Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kindergarten Chaos Theory

During the first week of school, there is no crazier place than the lunchroom. And once the novelty and strangeness of school wears off, there is no wilder group than kindergartners.

Today was the third full day of school for my son and his kindergarten classmates. The group is getting to know one another -- I've already been showered with stories about new friends or students who 'push the envelope', so to speak. On the first day, our teacher mentioned that parents should plan on helping out in the lunchroom. Yesterday, I was one of four or five parents who showed up. Today, it was just me.

Wrangling my son's lively class into an unfamiliar cafeteria 'assembly line' was like putting chickens into a pen. As soon as I would get a few doing what they needed to do, others would get distracted or stray. Getting them to sit down and start eating was equally challenging.

A few of them tasted the food and held me responsible. "I don't like this," I was told with a look that meant an alternative should be produced at once. I apologized and told the students that they should just try to eat enough to get them through the afternoon without being hungry. As a result, several children ate lime jello and chocolate milk and called it a day.

One child who brought a meal from home ate fruit snacks and juice for lunch. I suggested that his parents had sent him with a sandwich and that he should consider eating it instead of candy. I was told, "This isn't candy; they're fruit snacks." Yeah. Right. That's a clever bit of marketing if I ever heard it.

But, dietary choices aside, lunchroom behavior was moderately suppressed chaos. It was loud and crazy, with kids constantly moving to and from tables.

At one point, I praised a kindergartner who was doing a great job eating and behaving. He proceeded to cover his eyes and start yelling gibberish at the top of his lungs. "What are you doing?" I demanded. He responded that he was done with his lunch, so he was having some fun. "You should see my brother. He's four. He yells and runs around naked sometimes," he continued. "That's not appropriate behavior for school," I told him in measured tones. "Okay," he shrugged and turned to talk to the boy next to him as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I joked with a teacher-friend as I finished my volunteer time that I could never do this for a living. "You guys don't get paid enough!" I said. She responded by saying I should run for a seat on the school board. We both laughed.

But, now that I think about it, that's not a bad idea. Maybe we should require that the people who will make decisions about teacher pay spend a few hours volunteering in the lunchroom during the first week of school. I can think of no better place to gain an appreciation for the people who make our schools really work. The teachers I saw today were patient and kind and professional in spite of the chaos.

After one hour, I felt like I needed a nap.

Midwest Mom

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Fine Art of Letting Go

This post appears as promised -- although much delayed. It is difficult for me to write, but I will do my best.
* * * * *

This morning was Big D's first real day of kindergarten. By "real" I mean that I actually had to leave the room. Yesterday was the pictures and paperwork and the excitement of the new school clothes -- all for a two-hour session where there were as many parents as students.

But today... today was different.

Today I had to bring my beautiful boy to school and turn around and leave. It was clearly much more difficult for me than for him. He marched in with a hundred and fifty-three other kids armed with a smile and a Batman backpack. As I went to kiss his cheek at the kindergarten door, he squiggled away. "Not so fast!" I said, and I hugged him close. In he went and got to work without batting an eyelash. He strode up to the teacher right away to ask a question. His voice was strong. My right brain relaxed, assuring me He Will Be Okay.

I finished saying goodbye to the other parents I'd seen and made my way to the door. I was accompanied by my delighted two-year-old, whose secret dream of becoming an only child was seemingly coming true. She beamed and giggled at the thought that she didn't have to wait to get into the car or take a turn or share -- at least until 2 o'clock.

I buckled her in and started the car. As I was backing out of the parking lot, the feelings struck -- and the tears. There is nothing that feels so completely and utterly wrong as driving away from your child.

My memory of the drive home is a little hazy. I know I 'took the long way'. How long? Long enough for my youngest to ask where we were going. I was focused more on the cornflowers blooming on the side of the road and the corn tassels that particular shade of gold only they have. I sniffed and blinked and finally succumbed at a STOP sign.

I had worked so hard to prepare my boy -- I hadn't really prepared myself.

I wonder, sometimes, why I feel the way I do when my children pass a milestone. They are such a gift to me, and as full as our life is of joy at their growth, I know that every step will take them further from my protection. As proud as I am of him and his excitement at this first big step, as much as I count his teacher as a dear and trusted friend, and as long as I knew this day was coming, I was not prepared for the desolate emptiness of my heart at leaving him.

In his wisdom, my husband had decided to be home when I got there. The one person who would understand was the one person there to hug me until I had returned to myself. Always self-critical, I told him I didn't understand why I was being so emotional.

"It's natural," he told me, "you'll miss him." -- A simple explanation for a very complex feeling.

I will miss my baby.

When I picked him up this afternoon, and he regaled me with tales of songs and stories and the children in his new class, I had a faint glimmer of peace. His babyhood may be gone, but it will be fun to get to know the boy he is becoming.

Midwest Mom

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Going Green: Blooms & Bloomin' Pests

I planted this lily when I was pregnant with my youngest daughter. Just shy of three years later, it has finally bloomed! Whenever I look at it, I think of the miracle of her.

* * * *
Midsummer is such a fun time in our garden. Spring and early Summer plants are setting seeds before Fall arrives. Tomatoes and peppers are fruiting heavily. The green beans are ready for a third picking and already blooming for a fourth. And the eggplant, cucumbers, pumpkins, and cantaloupe are all flowering profusely. I am so glad I decided to plant more than just tomatoes this year. We are enjoying the abundance that comes from vegetable gardening in the Midwest.

