Monday, April 29, 2013

Thoughts on Waldorf

The first months of HP's life felt like we were constantly in survival mode.  I spent little to no time contemplating overarching educational philosophies for children.  Is he loved?  Fed?  Changed?  Rested?  That was the checklist I used in his first weeks in the world, and really, it is still my standard.  I believe the most important thing we can offer HP is the knowledge that he is safe, loved, and valued in our family.

But now that we have found our rhythm, I have invested more time thinking, reading, and discussing different approaches to parenting and early childhood.  Making choices that are the best fit for our family is an ever-evolving process that will continue indefinitely.  I do not believe there is one "right" way for all children, or even for HP; there are just parents trying to figure out what is best thing for their family and circumstances.  I have no doubt that what feels right and what works for our family will change over time and is unlikely to completely overlap with any one "expert." As his parents, we are the true experts on what is best for our child.

That said, I am enjoying sorting through different approaches and thinking about parenting in a broader context rather than the minute-to-minute do-what-has-to-be-done-right-now merry-go-round that so often dominates life with a small child.

Initially, I was drawn to the Montessori and Waldorf methods because I knew they both supported eliminating screen time in early childhood, which we are doing with HP.  While Montessori and Waldorf share some basic ideas (like limited screen time, using natural materials, and learning by doing), their educational philosophies are actually quite different.  Over the past two months I have read three parenting books: Montessori From the Start, Endangered Minds, and You Are Your Child's First Teacher.  The first covers Montessori philosophy from birth to age three, the second looks at the effect of screen time on children's brains, and the third outlines a Waldorf approach to early childhood (up to age seven).

I most recently read You Are Your Child's First Teacher.  Parts of this philosophy deeply resonated with me, while other parts left me scratching my head or shrugging my shoulders.  Here's what I love about the Waldorf approach (or at least my limited understanding of it):

(1) Waldorf lets children be children and works to actively protect childhood.  It delays introducing academics until first grade.  After reading Endangered Minds, I am convinced that refraining from starting academics in preschool--including teaching phonics to preschoolers--is good for children.  Time spent on academic pursuits is time not spent in imaginative play or exploring the world.  The push to introduce academics at a younger and younger age and to make children into "mini-adults" has long lasting effects on their brains that I had never thought about prior to learning about the Waldorf method.  (The book Endangered Minds outlines the research behind this concept, and while not written from a Waldorf perspective, its conclusions support Waldorf methodology.)

Why does it matter if a child learns his or her colors (numbers, alaphabet, fill-in-the-blank) at age eighteen months or six years?  What benefit is it to a two-year old to recite the alphabet when they have no way of conceptualizing what it represents?  Isn't it more important for children to experience colors than to name them?  When I try to objectively look at the benefit of pushing these concepts on younger and younger children, I cannot think of a good reason.  The cynical side of me thinks it is another example of parents competing with each other through their children.  The more forgiving side of me thinks it is a natural result of parents wanting what is best for their children.  Who doesn't want their child to succeed in school?  On a superficial level it makes sense that the earlier they learn concepts the better off they will be.  Unfortunately the research does not support that view (see Endangered Minds).

(2) Waldorf supports the development of the whole child.  I appreciate that Waldorf balances the emotional, spiritual, and academic needs of young children--not prizing one at the expense of the others.  Art, music, and movement are integral parts of the curriculum, instead of the "extras" that are slowly getting squeezed out of public school.  This type of well-rounded education appeals to me.

I was discussing educational philosophies with a wise friend (who happens to be a Waldorf teacher) when she made the comment: "I would love for my child to be intelligent but I have other hopes as well."  I was taken aback, not by her comment, but by how I had subconsciously accepted that academic success was primary.  If asked, of course I would respond that I want other things for HP--it is much more important that he is kind, compassionate, and hard-working than that he is at the head of the class.  But my initial (defensive) reaction to her comment made me realize how much I have internalized society's belief that academic success should be valued above other kinds of achievement.

(3) Waldorf has a rich oral tradition.  Once again, my reading of Endangered Minds influenced my perception of the importance of this point.  Our culture has become so visually focused, that many children have lost the ability to sit, listen, and create their own images in their minds.  I love how Waldorf education uses fairy tales and other stories to cultivate a rich inner-life for young children.

