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Making Lemonade

My daughter recently sent a photo of our eight-year-old granddaughter drawing a picture of a very sad face.  As I looked at little Eloise with headphones in place and marker in hand, my eyes welled up. I thought back to that spunky little girl who was always so quick to use any opportunity to share her wit, but was now sadly experiencing the weight of uncertainty shared by so many children today.

Grownups are having a difficult time coping with the stress of rising unemployment, social distancing, unending negative news broadcasts, home schooling their children, limited availability of household items, sanitizing their homes, unpaid bills… Words fail to relate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic upon families, most especially young children whose energy and enthusiasm is contained within the confines of what is now called “the new norm” and who are unable to comprehend the enormity of the present situation. How can they, when the grown-ups they have always looked to for answers, have none to offer?

Eloise’s drawing of a sad face enabled her to get her emotions out into the open. Once drawn, she and her mother had a discussion about her drawing. My daughter explained to Eloise that it’s ok to feel sad, angry, frustrated, and the myriad of emotions that were going around in her little body. Nancy recognizes the importance of validating her daughter’s feelings and offering suggestions to help her cope during the present pandemic.

“When will we get back to normal?” Eloise asked her mom; a presently unanswerable question, yet one that needs to be addressed with reassurance and composure for Eloise to feel safe and secure, key ingredients to building confidence in a young child.

“I don’t know when this will be over. It might very well carry over into the fall and winter,” Nancy honestly replied. “It’s important to find ways to make the most of a bad situation.”

How do parents attempt to provide hope for a happy and safe home in the midst of a situation that offers them little hope of being resolved in a timely manner? To show confidence that things will improve when they are surrounded by a barrage of abysmal news? When hand sanitizers, empty supermarket shelves, and lack of social interaction have become the new norm?

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Nancy is one of the best lemonade makers around. For some time now, Eloise has wanted to dye her hair pink, so pink was the order of the day. No big deal. The children were out of school until the end of the year and Eloise could use a change from the day to day monotony. A quick online purchase for the right shade of pink, followed by a brief at-home hair salon session, and voila! Eloise’s pink-toned tresses matched her rosy-cheeked smile as she proudly posed for commemorative photos.

As I look over Facebook posts, I realize that as difficult as these days might be, parents across the country are finding ways to make their own versions of lemonade. I have seen posts of grandparents doing FaceTime with their grandchildren wearing outlandish make-up complimented by equally outlandish costumes. I’ve viewed parents doing drives-by with neighbors just to enable their children to connect, however remotely. Birthday celebrations take the form of decorated cars honking loudly as they pass by the celebrant’s house.

There have been posts showing families taking hikes through wooded areas and enjoying the beauty of the budding of spring, creating art from what was casually discarded as trash in the past, and families renewed enjoyment of board games that had previously been overshadowed by the magnetic draw of technological devices.

As I view all of these wonderful, uplifting posts, I think of how this pandemic, painful as it is, has served to remind us of what we value most in life-our family, our friends, the many people who contribute to our well-being, and the natural  beauty that surrounds us on a daily basis.

 

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When Words Fail

Coronavirus. Who in their wildest dreams would ever think that with today’s advanced medicine, technology, global economy, and scientific knowledge, we’d be faced with a pandemic of such magnitude? Well, here it is and here we are. Now, the question is what do we do about it?

 

It is easy to bitch and moan about who is at fault. It is also easy to recount all of the clues and past wisdom of people who predicted its coming. Frankly, I am getting tired of laying blame. I have been raised to believe that we learn from our mistakes and move on. I know, that under the present circumstances, it is difficult to move on; it is much easier to stay in the rut we’ve created, but complaining and sitting back is counterproductive to helping us get through the current disastrous situation. Right now, my thoughts lie with how this crisis is affecting families.

 

Recently, I sent my granddaughter a text. What can I possibly say to her to help allay her many fears: Will any of her loved ones get sick? Will they die? Will she be able to return to school? See her friends? Play in a playground…? So many unanswerable questions are rambling through her twelve-year-old brain. What can I possibly write in a text to a grandchild I love so dearly?