Of special note is the success of our herb garden. I have always grown oregano, parsley, and basil, because I use them heavily in our home cooking. Last year, I planted lemon thyme, rosemary and peppermint as a way to branch out. What success!

The peppermint, especially, has been thriving and is in bloom. Although I have to tend it carefully to make sure it doesn't steal garden space from other plants, I love the look and smell of it in the garden. I have even caught the children stealing nibbles of the minty leaves.

Elsewhere in the garden, we are enjoying carpets of black- and brown-eyed Susans. Large sunflowers and smaller 'wild' sunflowers are providing the birds with plenty to eat. Since yellow is my favorite color, I find the display delightful.

* * * * *

There is, however, a pest I've been battling for at least a month. The dreaded Japanese Beetle has made a home in our garden -- again! Each year, I wage war with this creepy, seemingly indestructible bug. Fortunately, I find that my hatred (I know it's a strong word, but fitting) of this pest is overcoming my tendency to be totally creeped out by it.

I typically have used Japanese Beetle "bug bags" out to lure these beasts to their doom. In theory, the citronella-smelling bait attracts these horny devils into a bag, trapping them because they're either too stupid to fly out or too distracted by the teeming beetle orgy that eventually takes place. Personally, I don't care which it is... as long as they don't keep eating my plants.

I have noticed, however, that there are certain plants the Japanese beetles find irresistible. In my garden, it is the zinnias, evening primrose, and apple tree that have sustained the most damage. Lately, I have had success going from plant to plant knocking beetles into a cup of water and then pouring the fiends into the bug bag. I go around in the morning and evening, and I usually can collect 18-25 of the disgusting things in the cup before I'm done. It has helped to minimize the damage.

You may wonder why I don't just spray with an insecticide. I'll tell you -- chemicals are stupid. They don't know the difference between the super-creepy Japanese Beetle and the 20+ beneficial pollinators that help our plants be more productive. When a commercial- or home-gardener decides to let a spray do the work, they are choosing to kill bees, butterflies, and other fantastic insects like walking sticks and leaf-hoppers, and even spiders, praying mantis and other hunters. Garden chemicals can also easily leech into groundwater. I suspect they may be, if not the cause, certainly a contributing factor in our nation's honeybee problem, Colony Collapse Disorder.

Even against a pernicious pest like the Japanese Beetle, I don't believe chemicals are the answer. So, for now I'll keep doing the circuit with my cup of water. It's a good excuse to get out in the garden on a daily basis...

.. even if it is pretty creepy.

Midwest Mom

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Best Money I've Ever Spent

My children spent most of yesterday afternoon and this morning digging for pirate treasure next to our house.

Me: Hey, guys! Now don't get muddy over there!

Them: Mom! It's only dirt.

I shrug. They're right again. After all, I like playing in the dirt, too. I call it gardening.

The trio started digging holes to fill up colorful plastic buckets with dirt. Once the holes were about 6 inches deep, the fun started. Each one found a different 'treasure' -- a grime-caked penny, a broken piece of green plastic, and another grime-caked penny (possibly the same one -- no one knows.)

Their imaginations sparked.

Primo: Mom! Hey, Mom! Is our house, like 100 years old?
Me: Yep.
Primo: Did pirates exist a hundred years ago?
Me: Sure they did, but... goes on to explain the history of piracy and the sad fact that we live in the middle of the continent so pirate sightings are unlikely... stops when noticing reality does not register with this group.

They continued to dig, creating a fictional pirate who must have buried his secret treasure right on our property. When I asked questions, they had an answer for everything.

Big D: This must have been a real Pirate cove!
Me: But how would a pirate even have gotten here?
Big D: (looks at me like I have popcorn-for-brains) He walked, of course! He must have needed a rest from pirating, and he saw our cozy house...

Nightfall did not stop the speculation about the anonymous pirate. I heard them talking about it in bed. This morning, the talk continued. The children strategized at breakfast, guessing that since there were 'treasures' in each of the three holes, if they connected them, they might find a real pirate treasure! "Mom," they said, "we'll split the treasure since we did the work... but don't worry. We'll give you and Dad two gold pieces."

We went outside and back to work they went. There was much digging, but less finding. After at least 40 minutes, they started to get discouraged. No mom can bear to hear her children losing faith. I suggested that they go have a pirate voyage on the swingset in the back yard. They grabbed their nerf swords and ran. I told them I planned to continue weeding the garden.

What followed were approximately 67 seconds during which my whereabouts remain unknown.

Soon the pirate voyage was over, and here came the bunch hurrying up the driveway. "I'm the captain and this is my first mate," my son said, indicating his brother. Turning to his sister, he continued, "And this is my other first mate. We're ready to dig!"

I waited, continuing to weed (or pretending to). What followed was a wild series of whoops and hollers that could only mean...

"Treasure! Mom, we found it! We really found it!"

During the next half hour, 42 cents in all were discovered. My oldest divided it evenly among the crew. Big D said, "Sorry Mom, you can't have any because we did all the digging. Besides, you have a ton of money already."

That's alright. I think that was the best 42 cents I've ever spent.

Midwest Mom

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Getting Ready for Kindergarten

My 5-year old son starts kindergarten next Monday. So, this week, I have been busy getting him ready. We've gotten all the school supplies, gotten uniforms all squared away (yes, his public school has uniforms -- I love it, by the way), purchased and 'broken-in' new school shoes... But kindergarten success doesn't come in your freshly-sharpened set of No. 2 pencils. It isn't packed in your lunchbox...