It is hard to find the perfect balance between opposing values in our family.  Making Waldorf school a priority comes into conflict with two other values with prize:
  1. Living without a car, which we do for many reasons, including because it means that HP does not spend hours of his day strapped into a car seat sitting in traffic.  Without a car, it would be near impossible (and very unsafe) to get him there.  Of course we could buy a car, but then he will be spending more than an hour of his day commuting to and from the school, which is not something we want for him (or us!)
  2. Being financially responsible and putting a large portion of our income in savings. Private education is expensive and even with financial aid we would need to reduce our current savings rate to make it feasible.
We value the kind of education Waldorf would provide, but the likelihood that HP will attend a Waldorf school is slim at best.  Though he will not attend a Waldorf school, we can--and will--promote the concepts that speak to us within our home.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Productivity under pressure

I am on my own for dinner, bath time, and bedtime three nights in a row this week.  'Tis the season for evening public meetings at Henry's work, which means this will be the norm for at least the next two months.

Strangely, I am more--not less--productive, when I am the only parent in the evenings.  When I know that Henry is coming home at 4:30, I count down to the moment.  Only another two hours until he's here and can watch HP!  I'll just wait until then to clean the kitchen and start dinner.  That way I'll be able to listen to NPR in peace and have some time to myself.  As the day wears on, piles of clothes, dishes, and toys accumulate in every room in the house.  In the late afternoon I hand-off childcare duties to Henry and either make headway on the mess or take a much needed break.

On days when Henry won't be home before bedtime, I have found that I stay on top of the mess before it overwhelms me.   I know that my level of stress is inversely proportional to the tidiness of my home, so I allow it spiral out of control when I know there will be no one to relieve me.  (Notice I said tidiness, not cleanliness.  Cleanliness is nice, but not necessary; tidiness is essential.)

HP helping sort the laundry.  I would say that he is sporting clean clothes on his head, but that would be a lie.

Tuesday morning--the first of the three-day stretch--I cleaned the kitchen, made bread dough, and washed and hung two loads of laundry by the time HP went down for his morning nap.  Normally, I am lucky to accomplish that much by dinner.  The day felt surprisingly relaxed.  We spent the afternoon at the park, finished planting the garden, and had dinner ready at 5:30.  

I should apply this same energy to keeping up with household tasks to the days when Henry comes home on time.  I should, but I won't--at least not all the time.  How could I appreciate the productive/organized days if there weren't the chaotic/messy ones to compare them to?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

My foundation

(I wrote this last week and hesitated to publish it, because it feels like acknowledging that I have moments when I think about what life would be like without children makes me sound ungrateful for my son, or even worse--resentful--which could not be further from the truth.  Raising an child is exhausting, draining, challenging work that requires huge sacrifices of parents.  Every so often, I need to mourn the life I could have had, so I can more fully embrace the life I am living.)

I am exhausted.  Absolutely bone-tired.  But that's not why I am writing or what I want to remember years from now.

I am writing because in spite of the tired, in spite of the child who melted down the full hour and a half before bed, in spite of feeling burnt out on staying home, in spite of being on my own with HP for the next three nights, in spite of the heat of the Texas summer rapidly descending upon us, in spite of it all, I feel full.

I have a whole post in the works about why I think my personality is suited to staying home with HP, and how much joy I get from being his mother and watching him grow up.  But then a series of events, or rather emotions, descended upon me last week and I felt burnt out.  Tired of the same thing day in, day out.  Tired of having my life constricted by an infant's schedule.  Tired of not exercising the intellectual side of my brain.  Tired of being tired.

For a brief moment, I thought we had made the wrong decision--that we should have waited to have children.  That I should have thrown myself into figuring out my future instead of diving into parenthood.  I imagined interning for a year at the non-profit farm down the road from us.  I imagined living on two incomes (the luxury!).  I imagined going out of the house without consulting a nap schedule.

True to form, Henry and I talked about it Sunday night.  At length.  And he (the ever reasonable, reassuring, steady presence in my life) reminded me that we thought hard about bringing HP into the world.  (Sweet baby, if you're ever reading this, know that you were wanted.  You were so wanted.)