 

When I started to type the text, I decided to be honest. I wrote that she is going through a unique time in recent history. I wrote that, yes, I have every faith that we will get through the present crisis, but it will take time and patience. Then, as I reread what I had written, I thought that my note sounded a bit like I was pontificating, that I was relating what she has probably heard ad nauseam. So, I wrote, “In a word, it sucks!” As I wrote that simple word, a word that grandparents would seldom, if ever, use when communicating with their young grandchildren, a sense of relief came over me. It does suck, I thought. It sucks for every individual going through this very difficult time. Finally, I thought of the pervasive popular phrase, “alone together” and went on to state that she is not alone. Her friends, teachers, and extended family members are also experiencing the exact same feelings as she.

 

The following morning, I spoke with my granddaughter on the phone and our conversation put my worries about her well-being to rest. “Yeayah,” she said. “We are taking walks and I’m doing home schooling. I miss my friends and I miss school, but we’re all going through the same thing.  It sucks!” We had reached a new level of dialogue between us, one that is open and nonjudgmental, one that transcends the barrier that often limits acceptable conversation between adult and child.

 

I’m not saying that I will now freely use some of my more colorful phrases that might come out of my mouth during times of sheer frustration, but through writing that borderline inappropriate word  at a time when more genteel words fail to adequately describe indescribable feelings, that simple word gave us both  a sense of being in control of an uncontrollable situation.

 

 

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Nature As Teacher

This past fall, my daughter, son-in-law, May and Eloise went on a camping trip to New Hampshire. As my daughter recounted their experiences, an image of myself as a young child, walking through the woods of upstate New York with my dad, came to mind. I vividly recalled those special moments when I had my dad all to myself, walking hand in hand, eating blueberries off bushes, creeping up to view unsuspecting deer, and picking wildflowers to bring back to my mother. As the youngest of six children, I relished time alone with my father, discovering and learning about nature’s bounty. Now, decades after his death, our times shared remain among my favorite memories.

In today’s culture, where so many programmed activities are a part of children’s lives, there seems to be less and less time to enjoy the spontaneity of being a child; hiking through the woods, roads, and/or parks that surround our lives, and discovering the gifts that nature offers. Why do bees buzz around flowers? Why do leaves turn to such magnificent colors in the fall and drop different kinds of seeds onto the ground? What do squirrels do with those acorns they gather? How many sounds can you hear when you pause to listen, really listen? Where do ferns hide their seeds? Expanding and developing children’s natural curiosity is the free gift nature has to offer.

Through Instagram, I was able to share in the joy that my grandchildren and their family friends experienced. Photos of children jumping into a lake, hands reaching out for the rarely-offered-at-home “junk food,” cooking over an open fire, and children standing in front of a pond with their arms wrapped around each other, smiling broadly at the camera, enabled me to experience a bit of their outings with a touch of a finger onto my cell phone..

One image in particular said all that words could  hope to convey. It was a photo of May’s eyes riveted upon a plastic recyclable cup with holes containing leaves and an insect. I could only imagine what she was thinking as she observed its movements. Nancy, my daughter, wrote the caption, “Nature’s YouTube.” As I read the caption, I thought that’s one way in which Mother Nature meets modern technology. In science, observations, and experimentation  lead to conclusions. Here sat May, applying the scientific method naturally, no textbooks or pre-programmed lessons.

As a teacher, I always believed that a child’s natural curiosity needs to be fed with constant opportunities for development. While after-school sports and planned activities are valuable, taking time to just be a kid, exploring the world around you and developing an understanding of the important relationship that exists between nature and humanity is invaluable for keeping the fires of curiosity burning.

 

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When A Pet Dies

Anyone who has had a pet understands how that pet becomes more than an animal running about the house. They know their pet becomes an important member of the family; a member who like all members of the family requires care, love, food, regular doctor visits, and needs to abide by certain rules and expectations. In return, the pet freely gives unsolicited love, attention and comfort to the other members of the family. My granddaughters, May and Eloise learned this life lesson through their beloved pug, Mr. Woo. What they weren’t prepared for was the fact that one day Mr. Woo would leave their world, a fact they sadly faced this past autumn.