So we have done a few extra things at our house to get ready:

Getting Down the Schedule:
One of the toughest things about starting school -- for my children -- has been the schedule. From early wake-up to eating by the clock, the regimentation of the school day has been a big challenge. To prepare, we spend the last two weeks of summer vacation on "school time". That means my children have been woken by their alarm clock. Our morning routine has mirrored what it will be on school days, with grooming and dressing and breakfast all completed in time to leave for school. Instead of the usual drive to school, I have rewarded the kids with a game or loaded them in the car for early morning shopping. I have worked rest into the schedule later in the day to help their bodies adjust.

Getting Ready for Lunch:
My oldest son and his kindergarten classmates had a difficult time with -- of all things -- lunch! There were packages to open, trays to balance, those crazy milk cartons. Many of them were overwhelmed. Kindergarten lunch was also the first experience many of the students had with eating on their own. There is no parent there to say, "hurry up!" or "eat your sandwich first, then your cookie!" To prepare for lunch, I have tried to give lunchtime foods all at once, so my son can choose what to eat when. I also have made him responsible for opening his own packaging -- yogurt lids, for instance -- so that he'll be able to do that without a problem later on. I also keep an eye on the clock and don't let the lunchtime meal at home last too long. If he's used to eating in a timely way at home, he'll be more likely to get the nutrition he needs to last all the way through the bus ride home.

Reading, Writing, and 'Rithmetic:
Okay, a kindergartener doesn't necessarily need to have a lot of academic skills. But whatever skills you can teach at home will help the teacher move the class forward. We have worked on reading and writing the alphabet and short words, writing my son's first and last name, and numbers 1-20. Every afternoon after lunch, we sit down and "play school". Spending this time together helps us work on holding the pencil correctly, listening and following directions, and sets the stage for us to work together on homework later on. Besides, I love the one-on-one time I have with him, and he loves the feeling of success he gets from showing me something new he's learned.

Teaching About Safety:
Finally, I am preparing my son by going over some very basic safety items. He knows his address and phone number. We have talked about a variety of situations that may arise at school. He knows who may pick him up in an emergency. We've also talked about friends and being responsible for your own behavior and choices. He knows that he has to evaluate a situation and decide what to do about it for himself, but that he also has a group of trusted adults who are ready to listen and help him when he needs it.

In our family, we talk about feelings a lot, and I've tried to make space for my son to share his excitement and fears about this new adventure. We've checked out kindergarten stories from the library and visited his school to make things feel familiar, even as they're so new. One theme I've noticed about most of the stories we've read is the hovering parents reluctant to leave the room. I know I'll be one of them -- I'm not ready to let my little guy go so soon.

...but that's a post for another day.

Midwest Mom

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Great American Slow-Down

What an eventful weekend we had! It started strong, until we were visited by the notion that we're not 18 anymore. (Ouch!) And reminded, painfully, that it pays to use your head even when you're doing something you love.

After Saturday's stellar finish to big D's T-Ball season, in which Daddies pitched, trophies were awarded, and parents spent way too long gabbing at the end of the game for the players' liking, our family went out to have lunch at a favorite restaurant. It was one of those "life is good" mornings...


While jogging lightly across the street, my husband nearly collapsed. He managed to drag himself to the sidewalk, clearly in serious pain, with what turned out to be a Grade 3 hamstring strain that put him on crutches. We had to head home immediately and pack it in ice. I called the doctor and looked up information to find out how best to care for him. [My utmost thanks go to the Gulick Family for opening their medical supply shop Saturday afternoon so that I could get him some crutches!] As I said to him at the time (and strangely, he didn't seem to appreciate it) -- we're not 18 anymore.

And my lesson learned for the weekend was taught by a little plant we know and love -- poison ivy. Yet another reminder to use gardening gloves when working in the wildflower garden! (pauses to scratch arm, neck, and back)

The slow-down forced upon us by my husband's injury allowed us to notice an unusual array of wild creatures that visited our place this weekend.

Primo found this cool Striped Hawk Moth on our front porch Saturday evening when we were coming in from a lightning bug catching expedition. It was HUGE -- about the size of his palm. Fortunately for us, it was content to sit still for photos. (If it had moved unexpectedly while I was behind the camera, my son would have been treated to seeing his mother have a heebie-jeebie freakout right there in front of him.) Thank goodness we were spared that performance!

We also had the treat of an equally compliant Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeding at our butterfly bush on Sunday morning. It is one of my favorite summer butterflies.

Out back in the (poison ivy filled, apparently) wildflower garden, the prairie coreopsis has gone to seed, drawing two pair of goldfinches. When they first arrived, it was difficult to get close to them, but as the weekend wore on, they would let us approach slowly. It was still not close enough for a picture, but at least I could hold the children, one at a time, and let them watch.

And our final visitor, a clearwing hummingbird moth, came to our hot pink petunias out front on Sunday afternoon. We were all out on the front porch patiently watching a summer storm come in, and here came this moth the perfect size, shape, and coloring to mimic a ruby-throated hummingbird. It's wings even blurred when it flew (because they were mostly transparent). The difference was, instead of hovering in midair, it landed inside the blossom to drink. We watched it for a while, just because it was so interesting. Since it seemed content to stay, I thought I would try to snap a picture. But by the time I ran in to get the camera, torrents of rain had arrived and the moth had wisely taken cover.