Looking back it's always easy to play the "what if" game.  It is easy to sit here, comfortably in the future, and judge my past self harshly.  But if we had waited, I know I would be aching, absolutely aching, to have a child.

The details of my life have felt like mess lately.  But the foundation?  The foundation feels solid.  It is what lets me know that we made the right decision.  Yes, things would be different now if we had waited.  But that is always true, isn't it?  We aren't "doing life wrong"; we're doing life the best way we know how.

And I can't imagine doing it without these two.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Life lately

For the past week and a half I have been consumed by gardening and reading, which has left little time for writing.  Life has continued on, and here's a sampling of what it brought to our family:

On Thursday I baked a quiche and overfilled the crust.  The filling spilled out onto the bottom of the oven, burned, filled the house with smoke, and caused the detector to go off.  I was left with a half-baked creation and nothing else to eat for dinner.  Solution?  Scrambled quiche, crust and all.  It was... interesting.

The next day HP pulled off his diaper (that admittedly was not on very well since he lately he equates diaper changes to torture and will not lay on his back for more than two seconds at a time) and peed on the floor. 

Fifteen minutes after the pee-on-the-floor incident we locked ourselves out of the house while getting the mail.

Yesterday we were on the bus and I was letting HP grab a seemingly innocuous metal hook.  A minute later he set off an alarm.  Whoops.

On a different note, he took his first real cruise on the bike this weekend.  On Saturday we went to the park in our neighborhood and on Sunday we went all the way downtown to an art festival.  (The festival was free entry for people on bike--love those perks!)

HP seemed neutral toward biking.  He did not cry, but he wasn't smiling either.  He had a very serious, intent look on his face the whole time.  It's a lot to take in!  In retrospect, the downtown venture was probably a little adventurous for our second trip out, but he was a trooper.  Better get used to it kid, you'll be spending a lot of time in your seat in the months to come.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Finding his (napping) rhythm

HP has taken two long naps, without complaint, at the same time every day this week.  Amazing!  I wondered if this day would ever come.  After months of inconsistent naps, this is cause for major celebration.  I know it may not last--babies are fickle that way--but I will enjoy it while it does.

Keep up the good work, kid.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Hung out to dry

Henry and I were apartment dwellers until we bought our house last spring.  Though we could have used multiple drying racks indoors to hang our clothes, we opted for the convenience of the dryer.  Our apartment felt crowded enough without the addition of drying racks taking up our limited real estate on laundry days.  In retrospect, it likely would not have been much of a hassle and would have saved us a lot of money.  (Coin laundry costs add up quick!)

Here in Texas there is no reason to use a dryer 95 percent of the time.  Clothes dry quickly outside, even in the winter.  And we've already established that it never rains here.

After moving to our house with a backyard perfect for taking advantage of line-drying, it was a good four months before we finally strung up the line, got clothespins, and stopped using the dryer .  My excuse?  The newborn days.  Our delay in abandoning the dryer coincided with our adjustment to our new role as parents.  In those first months the thought of not only having to wash diapers every day, but to hang them out to dry, was too much for my sleep-deprived self to handle.

In mid-October, I came across Erica's post encouraging her readers to unplug the dryer for the rest of the month.  By that point we had started to settle into our new normal and I thought, "I could do that.  In fact, I have been meaning  to do that."  I did not literally unplug the dryer as she suggested, but I did start hanging our clothes up to dry.

I expected to find it arduous and irritating, but in fact, it has turned out to be quite the opposite.  I find it relaxing and--dare I say it?--fun.  Yes, it is repetitive, and yes, it takes time.  But when I am out in my beautiful backyard methodically putting the clothes on the line, I often think of Payne Hollow and Harlan Hubbard's response to people who question his desire to garden by hand instead of using labor saving devices: "I will get the work done in my own way.  Save time?  The best use of time is the enjoy it, as I do when working in peaceful silence."

When HP was younger he would sit in his bouncy chair outside while I hung the laundry.  Around seven months he graduated to sitting on a blanket near the line with a few toys.  When he became mobile and regularly left the blanket to consume fistfuls of leaves and sticks, he moved to the Ergo.  In the front-carry he would constantly grab the line and try and pull the clothespins off.  Now that he has graduated to the back-carry he happily looks around as my backpack while I pin the clothes (though he does still try to grab the line and clothespins if he is within reach).