Mr. Woo was May’s and Eloise’s “big brother.” He was the fifth member of the family. He was there when May was born and three years later, happily greeted May’s younger sister, Eloise. May, Eloise, and big brother Mr.Woo; three close siblings, sharing good times and bad. The girls couldn’t imagine a world without him, yet that world was rapidly approaching.

My daughter and her husband tried to prepare the girls for Mr. Woo’s impending death, knowing that there was no way to ease the pain that was about to befall the entire family. The news should not have come as a shock. They had all witnessed Mr. Woo’s labored breathing, given him pills that they hoped would miraculously sustain his life and carried him up and down stairs in order to ease his pain of walking. It shouldn’t have come as a shock for with love comes hope, and their hope never waned.

During Mr. Woo’s final days, May and Eloise showered him with attention, treasuring every moment of his last days in the hopes that the time spent hugging, kissing and giving him unlimited treats, would somehow, miraculously cure his many ills, but to no avail. Last autumn, May and Eloise hugged Mr. Woo for the last time.

The death of a pet is a devastating experience for anyone, but most especially for children. Often, it is a child’s first experience with watching a loved one die. Throughout their developmental years, Mr. Woo was always available to offer comfort when needed, laughter at a moment’s notice, a warm body to cuddle, a happy greeting when the girls returned home after a hard day at school, a willing playmate whenever the need arose… The list of services offered by their funny, often smelly, little pug was unending. His departure left a deep chasm in the hearts of these two little girls.

People often say that it’s better to put sick pets out of their misery. While this may be true, it is easier said than done when you are the one making the decision. You doubt yourself every step of the way, wondering if your beloved pet’s pain is excruciating or if you’re prematurely ending her/his life. Once the decision is made, you live with it, often questioning your decision for years to come. I know. I write from experience.

As my daughter sobbed along with my granddaughters, my son-in-law was given the responsibility of taking Mr. Woo to the vet one last time He had to be the brave one, yet he loved Mr. Woo no less than any of the mourners left behind. He was the unsung hero who painfully watched his once-lively buddy take his last shallow breaths. The air was heavy with the weight of tears for this entire family.

As I sit at my computer, recalling Mr. Woo’s final days, I think about how difficult broaching the subject of death can be for young children. I marvel over how my daughter and son-in-law handled this painful time with sensitivity, love, and compassion. As a family they shared funny Mr. Woo stories, told Mr. Woo how much they were all going to miss him, showered Mr. Woo with unending hugs and a plethora of snacks, cradled him as they walked around the house, and cried rivers of tears into his soft fur. They outwardly expressed their sadness and had group hugs with their little ball of fur. They shared joy-filled days with Mr. Woo as a family and now, as a family, they shared in their grief.

I often wonder about the “best way” to prepare for a pet’s death. In my opinion, there is no way. It is a heart-wrenching experience; an experience that draws out and releases the gamut of emotions that make us human beings.  When a pet dies our feelings supersede words until such time when words can resurface as happy memories of times shared.

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Times Are A-Changing, But Some Things Remain The Same

Whenever I work out at the gym, I take along my iPhone and listen to songs as I sweat my way through my routine. One of the songs that I tend to replay over and again is Bob Dylan’s, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” As I listen to the song, I think about how meaningful, ingenious, and ageless Dylan’s lyrics are. His song, written in the sixties, carries a message that is as poignant today as it was when it was first recorded over fifty years ago. As a grandmother of two young granddaughters, I often wonder if my attitudes, ideas, and interactions are current. What kind of affect am I having on my granddaughters? What memories of our time together will they carry with them into their futures? And how many of the activities and moments that I share with them will withstand the test of time?

