Dear Driver

Dear driver of the tan minivan with license plate BTSN 279 who was turning right on a red light from Spadina Rd onto Highland Rd in Kitchener this afternoon:
You almost made my worst fear come true today: losing my miracle child. 
You were not looking in front of you as you swerved around a stopped vehicle to make your turn. You had your neck craned to the left so that you could see if any cars were coming. You didn’t see the large stroller in the intersection and the woman in the bright white shirt pushing a small child in that stroller. You didn’t see her look of panic as she ran to push that stroller out of the crosswalk that you had entered. You didn’t realize when you had bumped her wrist and the handle of the stroller with your vehicle. You finally stopped your vehicle when you heard a disheveled drunk man on a bicycle screaming obscenities at you and threatening to smash your windshield. You may have heard that woman tell the drunk man that there was no need for swearing, and tell you that you were lucky that the stroller was pushed out of the way in time and that you needed to pay attention at crosswalks. You may have also seen the woman pull her metal water bottle away from the drunk man when he reached over to throw it at your windshield, and quickly leave the scene so that he would deescalate. You may have heard him start cursing after her for protecting you from his wrath. 
You didn’t see the woman shaking, gasping for breath, and trying hard not to cry, so as not to upset her little peanut any further. You did not see the strength it took to not give into the fear and rage and desire to hurt you that the drunk man was inviting. You did not see how many unkind words were waiting to be spoken but were swallowed so that the child could witness a relatively peaceful scene instead of one filled with even more profanity and threats of violence. 
You didn’t see the little girl pee her pants. You didn’t see the woman’s fear and distrust of vehicles and crosswalks for the rest of the walk. 

You didn’t see the anxiety attack the woman had afterward that made her huddle over the toilet in the bathroom, willing herself to throw up so that the overwhelming feelings would leave her stomach. 
You didn’t see the construction worker with the gentle eyes who approached the woman after you drove off, asking if she was okay. You didn’t see the teenager from the bus stop come over to check that nobody was hurt. You didn’t see the kindness of strangers who never would have connected had it not been for your mistake. 
You didn’t get to see the woman explain to the child that even grown-ups make mistakes and deserve to learn from them and move on, unharmed and forgiven. You didn’t get a chance to be part of the long, loving snuggle that mother and child shared once they both felt safe again. You weren’t there for the extreme wash of relief and peace that finally overtook the woman as she decided to forgive you and settled back into her routines at home, choosing to move on with her life, with her head held high, and with gratitude for her living, breathing child. 