We sat and enjoyed the storm. My husband and both boys sat on the ledge at the front of the porch, letting their legs dangle out to be drenched by sheets of rain. I was content to sit on our porch swing, getting misted by the wind-driven spray. What had begun as a steamy, uncomfortable Sunday transformed to cool comfort.

In retrospect, it's not so bad that our weekend slowed down from its usual frenetic pace. We lapsed into a much slower, more comfortable rhythm. It was probably the first time in a month that my husband wasn't working at the office or on some project at home. And, uncomfortable itching aside, I was able to sit back and enjoy the amazing variety of creatures who have found nourishment in our garden.

Scratch ... Scratch scratch... Scratch...


Midwest Mom

Friday, July 18, 2008

I am Carnac, the Magnificent

There is something no one ever tells you about becoming a Mother. It is never written in the baby shower cards or whispered from Mother to daughter. Only friends share it occasionally with a hearty laugh. But even that is after the fact.

Mother is another word for encyclopedia.

I cannot tell you how many times a day I am asked to spit out the most obscure facts for my children. I am peppered constantly with questions. Lately, the fascination is with astronomy("How many moons would fit inside the Earth?"), the environment ("What's in car exhaust?" ), biology ("Are beavers scavengers?" "How do butterflies hear?" "Why do Tigers like to swim, but Lions don't?"), finance ("If banks are failing, what does that mean? Don't all the daddies keep putting their money in there?"), politics ("Why did people choose President Bush to be President?" No none knows the answer to that one!). These are all questions they asked yesterday at lunch.

Most times I try to explain what I can, but having three kids is convincing me just how much I don't know. It's very humbling for a know-it-all like myself. There are days when I pass the daily science quiz with flying colors, when I can pass on secrets to the world around us my children never would have imagined. But there are far more days when I have to give the "You know, I'm not sure... I'll get back to you on that." And my children look at me out of the tops of their rolled eyes.

"She doesn't know -- again." They look at each other and sigh.

That's when I turn to my trusty computer. The internet -- sceptically used -- has become such a font of information for us. I used it the other day to find out whether Bumblebees can smell the flowers they're on. (They can.) We also found out that grasshoppers have ears on their knees. (Who knew?)

The up-side is that I'm getting much better at admitting when I don't know something. But I am not naturally a humble person. It takes work for me.

Then again, I come by it honestly... just talk to my Dad... I still think he knows everything.

What -- you mean he doesn't?

- Midwest Mom

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Giving Primo his Props

You think you know your children, but every so often they give you a true glimpse of what they're made of... on the inside.

My oldest son is a runner. My husband and I call him 'Primo' as a way to talk about him in his own presence. He's seven, so that kind of trickery still works on him. Every Monday of the summer, he races cross-country in a program put on by our local running club. His race is the mile and he loves it. He usually finishes first or second in his age group, and we encourage his enthusiasm for the sport. On non-race days, he will often run with his Dad, who also ran cross-country years ago. I love it that they share that time.

Sometimes, however, Primo's races don't quite go as planned. His toughest obstacle this year has been the starting line. It is not as well-regulated a start as it could be, so when the starter's whistle blows, there is a tangled stampede of 6 to 9 year olds running like mad for the first 50 yards of the race.

We've tried to have him stand at different places along the line, but there is always pushing and shoving... it's been tough on him (and even tougher on his mother watching him).

That is, until last night.

The whistle blew, and what a start he had! He was running strong and fast with an excellent starting sprint. Of course (you knew this was coming) until a large-ish boy a head taller and 20 pounds heavier tripped and fell right into him. The boy got up and continued running, but my son lay there like a slapped mosquito. Needless to say, I ran.

By the time I got to him, the starter and Primo's soccer coach were at his side. He was dazed from a sneaker to the head and he had scrapes on hands, elbows, and legs. His face was contorted at the injustice of the whole thing. It had been his best start ever! I did my best to keep my cool and give him a quick check.

He was crying out his rage. Quietly I looked him in the eye and asked, "So, do you want to race? Or should we sit this one out?"

His green eyes narrowed and he set his jaw. "I want to race."

He then proceeded to run the best race I have ever seen him run. Even after standing there for at least a minute and a half while we checked him out, he finished in the middle of the pack. I couldn't believe it.

I thought, what toughness! This is MY SON.

I have never been more proud than I was last night... and still am. What is even better, though, is to see his pride in himself. To stumble and fall but to get right back up again, to use the experience to move forward, do better, run faster... what an amazing step for him. I am so grateful for the blessing of being there to see it. I'm even more grateful for my amazing son.

- Midwest Mom

Monday, July 14, 2008

Chores or No Chores?

... That is the question.

Have you ever visited a friend who works outside the home (and whose children are in daycare) and been really discouraged because their house looks like a page from a magazine? That is so not my house. Why? Umm... we live here. So, sometimes things get messy. When you have three children, that's life, I guess.

Usually, I feel like I can keep up with things. There are those times, though, when I feel like Cinderella minus the Fairy Godmother. Then I think of my own mother, who had six children to chase after, six schedules to keep straight, and six clutter bugs leaving their "droppings" in every room of the house. She's either a Saint or she was crazy -- or both.

But, she had a way to get a little help around the house. It's a little something we like to call chores.

My mom's chore system was a complex affair. It was well-designed for maximum efficiency and completely even distribution of work. She labeled the kitchen chairs with numbers, 1 through 6. Each chair was assigned a household chore, like vacuuming or dusting or cleaning the bathroom, and a kitchen chore, like setting the table or loading the dishwasher. We rotated chairs each week. That way, there could never be the argument that one child "got off easy" or that a "favorite" chore was always assigned to the same child. It worked like clockwork.