There can be no doubt that today’s children experience a far different childhood from mine or that of my children. Life is indeed more complex. Technology has opened windows into areas that are far more sophisticated than I could have ever dreamed possible during my developmental years. However, with everything the Internet has to offer, some things do remain constant; children need human interactions in order to develop socially, physically and intellectually. A cyber buddy can never replace the lessons learned or the bonds formed through human contact.

Recently, I was playing Chutes and Ladders with my two granddaughters, ages seven and ten. Eloise, my younger granddaughter, got extremely frustrated each time she found herself lagging behind her sister and me. At one point, she took her game piece and put it at the finish space stating with aplomb, “I win.” Her action caused me to think back to when her sister was five years old and how I used to stack playing cards so that she would win in the game of “War.” My reason for doing so was because I wanted her to learn the game without putting the added dimension of losing into the hopper. In the case of Eloise, she already knew how to play the game so I believed that we could play by the rules. I was mistaken. While Eloise, needs to win, as do most young children, I believe, she also needs to learn how to handle losing, a skill in and of itself. I have come a long way in my thinking from five years ago.

During my teaching tenure, I often played games as a way to teach and reinforce academic skills. I also believed in their value as a means to develop interpersonal communication, a skill that is not fostered through the use of technological devises. One of my favorite games to play with my students was UNO a game requiring little skill, but lots of luck, a game suitable for all students.

There was one boy in my class who would join the UNO group whenever it was played, often losing to me, his teacher. Before long, his desire to win the game became a near obsession and, because of his enthusiasm, several classmates joined in his effort to “beat the teacher.” Laughter filled the room as did the lively conversation that usually accompanies any small-group game situation. Eventually he did win and it became one of his proudest moments, so much so that he wrote in his sixth grade yearbook that one of the highlights of his school experience was when he “beat Mrs. Scarlata at UNO.”

The lessons I have learned during my career of teaching young children served to prepare me for my role as a grandmother. Many of the activities and games that I shared with my students have successfully become a part of my granddaughters’ lives some many years after I left my profession. Game playing is timeless. Monopoly, to name one game, is as much fun to play today as it was when my daughters were little. It is a game for for the entire family to enjoy and is a wonderful vehicle for developing, an understanding of money, numbers, making wise decisions, and doling out responsibilities. May and Eloise enjoy playing it, even if Eloise has a tendency to quit the game once her limited attention span wanes.

Yes, the times are changing. Change has occurred since the beginnings of time and will continue to change in the future. It’s a natural progression. But, with changing times, there are some things in life that remain constant and much of what we value in life can be reinforced through interpersonal game playing. What better way to unwind, relax, and talk about your day by participating in a family game? Technology has its place, but its place needs parameters. Time to put technological devices to bed at a reasonable time and give games their wake-up call. Games will change with time, but their importance in developing good sportsmanship, camaraderie, communication skills, and family unity never diminishes.

 

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A Wonder-Filled Moment

There is no doubt about it; grandchildren can be exhausting! The older we get, the more exhausting they seem to become. Fortunately, the energy they consume is far outweighed by the lasting images that fill our memory banks long after their departure.

When I close my eyes, one such image comes to mind. It is the image of a little girl, with her back to me, sitting in freshly grown grass, staring fixedly at the bird feeder that she and her younger sister had recently filled. “What is she thinking?” I thought as I observed her from afar. “What could cause this little bolt of energy to put herself on pause and stay fixed for such a long period of time?” For indeed, she had been sitting in one position for several minutes. No sound emanated from her lips. No movement from her little body. She was truly in a world all her own. As I watched her, I thought how intricate the workings of a child’s mind. Each day brings new images that serve to further develop a deeper awareness of nature and all its glory.

As grownups, involved in the complexities of daily life, we are often guilty of not taking the time to appreciate all the wonders that surround our lives. Seeing May lost in her thoughts as she watched birds flutter to take food from the bird feeder then fly off to let other birds have their turn, caused me to put myself on pause and see the wonders of nature with fresh eyes. In an age of extravagant birthday parties for young children, programmed activities to fill after-school time, spending large sums of money on toys, computer software, iPhone apps, and pre-packaged crafts to occupy children while at home, we sometimes lose sight of the importance of taking time to just sit and quietly absorb the sounds and sights of nature’s gifts.

