Category Archives: parenting

What’s getting in my way when it comes to being more present as a parent?

I think of being more present as:

  • experiencing time as just enough (satisfaction), pleasantly fast (flow), or pleasantly slow (attention), as opposed to passing the time until something else happens
  • not wasting energy on frustration
  • communicating acceptance and flexibility
  • being able to observe and respond instead of glossing over things

What thoughts are getting in my way?

  • Am I doing A- a disservice by setting few limits? For example, would she benefit more from a regular sleep schedule compared to letting her mostly follow her own rhythm? I’ve read that toddlers can feel lost if they feel like they have too much power, and that the distinction between authoritative and permissive parenting is whether we hold kids to certain standards of conduct. I can deal with A- being upset if I need to insist on something (a hospital visit, time for my self-care, waiting for the next meal time instead of grazing). If it’s not necessary, though, I try not to insist. There’s plenty of stuff outside her control as it is. We’re probably all right. A red flag I can watch out for is if I find myself reacting to her reactions and regretting it.
  • Am I under-stimulating her? Am I forgetting to provide enough to support all aspects of her development? In this world, over-stimulation is probably more of a danger than under-stimulation is. If she ever got bored, which she shows no signs of at the moment, then she can learn to take the initiative. I make an effort to have more varied meals, and I rotate things out if she hasn’t played with them in a while. I worry about overlooking important skill components, but if I involve her in everyday life, we’ll come across gaps and I can help her with those. Reading about early childhood education helps a lot, too.
  • Am I letting things fall through the cracks? I’ve tried to be careful about making commitments and setting expectations. Consulting is on a best-efforts basis. Some weeks, I can work for a few hours. Some weeks, I prioritize other things. I’m getting better at not feeling guilty about ever-growing lists of ideas, half-forgotten thoughts, neglected email conversations, and being out of touch. If I had more discretionary time, I’d probably still have the same priorities, anyway.
  • What do I need to do in order to make the most of my time? What needs to be done first? I keep a list on my phone, so I don’t need to think about this too much through the day. I can review and prioritize tasks at start of my discretionary time.
  • Are there any questions I want to reflect on while doing other things? Is it worth doing so even if I can’t write things down, or should I wait until I can write or draw? One option might be to turn my attention to the chore that I’m doing, using that as practice in calming the monkey mind or noticing opportunities for improvement. Another option is to embrace that monkey mind and make a list of questions to think about, maybe jotting quick notes afterwards. Time for an experiment.
  • What are the unfinished things I need to hold in my head until I can wrap them up? I often get interrupted, and I don’t give myself enough time to leave notes for myself. I wonder what developmentally appropriate expectations are for waiting. Maybe I can gradually get A- used to waiting a few minutes, then longer and longer. A paper notebook might be better for capturing some thoughts than my phone would be, since writing is more visible and I don’t lose time to navigation. I’ve also been working on smaller chunks so that I have to maintain less in my head and I can finish things faster.
  • How can I improve our processes? How can I involve A- more, reduce costs, increase benefits, or explore alternatives? Where are the gaps and rough spots? What are the strengths that I can build on? It’s useful to think these thoughts about my current activity, since I have to pay attention. If I’m thinking about a different activity, then it can get in the way of being more present. Maybe I can work on transitions so I have time to write quick notes before moving on.

Hmm. I can let go of those worries, concentrate on paying attention to the current activity, and work on transitions and waiting. That should help me declutter my mind and get even better at spending time with A-. Onward!

Learning how to play with dough

​Every day brings new and wonderous discoveries of what a kid can do, even at 19 months old. 

Take play dough. We’ve been using the same batch I made a few months ago following the first recipe I found on the Internet. We have just enough to fill a sandwich container, and it’s all one colour: light green, since we had lots of green colouring left over from jelly-making days.

A- started off mostly being interested in cutting the dough with a baby knife and a dough scraper. I used to just roll out ropes and balls for her to cut. Last week, I decided to keep myself occupied by playing with the dough myself, learning more about thinking in 3D by shaping familiar objects or adding up layers. I made a cat. A- started petting it and doing the gestures for a cat-themed rhyme we often recite.