Technology and Tots

Back in the day when I worked in a Reggio-inspired daycare program, children would ask questions and teachers would rush around on our breaks and after work to put together books, pictures and hands-on learning experiences to reflect the interests and inquiries of the children. Often, the programming took a few days to put together, and interest in the topic needed to be re-kindled in some cases. We didn’t have access to mobile technology with Google search engines and YouTube at our fingertips. We did the best we could with the resources available to us, which included the public library and books and manipulatives that we had purchased and stored in our homes “just in case” kids demonstrated an interest in life cycles, insects, etc. 
Parents are often upset by the presence of technology in classrooms. I fully understand their concerns, especially as Willow’s daddy and I have done the research and have limited the amount of screen time our daughter is exposed to. Concerns around the overuse of technology are legitimate. We don’t want to be raising a generation of children who are glued to endless YouTube streams and can’t sit still for more than two minutes without playing a highly stimulating video game. We don’t want kids glued to a screen all day instead of solving problems with real materials and people. We don’t want kids watching television instead of getting outside in the fresh air to move their bodies and learn about balance, cooperation, and managing risk. 
The difference between YouTube zombies with delayed language and impaired focus skills and kids who use tech as a learning tool is huge, and it often starts at home. The HOW of tech is the missing piece that most people don’t see. It’s easy to demonize technology and lump all device use into one vile category: something that should be avoided at all costs. The reality of the situation is that our children are going to be exposed to technology and an overabundance of information, whether or not we promote any kind of technology use in our homes.  
Most organizations are recommending complete abstinence from screens until the age of about 24 months. We tried to follow these guidelines, as the research on eye, brain, and speech development and screen time is pretty convincing for this age group. We don’t have “television” per se (just Netflix), so we aren’t the kind to people who have a TV running in the background all day on a news or weather channel. My partner and I often sit down to watch specific programs in the evening after Willow is asleep, so it wasn’t hard to avoid having her exposed to constant screen time as an infant and toddler. We did show her family photos on our phones and iPads, and allowed her to have FaceTime chats with long-distance relatives. 
Willow is now three years old, and she asks some really cool questions about the world around her. This morning, in the midst of a thunderstorm, she inquired as to what makes thunder. I could have easily provided a pat answer to her inquiry, such as “well, that’s just the clouds going bowling”, but I have never truly appreciated the cutesy answers that adults often give to legitimate questions posed in earnest by inquisitive children (especially as an inquisitive child myself), so I said, “That’s a great question. Let’s find out!”
I pulled out my phone and we did a Google search for “what is thunder for kids” and asked Willow to help me listen for the dominant consonant sounds in a few of the words as I typed “what… it starts with wuh… …wuh… what letter should I type to start that word? Can you find the w for me on the keyboard?” Once we typed our query, Google gave us a very brief and understandable explanation with a photo, and offered us a 3 minute video for kids on lightning and thunder, which we watched together and chatted about. In this short interaction, we were learning about letters and letter sounds, learning how to do research using simple search terms, and learning that our questions about the world are worthy of exploring and researching. We discovered some neat Science facts about light and sound energy, and our conversation continued long after the phone was returned to my pocket. 
Those who demonize technology use with children often believe that there can be nothing useful about having technology in the hands of children. They often tell me that screens are only used as electronic babysitters, as a way to keep kids quiet in a restaurant or as a way for a tired adult to avoid having to interact with children. There are definitely dangers surrounding technology use and screen time with young children, most of which occur when screen time is unsupervised and is used as a replacement for human interaction… but it is not a matter of black and white, tech or no tech. 
Appropriate technology use needs to be modelled. When kids see tech being used for communication and learning instead of simply as a way to “pass the time”, they learn that technology is an important tool. Appropriate technology use needs to be guided. When kids are invited to help us look up a recipe online for biscuits to make together, they are invested in the process and the product of their learning, and learn how to search for and use information that is relevant to them. When a parent says “our job is to find a cookie recipe, so we won’t click on the link for the cookie game or the Cookie Monster video”, the child learns about staying focused on the task at hand, and avoiding some of the many distractions that pop up in the world of the Internet (and in life). Likewise, stopping a YouTube video to discuss what we’ve seen, instead of allowing YouTube to endlessly play “related videos” allows for verbal processing, reflection, and true learning instead of the passive intake of more visual information that our brains can actually process in one sitting. 
Technology itself is not the problem. The way that we interact with technology is what makes it either purposeful or problematic. We can teach our kids to use tech as a valuable learning tool, or as a source of passive entertainment. The answer is not banning technology or devices from homes and classrooms, but in teaching both adults and children to use it responsibly for the betterment of themselves and others. 