Watching May momentarily lost in her world, brought me back to a time when I led my daughter and her friends on a birthday party nature walk. Equipped with decorated paper bags, we set off to find a variety of leaves, seeds, and flowers as we walked through our neighborhood park. Once back at home, we laid out our treasures, talked about the different kinds of leaves and seeds, and made collages on construction paper. I remember how happy the children were with their finished products and how happy I was to have been able to share my time and knowledge of botany with them. It was a simple party, no great fanfare, just a group of seven-year-olds enjoying a time of discovery and friendship outdoors. Sometimes simple is better.

Childhood is fleeting and our time to enjoy these magical years is even more fleeting as we age. My granddaughters have been inspirational in reawakening me to the benefits and importance of putting myself on pause. In today’s media-entrenched world, where we are immersed in reminders of the chaos surrounding our lives, children offer the elixir for unraveled nerves. We need only to stop and take a few moments to observe the world through their eyes. Thank you May and Eloise for reenergizing my brain to all the good that surrounds us.

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Helping Your School Child Meet With Success

One of my all time favorite songs is Bob Dylan’s, “The Times They Are A Changin’.” The message it carries is as profound today as it was more than fifty years ago. While I agree with the words in Mr. Dylan’s song, there are some things that have not changed for generations, among them is the key role that parents play in supporting their child’s academic and social success in school.

There can be no doubt that with today’s working parents and the myriad of after-school activities that fill a child’s day, trying to fit in additional support with homework, school projects, and responding to school notices can be an arduous task. However, there are a number of simple solutions that can be used to ease the burden of supporting the academic and social life of school.

After a long school day, children are often resistant to sitting down to do homework. They need time to relax, move about and have a snack. I realize that as children progress in school, the amount of homework increases accordingly, but regardless of the grade they are in, children like to have a chance to unwind. A snack before starting homework is a great way for parents and children to share events of the day. In my experience asking children about what they learned in school is a sure conversation stopper. Instead asking with whom they played or shared lunch is a conversation opener that will often help raise parental awareness of their child’s social well-being, an important element for success in school.

Establishing a quiet, well lit, place where children are able to concentrate on the task at hand is key to establishing good work habits. The space should have a calendar where children have a visual reminder of due dates for projects, book reports, and all school-related events, thereby enabling them to structure their time. A plastic bin with dividers for pencils, rulers, markers and crayons is a great way to keep school supplies handy and its compact nature enables parents to periodically check on and update its contents.

After homework and dinner are finished, engage in a family game. Games provide an excellent venue for lively conversation, as well as developing good sportsmanship. They also provide an opportunity for relaxing family time after a structured school day.

Bedtime has always been that special time set aside for reading. It is that magical time when parents breathe a few relaxing, child-centered, moments to expressively read aloud their favorite books to their children. It is also an opportune time for children to read a chapter of the book about which they will be writing a school-related book report. Pre-reading a child’s book selection and asking questions as he/she reads through chapters, serve to lay the groundwork for writing a well-developed book report.

Responsibility is a learned character trait. If we want children to be responsible, teach responsibility by putting them in charge of their school items. By emptying the contents of their bags upon their arrival home (putting aside important notices where their parents will see them), and packing their homework into their bags at night, children take charge of their belongings and help ease the mad rush out the door in the morning.

Education is a partnership and open communication between the home and school is an important ingredient for a child’s academic and social success. If there is something that a teacher should know about meeting the needs of your child, contact the teacher. Classroom teachers always appreciate feedback from the home. A note at the start of the school year informing the classroom teacher of your concerns for your child, both academic and social, starts an early dialogue for a parent to teacher connection.

Success breeds success and failure is but one small bump on the road to success. Cooperation between school and home is key to easing those bumps.

Happy start of the school year to all!

 

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