It is organized into three sections. In the first, she describes ways of engaging children in reading and interpretation, how to encourage their love of each letter and page, the power of a good story. She concludes this introductory section with a children's literature canon. In the second, she discusses what kinds of books to read at children's various ages, from birth till ten, providing numerous title suggestions. Finally, in the third, she recommends books that relate to various themes, from "adoption" to "your body" ("complexity of sharing" and "falling asleep" are included among the fifty she presents).

I recommend Allyn's book. Even if you too had someone who's passed on your love for books that you in turn can pass on to your and others' children. It's a reminder of how magical the entrance into the realm of literature can be for children and it's a great annotated catalog of book recommendations for different staged and occasions.

I was reminded of the importance of books that address challenging situations when I came across Anna Brushes Her Teeth at the library. No matter how fun we tried to make the tooth brushing for her with songs (e.g. puss puss så får du et kyss) and rituals, it was just a dreaded time of the day. After reading that book ONCE, it became a blast. Now it's her papa or I saying, "time to brush teeth," and she goes, "just like Anna!"

Currently I'm looking for books dealing with departure time (as in for when we're leaving the play ground, the library, stores, parks, or wherever she does not want to leave). Any recommendations? A book on the challenges of waiting (as in building patience) would also be great.

Monday, October 18, 2010

NO! the terrible twos

The summer Lilly turned one, people we got to know while living in a small Greek village always commented on how happy she seemed. Our response was usually that it's because we follow her clock; she gets to do what she wants to do, at her whim, in her time. Within reason. And with a good amount of distraction and redirection involved. But our feeling was, why fight it? We didn't need to be anywhere or do anything aside from being together, eating, and sleeping. Trying to schedule and discipline seemed futile for this little one-year-old.

 curious ones

Now we're experiencing a whole new ball game. Suddenly it's a constant battle. While we might have found the living slow and a tad tedious a year ago, I do sort of miss its sweet lack of friction. Now, all of a sudden, it's relentless. As of last week, I've found myself constantly bombarded by my willful toddler's tenacious attempts at being contrary. I want to leave the playground, she wants to stay. I want to stay, she wants to go. And so on and on.

terrible twos

As David Walsh, the award-winning psychologist and author of, among other, No. Why Kids--of All Ages--Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It (2007), writes; parents spend the first nine months of their children's lives saying yes. Then they spend the next nine months or from when the baby starts to crawl, distracting and redirecting (120-21). However, he continues, from about eighteen months, "No takes on a different meaning and importance. Up until then, babies are not really capable of understanding limits and consequences" (121). Suddenly they begin to realize that their needs and wants are not the same as to those of people around them. The so-called "terrible twos" springs from "the toddler's realization that he's a separate person from his parent with different feelings and thoughts," explains Walsh (123). "Toddlers are not doing things parents don't want them to do just to be contrary. They are exploring this newly discovered difference between themselves and others" (123).

Quoting The Scientist in the Crib (2000), Walsh continues:

"What makes the terrible twos so terrible is not that the babies do things you don't want them to do--one-year-olds are plenty good at that--but that they do things because you don't want them to ... Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict ... the child is the budding psychologist; we parents are the laboratory rats." (124)

I'd read Walsh's book through the chapter on toddlers and preschoolers and thought I was safely moving along the track of a balanced parenting style (as opposed to permissive or authoritarian) but I wasn't prepared for Lilly's complete meltdown when I arrived at my friend's house last Thursday after yoga to pick her up. She refused to leave. No matter how much I coaxed or lured, she simply would not. Her thirty pound body suddenly a hundred in my arms, I was unable to strap her alternating limp, tensely strung bow, and flailing body into the car seat. Her crimson cheeks spattered were with tears.  It was not a pretty sight.