Ant Poison 

Willow found a container of ant poison on the floor of a bathroom today. Thankfully, she didn’t touch it because she has the amazing self-preservation instinct to generally ask before touching unknown and potentially harmful objects. I told her it was poison that can hurt people and animals if we touch it or get it in our mouths. She asked why people would leave poison on the floor. I said that it was for the ants. She innocently asked if the “little red circle” was a “house for the ants”. For a moment I almost went along with her sweet version of the truth (or “alternate truth”, if you prefer), but decided to be truthful in the gentlest way I could. I said that people don’t want ants inside buildings, so sometimes they buy ant poison in little red circles that kills the ants so they won’t be inside anymore. She was horrified. “They kill the ants? They hurt the ants?” She asked, her eyes as wide as saucers. “Well, yes.” “On purpose? Why, Momma?” “Well, it’s too hard to relocate all of the ants outside, and they really don’t want the ants to be here.” (We practice the spider relocation program in our home, because I can’t bring myself to kill a spider, even though I know that they will likely perish outside in the cold). 
She accepted this explanation, but was quite shaken. Thankfully, Daddy was waiting outside of the bathroom and offered snuggles to soothe the nerves of a newly minted three-year-old who just realized that people sometimes hurt creatures on purpose. 
Oh, our sensitive, gentle, compassionate and caring child. What a huge heart she has. My heart hurt today as I watched her face fall with this new piece of information. It would have been easier just to pretend that nobody kills insects, but I want to provide honest answers to honest questions, and I want to help her to learn to cope with the world around her. 
I desperately want to protect this miracle child from the disappointments of life, but I know that I also want to help her to develop the skills needed to get over these small shocks to her understanding of the world with support from those who love her. These small moments pave the way for future heartaches and disappointments. There will be many more and larger discoveries ahead. Moments when parts of her innocence will be chipped away. When the protective bubble she’s privileged enough to enjoy will suddenly pop. I know these moments are coming… but I don’t feel ready to tackle anything bigger than ant poison just yet. 
Willow will continue to teach us how to cope with seeing her struggle and experience pain, discomfort, and disappointment. She continues to make me a better and more thoughtful human being, teacher, and parent. She is truly my greatest teacher. 


It’s not about you

I stopped eating meat when I was ten years old, when I finally REALLY understood where meat came from (my rural counterparts who grew up on farms knew this at an early age–city kids can be so sheltered and separate from their food sources!). The thought of consuming muscle tissue simply turned my stomach, and I could no longer eat it without feeling sick. My mother initially thought that it was just a short phase (like when my father stopped eating meat for awhile after working for a week in a slaughter house as a student). She made it very clear that she would not make me separate meals, and that I would have to learn to cook and combine foods to ensure that I was getting adequate nutrition. She gave me the book “Diet for a Small Planet” and told me to read it and start learning about alternate protein sources, as she did not want me living on pasta. So I did. I became incredibly interested in nutrition and in how different amino acids combined to create complete proteins. I started to experiment with preparing different foods, and learned how to create tasty meatless meals. This skill set (research, food preparation, nutrition information) has served me well into adulthood and parenthood. My decision to avoid eating food that repulsed me for 12 years (yes, it was a long phase) was always about my personal comfort, and was never a criticism of the choice of others to eat a burger, although I certainly heard my share of unkind remarks when people discovered that I was a vegetarian. I was frequently questioned about my beliefs, cross-examined, ridiculed, pressured to eat meat, and even tested by a boyfriend’s mom who tried to hide meat in my sandwich to prove that I wasn’t a “real vegetarian”because I would “love the meat once I ate it”. It was as though other people could not go on living knowing that I was not eating meat. As though my choice to refrain from eating meat somehow meant that I was pointing a finger at them and calling them murderers. I never fully understood the hostility of people who seemed so threatened by my dietary habits. I eventually started eating meat in a time of financial instability, when my tuition was due but my first paycheque was delayed by three months thanks to an accounting error at my workplace. I was offered free meals at work, which always contained meat of some kind. I gratefully gagged it down and soldiered on, because I knew that gross food was better than no food. I still can’t eat meat that looks like an animal (such as skin-on salmon), and still do not enjoy touching/preparing raw chicken or other meat, but I’ve gotten better at shutting off that part of my brain that causes a complete stomach revolt when I see bloody hamburger meat in the grocery store.