I made an egg and a pan. I mimed our breakfast routine, making a bowl and a plate along the way. She imitated that gleefully, asking me to make more eggs for her to crack and scramble. 

I made an airplane. She flew it around. 

I made figures for W-, her, and me. She gave them a hug. 

W- joined us for a play session. He made her a car. She vroom-vroomed it around.

I made her an apple. She said “Ap” and pretended to eat it. 

W- made her a banana. She said, “(Ba)nana, pee(l).” She tried to peel it, so I made her another banana with a peelable skin, and she peeled that. 

Meanwhile, W- made her two bananas, still joined together like we get them at the store. She took the pair of bananas, said “Nana, hu.” That boggled us. Hu? Hoo? What did she mean? She curled her finger under the stem connecting the bananas. Ah, hook! W- carefully hung the play dough bananas on the hook that we usually use for real bananas.

It was a little like doodling with play dough. We’d squish a quick shape together, name it, and see if she was interested. I knew A- was comfortable pretending with props – the tea set at the drop-in centre, the kitchen playset her cousins have – but I was surprised at how well she played with combinations of simple playdough figures and words. 

It makes me wonder: what else can I do at this stage to help her learn and grow? I doodle faces, stick figures, everyday objects, and sketchnoted thoughts when she’s drawing, and her pencil grip is starting to look remarkably like mine. (Hmm, might be time for me to learn how to write properly.) Her Lolo gave her a waterproof, shockproof camera, so we’ve started taking pictures and reviewing them together. We go to music classes so that I can learn songs to fill her week with. I’d also like to learn more about physical activity and nature so that I can help her grow in those areas too. It all seems almost like more of an education for me than for her. I’m learning a lot, guided by her joy.

It might not always be as awesome as this, I know. But it’s pretty darn awesome. =)

A-‘s moods

I’ve been thinking about A-‘s moods: what they’re like, what influences them, and what she likes doing when. If I can match my invitations and activities to her emotional state, then I can help her regulate her emotions and make the most of learning opportunities. Here are a few moods we’ve observed.

Reserved: When we’re outside, A- usually prefers to start by watching. If the place is busy, loud, or unfamiliar, it can take her some time to warm up. I don’t push her to interact. Instead, I might model playing with things myself, or simply sit with her and soothe her until she’s ready.

Quietly interested: Once A- has warmed up, or when we’re by ourselves at home, she’s usually calmer than many of the other babies I’ve seen. Most of the time, she’s quietly interested in whatever we’re doing. She has a neutral expression, and her eyes are bright and alert.

Playful: At home, A- often initiates play by doing something (throwing a ball, etc.) and looking at us with a smile or a laugh. She likes interaction, and will happily take turns or repeat actions to keep the game going. Sometimes she’ll be playful outside too, especially if we’re in a familiar place.

Laughing: I often hear A- giggling while W- plays with her, which is wonderful. I love the way he plays with her. He’s creative and energetic, and he usually gets her laughing and learning at the same time. He’s great at trying out new things with A-. When the chores are all sorted out, I like joining them for play – partly because it’s fun, and partly because W- is an awesome parent and I want to learn more. Sometimes, if I’m extra playful and silly, I can get lots of giggles from her too.

Afraid/upset: She’s got a good memory for places and people now, which is great when we go to the early years centres and a bit more challenging when we go to the doctor, the hospital, or the ocularist. When she’s afraid or upset, she cries and clings to me, and I try my best to soothe her. I remember having a hard time focusing when we were trying to soothe her after she woke up from anaesthesia. She was four months old and crying and crying, and my brain was fuzzing out. I’ve gotten much better at staying calm and holding her while she cries, trying to soothe her by rocking, singing, nursing, and talking.