Monday, October 11, 2010

homeschooling for a year

I just finished reading Laura Brodie's Love in a Time of Homeschooling (2010), which chronicles her one year of homeschooling her eldest daughter. Witnessing her ten-year-old daughter suffer within a highly regimented public school system, though reluctant to give up her own career, Brodie--an English professor who can appreciate the value of a sabbatical to rejuvenate one's love of learning--decided to teach her daughter at home through fifth grade. It's an honest and thought provoking account about homeschooling, parenting, and the public school system.

I like the idea of giving kids in school this kind of sabbatical. Any of you ever done or considered doing something like this?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

the terrific twos

That's what they call it at ECFE, and I'm beginning to think they might have a point. After a good two-year stretch of intense care and feeding, as in nursing, night and day, I suddenly feel that it's become more of me holding on to this precious stage of stimulating and rewarding teaching opportunities, play, and interacting. Yes, there's the testing of boundaries and the challenge of sharing toys with friends, but I just love how being with her now is no longer just about intense care. We can do so many more things together that are fun for all of us, my husband and I included. And she remembers things that stand out to her as fun and talks about them day after day.

Like the pumpkin we bought last weekend at Sogn Valley Craft Fair. And how she danced to the live music there. Or the river (the loud water fall, on the other hand, seemed to scare her a bit) and all the leaves she saw at Big Woods on our weekend hike.

Yesterday, we took the historical trolley ride in Minneapolis between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun. Not only was it fun for all, but it seems to have cured her fear of trains that occurred on a day trip to Pepin, Wisconsin earlier this summer where the train goes through VERY loudly and right in your face.

We also had a picnic by the lake and visited a bookstore (in the Linden Hills neighborhood) with a door-in-the-door just for kids (plus lots of live animals chasing around inside, including hens, cats, rats, doves, and lizards, to name a few).

We concluded with ice cream at Sebastian Joe's, Lilly climbing the tortoise in the court yard with some older kids.

Before conking on a bench with her papa and baby by our car.

So sure, these things are weekend fun things, but every weekday seems packed with more fun. Like watching the garbage truck come by.

So what do you think, what's most fitting for this stage, "terrible twos" or "terrific twos"? Lilly's not yet thrown a full blown tantrum, hopefully she never will (am I being naive?). What's your experience?

Friday, October 8, 2010

caution and competence

It's one of those lovely warm Indian summer days, sun shining from a spotless sky, so when I drove out into the countryside around noon to pick up Lilly who's with my friend Mary on Friday mornings, Mary and I ended up lingering on her deck, talking for more than an hour while the kids where playing around, eating frozen fruit sticks. It didn't matter to us (then) that they were getting overtired, playing well into nap-time. It was just so good to talk. About parenting, books, our work.

As I was about to leave, Mary shared an observation about Lilly. She shows, explains Mary, both caution and competence. It's not that she's hesitant, far from it, she seems very confident. But she always watches and makes sure she can handle tasks and situations before acting.

I was so grateful for my friend's comment, that she really watches my daughter so thoughtfully. Earlier this week I noticed Lilly at the playground carefully watching a new friend climb one of those ladders that's made to look like a hanging rope grid. Then yesterday, at another playground, she came across the same kind of ladder. And this time, she climbed it all the way up.

This quite wise sense of caution transfers to more social aspects too. During the first two ECFE classes, she mainly watched during circle time, snack, and in the second part of class when the kids are free to explore activities by choice while the parents (read: moms and the token dad) have discussion time (read: class) in a separate room. I was about to quit (for this and other reasons), but then that third time she just loved playing with the others so much and the fourth time she didn't even run to throw herself at me like the other kids when the parents return to the children's room for the final goodbye song that we sing in a circle holding hands; she was at the opposite side of the circle the entire time with a big grin on her face.

I want to nurture this sense of caution in her, and not be impatient and hurry her on. As my friend pointed out, it will serve her well as a teenager. If she continues to watch the repercussions of bad choices then, rather than recklessly getting  herself into things, she'll be better--and safer--off.
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