My sister’s choice to not procreate has never been about criticizing or judging people with children. She enjoys spending time with children and is the most doting and loving Auntie that Willow could ever hope for. She prayed and hoped along with me for a niece or nephew (well okay, specifically for a niece) for six long years. Her child-free life choice is about knowing how she and her husband wish to live their lives, and trusting in that self-awareness in the face of society desperately trying to convince them that they need to have children (Who will care for you when you are old? You’re selfish for not having children! You’ll be lonely and you’ll regret it later in life! Don’t you want someone to carry on your name and legacy? The world needs your genes! Your biological clock is ticking! You’d make such great parents! Your kids would be so cute!). I’ve adamantly corrected people who have made unfair assumptions about her as a person based on her child-free status on multiple occasions. Why is it selfish to choose not have children? Wouldn’t it be MORE selfish to have a child just to gain the approval of your peers and society at large (and likely either consciously or subconsciously resenting that child)? Why does her lifestyle somehow seem to threaten others?

My inability to bear another child and our decision not to pursue adoption is not a criticism of families with two or more children, nor is it a slight to the many beautiful families created through adoption. It is what works for our family. It is, indirectly, a statement of gratitude and an acknowledgement of the blessing that we finally received after so long. It is an acceptance of what is, and a reflection of the contentment we have found in realizing that our family is truly complete with one beautiful, cherished, wanted and loved little girl. Willow is enough. She is everything I prayed for and more. Yes, we are aware that some people believe that only children are selfish, spoiled, and don’t know how to share. Yes, we realize that Willow will have a huge load on her shoulders when we die, and will have to lean on non-sibling supports such as close friends, extended family, and professionals to help her through her grief. Yes, we work hard to ensure that she has a variety of social experiences with other children, including day care, play dates, play groups, and various programs at the early years centres and libraries.  Our “only” is not a threat to society because she doesn’t have human siblings to teach her how to share (fur-siblings are doing a great job with this, thank you very much…). 

The guy who was biking in front of me wearing an air filter mask this morning was not judging me because I was driving a car (or if he was, who cares?). He was just doing whatever made him feel safe and happy as a cyclist surrounded by exhaust fumes. My safety and comfort is not affected by his choice. The neighbour across the street who diligently pulls every weed from his lawn on a daily basis is not making a passive-aggressive comment on our dandelion and clover-filled lawn. Does he hate looking at our lawn? Maybe. Or maybe he’s so busy taking care of his own lawn and revelling in his own beautiful garden that he lacks the time or inclination to judge ours. Either way, it doesn’t matter. His perfectly manicured lawn doesn’t harm our lawn. 

Our choice to honour Willow’s temperament, sleep needs, and natural circadian rhythm with an early bedtime and a predictable evening routine does not harm people who choose to stay up late, nor those who choose not to have scheduled times for sleep. Everyone has different schedules and operates best at different times of day. Do what works for you and we will do what works for us. Unfortunately, this means that we will not be participating in some evening events as a family at this stage of life, even if this choice is viewed as inflexible, rigid, etc. Again, our choice not to attend fireworks, late dinners, or another evening event with our child is not a criticism of others’ schedules or parenting choices. We are doing what works for us, which means doing what is necessary to have a child who is well-rested and is generally a true joy with whom to spend our waking hours. Reinforcing routines and rest will not harm our child or create a rigid, black-and-white thinker who cannot adapt to new situations or think for herself. Nor will it tear apart the very fabric of society as we know it.  

Some great things about being an older parent (yes, I had a “geriatric pregnancy”) after a long journey to parenthood include being mature enough to no longer feel that I require the approval of others in order to do what is best for our family, to have the life experience and confidence necessary to stay the course in the face of criticism, and the gratitude to truly enjoy and be present with the miracle child that we’ve been given. I stand by our parenting choices and am so proud of the amazing human that we are raising as a result. 

Our life choices are not a criticism of anyone else’s life choices. 

Or as a wise teacher once told me, “Get over yourself. It’s not about you.”


Bringing Her Into Our Peace

We choose not to yell at our daughter as a means of communication or discipline. I recognize that one day I will likely end up yelling at her or saying something quite unkind that I will immediately regret, and I know that I will have to be gentle and loving with myself when I make that mistake (or series of mistakes), and to trust that she will not be scarred for life as a result. 