Tired/hungry: When she’s tired or hungry, she’s usually pretty good at signaling what she needs. She’ll start with eye-rubbing, yawns, fake-snores, and babbles, and then cry if I miss those signs. For hunger, she’ll sign, and then push or cry if I miss those signs.

Resistant: When she doesn’t want something to happen, she’ll frown, wave our hands away, and protest vocally. This often happens when we try to brush her teeth or put her in her high chair, and it sometimes happens when we want to change her diaper or her clothes. Sometimes waiting is enough. Sometimes it helps to offer choices. Sometimes we just need to move on.

Pleased: She smiles and seems very pleased with herself when she figures something out or does something well. She often repeats the action many times, too. For example, when she got the hang of sitting down at the right time during Ring Around the Rosies, she asked us to sing it again and again, and she sat down smiling each time.

Snuggly: At bedtime or sometimes when she nurses, she likes snuggling up close. She also likes snuggling some of her stuffed toys. She used to hug one of our cats, too, but she hasn’t done that lately.

Hmm. Maybe I don’t have to be concerned that I’m not helping A- have as much fun as she does with W-, or that I’m not playful or creative enough. =) When she’s with me, she’s usually quietly interested in stuff, punctuated by plenty of snuggles and the occasional game. She seems to be developing well thanks to the different play styles she gets exposed to (yay, W-, J-, and Y-!), so that’s cool. Onward!

Notes on the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program

Back in May 2016, we were accepted into the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program because A- had a number of risk factors: A- was gaining weight very slowly, she had multiple congenital abnormalities, we were dealing with lots of uncertainty and medical appointments, and I was a first-time parent with no experience with little kids. We definitely needed all the help we could get.

The Healthy Babies Healthy Children program involved visits by a nurse and a home visitor. The nurse visited us every one to two months. The nurse helped us keep a close eye on A-‘s development using the Nipissing District Developmental Screens and the communication checklist. She also shared tips for interacting with A-, modelling the behaviours and explaining the ideas behind them. She used the NCAST Parent-Child Interacion Scale to closely observe how I interacted with A-. (The teaching scale involved a 73-item checklist!) With her guidance, I worked on giving A- specific positive feedback (“You shook the rattle!” instead of “Good job!”) and responding to signs of disengagement. It was also great to be able to ask her questions about the medical issues that came up.

The family home visitor came every one to two weeks. We often referred to the Nipissing checklist to plan what to do. She shared lots of activities that I could do with A-, and she even brought the materials. Thanks to her, A- got to try out things that it might not have occurred to me to start her on early: cruising along the sofa, scribbling with crayons on paper, painting with tempera paint, and so on. It was great to be able to ask her questions about parenting and community resources, especially since she saw A- regularly. It was also interesting to see A- gradually warm up to the family home visitor, despite the occasional reversion to staying close to me after a particularly stressful time.

Things have gotten much better over the past thirteen months that we’ve been helped by the Healthy Babies Healthy Children. On the medical side, we’ve learned more about A-‘s conditions, and they don’t seem to get in the way of her growth. Based on the checklists, A- has been developing normally so far. I’ve internalized many of the tips the nurse and home visitor have shared with me. Since there are higher-risk families they can help, it’s probably time to move on, although maybe we’ll wait until after the 18-month well-baby visit and the spate of medical follow-ups we have in August.

Even after we wrap up with the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program, I’d still like to keep a close eye on A-‘s development so that I can ask for help early if needed. Because we live in Ontario, I can get the PDFs for free from ndds.ca. I can talk to people about activity ideas and timing. The drop-in centre staff can suggest developmentally-appropriate activities. I can ask A-‘s pediatrician and Toronto Public Health questions, and the centres occasionally organize sessions with public health nurses too.

I’m glad we got to go through a program like this. I wish it were universally available. I learned a lot, and I’m looking forward to continuing to apply what I learned.

Notes on the Smart Start program at the Royal Conservatory of Music

We’ve been attending the Smart Start 12-24month classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music, which I chose because I like how the conservatory actively does research in the neuroscience of early music education. (More on that later.)