But I know myself. A system like hers is completely beyond me. Now that I have my own children, my mom's chore system may as well be advanced particle physics or nuclear engineering. It would be nice to have a fully functioning team of professional cleaners, masquerading as elementary school students. But I don't have the discipline to make it happen. I just parent differently.

This year, I thought, "I have a 7, 5, and almost 3 year old. I need something simple." So, I came up with a more basic system that fits our family's needs (and gives me a little bit of a break!)

As part of our daily routine, we spend a little time at the beginning and end of each day tidying up the house. In the morning, there are chores like vacuuming or sweeping the floor. There are the morning dishes to load in the dishwasher, bathrooms to tidy, laundry to sort. The jobs are different each day, and there are some that lend themselves easily to helping hands. Those are the chores I share with the kids.

When they moan in that sing-songy voice, with a tinge of desperation (you know you've heard it), "WHY do we ALways HAVE to HELP??" I explain that they are members of this family, and I am not the only one who has to work around here -- maybe a little more wicked stepmother than Cinderella in my voice. On their best days, they fall in line and give a little effort.

Once in a while, though, they present me with a golden opportunity that cannot be passed up.

At those times, their response to my chore request will be, "Mom, can I earn some money today?" I make it a practice always to reward initiative. "Yes!" I say, with a smile. "I have four chores that need to be done. Each one will earn you a quarter." How many chores my children take on is up to them. We make a verbal contract for the work, I show them how to do it, and once it is complete, they submit it for inspection. If their work passes muster, I pay them. If they've done an exceptional job, I may give them a bonus. All money they earn goes into their piggy banks.

My oldest son loves to earn money for his bank. He likes the jingle of the coins, so I usually pay him in change. After he has completed his chores, he will count all the money in his bank before putting it away. As a result of his enthusiasm, my 5-year-old is catching on. Often, he will ask to clean, too. I give him chores that are difficult for me, but easy for him -- like crawling under the beds and making sure they are clear of toys and books and whatever else. He likes to use the swiffer, so I will attach a dust cloth to it and send him out after the dust bunnies. We use a lot of Clorox wipes or Pledge wipes. My kids can dust with the best of 'em. Often, they will catch things that I miss -- like the dusty bottom rungs of the dining room chairs. Even my little girl has asked for jobs. I give her basic clean-up jobs like putting all the books on the bookshelf (worth a nickel) or lining up all the shoes in pairs (a dime).

Not every clean-up session is a chance to earn money. The children are responsible for putting their dirty clothes in the laundry and making their beds each morning. When we get up from the table, each child cleans off their own place. Clean clothes must be put into a child's bureau before bedtime. And the children try each day to clean up their toys before Daddy gets home. ... not that that always happens.

When we're cleaning the house, I help where I can and try to keep my youngest focused on the task at hand. From time to time, though, I am busy with one of the other thousands of jobs assigned to me (not earning a dime, I might add.) So, I just give the children a task and set a time-limit. "Clean the playroom, please. I will be back in ten minutes to check your work." I check in on them as the time goes by to help them focus and divide up tasks, but they do the work themselves. It is fun to see how proud they are of having accomplished something without my help.

It's also fun for me to spend less time tidying up after them.

I tell my kids, "we work together so we can play together." As a reward, we'll go to the park or go play in the sprinkler or go on a bike ride.

Does the system work perfectly every time? Of course it doesn't. My house gets messy, just like anyone's. But having the kids help with chores does make me feel a little bit less like Cinderella all the time. I hope it is teaching my children about teamwork, responsibility, and taking pride in their work. I think it is.

Maybe I'll ask them when I'm done cleaning the bathtub.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Adventures in Potty Training

Potty training is one of the most frustrating tasks of raising a young child. I am currently training my youngest -- my little girl -- and am having a very frustrating time! And I know there are other parents that have the same experience. Why is it so difficult to get her to understand what she needs to do? And once she understands, when will she finally have the will to go the right way consistently? And why am I so wrapped up in this?

Maybe that's the toughest part of potty training for me. Sad to say, but I get really invested in whether they are doing everything right. I just want it to be taught, done and over with. (Maybe now that I can sense there might be a day when I actually don't have to change a diaper, I just want that day to be here NOW!)

I remember training my first son. I had infinite patience, compared to the way I feel now. I would read him a book while he was on the potty, he would sit down several times a day. Sure, he had setbacks like any child, and I distinctly remember saying to him, "Okay. You're not ready for this, so I'm going to stop pushing. You let me know when you're big enough to do this." I had the sense to lay off when he needed it. And he trained while we were taking a long vacation weekend. My husband and I looked at each other at the end of the first day and said, "Have you changed dirty pants? No? My goodness, he went on the potty every single time today!" It was a complete surprise.

My second boy was a lot more work. There was no miraculous training day for him. He had always had trouble staying dry overnight, so we knew that he just might have a smaller, well, capacity. We still wake him up during the night from time to time, just to make sure he doesn't have to go. But he had technical issues my oldest never had. He would clog the toilet from using too much paper. Or I would catch him trying to get clean with only one square. It makes me laugh now, but he truly had a process problem. We've worked through it -- he's 5 now -- but it sure took longer and we still have to be watchful.