I have never yelled at the children I teach, other than to shout a name across a playground or gym to get someone’s attention for safety reasons. I do my best to avoid contributing to the escalation of big feelings and behaviours by raising my voice or using unkind words. I try to invite kids into my peace instead of engaging in their rage, getting down on the same physical level as them, making eye contact where appropriate, speaking respectfully, gently, and confidently (often so quietly that children need to literally stop what they are doing to hear me-after all, everyone wants to know what the teacher is whispering, as it could be something juicy!). At both school and home I have found this to be the least stressful way for me to cope with being knocked off guard by kids’ verbally or physically aggressive outbursts. I often have to remind myself to take that extra moment to slow down, breathe, and calm my own mind and body before I can confidently and calmly respond instead of react to a situation. I find that I have to work a lot harder on this style of parenting and teaching on days when my own needs have not been met, such as adequate rest and nutrition. 

I try my best to set limits and speak to children the way that I would like to be spoken to in a time of crisis and confusion. The way that a surgeon spoke to me when telling me that my father’s cancer had unexpectedly metastasized and that he had done all that he could do. The way that my husband assured me that despite the hard patch we were going through in our marriage during our years of infertility and loss, that he wasn’t going to let me push him away and was not going anywhere. The way that my sister gently and lovingly told me that even if I spent thousands of dollars more on further diagnostic testing to determine the exact cause of his pleural effusion, my cat was never going to get better. 
Big emotions can rock our worlds and make even the most level-headed and peaceful person feel like they are going crazy. I want to model a loving and peaceful way of coping with my own big feelings. I don’t pretend that nothing bothers me, or ignore my own feelings. I let my daughter know when I feel angry, upset, sad, frustrated, etc. by naming the feelings and talking about what I can do to make myself feel better. 

Tonight I was privileged to experience a reinforcement that what we are doing is working. 
 Willow was in tears this evening and told me that she was “frustrated” because her dress-up bin necklace was “being very difficult”. I asked her what we should to do solve that problem. She asked for help to unravel the knotted necklace, then decided that she needed some time without the necklace because it made her feel angry. She requested her monkey to cuddle so that she could feel better. I could almost see her cortisol and adrenaline levels decreasing and her oxytocin and serotonin levels increasing as she smelled and snuggled her monkey and covered him in kisses. I wish that I had been able to both recognize and cope with my big feelings at 2.5 years old (or even 25 years old) with the maturity and grace that this child demonstrated tonight. 


“Terribly” Terrific Twos

 I’ve always hated the term “terrible twos”. I heard it used by parents while working in a toddler program for 18-36 month old toddlers, and always assumed it was a sort of joke. The children I was working with were far from “terrible”. Sure, they tested boundaries and explored the world around them in sometimes incredibly messy ways (Did I ever tell you the story of the toddler who tried to “paint me” using his diarrhea?). They sometimes cried or whined when they were overtired, hungry, sick, teething, or when big life changes were happening (especially during the addition of a new baby to the family). Sometimes they hit, kicked, bit, or pushed when big feelings overtook their little bodies. This did not make them “terrible”. They were just tiny humans learning how to cope with the confusing and sometimes terribly unpredictable world within and all around them. 