I love that not using the dryer saves both energy and money, but I also like that HP sees us doing physical work around the house.  So often the work today is done by machines or in front of a computer.  I think young children benefit from seeing work being done that they can imitate and eventually participate in.  It gives them a more accessible way to see how things work.  Of course I do not apply this rule across the board--I have no intention of abandoning our washing machine and doing our laundry by hand.  I did that for the six-months I lived in Senegal and The Gambia.  Surprisingly, even that was less difficult than I imagined and did not feel like a burden at the time.  Even so, I am not eager to wash our entire family's clothes--including a load of HP's diapers every two to three days--by hand.

When I started hanging our laundry outside I told myself that if I ever found it too stressful I would switch to the dryer.  I did not want it to become an added source of stress in my life.  Luckily, it has not been.  I do occasionally use the dryer when hanging the clothes up just feels like too much on that particular day or if it is raining and the diapers can't wait an extra day.  Even allowing myself those exceptions, our dryer comes on less than once a month.

I know foregoing the dryer is not for everyone, but I am glad we have.  It saves money and energy, gives me a reason to be outside enjoying my backyard, lets HP see real work being done, and is relaxing in its own strange way.  If those reasons aren't enough, just look how lovely the clothes look strung up on the line!

Monday, April 1, 2013

My Happiness Project: Create

Another month gone, another month ahead.  It's time for me to assess how my month of "words" went and outline my goals for April.
  1. Read every day.  As expected, this one was easy since I enjoy reading and normally include it as a regular part of my day.  I was able to finally catch up on my Time magazine subscription in addition to reading a few novels and non-fiction books.  "The Bitter Pill" cover story in Time was easily the most thought-provoking piece of writing I have read all year.
  2. Write every day.  I probably wrote two out of every three days.  I may not have met my goal, but I feel good about my progress because even two out of three days is a huge improvement for me.  It is becoming more natural to write as part of my daily routine instead of just squeezing it in when I "find the time" (when is there ever extra time?).  I hope to keep building on what I started this month and plan to continue writing regularly.  I have found I am most successful when I write during HP's first nap.  If I wait too late in the day, it's a lost cause.
  3. Use language more precisely.  If I am being honest, I will admit that I did not put much effort into this one.  For most of the day, my primary conversationalist is a nine-month old.  When Henry gets home, I want to share my day without carefully choosing every word that comes out of my mouth.  Perhaps this goal would be better implemented in a year or two.  For now, I think I better shelve it.
My word for April is "create".  There are many projects I want to make, but I never seem to find the time--knitting, sewing, quilting, collaging, photography... the list goes on.  This month I am going to prioritize spending time on creative endeavors.
  1. Photography.  I signed up for an adult-education photography class through the University of Texas that starts tonight.  I am excited to learn how to better use my DSLR camera and to have one night a week this month to get out of the house and do something where I am "Sarah" instead of "Mom."  I have no aspirations to become a professional photographer, just to better capture moments with my family.
  2. Knitting.  For Christmas I received knitting needles and a knitting book, but I haven't managed to progress past making simple washcloths.  This month I want to complete one (non-washcloth) knitting project.  
  3. Collage.  I bought two canvases from a craft store months ago with the intention of creating a collage from the maps and ticket stubs I saved from my year abroad in college.  A large bag of keepsakes has been following me around for seven years now.  I am determined to free up some closet space by turning it into something I can hang on the wall.
This month I am giving myself both permission and incentive to be creative.  So often I become focused on the next immediate task (changing diapers, cleaning the kitchen, cooking dinner, putting away toys--it feels never-ending) that I do not take the time to engage in creative outlets.  Seeing concrete projects I have created fills me up in a way other pursuits do not.  I feel more balanced, rested, and complete when I take the time to utilize my artistic side.  Now, more than ever, I need to make putting myself first a priority so I do not become drained and irritable.

So here's to April, may you be a month filled with artistic endeavors that leave me renewed (and not stressed, as is wont to happen when crafts do not go as planned).