I remember one thing that really helped both of them was for my husband to "get involved." With our first, he was completely hands off. Potty training was Mommy's work, apparently. It wasn't until my father visited and had a talk with him that he realized only someone with external plumbing can really explain how the pipes work. (My son wouldn't stand up to go. He didn't believe me when I said that's how men do it.) The power of setting a personal example was shown right there on that day. I remember chuckling to myself and thinking, "Well, it won't be the first discussion they'll have about how that thing's supposed to work."

And now I have a little girl. So, there's no husband to step in and bail me out. And, man! Am I having a frustrating time. ... It's not that she doesn't understand how to go. She's got that down pat. And she does have days when she will wear cloth underwear with no accidents. (We still have her in something absorbent at night time, just in case.) But she hasn't fully decided to be trained full-time yet. Yesterday she told me she just wanted to be a baby and wear diapers that day, and she fought me anytime I said it was time to try going to the bathroom.

I don't want to be the one pushing her; I want her to make the choice. And I'm not one to put the diapers or pull-ups away and force her to have accidents. (Because guess who has to clean that up!) But I don't have infinite patience anymore...

Yes, in my mind I'm saying, "please, oh please, let me be done changing diapers!" And why on Earth is my sense of well-being so caught up in this? It's not like she's going to be 20 and in pull-ups, right? (She's not, is she?)

I guess my point is this: If you are the mom of a girl and want to share some tips with me, I sure could use the help! Click on the "comments" link at the bottom of this post or check my profile and email me.

At least reading your hints will keep me distracted until she chooses to train.

Midwest Mom

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Plants that Attract Butterflies

If you haven't guessed it, this week is devoted primarily to the garden. We've had beautiful weather in Illinois. It has been cooler than expected for July, and less humid. As a result, some of my summer bloomers are a little slow to take off.

But, I received an email yesterday asking what plants are most likely to attract butterflies. I am happy to respond.

Our family loves gardening to attract bees, birds, and butterflies. It is a great way to teach your children about nature -- right in your own backyard. If you are interested in easy-care butterfly-friendly plants, consider the following:

  • Butterfly bush -- I have a blue butterfly bush, because it is supposed to be slightly more cold hardy than other colors. (I still have to mulch it in the winter, though, for protection on cold nights.) It can grow up to 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Mine is in its second year in its current place and has grown about 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It has large bloom sprays, much like a lilac, and is very fragrant. We find it becomes a home for many butterflies, but also praying mantises who like to hunt them. It is disease resistant and (maybe because of the mantises) we've never had a problem with it being attacked by bugs.

  • Orange Butterfly weed -- This is a beautiful plant that grows in native prairies and wetlands in our region. I have not had success growing it at home. But, feel free to give it a try. It serves both as a host plant and as a nectar plant for several species of butterfly. (It is actually a species of milkweed -- see next entry.)

  • Milkweed -- An obvious choice for Monarch lovers. I have pink milkweed in my wildflower garden, where it will blend in and not be disturbed by the normal traffic of the front flower bed. In my opinion, it is not nearly as attractive as Butterfly Bush or Butterfly Weed, but it is very useful if you want a 'homegrown' crop of Monarchs.

  • Stonecrop, also called "Live Forever" -- This succulent is a great addition to any sunny, rocky area. It has the ability to establish itself well, even where there is little soil. It blooms in late July with tall, flat pads of pink blossoms. Butterflies find them easy to feed from because they must land to drink nectar. Stonecrop blossoms are a sturdy platform for them. Last year, there were so many butterflies at our Stonecrop, they made a little dancing "cloud" around us. It was magical.

  • Purple Coneflower/Echinacea -- As you can see from my son's photo (below), the center of the Purple Coneflower is very attractive to butterflies of all sorts. It is easy to grow and requires very little care.

  • Speedwell -- Speedwell comes in several varieties. I have the larger, white variety (in the background of the monarch photo) and also a smaller, pink variety. It is a hardy perennial that blooms from late Spring through early Fall. Bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds love its long blooming spikes.

There are so many other plants that will attract butterflies to your garden. But the above list is a good starting place for anyone hoping to start a butterfly garden. One more hint on attracting butterflies to your garden will be useful: they need a source of moisture somewhere in the garden. I keep a clean birdbath filled with fresh water right next to my Butterfly bush. Especially in later Summer, do not underestimate the power of a good drink to these wonderful creatures.

Good luck in the garden!

Midwest Mom

p.s. -- If you have suggestions you would like to share, click "comments" and post them! We'd love to hear about your butterfly garden, too.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Butterflies are here!

Butterflies have arrived in our garden! We've seen the first signs of the really big ones (as big as your palm) in the past week. So far, we have seen monarchs, mourning cloak and zebra swallowtails. All are beautiful.

My son has taken up lepidoptery with the camera. (Did I spell that right?) He doesn't like the idea of studying things by killing them and sticking pins in them. I can't say I blame him.

I hope you enjoy the picture. As we see more, we'll post them.

Have fun in the garden!

Midwest Mom

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Going Green: Early July Vegetables

In the past few weeks, the garden has changed a good deal. We have already harvested green beans twice. They are lovely cooked slow and low with a little bacon or lightly blanched with salt and butter. But, my oldest son prefers to eat them raw from the colander as we pick.

The lettuce continues to produce in abundance. We have provided lettuce for our neighbors and the children's grandparents. Green salad is our preferred potluck dish of late, too. The response is always the same, "this is from your garden?!? You're kidding!" (There is usually very little left to bring home.)