 The children I worked with fascinated me. They experimented with power and ownership, they slowly learned to use words instead of physical acts to get their needs met, and they learned to take turns and to share resources. They learned to follow daily routines and safety guidelines, and to create guidelines for themselves based on lived experience. They figured out how to ask for help when things became overwhelming, and how to verbalize their big feelings. They observed and experimented to find out how the world around them worked, and slowly developed the vocabulary and structural language skills to begin to question, reflect upon, and discuss their findings. I was amazed and excited by the changes that would happen literally overnight. Some of their learning came out of painful experiences such as skinned knees, hurt feelings, or broken structures. But nothing they did was “terrible”. 
 Referring to one’s child as a “little monster” or saying that he or she is “going through the terrible twos” is neither healthy nor helpful, especially when spoken within earshot of the child. I can attest to the vast differences in teacher attitude and treatment of the children in a centre where teachers were allowed to refer to the children in demeaning terms in the staff room, and those where that kind of name calling was forbidden. Our words reflect our thoughts and can shape our experiences and actions. Name calling creates a me-versus-you mentality, even when used half in jest. Referring to children as “beasts”, “monsters”, “terrible twos”, “jerks” (or other terms that I will not put in writing) is just a bit too close to Hitler’s use of the word “vermin” for my liking.  

 Since becoming a parent to a “terrific two”, I have become even more offended by the term “terrible twos”, and have corrected those who try to tell me that our daughter is “a terrible two”. We have an intelligent, charismatic and energetic almost two and a half year old daughter who experiments with the world around her, including testing to see if mommy’s answer will be the same as daddy’s answer. She can melt down into a puddle of toddler rage and sadness if we are out and about too close to nap time or meal time. She can become defiant or cry for seemingly no reason (although in retrospect, there is ALWAYS an underlying reason-oncoming illness, fatigue, sudden change in routine, blood sugar drop, etc). Like most humans her age, she thrives with a predictable routine and warnings about upcoming transitions, adequate rest, exercise, play, and good nutrition. She can be easily overstimulated in loud or crowded environments and needs quiet time to reset. Proactive preparation for outings (including escape plans if necessary) and frequent check-ins keep our ship running fairly smoothly on most days.  
 Parents and teachers are not in a war with our kids. There are no “front lines” or “trenches” in a family or an educational setting. Children are not obstacles to be overcome, nor barriers to adult happiness. They are gifts to be cherished, loved, taught, and learned from. It is our privilege and responsibility to be the adults in the relationship, to model the kind of behaviour and self-regulation skills we want to see in the next generation, including refraining from hurtful name-calling. The way we choose to think and speak about children’s behaviour and how we deal with meeting our own physical, emotional and spiritual needs (ensuring that we do not become overburdened and burnt out) have so much to do with how we experience our reality with children, how we treat them, and how happy or miserable we will be as parents and teachers. Even said jokingly, words can and do hurt not only the person spoken about but the person speaking.


Big Girl

You did your very first swim lesson without me in the water, like a “big girl”. You also started climbing out of the crib, and have quickly transitioned to a “big girl bed”. You bought some “big girl underpants” to wear while toilet learning. I never thought I’d be one of those parents who weeps over a child growing up. And yet here I find myself. Frightened and proud. Broken and blissful. Mourning and celebrating. The dichotomy is overwhelming. 

I love you. I am so proud of you. Your snuggles and sweet words melt my heart, but please know that you are not responsible for meeting my emotional needs. Your smile brightens up a room and is contagious… but you are not responsible for my happiness, nor the happiness of others. You can and should be responsible TO others but not responsible FOR them. I hope you remember that as you continue to grow up, my loving and open-hearted child. 

Before bed, after reviewing the day together, you ask me to pick you up to do big cuddles and tell you all of the things that I love about you. You are brave. You are smart. You are determined. You are a good friend. You are gentle. You are strong. You are kind. You are loving. You are beautiful. You are hard-working. You usually remind me of a good description that I’ve left out. Tonight you reminded me that you’re a “good snuggler”. Indeed, you are. 

You are growing and learning so quickly every day. Sometimes I forget that you are only two years old! You seem like a wise old soul in a tiny body. At times, you observe the world with such seriousness, and you can get lost in a state of flow like no other toddler I know. 

You are such a remarkable and intuitive little girl. You make being your mommy both a gift and a challenge. You continue to help me to grow as a parent, teacher, artist, and a human being. You challenge me to prioritize my life, and to live in the moment. 
We won the lottery when we took a chance on you. You were totally worth the wait.