The 45-minute sessions are generally structured like this: free play, bouncing and tickling rhymes, walk/stop/run songs, instruments, listening to a short performance by the teacher, songs with scarves or puppets, and a goodbye song. Compared with the free circle times we’ve been going to at our neighbourhood drop-in centres, the music classes:

  • have small, consistent classes with a narrow age range and the same teacher: This is one of the benefits of a registered program. A- seems to warm up faster in a small group with familiar faces, and she’s gotten to the point of feeling comfortable walking around with me during the movement section. A narrow age range also makes it easier for the teacher to pick developmentally appropriate activities.
  • are longer: Circle time is generally fifteen minutes long, compared to about 35 minutes of music time (excluding the 10-minute free play to help the kids settle into the side).
  • repeat songs more within each session: We might sing the same song more than five times in class, while circle time usually does the same song once or twice before moving on. (The drop-ins might do a song  three times, if it’s a popular song with varying lyrics like See the Sleeping Bunnies.)
  • have more planned variety over time: Because it’s a registered program, sessions can build on previous ones to cover topics systematically. Repetition within sessions and across sessions allows the introduction of uncommon songs.
  • expose kids to good instruments: Small classes and good funding mean that every kid can try the same instrument, and they can go through different instruments over time.
  • expose kids to professional performances: The kids can watch the teacher perform on various instruments at a level much higher than I can do at home or that I’ve heard at circle time. There’s a baby grand piano in the room, and the teacher plays that and other instruments as well.
  • lead into other classes: There’s a clear path for life-long learning.

It’s awesome watching A- learn. She’s beginning to anticipate the phrases in the bouncing rhymes, although she’s still pretty blasé about tickling rhymes. She walks around with me during the segment where everyone walks around in a circle. She picks up the pace a little when the tempo shifts. She sways and bounces to rhythms. She imitates how we play jingle bells, drums, rhythm sticks, and shakers. She sits down and stands up at the appropriate times in Ring Around the Rosies.

I’m learning a lot, too. I’ve picked up a couple of new folk songs and rhymes. It’s a good opportunity to observe and learn a little about the ideas behind early music education, and it’s great to be able to ask questions. The textbook that the teacher recommended (Move, Sing, Listen, Play) will help me reinforce the ideas when we’re at home. I like the classes, and I’ve signed up for more next month and the fall term.

I’m not here to push A- to be some kind of musical prodigy. I’d like us to have fun with music – to nurture our musicality. I’d like her to grow up knowing that music isn’t just something you listen to, but something that you can enjoy creating. Not just something you play, but something you can play with. Since the best way of doing that would be for her to “catch” that kind of enjoyment from me, I’m happy to take advantage of group classes where kids need to be accompanied by grown-ups. At this age, the classes are probably more for us anyway. Independent classes start at three years old, so I may as well make the most of our shared music education opportunities.

We learned a bit about the ideas behind the Smart Start program when we went to the conservatory’s open house last weekend. Dr. Sean Hutchins (a neuroscientist, the RCM director of research) talked about how the Smart Start program focuses on developing attention, memory, perception, and cognitive flexibility, and shared some results from their neuroscience lab that showed significant improvements in musical ability and related areas such as literacy and numeracy. I asked him how his research influenced how he helped his kids with their music education. He told me about the value of starting early, and how music and movement are inextricably linked for young kids. I also asked him if the lab had developed any observation tools that parents could use to keep track of their kids’ musical development over time, outside the lab. (I’m a data geek, after all!) The lab has a short questionnaire for parents, but he didn’t have an inventory or scale that I might be able to use to document A-‘s growth. Ah well, I’ll just have to read textbooks on music education and take qualitative notes. The RCM Science blog and Resources page might be good starting points for more information. He also recommended Dr. Laurel Trainor’s work, as she does a lot of research with infants and toddlers.

Anyway, the drop-ins are great for adding more music and socialisation to everyday life, so we’ll keep going to those ones too. Music classes seem to be a good use of our resources. I’m glad we get to do both!