There is something wonderful about feeding your family produce that you've grown at home. We all participate in the planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting. It really is a family enterprise. But the eating is the fun part. It is nutritious and so, so tasty. And I cannot believe how much money I am saving at the grocery store by growing my own food. My second son told me the other day, "Mom, guess what? We're farmers!" I guess he's right.

In an attempt to be a better 'farmer', I've recently taken out a couple of books from the library on year-round gardening and succession planting to extend our growing season. I'm thinking of putting together some cold frames to grow my own seedlings next year too. The books are helping me to plan my fall chores and to begin the layout for next year's garden. The hottest time of year is good for that -- and I don't need sunscreen to do a little research.

This is also the time of year to think about a watering program. I watch the weather each week, and if we've gone three days without rain, I give a good, soaking evening watering to all my beds. I use a sprinkler with a timer, set to between 1/16 and 1/8 inch depth. That works out to about 40 minutes to one hour for the widest path. It may seem like a lot of water, but fewer, more drenching waterings are better for plants than frequent, more shallow spraying. When the water soaks down deeper into the ground, it encourages plants to send their roots deeper. As an alternative to the sprinkler, we also water individual plants with the water from the kids small swimming pool. It is good not to let 'recreational water' go to waste, and the plants don't seem to mind if kids have been splashing around in their evening drink.

Our water table has been so high with the wet May and June we've had that I want to encourage further root development. I've begun a bi-weekly feeding of some my vegetables, to ensure they have enough nutrition to fruit well. The heat has helped our pumpkin and muskmelon/cantaloupe vines begin to take off. They are already in full flower. The tomatoes and peppers are already setting fruit. They seem very healthy with few pests so far. (Keep your fingers crossed.)

Since I took out the last of the Spinach at the end of June, I have planted eggplant (a first for me) and cucumbers. All the plantings are doing extremely well so far, but we'll see how they progress. The oregano and cilantro/coriander are in bloom, as is my dill. The heat is really making the basil -- self-seeded from last year's crop -- take off, too.

That's the veggie update for now. I can't wait to begin harvesting later in the month. When I do, I'll be sure to share some recipes on my family recipe blog, .

Until then, happy gardening!

Midwest Mom

Monday, July 7, 2008

What a Country!

You cannot beat Fourth of July in the Midwest. We had the best time celebrating. There was beautiful weather, fireworks galore, and family fun around every corner.

On Friday, our family participated in the neighborhood bike parade. It is a homegrown institution, started a few years ago by two schoolteachers in the neighborhood. We decorate all the children's bikes in the morning, and by ten o'clock 150-200 kids are lined up on a neighboring street to start the parade. This year, there was a fire engine at the front of the line and a cowboy on horseback carrying an American flag at the end of the parade. In between, there were decorated four-wheelers, golf carts, tricycles, bikes, wagons, even strollers. As the whole group processes through the neighborhood, we wave and wish people "Happy 4th". It is fun to see how many people bring out their lawn chairs to wave to all the children along the way.

The parade always ends at the same house, with an open garage door and a freezer full of popsicles for the parents and children. It is run entirely by families who have volunteered to make it happen, and it could not be more appreciated by the community. There is no profit, no angle, no politicians involved -- just a community of volunteers and families having fun and celebrating Independence day.

That was typical of the weekend, though. We went to fireworks and the children shared 'glow-sticks' with a little girl who had none, making a new friend in the process. We had a family barbecue on Sunday where everybody contributed to the feast. It was held in a park where almost every alcove was full of extended families doing just the same thing.

For me, the times we enjoyed this weekend confirm that we live in a truly great country filled with generous people. This weekend, it did not matter what Monday's headlines will say or how the stock market will go up or down. We were all members of a loving family, good neighbors in a healthy community, and friends having fun together.

Fourth of July in the Midwest shows the best of what America is. We are giving of our time and our talents. We are people who help one another and set aside our worries to celebrate together. It is an amazing blessing to live in such a rare and wonderful country.

Midwest Mom

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Art of the Long Car Trip

My family recently took a two-week trip to Philadelphia. From Illinois, it was a long haul. And when I say long, I do mean long -- like two separate days of driving to get there long.

But, I have to say, the drive wasn't so bad. We usually take driving vacations, so I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Fortunately, they are tricks I don't mind sharing...

Trick #1: Do your homework.

When I plan one of our drives, I involve the children in the planning. We talk about which states we'll be going through and what that state will be like. Our last trip was a 5 state trip. So, we learned about Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But the state which captured my children's imagination, at least during the drive, was West Virginia. We were only there for about 30 minutes of the drive, but the kids knew that it was a state of mountains and coal mines. It was there that the roads first got winding and that we saw our first tunnels. Knowing the road ahead helped them to have something to look forward to and gave them a sense of place along the way.

Trick #2: Make the most of your stops.

I remember, when I was a child, we would stop and eat around roadside picnic tables, with expressway traffic shooting by. I never do that with my kids. (Sorry, Mom & Dad... I know you're reading this...)

When we are planning the trip, I use Google Earth to check out towns we will consider stopping in. So many communities across America have invested in beautiful parks (with amazing playgrounds!) If we're going to stop for lunch, we make it standard practice to get the kids out of the car and running around. It lets them be loud and run off all that extra energy and it's a nice reward for their patience in the car. If we're taking an unexpected stop, we ask locals where to find the best playground in town, or we look for a local school playground. It doesn't take a lot to satisfy the kids; if it's new to them, they will love it. And, they're more likely to nap in the car afterward if they're nice and tired when they get in the car.

Trick #3: Eat smart -- good for the waistline, good for your wallet.

When our family takes a road trip, we are more likely to get a loaf of bread, fresh fruit, and sandwich fixings at a local store than to stop for lunch at a fast food place. Providing lunch at the park is more satisfying and laid-back (you don't have to expect a 4 year old to mind his manners), not to mention more nutritious. And in this economy, the most important thing is, you save money. There is nothing worse than paying too much for bad food that your child does not eat. When we're on a trip, we set a maximum of one (yes, I said one) restaurant meal a day. That way, when they do get into the restaurant, a) they are hungry, b) they are willing to mind their manners and c) you can afford those special foods they (and you) don't get all the time -- a good steak, seafood, that beautiful chocolate cheesecake or sundae at the end of the meal.

We find that the one restaurant meal a day rule makes us more portable, too. We can be selective in what we eat by carrying fruit or carrot sticks or fresh water and eating on the go. We can take a walk in the morning, get good coffee and give our two-year-old her first raspberry croissant or take a hike and open our backpack to apples and cheese and juice boxes at the top of a mountain. There is something satisfying about food that is fresh, light, and well-earned. We find it keeps us from feeling that ugly "I've been traveling too long" feeling you can get from eating rich food at every meal.

If you're worried that you may be caught without something appropriate, you can always repeat what I tell myself when packing -- I live in the United States of America. There is nowhere you can go in this amazing country that you cannot find something to sustain your family.

And some of our neatest discoveries have come during a stopover "food search". On our trip through Pennsylvania, we stopped in a small farm town and went to the local store. My seven year old decided it was time to try sardines for the first time (that was a shocker!), but the rest of us had some fresh fruit, crackers, cheese, and large cartons of milk. And while we sat on a grassy hillside adjacent to the store, here came buggyful after buggyful of Amish men in brightly colored shirts right past us. It was a neat moment that gave us a chance to teach our children and to see something we don't get the chance to see everyday.

Trick #4: Never underestimate the power of something new.

Every mom searches her brain for which toys and books to bring on the trip. We ask ourselves how much to bring and which toys or games are best. I like toys that are based upon imaginary play (so action figures or dolls are good), ones that are small (so magnetized games are great), ones that are low-tech (no loud sounds or annoying lights, and no need to bring batteries). I like small puzzles that can be done and re-done, or toys that involve something to figure out (my boys love transformers), but they can't have too many pieces. We bring a large number of small paperback storybooks and usually a chapter book for me to read when the ride seems long. We like mysteries or adventure stories, but classics are fun, too. On our last trip, we read a children's version of Treasure Island. For boys who love pirates, it was something they never tired of listening to.

That probably seems like a standard list of basic ideas, but the trick is this: pack your toys and books into a few separate packages and introduce them to your children in stages. And be sure to reserve a small bag of totally new books and toys for the ride home. If we're planning on being away for two weeks, and my children have had the same 10 books the whole time, they are so sick of those stories by the ride home, that all I hear is complaining. So, I try to keep a little mystery in the ride for them. At the end of each day, I pack up some toys and put them away until later in the trip. On our last vacation, I even packed one brand new toy into each of their suitcases. It was "the hotel toy", and they could only play with it in the hotel room. (It was my smart idea to avoid having to schlep everything up from the car all the time.) It worked beautifully. Never underestimate the power of something new.

If you and your family are going away for the long weekend, please have a safe and pleasant trip. I hope you come across some exciting new things along the way. Hopefully, you'll discover what we have discovered -- that the art of the long car trip is not lost, and that there's no reason to dread the road that takes you where you're going. If you can discover new things along the way and treat yourself to the joy of getting OFF the expressway for a while, you will find that getting there can be just as much fun as the rest of your vacation.

Happy Fourth of July!

Midwest Mom

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Summer Fun Idea #1: the Library

It's July now, and that means summer vacation is halfway over. It also means that the hot weather is only just beginning. There is the danger of summertime boredom hitting soon. As the weather gets hotter, even visits to the playground or pool will start to seem routine. We need something new, so it's time to hit the books.

Two out of my three children are now readers, and they have read and re-read most of the books we have at home. Our local library (aside from being an air-conditioned haven on the hottest days) has endless adventures for them to lose themselves in. The children's department has learning games on the computer -- a special treat for my kids -- and themed reading programs for elementary age kids.

When we go, we visit the picture books to choose new stories or old favorites. I also let my children chose one non-fiction book, to learn all about something new. Last week my five-year-old chose a book about Platypuses. My older one chose one about space exploration. These are things I cannot teach them. Our library has music to broaden their cultural education, too. Finally, we go to the young adult fiction, to choose a chapter book for me to read to them. Lately, we're reading The Hardy Boys, Secret of the Old Mill. It is such a treat to see them all on the edge of their seat when we get a real page-turner.

We visit the library in the morning, and on our library days, they will beg to read or be read to after lunch. There is nothing better for their minds or their imagination than practice reading. It helps them feel less restless. And guess what? It's fun for them that is free! This is no $3 carnival ride that is going to be over in two minutes. When they check out books, they get to keep them and read them for up to two weeks.

Going to the library is a great outlet to see school friends, too. When we're planning a visit, I usually phone a friend or two from school to let them know. It's always a surprise to see who comes by to meet us. Sometimes, the kids will even make a new friend or two.

So, instead of the pool or the fair or the park or the baseball diamond, give the library a try. It's the perfect cure for the summer doldrums.